January 16, 2003
India Court: Govt Must Clarify Stand On Gay Relations
Dow Jones Newswires
New Delhi – A court has ordered the Indian government to respond within a month to an anti-AIDS organization’s suit seeking an end to the law that makes homosexual relations a crime, a newspaper reported Thursday. New Delhi High Court Chief Justice Devinder Gupta and Justice B.D. Ahmed told the government to file an affidavit within four weeks making clear its stand, the Indian Express reported.
There have been few cases in recent years of prosecution under the law that declares homosexual activity a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. But the Naaz Foundation, which brought the suit, said police use the threat of the law to harass homosexuals, who are afraid to come forward to seek AIDS prevention help. The foundation said the harassment is a violation of homosexuals’ human rights. "Despite a number of adjournments, no affidavit is filed by the (the federal government) and a last opportunity is given to it to submit it within four weeks," the judges said in their order Wednesday.
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based rights group, said in a report last year that police also harass anti-AIDS campaigners who try to provide condoms and disease-prevention information. About 4 million people in India, or 0.7% of the country’s adult population, suffer from AIