Akademi Mag September 2020 E-Zine

Page 1

Patreon E-Zine September 2020




Index 1

Patreon Exclusive Zine

BANS, BOYCOTTS, AND BORDERS DEV LEWIS

2

3

WHAT WE GET WRONG ABOUT DRUG ABUSE

RONNY SEN

‘FELT DELHI WAS NO LONGER MY CITY’

ABHIMANYU HAZARIKA

4

5

SEX WORK UNDER THE COLONIAL RAJ: CALCUTTA

NIHIRA RAM

THE WOMEN, THE SYSTEM, THE STRUGGLE: THE STORY OF ASHA WORKERS SAUMYA KALIA


Index 6

Patreon Exclusive Zine

NO DATA, NO DEATHS, NO RESPONSIBILITY

OURDIRTYUNDERWEAR

7

GURUSWAMY AND KATJU, YOUR RAINBOW DOESN’T HIDE YOUR CASTEISM. AKHIL KANG AND VQUEERAM ADITYA SAHAI

8

SARI & CASTE

SAACHI D’SOUZA



Bans, Boycotts and Borders Words by Dev Lewis India has announced three rounds of app bans in response to skirmishes on its border with China. While China is yet to respond with any economic sanctions, tensions are escalating and it is fair to assume that these are impending.


India launched a ‘digital strike’ against China on 29 June 2020. It firewalled and banned 59 Chinese apps including TikTok, which has over 200 million Indian users, and WeChat, the most accessible and integrated communication channel between Indians and the Chinese. ‘If somebody casts an evil eye on India, we will give a befitting reply,’ said Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad announcing the move. While the state offered claims of ‘national security’, the app ban may be read as a retaliatory attempt to restrain commercial and social ties with China after the 15 June border clash along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Ladakh region, which resulted in the first casualties along this tentative border with China since 1975. India has since announced two more rounds of app bans, including an order on 2 September to block 118 China-linked apps including the extremely popular battle-royale game PUBG, and a widely used Mandarin learning app. This announcement came quickly in response to another skirmish on the border in Ladakh, on 31 August. The official Chinese statement – issued by Ji Rong, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in India – is damning: ‘India’s move has grossly violated China’s territorial sovereignty, seriously violated relevant agreements, protocols [. . .] and severely damaged peace and tranquillity along the China-India border areas.’ While China is yet to respond with any economic sanctions, tensions are escalating, and it is fair to assume that these are impending. When the first app ban was announced in June, it made


the headlines of several popular digital media platforms in China, which took special notice of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ (which translates to self-reliant India) – a newly articulated movement that singularly promotes the production and consumption of locally produced goods – and its surrounding nationalist rhetoric. After all, self-reliance and app bans are very familiar talismans in Chinese discourse. Interestingly enough, India’s decision to issue a blanket app ban shows a convergence in the two country’s approaches to Internet governance. In installing a ban under the aegis of ‘sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order’ the Indian government is crudely asserting national borders on the Internet, and carving out what could essentially become a version of the Great Firewall of India. This is similar to China’s own tactics of exercising control – through what is called ‘Internet Sovereignty’, which it has practised since 2010. Indeed, nation states all over the world are struggling to deal with governing technology companies and apps, especially those

The Indian government is crudely asserting national borders on the Internet, and carving out what could essentially become a version of the Great Firewall of India.


that operate across borders. The US – a long-standing rhetorical proclaimer of a free and open internet – proceeded to contradict itself by announcing a future ban on TikTok and WeChat, just weeks after India did. This desire to assert national boundaries over the internet is clear in how the government of India explained the bans. The Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) invoked ‘sovereignty and security’ under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act (2000). Later, the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre expanded this to include concerns of ‘privacy’. The MEITY statement states, ‘The compilation of [the data collected by the China-linked apps], its mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defence of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India, is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures.’ India has yet to set up a data protection law to address how Indian citizen data should be handled and where it should be stored. What has not been made clear is exactly what policy these banned apps are not in compliance with. Civil society in India has long called for privacy legislation that can set standards for the data protection of Indian citizens, especially in the face of the growing use of largely unregulated biometric ID cards like Aadhaar, and intrusive data collection by private companies. Yet, the government has dragged its feet. Even the Person-


India has yet to set up a data protection law to address how Indian citizen data should be handled and where it should be stored al Data Protection Bill (2019) – which is currently being reviewed by a joint Parliamentary Committee – allows the ‘center to exempt government agencies from some or all provisions’ according to Justice BN Krishna, who chaired the committee that drafted the bill. As the app ban seems to indicate: privacy is fought for when it is framed at the state level, but less so at the individual. Privacy has also become the new ‘national security’ boogeyman in international relations. Tech partnerships between Indian and Chinese companies were expected to bring over $6 billion in investment into Indian startups. This new climate of confrontation will effectively put an end to the most promising area of China-India exchange in centuries. For the first time since relations were put on ice after the Sino-Indian war of 1962, we had finally begun to see a circular flow of people, capital and ideas moving beyond the rigid bilateral state-led engagement. Tech has been at the front and centre of this relationship. Chinese companies were designing platforms espe-


cially for India – specifically the hundreds of millions of young Indians in smaller cities. Their Silicon Valley counterparts did not have the same attention or priority. As digital anthropologist Payal Arora writes in her book, The Next Billion Users (2019), ‘Chinese apps are co-designing the internet for newly online, mobile-first users, who are mostly from a distinctly lower socio-economic background.’ Chinese companies and Venture Capitalists brought in somewhere between $6–8 billion from 2015 to 2018 into the hands of dozens of Indian entrepreneurs and tech companies including Paytm, MakeMyTrip, Ola, Zomato, Gaana, Sharechat, and others. Now, smaller Indian startups have access to fewer avenues for funding. Large Indian players, especially Reliance’s Jio, threaten to dominate the entire market. Jio has attracted over $20 billion in investment just this year – from thirteen investors including Silicon Valley companies like Facebook and Google – and it plans to use this money to enter all layers of the tech ecosystem: beginning with telecoms (which it currently occupies), moving to hardware devices, Operating Systems and apps. Simultaneously, it is important to note that the app ban ultimately censors Indians. Banning TikTok de-facto censors over 200 million Indian users from participating in the global media information space and interacting with content on TikTok from across the world. It also effectively nationalises the accrued capital – followers and content – that many content creators worked hard to build and earn a living from. TikTok, like many so-


cial media platforms today, has become an important space for users to express their critique and dissent, and we would be remiss in considering it as a frivolous app. Users have consistently subverted and opened up its potential as a discursive platform. Additionally, tech engagement brings tens of thousands of Chinese and Indians in contact with each other. Indian business folk and traders across several sectors heavily rely on WeChat to communicate with their Chinese counterparts. Academics and researchers lose access to important media and research published by colleagues in China and elsewhere. This directly affects thousands of Indian students with cross-border ties. Rather than blunt bans, we need tailored regulations and laws that balance both security and economic interests, while building partnerships with other countries to raise the cost for border infractions. Observing discourse following the 15 June border incident from Shanghai was surreal. It barely registered in the headlines here, and the difference between Indian and Chinese media rhetoric could not be more stark. On the morning of 16 June, the Chinese media was occupied with the second wave of COVID-19 cases in Beijing. The official state narrative did not reveal its border casualty figures to the press, and overall downplayed the situation. On WeChat, a couple of poorly researched, jingoistic commentaries went viral, which applauded the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) efforts,


Rather than blunt bans, we need tailored regulations and laws that balance both security and economic interests, while building partnerships with other countries to raise the cost for border infractions.


and encouraged further military action in defense of China. The coverage of China’s relationship with India, and the border situation, has gradually increased in the weeks since the first incident. However, public discourse remains more preoccupied with the deteriorating US-China relationship. Regardless, both India and China are using their respective media coverage to accuse each other of acting as the primary aggressor in violating a number of existing border agreements. In India, the anti-China movement only grows louder, unabated by a tirade of targeted fake news, which circulates daily and widely. India and China’s first border agreement dates back to 1993, which qualified what is now known as the LAC. The LAC is the disputed territory at the Sino-Indian border stretching across three sectors: the eastern sector which spans Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, the middle sector in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, and the western sector in Ladakh. Yet this “line” has never been agreed upon or delineated on a map. The LAC is not a linear boundary, but rather a zone of about 140,000 square kilometres of territory, which comprises portions of land in an inhospitable mountainous region. It can be thought of as the areas where both nation states have “agreed to disagree” on where the border for their individual territory lies. As the following map from Ajai Shukla’s presentation for the Manthan Foundation on June 28 2020 illustrates, these regions vastly differ in size and shape in their different sectors.


Ananth Krishnan explains the LAC lucidly, ‘It can best be thought of as an idea, reflecting the territories that are, at present, under the control of each side, pending a resolution of the boundary dispute.’ The border agreements are designed to strengthen this very “idea” and create protocols for peaceful resolutions, especially patrolling troops of the two militaries inevitably run into each other. In parallel, the two governments have been running a diplomatic process, which loosely functioned for the last twenty-five years in keeping the peace. Until now. There is some speculation as to what triggered the first breach of the LAC zone: usually, in April, when the winter ice melts, troops from both militaries resume their patrols and exercises to check that no one has breached the zones during the winter. However, according to reputed military analyst Ajai Shukla, this year the Indian military skipped certain routine patrols due to COVID-19 related restrictions. Shukla believes this is what presented an opportunity for the PLA to encroach upon the disputed zone. Two and a half months since the initial border clashes, the China-India relationship continues to deteriorate. Indian intelligence contends that the PLA now controls about 1000 square kilometres of land across the LAC in Ladakh, which it did not prior to April 2020. Border consultations are ongoing, but we have been given no signs of a resolution. Especially not one that would see a return to the pre-April 2020 status quo. As a result, the dispute is spilling into other areas of the relationship, beyond even the economy, and on to education.


In India, university-level engagement between the two countries is being scaled down and Memorandums of Understanding between Indian and Chinese universities are under review. Mandarin was removed as a foreign language option in the National Education Policy 2020 and the continued existence of Confucius Institutes in India – Chinese language and culture centres run in partnership with Indian universities – is under threat. Indian visas for Chinese citizens will now require special clearance from the Home Ministry. It is important to pay attention to the significance of a forcibly reduced interaction between Indian and Chinese students and academics. For decades now, India has been underinvesting in China studies. As a consequence of this, we have a dearth of experts with language competency or nuanced research on contemporary China. Indian discourse has not developed a sophisticated grasp of Chinese socio-economic politics, resulting in rather a serious blind spot. Furthermore, the Indian media disproportionately relies on Western press agencies and publications to source its news from the region, rather than pursuing original, onthe-ground reporting. There are only a handful of Chi-

Two and a half months since the initial border clashes, the China-India relationship continues to deteriorate.


na correspondents, who lack fundamental resources to cover stories with depth and nuance. This is a largely global conundrum: we operate from biases or misunderstandings in our relation with the Chinese. As Arunabh Ghosh, Harvard historian of modern China, puts so succinctly, ‘India’s public discourse on China is driven by a dangerous mix of superficial perspectives dominated by racism, stereotypes, ignorance, and, more recently, envy.’ This is one of the main reasons why India finds itself in its current predicament. It failed (fairly or not) to pre-empt Chinese troop movement along the LAC, and irresponsible media reporting from the border has caused public opinion against China to get out of control – to the extent that this aggravated sentiment actually harms India’s diplomatic interests. As Shiv Shankar Menon writes in Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy (2016), on the conditions critical to the breakthrough of the 1993 border agreement, ‘The key to arriving at a successful outcome was keeping public rhetoric calm and steady, displaying strength, and giving the adversary a way out, which was our preferred solution. It was

Indian discourse has not developed a sophisticated grasp of Chinese socioeconomic politics, resulting in rather a serious blind spot.


not tweeting or whining in public, brandishing our nuclear weapons, or threatening war, as some Indian television channels and commentators did during those three weeks in May 2013 [during a standoff in Depsang region in Ladakh].’ Sound familiar? If anything, this hyperbole has only got worse in the seven years since. ​ However, it is in India’s economic and social interests to maintain a productive relationship with China, especially given that we are moving towards a catastrophic global recession. The Indian economy contracted by 24% in just the last quarter, and only if India meets 5% growth over the next two years will we get back to the pre-pandemic GDP level by 2023. It is thus imperative for India to place development at the forefront of its foreign policy. China remains the world’s second largest economy, and an important trading partner to meet a wide range of domestic development priorities – from infrastructure to pharmaceuticals. The foreign policy challenge at hand is thus to carefully negotiate a balance between economic and security interests. India has so far retaliated against what it sees as violations to border agreements between the two countries, but, as it stands, the steps taken are unlikely to change Chinese behaviour. As former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran pointed out in a recent interview, it is improbable that the Chinese government is currently taking into account the losses incurred by Chinese companies with investments in India, especially given that it is negotiating what is a military dispute over territory. The cost of these measures on Indians and


Indian businesses have also been totally ignored from the equation too, from both sides of the altercation. Economists Aravind Panagariya and Pravin Krishna, in a recent episode of the podcast Transforming India, argue against trade tariffs and sanctions aimed at China, highlighting their economic costs to Indians. Shenzhen Ningnanshan 深圳宁南山, a popular blogger on the Chinese Internet – believed to be a mid-career Shenzhen based professional working in tech – contends that boycotts are ineffective: they impose short term costs with no long term effect. According to SN, ‘India’s boycott of Chinese manufacturing and Chinese apps is detrimental to its own development [...] it is definitely not beneficial for competition to allow foreign enterprises to withdraw from the domestic market.’ This thinking is representative of popular Chinese opinion on US economic sanctions – those that prevent the sale of American technology to Chinese companies like Huawei and Sensetime – where the true intent is to slow down the economic rise of Chinese companies, only reinforced by the rhetoric coming out of the White House. Many professionals in the tech space believe that China needs to become more open. Voices like SN’s influence and shape public opinion among working professionals in the major cities, and in past posts he has claimed his writing is often read by people “up there”. SN’s argument is straight from the free-market playbook: competition improves companies, and competing with the best at home is the best way to devel-


However, it is in India’s economic and social interests to maintain a productive relationship with China, especially given that we are moving towards a catastrophic global recession. The Indian economy contracted by 24% in just the last quarter, and only if India meets 5% growth over the next two years will we get back to the prepandemic GDP level by 2023.


op and win globally. In aid of this, open is better than closed. Succeeding globally, not just locally, is a mindset that the newer generation of Chinese tech founders share. Using data to build his argument, SN demonstrates how competition with global firms within the Chinese market has been critical to the success of Chinese companies. Where the government has restricted foreign competition, local firms have actually struggled to develop and innovate. He also shows how China’s own history with boycotts have largely failed at helping local companies grow. Discussing the app bans in India, Matt Sheehan, a researcher and journalist, explains how the Great FireWall of China may have effectively ended the heated competition between foreign and Chinese tech firms in 2010, but it was still kept porous enough for Chinese firms and people to maintain productive ties with the US. SN argues that firewalling has largely proved to be detrimental to the global competitiveness of Chinese tech firms. SN’s argument may even be read as a subtle case for opening-up China’s own technology space and a push back against domestic vested interests calling for China to close up further in order to promote the domestic industry. It is notable that SN refrains from using the phrase 自 力更生 zili gengsheng (self-reliance) at any point in his piece. This is a loaded phrase harking back to the era of Chairman Mao, which is making a comeback


under Xi Jinping under a new policy of ‘internal circulation’, which shifts focus to domestic consumption and self-sufficiency in areas like technology. It can be thought of as an equivalent to India’s Swadeshi movement of the early Twentieth Century, now in a new avatar with Atmanirbhar Bharat. Chinese media, too, uses this phrase when referring to the movement. A healthy domestic ecosystem requires deliberate, long term policy-making and investment, which takes decades. Ultimately, successful and strategic foreign policy creates the best conditions for domestic growth. Have Indian leaders really thought through the end game of open economic confrontation with China? The app ban and economic sanctions are yet another example of a paternalistic nation-state removing agency from individuals to define what is good for them. Successive Indian governments should receive credit for their different roles in creating the conditions for maintaining peace on the border and expanding economic, political, and cultural ties over the past three decades. But now that those diplomatic arrangements seem to no longer work as intended, rather than unplug engagement, we need to find a new way of working together without making Indians foot the bill; be censored from important global networks; or incite more antagonism into how the next generations of Indians view China. DEV LEWIS is a Fellow and Program Lead at Digital Asia Hub. This essay is an expanded text based on China India Networked, a newsletter by Dev Lewis, highlighting the relationship between the two regions at the intersection of technology, society and politics. You can sign up for the newsletter here.



by Ronny Sen


Update (September 8, 2020): Rhea Chakraborty has been arrested by the Narcotics Control Bureau, Mumbai, under various charges outlined by the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act. She is the eighth person to be arrested in relation to the investigation into the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Chakraborty will be first taken for medical testing before being produced in front of a magistrate via video-conferencing for remand later today. Her arrest comes after three consecutive days of interrogation by the NCB, over her relations with the late Rajput and his alleged drug use. During the interrogation, Chakraborty admitted to procuring drugs for Sushant Singh Rajput and consuming them at times. Satish Maneshinde, Chakraborty’s lawyer called her arrest a ‘travesty of justice.’ ‘Three central agencies hounding a single woman just because she was in love with a drug addict who was suffering from mental health issues for several years and committed suicide due to consumption of illegally administered medicines, drugs,” Maneshinde said in a statement. ​ ​ Drugs and addiction are fundamentally intertwined, and yet the word ‘addiction’ does not appear in the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (1985) of India. The NDPS Act is our primary piece of par-


liamentary legislature around drug use, and pertains to the possession, sale, purchase, production and use of narcotic or psychotropic substances. The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) was established under the act in 1986, and was designed to both enforce the NDPS and also uphold India’s commitments to global anti-drug conventions and treaties. The NDPS Act does make provisions for the care, attention and legal rights of addicts, but there are no systems in place by which to enable this; more fundamentally, since the Act does not define what addiction is, how can it successfully treat addicts? Furthermore, it is not able to successfully differentiate between a recreational drug user and an addict. The NDPS, India’s first narcotics legislation, was brought into effect in 1985 by Rajiv Gandhi’s government due to the United States’ worldwide war on drugs. But in recent years, most Western countries, including many states in the US, have adopted alternative policies on drug consumption, including a rush to legalise marijuana or to decriminalise its possession and use. In India we cannot blindly follow this rhetoric, which is the same mistake we made in 1985 by hastily making an Act criminalising drug use, without fully being cognisant of on ground realities. We have to start in more basic and fundamental ways: first, by recognising addiction as illness, and not confusing this with a misguided


moral or ethical position. Today, the NDPS Act is being used as a rhetorical device by which to suit the agenda of a corrupt and invasive prosecution and bloodthirsty media. On August 26, 2020, the NCB registered a First Information Report against actor Rhea Chakraborty and others under the NDPS, in an investigative probe linked to the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. At the time of writing, Chakraborty is being questioned at the NCB office in Mumbai, and eight people, including Chakraborty’s twenty-four-year-old brother, and Rajput’s former house manager, have been arrested. The NCB’s case against those arrested, and Rhea Chakraborty, hinges on allegations that they enabled and abetted Rajput’s drug use. This high-profile drug scandal reflects how Indian society sees drug use and addiction as a moral crisis, not as the public-health issue that it really is. If addiction is defined and acknowledged as illness – the ostracization, stigma and the shame attached to it will naturally dissipate. The first point of reckoning is with the law: because the law currently perpetuates bigoted misunderstandings, and creates entirely unsafe environments for addicts or users to either be treated or put on trial. There is a deep lack of sophistication and nuance in the understanding of addiction in India – either on the level of society, or the law – and our laws are a reflec-


tion of our collective ignorance and bias. Governments across the world have written out specific laws to define addiction in detailed and elaborate ways. This helps to successfully identify and treat addiction, and give rights to those that suffer; it also creates awareness among the public. In the US, there are a number of laws that address drug addiction, for instance, the treatment of opioid dependence with opioid medication is governed by federal regulations, under the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which acknowledges that ‘addiction is a medical disorder that may require differing treatment protocols for different patients.’ The Supreme Court of Canada recognises the following definition of addiction: ‘a primary, chronic disease, characterized by impaired control over the use of a psychoactive substance and/or behaviour.’ Which is all to illustrate that in some parts of the world, addiction is understood and treated as the medical condition that it is. Rajput’s alleged drug use is being linked to his eventual suicide, and has thus become the primary concern of this investigative inquiry. In many ways, this is a gross violation and conflation of what is at stake when it comes to drug use, and pivots on a total misunderstanding of addiction. In such a context, it becomes imperative that terms like ‘addict’, ‘addiction’ and ‘substance abuse’, and other such related words, are formally recognised and explicitly defined. Their definition must be kept airtight, so judiciary bodies cannot let their mor-


al biases or ignorance sway their judgements and positions. India needs to do this with urgency: recognise addiction as an issue of public health, and correct and complexify the language of the law that surrounds it. The legislative actions of the NDPS Act need to be restructured accordingly, and form this basic foundation. Unless we clearly define these terms, we cannot help people recover or seek appropriate treatment. Addiction is a complex biopsychosocial condition. Being an addict is permanent. A person is born an addict and will die an addict regardless of whether they are still using. At any given time: an addict is either using or recovering. As per the language of the NDPS, an addict is defined as ‘a person who has dependence on any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance’. This is a gross oversimplification because a person who is chemically dependent on a certain substance at a given point, may not necessarily be an addict. Whereas an addict who might be in sobriety for decades, could easily relapse back into substance abuse at any given moment. The complexity of the behavioral pattern, which is characteristic of addiction, and addictive personality, is entirely lost in such a simplistic set of definitions and ultimately self-de-


feating. Binge users may be addicted to substances temporarily, and quit on their own, whereas addicts have an inherent pathological relationship with substances, and an obsessive compulsive behaviour pattern which constitutionally prevents them from exercising self-will to stop using a given substance. This is the fundamental difference between the two. The NDPS is primarily designed to criminalise and punish people dealing drugs or narcotic substances. What is implied by the way that the NDPS Act is written and structured is an egregious misunderstanding: that addiction can be treated by limiting the circulation of addictive substances. As the law does not define what addiction means, and how it relates to the actual, lived life of addicts, the law itself has become a major obstacle to recovery. The physical symptoms suffered by addicts – like withdrawals, for instance – are not even mentioned in the NDPS. This makes it almost impossible for lawyers and judges to effectively argue cases or produce judgements. One has to presume, and hope, that the sitting judge on a case knows about something as fundamental as withdrawals. This is incredibly dangerous. Withdrawal is when an addict who is not given their substance in a timely fashion might not be able to talk, walk, eat, sleep or be able to properly function. In extreme cases, they may even die because of the intensity of their withdrawals. Are


judges cognisant of the seriousness of this? We don’t know, and the fact that the word ‘withdrawal’ doesn’t even appear in the law makes the courtroom an incredibly dangerous place for an addict to occupy. There is a provision in the NDPS Act where it states that the government may supply drugs to drug users in special circumstances, which seems to allude that those that drafted the law had some understanding of withdrawals. The NDPS gives the government power to supply drugs to addicts where it is a ‘medical necessity’, but the Act fails to explain that this medical necessity arises, in fact, from withdrawals. By keeping the language ambiguous, withdrawals are not legally recognised by the state as the aforementioned ‘medical necessity’. The entire pillar of intent and motive – through which a court structures itself around a crime – is simply vanished from the criminal justice system in such a context. Withdrawals are just one example of the nuances of an addict’s lived experience. In the NDPS, there are fundamental misconceptions over the definitions of ‘user’, ‘addict’, ‘peddler’ and ‘dealer’. Small-time peddlers are at the most risk of being criminalised by the Act, but they primarily sell to sustain their own addictions. These distinctions are not clearly marked and hence are deeply misunderstood in the courtroom. The fair trial or eventual conviction of addicts also entirely depends on the structures of caste, class and economy.


Upper caste and class people maintain an unfair advantage over the system, mobilised by privilege and access, and the proximity to social capital. According to the NDPS, the possession of marked drug or narcotic substance is a criminal offence, and the offender may be imprisoned for up to ten years. In 2018, the Government of Punjab recommended to the central government that a mandatory death penalty be initiated for those convicted of drug peddling or smuggling, even for first time offenders. Section 31A of the NDPS – ‘enhanced punishment for offences after previous conviction’ – does in fact make provisions for the death penalty, after an amendment was introduced in 2001. In 2011, the Mumbai High Court ruled against the mandatory death penalty in the Indian Harm Reduction Network vs The Union Of India case. The law was once again amended in 2014 to make the death penalty discretionary, and now has a new lease on life by the aforementioned recommendation by the Punjab Government. The law also fails to make provisions toward the availability and accessibility of treatment options. At the moment, the most robust ecosystem of therapy is entirely volunteer-run by addicts, and for addicts. Selfhelp groups are largely free: there are no membership fees, and there are thousands of meetings by recovering addicts all over the country. The only requirement of membership is the desire to stop using. In Kolkata, for instance, there are more than four meetings every day,


Today, the NDPS Act is being used as a rhetorical device by which to suit the agenda of a corrupt and invasive prosecution and bloodthirsty media. On August 26, 2020, the NCB registered a First Information Report against actor Rhea Chakraborty and others under the NDPS, in an investigative probe linked to the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.


on every day of the week. This is an extraordinary ecosystem of support groups, run without any corporate or government support.

There are also several pharmaceutical treatments. In India, the statistics hardly show recovery rates with these, as treatment is so severely restricted, and the legislature is instead focused on stopping the circulation of substances. The most widely used non-pharmaceutical treatment for addiction so far is the Minnesota Model – also known as the ‘abstinence model’ – first initiated by a psychologist and a psychiatrist in the 1950s, it loosely ties itself around the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) model, where individuals provide support to each other. This model proliferates in most rehabilitation centres in India. The treatment creates a humane therapeutic community where one addict helps another. The psychiatrists and the pharmaceutical industrial complex essentially use the same logic albeit implement it differently. The standard pharmaceutical treatment plan involves substituting one drug to combat the dependency on another. In Punjab, the government is giving addicts something they are calling “de-addiction pills”, which are basically Buprenorphine. Heroin was made to substitute Morphine. Synthetic morphine is Norphin, Buprenorphine is exactly that. It’s a twisted cycle: addicts are given a chemical compound which was the very reason heroin was made in the very


first place. The state – despite its delusions – cannot solve drug addiction by handing us Buprenorphine, or issuing death sentences to addicts. This feels like a form of denial, reflecting the dispossession of addicts and the moral high ground taken by a large part of Indian society. Harm reduction and daycare programmes, like the Methadone programme, which were once very popular, have been recognised as largely substitutional methods with a high rate of relapse – and thus not sustainable, long-term solutions. These are now being reconsidered in most parts of the world. Addiction is an illness that cannot be outrightly cured by a pharmaceutical intervention, this is something that Dr. Robert G. Newman, who pioneered methadone maintenance, long fought to advocate. In 2018, several randomised clinical trials in the UK, Canada, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands, began administering small doses of heroin to heroin addicts, under supervised settings, to combat withdrawals. There also exist treatments that involve administering Naltrexone Hydrochloride tablets to addicts, which block the opioid receptors of the brain – after consumption, if the addict smokes Brown Sugar after they will not get high. It is also possible to operate on addicts’ bodies and place implants of Naltrexone Hydrochloride, which will peri-


odically secrete and block the opioid receptors. But when administered incorrectly, people have died because of the side effects. These are painful deaths, where the patient suffers for days on end. For instance, if a doctor asks an addict whether they have had Brown Sugar that day, and because of societal pressure and stigma the addict says no, and the doctor proceeds to administer Naltrexone Hydrochloride – this has disastrous effects, and can result in unimaginable pain in the patient’s body and often fatal. It is worth noting here that doctor/addict relations are rarely safe spaces in which the addict feels that they can be honest about their consumption and habits: this is because even medical industry professionals operate from a place of ignorance and stigma. This is also a reason why the Minnesota Model is so effective: the model asserts that one addict helping another is a relationship that cannot be paralleled. Doctors administer this treatment by citing that it reduces the overall urge to use Brown Sugar or alcohol. This is a flawed logic because addiction, or the desire for substances, is complex (and is as much psychological as it is biological), and cannot be simply diminished by blocking a person’s opioid receptors. There are many horrendous treatments still in practice, that operate on this mistaken logic: including the administration of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), which has repeated-


ly shown itself to be hazardous and traumatising, and hardly effective. One argument is that the only space where pharmaceutical intervention is a required treatment is in the management of withdrawals. The excruciating pain an addict suffers when they are in withdrawal cannot be managed without medication. Different drugs have different withdrawal symptoms: Brown Sugar withdrawals are extremely physically painful, whereas alcohol withdrawals are not necessarily physically painful but have physical symptoms like shaky hands, insomnia, hallucinations (after the first few days have past) and sweating. In an ideal situation an addict is first helped with withdrawal management through medical attention, which is then followed up with a long term rehabilitation program for several months, one that is non-pharmaceutical, and is based on the Minnesota Model. As of now, in India, there are no active steps being taken by the government to reframe the legal premise around addiction. We must each begin this exercise on a personal level, as well as in the institutions that we occupy. The first step of which is to engage in public discussion, involve all vulnerable parties, and create safe and welcoming platforms to aid the conversation. A less policed, more long term, nuanced approach will be the most successful, as entering this conversation requires the destabilising of fundamental misunderstandings. Issuing death sentences is a populist choice


for politicians – it is not as though the Punjab government has been successful in issuing death penalties to addicts, but the sheer demand of the death penalty puts across a certain message to the public. This defeats the purpose of handling addiction with sensitivity or empathy, and is purely the result of political posturing. There are obvious dangers involved in extolling the pre-1985 standards. It’s important to understand the global structural mechanisms that pushed us towards hard-line legislation like the NDPS, and how we cannot depend on the lawmakers, the justice system, the priests, the law enforcement agencies or the psychiatrists. We have to go beyond these structures – indeed, even abolish them – and spend time with people that are actually suffering, who are addicts and co-addicts (the family members of addicts), and those who are being disproportionately criminalised by existing laws. Please dial SAMHSA’s National Helpline phone number: 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or the National Toll Free Drug De-addiction helpline Number: 1800-11-0031 if you or anyone you know is struggling to cope with drug abuse.

RONNY SEN is a film director, writer and photographer based in Calcutta. His debut feature film ‘Cat Sticks’ world premiered in the competition section at Slamdance Film Festival, 2019 where it won a Jury Award. He has made two photo books, Khmer Din (2013) and End of Time (2016).



An interview with Ayush Tiwari from Newslaundry on the danger and precarity of being a journalist in India today. Words by Abhimanyu Hazarika


Ayush Tiwari feels remorseful about being confined to four walls instead of reporting from the field. A journalist with Newslaundry, he has been frustrated by the COVID-19 related national lockdown. When I spoke to him in late March this year, he had just finished a piece on the spread of the Spanish Flu in 1917 and the restrictions imposed on freedom of speech in the US at the time. Tiwari revealed how the pandemic has changed dynamics in independent media organisations. Newslaundry, like other digital media platforms, initially had to minimise reportage and contend with fact-checking, follow-ups on previous stories, and news curation through podcasts. Even so, organisations like the one he works for have avoided the mainstream media’s practice of either ignoring, or under-reporting, important stories like those on migrant workers, or the victims of religious violence. Most recently, Tiwari won praise for his coverage of the violence that broke out in Northeast Delhi in late February, and the Delhi Police’s subsequent investigation, by political commentator Saba Naqvi. But it was this assignment that altered his relationship with Delhi and its people. On the second day of the violence, 25 February, he visited Loni, a city at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border. A mob physically assaulted Tiwari and other journalists that day.


‘This happened at the site of a culvert where nine Muslims were killed. When we went, there was initially no one in sight on the roads though people looked at us suspiciously from their homes. Suddenly we saw men chanting Jai Shri Ram gather, and then set fire to some of the Muslim homes while the Uttar Pradesh Police looked on, citing jurisdictional issues.’ When Tiwari and his colleague went to the affected localities, the police told them their safety was not guaranteed. Some of the residents said ‘Mullah media aagya’ (the Muslim media has arrived). ‘I had only ventured to Northeast Delhi once, to cover an Amit Shah rally. Going there this time was overwhelming. Facing assault, getting chased by a frenzied mob – it did not feel like my city, my Delhi, at all.’ The aftermath of the riots coverage caused Tiwari immense trauma. He felt ‘uncomfortable and uneasy’ returning to the affected localities to investigate the discrepancies in the Delhi Police’s chargesheet regarding the February 2020 events. Newslaundry was among the few media organisations, apart from Scroll.in and The Caravan, that exposed some glaring inadequacies in how the police went about the cases involving Muslim victims. Even so, residents of Northeast Delhi were split on the indepen-


dent press coverage their neighbourhood had received. Tiwari realised this after observing how the Delhi Police conducted its probe in the area. He said that some Hindu residents were offended that their locality was receiving a ‘bad name’. This did not deter him. ‘Ultimately, like peers in the field are expected to, I did what I had to without complaining. I had to accept that, in many cases, a crowd’s hostility was a normal occurrence,’ he explained. When three reporters from The Caravan suffered the brunt of this hostility in August 2020, Tiwari covered their story immediately. While he was shocked that the attack took place, he remained unsurprised by the impunity granted to the attackers. ‘No law for journalists’ safety is feasible or can help, as legislators have vested interests in keeping us threat-

The aftermath of the riots coverage caused Tiwari immense trauma. He felt ‘uncomfortable and uneasy’ returning to the affected localities to investigate the discrepancies in the Delhi Police’s chargesheet regarding the February 2020 events.


ened. Distrust of the media across viewers of different political leanings is a doing of both the media and the political class,’ Tiwari emphasised. A truly free and safe reporting space would entail that the actions of politicians are rigorously examined and questioned, while simultaneously allowing media houses to maintain their distance without facing any institutional backlash, he added. Currently, mainstream media-houses and politicians have found comfort in a model where they share undue proximity and shared political goals. ​Tiwari’s first acclaimed report was from Kashmir, after the abrogation of Article 370 and the subsequent communication lockdown across the state. Describing it as a ‘frantic fifteen-day stay amidst war-like scenes,’ Tiwari describes a dismissive and suspicious attitude of officials towards reporters. ‘I wasn’t even a year into my job, when my boss [Abhinandan Sekhri, Newslaundry co-founder and CEO] asked me if I could leave for Kashmir and write about daily life there amidst the restrictions. I jumped at the opportunity and my tickets were booked for the next day.’ His article titled Pen drives and gumption: How journalists in Kashmir are dealing with communications blockade was lauded by the Global Investigative Journalism Network, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and The News Minute’s editor-in-chief Dhanya Rajendran, among others. It detailed the plight of journal-


ists in dealing with the total clampdown on information sharing in Kashmir, and revealed the tricks of the trade local media persons had to employ to do their work. ‘For every story, I have complete backing from the editorial team and my style of writing is encouraged,’ says Tiwari. His colleague at the time, Amit Bhardwaj (currently a reporter for Asiaville), attests to his unique voice, describing Tiwari as ‘sharp and energetic in assessing and covering media news differently’, something that is not always encouraged at mainstream news outlets. Tiwari’s way with the pen incurred the wrath of right-leaning commentators like Dr. Anand Ranganathan, on whose participation in the Khilafat 2.0 conference Tiwari had written about. Many conservative voices on Twitter accused the journalist’s work of being ‘mediocre’. ‘My boss at Newslaundry, Abhinandan, backed me through it, and the story still stands,’ said Tiwari. The looming realisation throughout Tiwari’s career has been the regressive coverage of minority communities by the mainstream media. This, he says, predates the present regime. He specifically refers to the lack of political will to investigate the anti-Sikh po-


grom of 1984, orchestrated by Congress party leaders. He elaborates, ‘Even in 1984, the calls for justice by the media were few and far between and it became a tendency to normalise the late formation of an investigating commission only after a regime change.’ This tendency, in turn, has been fuelled by the close proximity between large media houses and the establishment. Most of these media houses run on business models designed for quantity not quality. The Centre-run Press Information Bureau (PIB) runs PIB Fact Check, which Tiwari wrote an article about. The service has been accused by journalists of undermining independent news. ‘Online perception matters for governments these days, especially on Twitter where a lot of reporters source their stories. Hence, [the state has] been posting flimsy rebuttals to findings by non-legacy, independent media houses that raise key questions to the establishment.’ The protections that are provided for journalists, under the outdated, but well-intentioned Working Journalists Act (1955), help with the financial side of things in cases of wrongful termination, Tiwari describes. The Act guarantees that a journalist facing termination can be paid the equivalent of fifteen days salary for every completed year of employment. Sadly, a lot of media houses


The looming realisation throughout Tiwari’s career has been the regressive coverage of minority communities by the mainstream media. This, he says, predates the present regime. He specifically refers to the lack of political will to investigate the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984, orchestrated by Congress party leaders.


are escaping these obligations through contractual hiring. There is also a silence when it comes to reporting on its own workers and their plight. Tiwari says that the industry often refrains from covering large-scale layoffs at publications. When asked if he would return to academia or choose to go back to the field, Tiwari answers with a determined face, ‘With all that is happening in the country, it is a morally opportune time to be in the media. Going for a Master’s degree at this point would be a disservice to journalism.’ Even so, given the toxic nature of newsrooms and the worsening conditions of a city that no longer feels like it is his, Ayush Tiwari does not rule out getting disillusioned soon.

ABHIMANYU HAZARIKA is a journalist (now with The Frontline Magazine), who believes that the world can be made a better place if we assume nothing and question everything, especially those who govern us. He is a political science major from the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts (2019), and of the 2020 batch of the Asian College of Journalism.



Words by Nihira Ram Illustration by Divya Negi

Recently, researchers affiliated with Yale and Harvard University published a paper that recommended continuing the closure of redlight areas in India which had come to a halt when the national lockdown was instituted on March 25th. The paper’s authors claimed that this extension would curb the transmission of COVID-19 in the country. National media outlets such as The Times of India, The Indian Express and The Hindu Business Line, among


‘According to the LSRP statement, major designated sex trade zones exist only in Delhi, West Bengal and Maharashtra. There are specific historical reasons behind the rise of both brothels and redlight areas in these cities.’ others, sensationalised the report while soliciting no input from the women it was prescribing measures for. Soon after, sex worker collectives, along with several activists and public health professionals, admonished the research – asserting that it was detached from the reality of labouring women and would be immensely harmful for their well-being if enforced through policy. The National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) published an open letter addressed to the Yale-Harvard report’s authors, which was signed by over 2000 sex workers from across India, demanding that the paper be retracted. An interesting point made in the NNSW letter was that even if taken as fact, the Yale-Harvard paper consists of many gaps in knowledge. A considerable portion of sex work in India is not carried out in clearly demarcated ‘red-light’ areas. In July 2020, The Laws of Social Reproduction Project (LSRP) also released a statement raising concerns regarding the Yale-Har-


vard study, which was signed by 140 people. The authors wrote that the majority of sex work is conducted on ‘highways, railways, construction sites, bus stations, farmlands, lodges, and residential homes’ and that women often migrate frequently between these locations. Brothels have never been the sole medium for sex work in South Asia. In fact, their presence as a commercial urban model has diminished in recent times due to a plethora of reasons including massive real estate development and brutal police crackdowns. ​ It becomes imperative, then, to contextualize the emergence of brothel-based sex work and clarify our understanding of red-light areas. According to the LSRP statement, major designated sex trade zones exist only in Delhi, West Bengal and Maharashtra. There are specific historical reasons behind the rise of both brothels and red-light areas in these cities. The Yale-Harvard study wraps its policing measures in the garb of COVID-19 safety. In a similar vein, the British Raj sought to prevent the spread of venereal disease in India by personifying working-class native women as it’s harbingers. It then justified surveilling the private lives of sex workers by utilising the language of public health. This short series traces the transformations sex work underwent in Calcutta, Bombay and Delhi during the nineteenth century. A City Undone


The city of Calcutta was formed during British rule by merging three rural areas along the Hooghly River: Dihi Kalikata, Sutanati and Gobindapur, which had been transferred to the East India Company by a Mughal court order issued in Delhi. Calcutta became the headquarters of colonial rule despite being mired in conflict between zamindars, the Company, and the then nawab of Bengal. Sumanta Banerjee in his book Under The Raj notes the haste with which Company officials reorganized residential farmlands into ‘a metropolitan center of colonial trade’. They built warehouses, maintained trade posts, and fortified the river bank. This involved the forced eviction of previous villagers. Two properties owned by women named Ishwari and Bhobi who the Company referred to as ‘prostitutes’ were seized in 1753. Their houses were located at the heart of what we today call Calcutta. The British were not interested in eradicating ‘prostitution’. The administrative presumption was that sex workers were responsible for the sharp rise of venereal disease in Calcutta’s significant population of migratory men, especially their own soldiers and foreign

‘The colonial state with support from the native population segregated and incarcerated sex workers further driving them into poverty. ‘


sailors, led to formal regulations of ‘prostitution’. In 1868 the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the Contagious Diseases Act, which was instituted within England and also in its colonies. Among other things, it mandated that all sex workers had to register themselves at local police stations. Four years prior, in 1864, the Government of India introduced the Cantonment Act which employed women as on-site sex workers at military bases. It also demanded that local police may routinely ‘inspect and control houses of ill-fame’ outside army barracks. The Contagious Diseases Act, in particular, allowed authorities to detain women suspected of having venereal disease in Lock Hospitals which were medical facilities dedicated solely to treating sexually transmitted diseases. ​ Industrialisation had led to a burgeoning commercial sex trade that was different from the kinds of concubinage that existed prior. However, there was now some concern over encounters between Europeans and Indians. The Company’s lax attitudes towards Englishmen cohabiting with or marrying native women in the 17th and 18th centuries starkly changed in the 19th century. This was despite the fact that Englishmen like Job Charnock, a key founder of Calcutta, himself had three daughters with a native woman named Maria. But for the British government in nineteenth-century India, Charnock was little more than a cautionary tale of what ‘dangerous’ liaisons with ‘degraded’ native women can


lead to. The colonial state with support from the native population segregated and incarcerated sex workers further driving them into poverty. Durba Mitra retells the story of Sukhimonee Raur in her book Indian Sex Life which examines colonial configurations of sexuality. Raur was arrested in 1868 for allegedly evading medical tests that the Contagious Diseases Act had made compulsory for registered sex workers. In her case against the conviction at the Appellate High Court of Calcutta, she claimed that she was ‘not now nor had ever been a prostitute’. She went on to testify that the police had coerced her to register herself. The court held that although the police had the authority to detain women who they thought were ‘clandestine prostitutes’, they could not force a woman to register. It may have been possible that Raur was a seasonal sex worker supplementing her wages as a factory labourer, spinner, sweeper, maid, etc. It may have also been possible that she was a courtesan presumed to be involved in illicit work. Regardless of whether Sukhimonee Raur was telling the truth and to what degree what remains clear is that colonial courts, the police force, and the medical body worked together to violate women. ​ The British had established brothels within army cantonment areas known as chaklas. Military barracks such as Fort William enabled the British to provision women for their troops as administrators believed this would decrease the spread of venereal disease amongst its soldiers. These chaklas were racially segregated so


‘These chaklas were racially segregated so that white and Indian soldiers wouldn’t develop sexual relations with the same women.’ that white and Indian soldiers wouldn’t develop sexual relations with the same women. Chaklas were overseen by women (many of whom had experience in the sex trade). Concerns regarding soldier and sailor health inevitably targeted illicit workers (such as sex workers, dancers, singers, and other ‘public’ women) by treating them as purveyors of disease. Though women earned more in chaklas than in brothels or as itinerant workers, they were less successful in refusing medical incarceration. Chakla women identified by soldiers as having ‘given them’ venereal disease were ‘forcibly dragged away and detained in lock hospitals’ (1). Brothels outside of cantonment areas were also the result of a rapidly transitioning economy. Chatterjee quotes the Commissioner of Police’s 1879 report in which it’s clear that the increase of known brothels in Calcutta correlated to a decrease in women registering with the police. Many sex workers were forced to choose the violence of brothel managers over colonial repression. This wasn’t the only spatial change brought about by the Contagious Diseases Act. Until 1950 Chandernagore, a city to the north of Calcutta was a French territory. This made it a prime destination for many women


fleeing the British law enforcement. Between 1870 and 1888 an average of ‘twelve women were arrested daily for breaching the Contagious Diseases Act [in] Calcutta alone’2. Despite this seemingly harsh implementation, policemen were often regular customers at brothels and ‘were both feared and secretly derided by the 1 prostitutes of Calcutta’ . Sukhimonee wasn’t alone in her resistance to violent hostility. Heera Bulbul, a popular courtesan, enrolled her son in Calcutta’s Hindu College in 1853. After considerable opposition from bhadralok elite, the college’s administration decided to expel Bulbul’s son. By then some upper-caste families had even opened a competing institution named Hindu Metropolitan College. Various sections of Indians loudly called for brutal measures against illicit workers including their eviction to the city’s outskirts and other forms of segregation. Banerjee mentions a letter from the 1850s written by ‘displaced prostitutes in Midnapur’ (1) who were evicted from their houses because other residents objected to them living next to a children’s school. The

‘Chakla women identified by soldiers as having ‘given them’ venereal disease were ‘forcibly dragged away and detained in lock hospitals’


women in the letter chastise marriage among other things: These proud women from [prestigious] families can never be stained by the dark stamp of [shame] like us . . . But, after they retire at night . . . they have to demonstrate love to their husbands whom they hate.’ Theatre was also an important avenue of employment for many women from ‘red-light’ areas. Binodini Dasi, one of the most famous stage personas of Bengal, narrated at length in her autobiography the precarious life she led as a sex worker. Caste defined the parameters of sex work to a great extent. The Contagious Diseases Act stipulated that women have to identify their caste on the cards (or tickets as they were called) they were issued after registration. The Health Officer of Calcutta, Dr Fabre Tonnerre, who later drafted the Contagious Diseases Act as it was applied across India, estimated (1): ...in a despatch dated 16 September 1867 (a year before the enactment Of the Act) pointed Cut: syphilitic diseases exist amongst the public prostitutes Of the town [Calcutta) in the following ratio: women of high caste 15 percent; Hindoo women of inferior caste 30 Mussulman and low caste Hindoo women 50 percent; low Christians and Other non-descript prostitutes 70. The last two classes of women are frequented mostly by soldiers and sailors, and reside in Jaun Bazar, Bazar and Champatolla.’


In Under The Raj, my attention was drawn especially to two women. Disallowed from attending the funeral of a popular stage artist Girish Chandra Ghosh in 1912, many girls and women from the ‘red-light’ areas of Calcutta who had been his students or colleagues demanded that a separate ceremony be organized for them. At the event, several women delivered fiery speeches. Two of them were Susheelabai and Norisundari. Susheelabai asserted that even though they were ‘ostracized by society [they] were capable of feeling joy and grief ’. She questioned why their ‘tears, wailings, and mourning [were being] considered crimes’. Norisundari, on the other hand, sharply rebuked the gentry in the crowd: ‘After my birth, your respectable society said to me— Since you haven’t been born in a family that is certified as virtuous, you will continue to commit sins all your life, and we, thanks to our power of virtue, will hate and abuse you. But Girish Babu wasn’t that virtuous!’ These women were acutely aware that they had no place in civil society and no refuge in colonial justice. But they continued to articulate their desires and their fears on their own terms. They knew neither the police station nor the hospital could provide them with the safety they deserved. They knew when to lie to protect other women and when to lie to protect themselves. They also were attempting to negotiate the expansion of colonial control over their lives. The brothel struc-


ture expanded in Calcutta particularly because of the harmful legal tactics the British pursued with support from non-Europeans, especially the bhadralok. So what does it mean when academics today tout measures just as punitive and restrictive as the ones in the 19th century? Why is the burden of public health on women whose welfare concerns have largely been written out of public policy?

Notes: 1. Sumanta Banerjee’s Under The Raj: Prostitution in Colonial Bengal is a seminal book that draws from a wide range of sources including letters and songs written by women and expounds on sexual labour without romanticization or moralization. 2. Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern

NIHIRA RAM is a freelance writer from Bombay and an editor at Akademi Mag. Her primary interests are history, ecology, and sound studies. She loves listening to the radio and is terrified of the ocean despite being in awe of it. (Maybe both of those go hand in hand.) She is currently working on her Master’s dissertation about sound in the 19th and early 20th century British Raj. Instagram/Twitter: @fasaane_



The Women,The System,The Struggle: The Story of ASHA Workers Words by Saumya Kalia

The old bus station in Radaur, a village east of Kurukshetra in Haryana, is a fixture of everyday life that finds its popularity subdued during the pandemic. But the heat wave of August carries potential to break its dormant impulse.

began guarding the picket lines for the 20,000 ASHAs in her state.

“Sarkari karmacharee ka darzo do, (Give us the status of government employees)” her voice rings in the air. “Darzo do, darzo do,” say In the shadow of a banyan women in follow-up to her tree, sit 20 women in hues of revolt. pink and red. Some wear surgical masks, others have their In the national capital, a simfaces draped with dupattas. ilar congregation sits at JanThe ground behind the sta- tar Mantar. The site has wittion continues to hold this nessed dissent in all shapes spectre for some days to and forms – it is only befitcome. ting then that almost 6,000 ASHAs of New Delhi assemLeading them is Surekha, ble here for recognition. general secretary of the Accredited Social Health Activ- The ASHAs are ferocious ist (ASHA) Union in Hary- women. They helped in eradiana. Her association with the cating polio, reducing materUnion goes back to its incep- nal mortality, and expanding tion in 2009, when she first vaccination coverage. Now,


as the country’s COVID-19 outbreak ised by lack of funds and staff. For evpushes them to a breaking point, they ery 1,800 people in India, there is one are cementing their resistance. doctor and roughly two nurses. Since 2005, ASHAs have been entrusted with Between 7 to 9 August this year, over bridging the knowledge gap between 600,000 ASHAs went on a strike along- people in rural areas and urban slums – side other trade unions in India. They where 65 percent of the country’s popdemanded better pay, medical protec- ulation resides – of healthcare policies. tion, regular COVID-19 testing, and As these women uphold a waning systhe status of government employees. As tem, their identity becomes inextricashadow workers, ASHAs have emerged bly tied to being an ASHA. to be India’s national pride – and shame. Santosh has worked as an ASHA for 15 On a worn-down wall in Santosh’s years, and today heralds trust among one-bedroom shanty, hangs a calendar the 1,950 people in her community. The turned to August 2020. It could be any high degree of reverence and acceptabilday, week, or month – she wouldn’t no- ity ASHAs come to enjoy binds them tice. For the 44-year-old in Haryana’s closer to their role as a leader and careBhamniwala village, every day begins taker, a source of pride for many womat 4:30 am and later blends into frenzy. en in pink. Being an ASHA is a social She assiduously wades through house- contract: work for the community, by hold chores before venturing out the the community. It is also this emotional door armed with a diary clad in a pink connect that becomes the foundation suit-salwar. During the pandemic, a of their work across populations who make-shift mask makes its way into her felt distant from government reach. arsenal. The role carries the promise of finanThe colour pink has long symbolized cial relief. A large portion of ASHAs the Accredited Social Health Activist are SCs, STs, and OBC, and range from (ASHA).. Globally, she and one million poor to middle-income backgrounds. other women form the world’s largest In some cases, ASHAs’ income suppleall-female community health worker ments that of their husbands who work programme (CHW). as farmers or tradesmen. It also grants economic security to widows. The proASHAs offer a much-needed recourse gramme transforms into an empowerto the public healthcare system, which ing avenue for women venturing beyond is in itself an exposed flank character- the domestic framework.


“Sarkari karmacharee ka darzo do, (Give us the status of government employees)” her voice rings in the air. “Darzo do, darzo do,” say women in follow-up to her revolt.


The burgeoning workload compounded by the dangers of infection make it harder for ASHAs to justify their work to themselves and their families. Santosh says how the maxim over the years has emerged to be one: rush whenever you’re called. Erratic work hours have become second nature to her work. On several occasions, she has helped with deliveries well past midnight. The official module mentions a commitment of three-four hours per day, two-three times a week for ASHA volunteers. However, this materialises into significantly longer hours for most ASHAs. According to an International Labour Organisation (ILO) report, they were clocking in five-six hours almost every day of the week, which was considered to be a conservative estimation. ‘There is no time to breathe for ourselves,’ Santosh says, her voice sounding all too familiar with the exhaustion.

institutional snafu, a misnomer. The health system takes great pains to identify ASHAs as ‘volunteers’ to prevent organizing around minimum wages and job security. In March, when the pandemic came knocking, ASHAs had to fold in a new identity of frontline workers. As first respondents, they became a critical source of information for organisations forming policies. Alongside screening and contact tracing, ASHAs keep a track of where community spread and clusters are, how many people have been tested, how many people are in home quarantine. The pandemic has further put their work hours into a tailspin.

As volunteers, they are compensated through performance-based payments. Each activity – like child delivery or immunisation drives – has a price tag attached to it. Over the years, To call Santosh a worker would be an ASHAs have pointed out the inherent


flaw with this model of compensation: many women are forced to prioritise activities with higher incentives. They have swiftly unionised over the years and demanded a fixed honorarium separate from these bonuses. Different states have fixed different markers – Haryana agreed to pay Rs. 4000 per month while Karnataka pays Rs. 8,000. Yet, there exists a huge problem of back pay as ASHAs are forced to chase authorities for late payments.

Their increased workload during the pandemic has translated to a rapidly decreasing income. Time spent on immunisation and awareness activities has reduced due to COVID-19 tasks, rendering ASHAs unable to meet targets and claim linked incentives. The central government’s token sum of Rs 1,000 a month from January to June offered scant relief. It was seen to be disproportionate to their physical and emotional labour.

To add to their woes is their technological struggle with ASHA-Soft, the application for logging their work. The government has rallied towards digitising grass roots operations but it remains inaccessible. The idea of digital inclusivity holds little weight in a scenario where women are not allowed to own smartphones or if they are, receive no training on how to use them. Several ASHAs rely on other volunteers to log in their data for them.

“The authorities don’t care what or how much we’re doing; they have attached a price to our job and lives which is a paltry sum of money,” says Santosh.

The government’s response to their demands has come in a piece-meal fashion. In 2018, they agreed to double their fixed monthly honorarium from Rs. 1,000 following a nation-wide agitation. Other demands like logistical support, social security benefits, and smartphones were also agreed to after a month’s strike. But many of these are yet to be implemented.

The insult to injury becomes more pronounced as they shell out money from personal savings to buy gloves and sanitisers or for travel costs. The work had intensified, the role had become essential, their lives were at risk. Till date, almost 20 ASHAs have succumbed to the disease. The burgeoning workload compounded by the dangers of infection make it harder for ASHAs to justify their work to themselves and their families. Santosh mentions a woman ‘volunteer’ in her village who died by suicide last month. Her family had been pressuring her into quitting because it brought in only risk, not money.


The pandemic then becomes a fertile ground for breeding stigma and fear. Cases of them being attacked and beaten have become notoriously common, Surekha recounts. These women have been spat on and beaten because of their life-saving work. An ASHA in New Delhi tested positive in July and has since faced severe ostracisation and hostility. It has been two weeks since recovery, but the nearby grocery shop refuses to entertain her as a customer. However, this is not an aberration. Over the years, Surekha has watched ASHAs being pushed to a corner by people, the system, and their own families.

tion, then, is seldom chosen. Popular perception of an ASHA is rooted in the notion that care work is inherent to women. As an all-female cadre, ASHAs are seen to be advantageously placed to tend to children and women’s reproductive health in a culturally-appropriate way. To Surekha, this explanation holds little weight. She points out how this ‘advantageous placement’ is euphemistic of a ‘woman’s work’ in a patriarchal society. When perceived as an extension of household care work for the whole community, an ASHA worker’s toil becomes a social obligation. This provides little space for any conversation around her labour and its valuation. Professionally, they fight for their rights, respect, and recognition within the formal health system.

When Santosh spends long hours on the field or has to rush for a delivery late at night, her resolve dwindles under the gaze of her family members. If it were 900,000 men in their place, ASHAs have to explain their absence. would they receive the same treatWorking long hours is seen as willful ment? Who is to say. neglect of their “family duty”. What explains the institutional qualms Moreover, their safety and mobil- about regularising ASHAs? A simple ity were threatened even prior to answer would be that if ASHAs are inCOVID-19. In 2016, after the gang- tegrated into the bureaucratic mould, rape and death of an ASHA worker in it might jeopardise their acceptabiliUttar Pradesh, a fact-finding report ty in the community. Additionally, buexpounded the rampant gender and reaucrats believe the channel of comcaste-based violence ASHAs face. Of- munication functions one way, with fenders are mostly from the same vil- information trickling down to ASHAs lage or are men of influence. Restitu- instead of up from them.


When Santosh spends long hours on the field or has to rush for a delivery late at night, her resolve dwindles under the gaze of her family members. ASHAs have to explain their absence. Working long hours is seen as willful neglect of their “family duty�.


The low investment in healthcare – which is currently less than 1.5 percent of the GDP – is another factor. In the 2020-21 budget allocation, the amount set aside was reduced by Rs. 390 crores as compared to last year. If ASHAs were to fall under the public sector, national or state governments would have to ensure selection and retention of one million women. ASHAs have grown in importance as they shoulder challenging tasks in areas and work through life-saving situations. Initially, they were responsible for a 1000 people; a number that shot to 2000 spelling round-the-clock working hours for already overburdened women. Where volunteerism ends and official work begins no one can tell. The original vision for ASHAs then no longer remains tenable; the status quo demands to be rethought. The pandemic has underscored the wisdom in respecting frontline workers. ASHAs have emerged to be a precious resource as they carry updated information to isolated parts. It is their rootedness in communities that has served them well. Over 100 ASHAs who protested in the national capital on 9 August were arrested for violating health guidelines three days later. The glorified label of “Corona Warriors” has now begun to grate on

many. What do a million women, who connect remote parts of this country to healthcare, do when a system insists on deflating their worth? They fight on three fronts. They question the health system, they go against gender roles, and they impede the pandemic. Their movement dates much before the pandemic to almost 11 years ago when pinkclad women first unionised at a national scale. This fight ceases to be just their story. It becomes one of all women. Their fight comes at a critical juncture when labour protections across India are being diluted. “We’ve come such a long way; we can’t give up now,” says Surekha. “We have faith in our resistance.” In her state of Haryana, ASHAs have announced an indefinite extension to the strike that started four weeks ago. This isn’t their first frontier and won’t be their last. On this afternoon, their movement continues to live against all odds with protests going on in Punjab, Bihar, and Haryana.


“We’ve come such a long way; we can’t give up now,” says Surekha. “We have faith in our resistance.”

SAUMYA KALIA is a writer based out of Delhi



A short comic on how the Indian Government has denied keeping any records of deaths of migrant workers, healthcare professionals and job losses from MSME companies.

Written and Illustrated by OurDirtyUnderwear











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Guruswamy and Katju, Your rainbow doesn’t hide your casteism. There are a lot of structural reasons why Guruswamy and Katju get to present themselves as leaders of this movement, and in doing so, tap into exactly the structural violence through which Section 377 has come to be represented. Words by Akhil Kang and Vqueeram Aditya Sahai Illustration by Priyanka Paul

The Story of a Movement: the Law, the Leaders, the Lies



Vqueeram Aditya Sahai: i1 am so grateful to have Akhil Kang suggest and organise this conversation. Akhil and i thought to discuss the legal journey of the case around Section 377 and its particular colonization by some legal teams. Both by the kind that began this conversation around Section 377 decades ago, and now in its homonormative avatar with the lawyers Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju. Without further ado, i leave this space to Akhil to say a few things. ​ Akhil Kang: Thank you Vqueeram, what really compelled me to ping you and have a conversation around this was after I saw your IG story where a law student had written to you you about your post on law, Section 377 and the hetero-normative “gay” politics around it. I found the law student’s reply a bit triggering because I was also a law student once. For a law student to be so transphobic toward you was just. . . what the fuck. People keep trolling you, and you keep generously engaging with them, it’s just beyond me. The conversation both of us are about to have right now is not new. I also feel so guilty about taking up spaces in these times. . . you know. . . the world is burning, our friends are wrongly incarcerated, I have so much trauma because whatever we say – and by we I mean 2 dalit queers – gets labeled as ad homeinam anyway. Besides our lives, besides our testimonies, besides our


evidence, people don’t take us seriously. And this is not to say that one needs to be giving testimonies to be taken seriously. But, I am constantly holding myself back. There are enough upper caste people who are bringing each other down and everybody wants the stardom and everybody wants to be the poster person for this battle (the battle for Section 377 decriminalization, that is). I’ve not said anything about it so far because I don’t feel that I am strong enough, but then again, I don’t want to stand in my own way. Vq: i am still learning boundaries. i feel like i have an upper caste martyrdom syndrome, which takes over. A lot of dalit folx keep pointing this out, about how savarna folx take on the policing function. I’m still learning how to disengage. i learn this most in my friendship with you – i have seen you pull back and say ‘not my conversation’, or be careful about when to raise what, and not constantly provide the evidence of our lives. i think you’re the safest person to have this conversation with, both of us will keep each other in check. AK: Thank you for saying that. I think queers know this more than anyone else: we decide our own allies. The same goes for me as a person who comes from an untouchable caste, I decide who my allies are. You were crucial in my own journey of understanding boundaries, and it’s


an everyday process. In a lot of dalit-queer mobilising and organising we saw many red flags because savarnas showed us what we shouldn’t be doing in terms of building solidarites with each other. We knew what not to do because savarnas were doing it so terribly, and one of the main red flags for me was gatekeeping around queerness and queer-experiences. One of my motivations to talk about the Section 377 case is that it is possibly one of the most well-documented cases in Indian legal history. When there have been so many stakeholders, it’s quite preposterous that a few individuals can make it all about themselves. This is also a savarna upper caste tendency – to centre narratives around themselves and glorify themselves. When I talk about caste and queerness, I am very particular that I don’t represent all dalit queers. In fact, a lot of our mobilisation failed because each of us has such a specific peculiarity of geographic and linguistic location. Caste is informed by many particularities and specificities. Our queerness was not able to hold where we were coming from, even though we wanted to work on caste and queerness together. There are a lot of younger dalit queers who are doing fantastic things now, which is extremely inspiring, and I’m so blown away and emotional when I come across their work. But the point that I’m making is: how can people who are well-established lawyers, who have been around for a long time and know that there have been long histories to this petition, have the audacity


to be so grossly self-centered and ego driven? Vq: There are two very different kinds of being blown away, right. The first, being blown away by the sheer courage and vulnerability of dalit queer people who are putting themselves out there and expressing their vulnerability. And the second, of being blown away by the remarkable impunity of Guruswamy and Katju. When concerns over their appropriation of a whole discourse are raised, they don’t even put out a statement or respond. They don’t feel accountable to any of us. Strangely, it is easier to call out the state, but more difficult to address one of our own, because in some sense the state – through the most violent of apparatuses – allows for at least the question of accountability, even when it refuses it. Those that are seemingly progressive and democratic, and are fighting for “our” rights, have no procedures in place, no institutions to feel responsible to any of us. i was wondering if you wanted to speak about this – about the relation between procedures of human rights lawyering and the norms or ideals of democracy, or its lack thereof ? AK: There are a lot of structural reasons why Guruswamy and Katju get to present themselves as leaders of this movement, and in doing so, tap into exactly the structural violence through which Section 377 has come to be represented. Scholars like Satish Deshpande


point out how “casteless-ness” functions as a means to establish brahmin supremacy in this country3. That is, with the collaboration of the State and State actors, upper castes function in anonymity. On the other hand, the magnified focus on scheduled castes and scheduled tribes makes it look like caste is only marked by and through dalits and adivasis. Queer individuals, like Guruswamy and Katju, also function in this casteless paradigm and lay a claim to representing the broad queer claim of this country. When, in fact, it has mostly been working class, lower class and caste hijra, kothi, trans, dalit folx who have been challenging what collective LGBTQIA+ identity means for subjective, individual struggles. Additionally, many people, including dalit folx, are still formulating what “queer” means for their jati identies. So, this uncritical, ahistorical representation of queerness is extremely damaging. And sadly, is exactly how caste supremacy has functioned and continues to function even today. In such a paradigm, being queer also translates to being casteless. A privilege that is only afforded to upper castes. As I pointed out before, centuries long histories of oppression and disenfranchisement have been understood to mark and unmark only certain bodies. Guruswamy and Katju escape that marking precisely because of their caste locations. Even narrow acknowledgment of their caste identity seems extremely performative and patronising, and does not seek


to decentre their caste and class clique networking at all. They do not speak for the non-normative movements in India. They certainly do not speak for me. Even when posters, talks and news channels around the world seek to talk about this monumental moment in Indian history by using their pictures, and solely focusing on them – they have made no effort to distance themselves from it. Guruswamy’s arguments were powerful. There is no denying that. But that is not all there is to the case. Having said this, I also want to say that what we’re talking about might seem hyper-specific to these two individuals but it’s not. The reason we both are talking about these two individuals is because the entirety of Section 377 history seems to be mediated through them. Particularly, in the mainstream coverage of this case. This is quite fantastic – since the Section 377 history is anything but a monolith. I am also not interested in legal timelines, I am more interested in the legal strategies that decide who gets heard and what gets heard. Just to quickly point towards some resources: Alternative Law Forum (ALF), based out of Bangalore, has an incredible list of affidavits, testimonies and research that went into this case, and lawyers from ALF were closely involved in the case; there is Orinam, in Chennai, who have every affidavit, and have collated several opinion pieces over the years; and Partners for Law


for Development (PLD), who have an archive called Feminist Law Archive – I was part of creating it but my labor is still unacknowledged. However, I do want to flag that PLD was a terrible place to work at. Their casteism, classism and tokenism were one of the many reasons I left my job. And I strongly advise young law students who are looking to work at feminist law offices to avoid working there. In fact, in the process of collecting documents for this archive, I had personally reached out to several dalit feminists (because at that time I was a bit naive) and all of them refused to give any documents because they did not want to be associated with upper caste led-NGOs like PLD who have done negligent work on caste and gender while masquerading to be experts in it. They warned me that PLD would take credit for these documents. A pattern which I realized later – when I saw their application for an international funding agency where they had used my dalit-queer identity to prove their “diversity” and sensitivity to caste issues. I was never asked. I randomly stumbled across this document in their database while working on an unrelated piece of legal research. It continues to be one of the most invasive and humiliating experiences of my life. PLD was also part of the group Voices Against 377 – who are one of the initial petitioners of the Section 377 case. So, through


PLD I also witnessed other forms of caste-class associations within queer and feminist organising. But I digress. I want to point to a few instances in this archive. They have important documentation, like for instance when the movie Fire (1996) came out, and the kind of censorship laws it faced. They have materials around women eloping and how the surveillance around lesbian friendships, romance and desire has been so crucial to understand where we are today. I was still in law school when the Supreme Court 2013 judgement happened. A very basic thing which all law students learn to do is when a judgement comes out, you don’t just read the judgement, but understand everything around it. That’s the kind of law I learned. We don’t just look at the advocate on record, because as law students we are more aware than anybody that there are so many interns and researchers who don’t make the list, and so many affidavits and testimonies which the court never admits into the official legal record. Because the court deems them to be irrelevant. It’s so important to look at different modalities, to look at everything around a case. While I was working for PLD for Feminist Law Archives, I came across an email that one activist had written against an-


other in the context of the 2001 Bharosa incident in Lucknow. The local police had jailed few people for distributing HIV/AIDS related material, saying that they were promoting homosexuality. This activist had written the most petty email accusing the other activist of only participating in this case for the stardom and money. I was a young scholar who had just graduated – and I guess you could say I was starry-eyed – but when I saw the email, I realised I don’t care for savarna politics. I don’t operate in savarna logic. I also don’t operate in savarna citations. This is how my desire to talk about other kinds of modalities of the law became all the more important. We don’t care for legacy – and by we, I mean my dalit queerness – we don’t come from families that own anything, we don’t come from families that have this celebrated sense of caste group. Our sense of privacy is not privilege. Savarna histories are actually histories of erasures – because we are erased out of them. Savarna abjection builds on the lives of marginalised “others”. I come from a particularity of chamar and queerness and I don’t pretend to represent adivasi particularities, or queerness within it. So all of these different conversations are completely neglected when the mainstream hyper focuses on two individuals. Vq: i think Guruswamy and Katju are actually a pivot to have a larger conversation about precisely how dem-


ocratic rights work happens in courtrooms, and how courtrooms are particular kinds of spaces in which particular forms of subjectivity are allowed, or disallowed. Often, those of us who engage with the law, or with judgements, we blame only the judges. The judge becomes the person who represents the worst arguments about x or y. When you think about the 2013 Judgement, you blame the bench that gave the judgment but don’t take a step back to ask what did our lawyers present? You don’t step back and think about the work that went into the petitions and the people that made those petitions. You don’t take a step back and wonder about the relationship between the intern who drafted the petition and the lawyer who presented it. In our imagination it is only the authority of the judge that rules upon these matters. My emphasis with Guruswamy and Katju, and others like them, is that i have been dissatisfied with the case from the beginning. i have been angry at its process, with its lack of accountability, its lack of transparency. The reason why i pivot Guruswamy and Katju is because they are the symptom of a structural problem that manifests in courtrooms, especially when galvanised by savarna lawyers. This is not something that i have seen dalit lawyers do, for many reasons, including the ones you mentioned about not trying to build legacies, and trying to uplift communities instead. We see Kiruba Munusamy do that work constantly. Guruswamy and Katju were only able to manifest around


this case precisely because the ground for this was readied long ago. ​ In 2009 we had the Naz judgement, in 2013 the Suresh Koushal judgement, and Guruswamy and Katju only showed up in the post-2013 activism. In the post-2013 moment, judges in the court had asked ‘where are queer people?’ and there were of course many queer people present both in and outside the courtroom. There are many forms that queerness takes in a courtroom, and it’s not necessarily only about the “witness” in the witness box. There were queer lawyers and petitions that were part of the case. In Guruswamy and Katju’s Oxford Union Address, Katju says, ‘There were never LGBT people in court, speaking in their own voices about what it meant to live life under a sodomy law.’ When she says this, she erases all of the queer people who are, and have always been, present, including themselves! Their defence could be that there were no petitioners and these were affidavits, which would be the narrowest reading of a legal document possible. The sediment of the case is in the public life of sex, not in the private life of sexuality – a move was made only in 2009 with Naz. The reason why people went to court


with a case against 377 is because queer and trans people were being publicly harassed: whether it was the Lucknow raid, or the nameless sex worker on the street. The grief was state violence, of social blackmail and exploitation. What akshay khanna would call the ‘social life of the law.’ We went to court to fight against state violence and injustice. By making the conversation in 2009 about privacy, and thereafter about where queer people are to be found, the conversation about the violation of trans, kothi and working class communities was disappeared and made about recognition instead. ​ This is precisely why the 2018 judgement pays such little regard to state violence. They gave us this judgement about recognition precisely because it is made to be about love and family and couples and respectability – rather than about clients and streets and police and state violence. A certain form of savarna politics cannot share space, it must remove others from it. Guruswamy and Katju were able to turn the conversation because of the way it had been steered since 2009, when privacy became the pivot by which protection from state violence was to be ensured. We see this again in the conversation around data protection, where there is far more emphasis on the privacy of our data rather than about


the fact that our data manifests in the public realm. ​ However, it is not as if kothis and trans folx disappear from the petitions, they continue to remain in petitions as evidence of the social violence of the law. But they are not represented in the courtrooms. The petition becomes the place where you have the social life of the law, which seems regressive and backward, and those who represent it and the petitioners become the harbingers of futurity. Stigma, social violence and state atrocity get pushed to the back of the room, become a matter of history, become a matter of the past; while conversations about respect and “equal love” become matters of the future. The word ‘shame’ appears about five times in the five hundred pages of the judgement, and is replaced by the word ‘prejudice’, which appears about seventy times or more in comparison. This turn from shame to prejudice is important to point out – prejudice is that which you can overcome, while shame is that which continues to debilitate you, continues to affect the future. You cannot overcome shame in the same way – especially not through the law. This is why the trans, kothi and sex workers who inhabit shame and stigma as marks on their body are not brought in to the courtroom. People who can hold the future, who can become the future, are brought to the courtroom instead. These are the most respectable of us, those who look most like the judges themselves. ​


Similarly, Guruswamy and Katju disappear trans marriage to bring up gay marriage. The trans marriage is seen as the heteronormative “man/woman” marriage, and so the progressive marriage, in comparison, is the gay marriage between same sex people. i think these are the various dynamics that are endemic to human rights work in courtrooms. ​ AK: What you say is so important because you can point out the shifts between what’s happening in the Supreme Court in 2013, versus 2018, and there is a difference between the two. It is important to point out here that much of this difference is also because of community engagement, and the amount of labour that has gone into the case over so many years. This is the work done in collaboration with bureaucrats, state agencies, by urban, semi-urban and rural-situated mobilisations. I want to point out here how social justice legal practice works politically, in terms of ethnographically talking about courtrooms and legal procedures. I am particularly interested in the kind of petitions that were represented by Guruswamy and Katju, and the kind of people that they represented. In a country that is so deeply structured by hierarchy, I can’t believe that something titled the ‘celebrity petition’ was put forward? And celebrated! I do want to add a caveat here: law courts are hard to navigate for women, especially for gender noncon-


forming folx. So it is incredible to have someone who is out of the closet and litigating in the Supreme Court, but I want to have this conversation while also holding savarnas accountable for what they are representing. I am so tired of repeating this: the queer in India, or the LGBTQIA+ in India, gets represented as a caste-less community, and this is a savarna tendency. Lauren Berlant writes about this, how 4 only the privileged can achieve universality . And that universality is a mark of privilege. It’s precisely what upper caste people do, they universalise themselves and their experiences. We should also have this conversation along with the horrendous interview that Karuna Nandy gave about her upper caste location. In a conversation with Blush magazine, Nandy says, ‘more privilege is attributed to me than exists.’. Now, this reveals several things about savarna women lawyers, if you ask me: first, it shows how they are making sense of their own caste locations only in response to dalits and adivasis


calling them out. Had people not pointed out how their caste and class status facilitates their career, and mediates their gendered negotiations within courtrooms – that reflexivity would have been completely absent. So, I am saying that their association with their caste status becomes visible to us only when its status quo is threatened, and any articulation of their relationship with their caste group and communities is only in clarifications, and second, even when there is an acknowledgment of privilege, there is a simultaneous disavowal of it. This is what I was talking about before. The performativity of savarna caste acknowledgement and how patronising it is, and how it further solidifies their aversion to talking about casteclass networking. I am not saying that there is no difference between Karuna Nandy or Maneka Guruswamy or Arundhati Katju. But pointing to the systematic ways in which savarnas constantly evade questions of accountability and meaningful discussions of their caste groups. And these are the connections with Section 377 I am politically invested in. Getting back to the nature of the petitions that Guruswamy was representing: the ‘celebrity petition’ gets instant media attention, and these celebrities are the people who are considered to be respectable – they are upper caste and upper class. These are professionals whose careers are hindered because of Section 377. It would be interesting to talk about temporality in this celebrity petition. So, the petitioners in


this particular celebrity petition prove to us that their past lives have been unfulfilled because of their sexuality. It is automatically assumed that regardless of their class and caste status – they were living unfulfilled lives. Their sexuality negates the fact that their access might have been effectively generated through their past or present privileges. Guruswamy chooses petitioners who proactively fit the casteless narrative. Which she herself thrives in. The narrative around these petitions is also that the court needs to hear from all walks of life. That people from all professions and classes and castes are part of it. But that is a pretense. The class of people who get to be heard over others is a classic question of legal representation. The second petition is the IIT petition (by current students and alumni of IIT’s in India). It’s very ironic, because the jury’s still out on whether Guruswamy supports reservations or not5. But even if you do support reservation, how do you argue meritocracy when you are “for reservation”? Guruswamy argues that IIT-ians are the most meritorious persons in this country, that they don’t want to go abroad, they want to be in India – but they can’t because of Section 377. There is such a long casteist and colonial history to the notion of meritocracy, and especially to IIT – please read Ajantha Subramanian’s The Caste of Merit (2019) where she ethnographically surveys IIT Madras. There are so many parallels here because Guruswamy roots herself in Nehruvian politics, and


it was Nehru who, in his convocation address in IIT Kharagpur, drew connections between IIT engineering and meritocracy. Subramaniam, in her book, refers to this address while talking about the post-colonial Indian state’s investment in these institutions and linking exclusivity and selectivity with excellence. She writes, ‘. . . in other words, democratizing access to training would be antithetical to excellence. Nehru concurred, “I am all for democracy,” he opined, “but democracy normally means mediocrity too. It is a well-known thing, you put up with it in a democracy because, well, it is better to have democracy than having something worse. But the fact is that numbers lead to mediocrity”’. There are also colonial histories of how lower caste, working class people who were artisans, technicians, and over generations had occupational training vis-a-vis engineering. But the only way colonial administration and upper castes could make engineering respectable was to actively associate the profession with brahmins. How do you sit on the Dr. Ambedkar Chair (at Columbia University) and argue for meritocracy in the Supreme Court? Can we have Gowthaman Ranganathan on that fucking chair, can we have Kiruba Munusamy on that chair? There are so many dalit queer and feminist lawyers who are doing incredible work, but their crisis intervention and management gets completely missed out. What about lawyers who go to the police station to get trans people and sex


I also find it so unimaginable that a lawyer who was arguing for the state in yer the Hadiya case also gets to be the lawin the 377 case, arguing for dignity. It’s just crazy. This is how savarna cliques work, right. None of them will lose their cultural and economic capital. They constantly switch between the Congress and the BJP, who the fuck cares, all of them are at the same tea parties, they live on the same roads, or are connected through extended family. This is also what Guruswamy and Katju get to tap into: Katju is a family member of a retired Supreme Court judge. Vq: We see that with even someone like Indu Malhotra, who is on the Supreme Court bench for 377, and the kinds of maneuvers she does with Sabrimala. Standing up only for certain kinds of inviolability of questioning Hindu faith by non-believers, thereby completely erasing the critique of Hinduism by dalit and adivasi folx who are constantly subsumed in its fold through oppressive and violent means, even as the Sabrimala judgement strangely, by people like Chandrachud, relies on Articles 15 and 17 of the Constitution. It’s quite remarkable! If Chandrachud was so discourse around untouchdoes that not emerge in the 377 conversation?

moved by the ability, why


They would rather metaphorise dalit folx. They would rather have them as literal, textual sources than present in the courtrooms. It’s easier to talk about Article 17 as a kind of metaphor that you can apply to various kinds of bodies, especially savarna women’s bodies, but not think about its relationship to the dilution of prevention of atrocity laws, or to the lack of reservations in the judiciary, or representation on that bench. These questions are never asked. Some are best left as metaphors, some are best as literal testimonies, some better not present themselves in flesh and blood. This is a practice of untouchability. Dalit people exist as textual resources that savarnas rather not come in touch or contact with. Aniket Jaaware’s beautiful book Practicing Caste: On Touching and Not Touching (2018) unravels this, and i’m relying on Jaaware’s work here. You can make them metaphors but you can’t actually deal with them in life, death or flesh. That’s exactly what the lawyers are doing. Even the most progressive of people would rather do a con-


sultation with the kothis than actually represent them in courtrooms. These are the kinds of practices – legal practices – that we might want to think about more critically. There is something endemic to how the law is practiced that excludes, and that, in a Kafkaesque 6 way, builds a prison around us . AK: Before you go on – and you are giving a lot – I just want to flag two things in what you just said. Of course people textually and legally analyse the judgements. There is so much literature review on it, and I don’t even want to go into that. But I do want to say this: the very same day that the Section 377 proceedings were happening, in the very same courtroom number 1, right after the hearing – the Supreme Court went on to reject bail in the Romila Thapar case, of five activists who were involved in the Bhima Koregaon case. This is right after the Section 377 proceeding, where three out of the five judges from the Section 377 case were also sitting on the bail application case. ​ It’s important to remember that there’s so much other stuff happening at the same time. Even while attending the hearings, we knew that Section 377 was going to get struck down. Of course, it was a very melancholic moment – and there was so much emotional, affective response to it. It’s amazing that people who were around during the 2013 proceedings could physically, viscerally, feel the difference. The lawyers were arguing about decriminalisation, and the


judges were saying let’s talk about marriage. But they are already beyond that. ​ There was also so much international attention around the case, such a build up to the judgment. A lot of lawyers wanted to be on the case, because they care for their legacies. Then there were, of course, a lot of lawyers that were not represented from the previous petitions because they were interns or researchers or not litigating yet, so they categorically wanted to be on record for this case, which I respect. But it is important to look at what’s happening around the case: there were also impeachment proceedings happening against retired Justice Mishra. He was about to retire after the Sec 377 case and this was his “aha!” moment. I’m just pointing out that there are so many other modalities that happen around a case, which never make it to the news. Now all we see are those two people, which is very frustrating. Vq: Yes, absolutely. i hear you. Even i forgot that the bail hearings were on the same day, and now all of it is just really close to the surface. Do you want to maybe say something about the future projects of Guruswamy and Katju – about this marriage business? AK: I have so much to say, and yet I feel like there are no words to say how exhausted I am to keep talking


about this. I do want to talk about marriage, especially how it’s framed in Guruswamy and Katju’s Oxford Union Address because it reveals to us so much more. (Marriage is something that’s irking a lot of intersectional feminist and “social justice warriors” right now, i.e. savarnas please stop dming me.) There are so many moments in that video where you literally have to pause. . . like, what? How do you talk of marriage. . . how do you talk of marriage “equality” – and Guruswamy proudly speaks about endogamy and how India is a kinship network state – without talking about how deeply marriages in South Asia are imbricated within realities of class and caste? To proudly declare that the Indian State is a kinship state in a very matter-of-fact, nonchalant(y) way is quite cringe. I want to pause at this. This truly marks the two savarna women who are giving this speech. Let me make a crucial connection here. A lot of post-colonial studies on caste in South Asia around the 1950s were arguing that scholars are obsessed with looking at only “caste” but not “kinship”. So, you had savarna scholars who tried to downplay caste in family structures and only focus on kinship. Over the past few decades, kinship studies have gone through significant changes – all thanks to queer and feminist scholars – who have argued that kinship needs to located within the broader structures of political economy. Kinship is not something completely divorced from caste and vice versa. In making this connection, what


I am saying here is that the speech uses kinship and “marriage” to sidestep the “c word”. But this is also cleverly done. Because the word caste and “dalit” is indeed featured. But before I get into that, let me point out another connection. So, the speakers talk of kinship and conveniently forget to mention “endogamy”? Once again, how could she ever be appointed as Ambedkar chair for whom it was impossible to have discussions on caste and gender without talking about Hindu endogamy! Savarna wealth thrives on endogamy. Marriages are deeply violent for inter-caste couples. There are so many nuances that get missed out in this battle for marriage equality, especially when talking about couples across regions or castes trying to marry each other. Guruswamy says that she has spoken to people across castes, across classes – it’s bizarre to me that she gets to say that, and gets to become the star of that movement. Guruswamy jokes, in her speech, ‘I hope [Katju] will leave her larger home to me’, and she’s directly talking about property and ownership. And the fact that this was supposed to be a “light” moment – a moment of humor – at the expense of her endogamy networks! What the fuck. At this point, let me add that while I am making


this edit to our IG talk – there is ti tion seeking to lea pegalise same-sex marriages in India. A lot of hate that this petition is receiving has less to do with the petition, but more concerned with the right-wing petitioners and lawyers who have filed this case. This petition says, ‘the order of nature that Sec 377 speaks of is not just about non-procreative sex but is about forms of intimacy which the social order finds “disturbing”. This includes various forms of transgression such as inter-caste and inter-community relationships which are sought to be curbed by society. What links LGBT individuals to couples who love across caste and community lines is the fact that both are exercising their right to love at enormous personal risk and in the process of disrupting existing lines of social authority. Thus, a re-imagination of the order of nature as being not only about the prohibition of non-procreative sex but instead about the limit imposed by structures such as gender, caste, class, religion and community makes the right to love not just a separate battle for LGBT individuals, but a battle for all’7. I see no difference between the right-wing led petition and Guruswamy and Katju who are relying on the rhetoric of inter-caste marriage to advocate their notion of marriage. The fact that the petition equates


inter-caste coupledom to LGBT folx, and the fact that Guruswamy declares that all castes of queer people want marraige, is highly reductive, violent and misplaced. Without really going much into how inter-caste queer couples are still making sense of “marriage”, I just want to point out here how the fight for marriage is actually a recoginition of caste endogamy – and the savarna interest in maintaining their caste properties and land. ​ Then there is the sheer reliance on the word ‘dalit’ in Guruswamy’s speech. This is something I want to flag. I’ve written about it, too: while we were talking about caste and queerness there were so many people – including very celebrated, upper caste activists – who literally gave us the middle finger. These same people who are now saying that they were always intersectional, and that they were always cognisant of these multiplicities, and the million different ways in which people live their lives. Not only did they erase us, not only were they the gatekeepers in not letting us have the space to speak our truth – but now they get to present themselves as allies to dalit and adivasis. People who can speak for us, work with us. Guruswamy also uses the word ‘dalit’ so much because it has long been a buzzword within the development in-


dustry and funding game. This is extremely casteist; so violent. How do they continue to enjoy this act of erasure – that same act of erasure that their caste groups have survived on, and thrived on, for centuries. They have lived on our erasures and continue to do it with a savvy language, with a savvy development language – in a savvy Oxford language – and not care about accountability. Vq: The other day Dhrubo Jyoti raised this, that they were feeling quite exasperated by how quickly “dalit queer” has been taken up by savarna academics and savarna queer academics. We see this in the many Instagram posts you put up about the DMs you get from savarna people asking things like ‘can you guide me to a dalit queer resource’ or ‘can you give me an interview?’ What you’re saying is how easily people appropriate that which is fought for, struggled with, and the same institutions that resisted it now want to co-opt its discourse. The savarna queer subject gets to take over, mobilise the phrase “dalit queer” and fill up their dissertations, fill up their projects, fill up their marksheets with these words, almost without ever actually doing anything for dalit queer people nor being held accountable to dalit queer people. Guruswamy and Katju do precisely what we see unfolding around us constantly. i am always perturbed by the forms of queer attach-


ment to institutions. This attachment will never make the non-savarna demand for reservations, it will never side with trans persons – but it will make the savarna demand for “inclusion”. It will make the savarna demand for “recognition”. The court should accept us – this is the savarna demand they can make. But would the LGBQ movement in the country ever say ‘we want reservations’? It never dares to say that, it never dares to bring itself down to the level of actual democracy and equality to say that, ‘oh, no we can’t fight it through our merit’, that actually we are debilitated by society and its institutions. That is what one means by queerness as a savarna construct. Even when it articulates queer “victimhood”, it relies on savarna privilege to be included and to be accepted. Whereas the other struggles that are doing exactly the same thing – but doing it through reservations – are delegitimised as not doing enough, are delegitimised as “privileged” or lazy, as asking for too much. ​ i try to understand the attachment to institutions that have violated us, and sometimes i even get it. i understand the investment in getting into institutions that have excluded us, and i respect it. But i’m quite surprised – or actually not so much surprised as disheartened – that the savarna queer movement takes “acceptance” and “equal love” as its premise, but if anyone brings up reservations – including trans people, on whose backs they build bridges on – they never step up or show up. We saw this with the queer pride pa-


rade in New Delhi. The Transgender (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 was passed two days before the pride parade. There were eight thousand people, minimum, at the pride parade, while there were just seventy of us at the trans protest. That’s not an accident. It is the effect of the distance that these courtrooms – and the people inside them – have made between queer and trans people, between savarna and dalit people. The question isn’t ‘were there queer people inside the courtroom’, but: ‘which queer people were inside the courtroom?’ Who were these queer people? Where did they come from? Were they from, what Dhrubo Jyoti calls, the same “pin-codes” as the Diwans? What difference would it make if they were queer people that live in Hauz Khas? What sense of liberation can come from that? The marriage equality movement never centres, say, the necessity of marriage for inter-caste couples, and how different that is from gay marriage. This conflation happened in the 2009 judgement with Justice AP Shah7. i feel like there is, again, a metaphor-making of dalit struggles, when you say queer people’s exclusion from love is the same as


inter-caste couples fighting for love. Because it’s not the same. Absolutely not. When we speak about marriage – and i’m okay with marriage as long as there is a right to divorce – whose marriage are we fighting for? And whose marriage can hold the promise of an equal democracy? These words of Ambedkar that people throw around, around caste endogamy and so on, who is Ambedkar really talking about? And has that conversation concluded? When the judges in the Supreme Court asked, in the 2018 judgement, if this was about gender and sexuality, Mukul Rohatgi stood up and said ‘no, it’s only about sexuality.’ Again, you’re delimiting who this justice is for–- those minoritised by sexuality and not by gender. In 2014, after the NALSA judgement8 came out – declaring transgender people as a ‘third gender’ – everyone thought that trans people have “rights” now, and that they are all having a party. People assume that the trans rights conversation is now a conversation of the past. That the honour killing conversation is a conversation of the past. Which is why gay marriage, and gay equality, becomes the conversation about the future – and through it colonises the present. When you metaphorise the continuing struggles of trans lives


and those of inter caste couples, you erase them from the courtroom, you disappear their long histories in the air of the courtroom, and you say that these people are now “okay”; that these people can now be made analogies and metaphors to fight our fight. AK: The number of times “constitutional morality” gets thrown around by savarna lawyers – I’m just like, we get it, you have read Ambedkar’s reference in the Naz judgment! I had a running joke with my brahmin ex, and my upper caste lovers, that, you know, let’s only have a conversation about marriage if you’re also willing to talk about reparations as well, if you’re willing to give your property to me. Let’s talk about that. I don’t mind marrying you as long as I get your property. I think that’s the kind of labour that dalit queers are doing: with our desires, with the people we love. None of these savarna lawyers can even dare to contain the multitude; the depths that we come from. They cannot even imagine it. Vq: That, for me, is the mark on which i would like to end this: the future of the conversation around queerness will be led by dalit and adivasi queer folx. It is in their multitude, their depth, their multidimensionality and their polyvocality; in their actual faith in the Constitution but also their ability to critique it – and the courage with which they critique it, the respect with


which they critique it – that is really the future. Not the edifice, not the freezing of the Constitution as a document enshrined by Dr. Ambedkar, but its constant revival by people and communities who believe in the spirit of what he believed in. They will not shy away from critiquing even Ambedkar, who has been made into some kind of holy ghost by savarna people so they could build their careers on his back. Of course, many conversations are happening around dalit queerness which savarna people have no access to and thank the goddess for it. AK: Thank you. I just want Kiruba Munusamy and Gowthaman Ranganathan to be on the Ambedkar chair at Columbia Law school, that’s what I want out of this conversation. ​ Vq: i think that one of the savarna people reading this can start that petition and get that ball rolling. This is the work that savarna people – with their capital, with their networks – can do to galvanise momentum. This is an edited and expanded version of an Instagram Live conversation between Akhil Kang and Vqueeram Aditya Sahai, which took place on 1 August 2020. Link.


Notes: 1. The small ‘i’ seeks to make apparent by difference the function of the Big ‘I’ in the overrepresentation of Man, the authorial function in the autobiographical subject and the mathematics of liberal humanism. For more on this writing see Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa ed. This Bridge Called My Back: Radical Writings by Women of Colour. Kitchen Table, 1983. 2. I use ‘dalit’ instead of ‘Dalit’ to talk about different queer ways of being dalit. I also use ‘dalit’ to write against hetero-normative and savarna understanding of dalit to be a monolith. I use ‘brahmin’ instead of ‘Brahmin’ to de-mystify brahmins as a community. 3. Satish Deshpande, Towards a Biography of the ‘General Category’, 48(15) Economic & Political Weekly (13 April, 2013) 4. Lauren Berlant, The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy, and Politics, in, Cultural Pluralism, Identity Politics, and the Law, by Austin Sarat and Thomas R. Kearns (eds.), pp.49-84 (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999) 5. There have been several instances where dalit and dalit-queer feminists have called her out on Twitter for her casteist views on reservation. These accusations range from pointing out her father’s anti-reservation stance (savarnas actively disengage on this as if their family members don’t constitute their privilege networks) to written documentation where she has written about how candidates from reserved category are not as meritorious. 6. In the short story, ‘Before the Law,’ Kafka alludes to everything that remains outside the door of the court as one imprisoned to its logic – both the guard and the person seeking justice are immobilised in place, unable to leave. The seeker dies-in-place, waiting to be called into its dark tunnel (I will set aside its relation to women’s sexuality aside for now). This is to say that the emergence of law as the site of justice turns everything into a prison. Everything succumbs to its logic, its wait, its ways. 7. Vq’s housemates and AK’s friends, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal are currently incarcerated under UAPA for their participation in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act earlier this year. 8. On pg 42 of the writ petition Abhijit Iyer Mitra v. Union of India 9. https://indiankanoon.org/doc/100472805/ 10. https://indiankanoon.org/doc/193543132/


AKHIL KANG is a human rights lawyer and currently studying Anthropology at Cornell University. He writes about sex and politics at https://www.desi-underground-gay. com/. His IG is @kangbang09. VQUEERAM ADITYA SAHAI is an Associate with the Centre for Law and Policy Research. They live and love in Delhi. Instagram.



The Tamil film, Kanchivaram, explores the exploitation of weavers in Tamil Nadu through the story of its protagonist Vengadam, who belongs to the traditional silk weaving community, and is set within a period that saw weavers struggling with economic inequality and rapidly rising suicide rates. Words by Saachi D’Souza


The essay borrows its title from the 2008 Tamil movie, Kanchivaram, which is based in the town of Kanchipuram, in Tamil Nadu, set in Madras Presidency of 1948. The film explores the exploitation of weavers in Tamil Nadu through the story of its protagonist Vengadam, who belongs to the traditional silk weaving community, and is set within a period that saw weavers struggling with economic inequality and rapidly rising suicide rates. Through flashback sequences that go back-and-forth, Kanchipuram visually engages with the confines within which weavers are forced to make ends meet, and is also a tragic, bittersweet story of dreams unfulfilled. The film symbolically plays with memory by presenting the present-day scenario where Vengadam is under arrest but out on a two-day parole, and is, throughout the film, recalling moments in his life that led to this arrest. In an early scene of the film, as Vengadam is guided home by a policeman, we are introduced to his marriage through one flashback, that we are redirected to from a moment wherein Vengadam is filled with grief and sorrow. In this memory, as he marches through his village with his new bride, it is immediately established that this moment is remembered as happy, despite the economic upheavals, and is a time in Vengadam’s life that is celebrated for its ability to heal wounds caused by an unequal society. Here the viewer is invited to bear witness to what he has spent most of his life fighting for - his family.


A bystanding woman, during this flashback, who is one of the older women of the village, upon noticing the bride mocks them because the bride is wearing a cotton sari, and we are told at that moment that a younger Vengadam would boast about how his future bride would adorn a silk sari – and not just any silk sari, but the meticulously crafted Kanjeevaram, a sari he weaves for a living. The woman then laughs at them and exclaims, ‘a silk weaver can only weave silk, he cannot wear it.’ The line sets the tone for the rest of the film. The film captures moments in Vengadam’s life that mark his struggle with caste with great sensitivity and detail. The socio-political context here informs us that the traditional silk weaving community in Tamil Nadu is lower-caste and predominantly Hindu. Kanchivaram carefully places the narrative in this framework through scenes that symbolise the plight of weavers and their lives, from birth to death, which are determined by their caste identity. In a flashback sequence that follows Vengadam’s memory of his wedding day, we are taken to Vengadam’s father’s funeral, where the priest asks Vengadam for a silk cloth to cover his father’s body. In the practice of Hinduism observed in the town of Kanchipuram, silk (pattu) sym-


bolises purity, and to be adorned in silk at the time of death ensures the purity of the soul. But since weavers can rarely afford silk, Vengadam has a simple silk thread instead, which he ties to his father’s feet. It is perhaps here that the aspiration for owning silk becomes an aggressive need to fight the system, as Vengadam grieves a father’s body bereft of the cloth that he has spent his whole life weaving. From his father to his wife, and eventually, to his daughter, Vengadam passes on the desire for a silk sari like passing on the desire for freedom from one generation to the next. After failing to save enough money for his bride, Annam, and then again his daughter, Thamarai, he is driven to steal silk threads from the factory and weave a sari in private. He weaves at night, away from the eyes of anyone including his family. These scenes are powerful portrayals of a quiet revolution. They also underline the remarkable irony of the handloom industry: weavers who weave the saris worn by upper-caste women cannot afford their own creations. The film further demonstrates the rise of communism in the country, that follows the growing disrespect towards weavers, through the introduction of a writer who visits the village with the wish to write about weavers. He introduces Vengadam and his friend to communist texts, and shortly after, the weavers, aggrieved by labour


conditions, are brought together and mobilised. They protest the toxic environments that they are placed in, the violence they face and the meagre wages that do not support their labour and craftsmanship. The film at the end explains how in 1949, the communist movement spread across the country and in the town of Kanchipuram formed the first co-operative society of weavers under Mr K.S. Parthasarathy, a communist leader. The society, called Kamatchi Amman Society, then had 79 members and grew to include 2000 members with 50,000 weavers working under the co-operative sector. As perhaps one of the earliest examples of a platform that allowed weavers to exercise control, this battle laid the foundation for what has been a history of struggle and assertion in the handloom industry. To bring this in a contemporary context, on July 27, 2020, the government of India abolished the All India Handloom Board, and subsequently the almost 70-year-old All India Handicrafts Board, with no prior warning given to the public. Established in 1992 and 1952, respectively, the boards had been functioning under the Ministry of Textiles with the authority to advise the government on formulating policies that would protect the rights and interests


of the weavers. The boards consisted of official members from the central and state governments, and 88 non-institutional members – weavers and artisans from all over India – and were among many advisory bodies all working under the Ministry. They were platforms for weavers to directly engage with the government on issues concerning their livelihoods and were also the only mediums from where the government could get feedback on policies and the implementations of them. While the reason stated by the government on the abolishment of the boards was that it was ‘In consonance with the Government of India vision of ‘’Minimum Government and Maximum Governance’, many have argued this claiming that there is no judicious explanation for why two boards as pivotal as these would be abolished, considering that we are in the midst of a global pandemic, one that is disproportionately affecting marginalised communities. ‘Expenditure on this (handloom) Board is hardly Rs 1,00,000 per year. One would wonder what made the managers of ‘Minimum Government and Maximum Governance’ programme to pick up to reduce their expenditure, where no expenditure has been happening’, questioned public policy expert Dr D. Narasimha Reddy. He further states that the Aatma Nirbhar package, introduced during the nationwide lockdown by the government to support small businesses and


marginalised groups, did not include weavers. The move came days before National Handloom Day; a day that is observed on August 07 to celebrate India’s craft heritage. This day in the country’s history marks the establishment of the Swadeshi movement, founded on August 07, 1905, as part of the Indian Independence Movement. It was a period of nationwide reform when citizens were encouraged to burn all British-manufactured goods and support goods produced in India. August 07 is a gesture in remembrance of the movement that revolutionized the country’s handloom tradition, with ministers and celebrities championing for weavers on social media. But every year as we come closer to the day, it is also a reminder of the reality of weavers, that has largely remained unchanged on a state level, barring a few organisations (such as Dastkar, co-founded by Laila Tyabji) that support artisans on a local level. Social media remains as a space dominated by upper-caste aesthetics, leaving little to no room for lower-caste communities to make visible their positions as labourers behind ‘rich’ traditions that are often romanticised.


India’s history has several, notable mentions of clothing as a means to determine caste. The Mahad Satyagraha of March 1927, which was pioneered by Dr B.R. Ambedkar was a revolution led by Dalits to assert their right to access drinking water from public places. During this time, Ambedkar urged Dalit women to abandon clothing that marked their status as lower caste women in society, asking them to drape saris like upper-caste women. The evolution of the sari was influenced by the British, who brought with them European propriety, and hence, the sari blouse. According to one report, it was Jnanadanandini Devi, social reformer and writer, and sister-in-law of the famous Bengali poet and polymath Rabindranath Tagore, who promoted the sari blouse after she was refused entry in clubs under the British Raj because she covered her breasts only with the sari fabric. Until then, the sari was merely a cloth draped in many ways, depending on community and identity, and was worn without blouses; just cloth covering the breasts. This was entirely too provocative for the conservative sentiment of the British, as was the general idea of showing skin. The blouse was quickly blazoned as a sign of dignity and respect but its manifestation in different communities was subject to caste, like in the case of the Channar revolt. In late nineteenth century Kerala, the advent of a ‘modern society’ along with the British brought with it the introduction of new dress codes, that had much


to do with conforming to a ‘national look’ and emerging as a part of the new elite. In this society, the clothing of an individual was an important marker of their caste. Signifiers such as jewellery and the draping of the waist-cloth distinguished a community; for example, lower-caste women were prohibited from wearing gold jewellery. The disregard for ‘caste-based’ norms was received as a challenge to upper-caste power, wrote J. Devika in ‘The Aesthetic Woman: Re-Forming Female Bodies and Minds in Early Twentieth-Century Keralam’ (2005). The case of the Channar revolt in Travancore is an example of lower-caste women (Nadars) fighting to exercise their freedom of choice. Nadar women were not allowed to cover their breasts in the way that Nairs (upper-caste women) were, and dissented to this order by covering their


breasts in public. The response was the imposition of ‘mulakaram’ (breast tax) whose amount depended on the size of the woman’s breast. After struggling with the system for long, in 1813, an order was issued allowing Nadar women to cover their breasts if they converted to Christianity, which would allow them to wear a type of jacket that was worn by Syrian Christians. But still, the fight was for clothing that would place the lower-caste women on the same level as the Nairs, through clothing that would not determine a woman’s caste, since Nadar women advocated for covering their breasts in the same way as the Nair women did. This movement was long and arduous, that placed many Nadar women on the receiving end of violence, and eventually resulted in them adopting a way to cover their breasts that was similar to the clothing of the Nairs. ​ During the British Raj, covering the upper-body was the order for women who were employed by the British, and lower-caste men were made to wear an anglicized version of the dhoti, or suits, depending on the profession. The dress


was a way to ascertain modernity in an individual, and the lack thereof. Through employment under the British, lower-caste communities were allowed the ‘civility’ of the modern dress. The assertion of identity through clothing is significant for communities that have been rendered undeserving of dignity. Ambedkar donning the suit, at a time when Dalits were forced to wear soiled and messy clothing, was a revolutionary act. The norm of ‘soiled and messy clothing’ as a means to maintain caste was attributed to the position of Dalits as ‘polluted’ and ‘dirty’ in society, and therefore strict codes of conduct have been imposed on their identity, disabling them to ‘evolve’ through clothing. This manifestation of caste also allows upper-caste Hindus to maintain sartorial superiority over Dalits. Thus the suit has symbolised education and reform for Dalits since Ambedkar. When the band The Casteless Collective takes to the stage with identical grey-coloured suits, for instance, they challenge the history that denied them that very right. It is also important to reiterate here that the sari, after the British, was reimagined through conservative additions like the blouse and petticoat, and was so a signifier of a ‘moral position’ in society. Dalit and Bahujan people across the country have long used clothing as political and social resistance.


Kallumala Samaram, or the Stone Necklace Protest, was a social revolution by the Puliyar community – a lower-caste – in south Travancore in 1915. This was a response to upper-caste groups controlling their right to education, access to public spaces, entry into temples, and determining what the women could or could not wear. In a meeting chaired by Ayyankali – a social former – Puliyar women were encouraged to throw away their Kallumala necklaces – made of stone – that were symbols of caste slavery and to wear clothing that covered their upper-bodies. In contemporary times, there is a slow but sure radical change in the access to clothing and the assertion of the self. Dalit children are fashioning t-shirts and jeans, and men are wearing suits, as ways to challenge caste-based clothing that is practised even today. Through the ‘Mummy Ki Sari’ project started by the independent political researcher and queer activist Vqueeram Aditya Sahai, trans women have reimagined the sari by distributing old saris from mothers and grandmothers to transgender and gender non-conforming identities, breaking barriers of untouchability that isolate the community on grounds of both caste and gender; sharing with one another the many histories that saris carry within them. There is a sense of pride, belonging and shared vulnerability in the sari. For upper-caste, Hindu, cisgender folks, in most re-


gions of India, the sari is a totemic symbol of Hinduism. For the women, the nine-yards are drapes of femininity, of freedom and identity. The women behind the ikat and Chanderi saris are not just weavers, they are toddy tappers, sanitation workers and fisherwomen; occupations that, to the upper-caste Hindus, are unimaginable, in that they would not access these occupations for themselves. ​ The impoverishment of lower-caste communities forces them into modes of work that require great physical burden; with Dalit women facing not only a casteist system but a patriarchal system that bounds them to many other modes of labour. Yet, the labour of these women is, on a fundamental level, either reduced to their fate as lower-caste women or is romanticised through a celebration of their artisanship as patriotism and tradition. The fact that we don’t see handloom and crafts as products of labour exploitation, but just as aesthetics, is enabled by our caste privilege. The sari has been woven through many systems of oppression and its ‘beauty’ continues to distract from the conditions of its artists. We are a society unbothered by the structures of cruelty that operate behind the sari. The communist uprising in the film Kanchivaram illustrates this well; in a scene that follows the month-long protest of the weavers, Vengadam presents the list of demands to the employer, (also referred to as ‘master’) the middle-


man between the weaver and the customer, who acquires enormous wealth from exploiting the weavers. The demands ask that current wages for weavers be increased, weavers who weave saris in their homes be allowed to sell directly to traders and that weavers above the age of 60 be allowed certain benefits of prices. Without reading the entire list, the master crumples the paper and argues that he doesn’t need these weavers; he can find weavers in Mysore. This scene appropriately demonstrates how our society and government treat labourers: as discardable, temporary and unworthy. Whether it is the abolishing of the All India Handloom Board and the All India Handicrafts Board, or the massive 97 lakh debt left unpaid to weavers of The Charaka society in Karnataka, there is a consistent commodification of weavers and policing of lower-caste lives to maintain the imagination of a democratic treatment of these communities. When the Minister of Textiles, Smriti Irani, tweets a picture of herself in a sari from the All India Handloom Board, just days after its abolishment, the portrayal is not of patriotism or tradition, but it


is that of caste; it distracts from, and invisiblises the livelihoods of weavers, already threatened and minoritised by a pandemic, now entirely detached from a craft that they have built through oppression.

SAACHI D’SOUZA is a freelance writer, research intern and social media consultant based out of Ahmedabad, India. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.




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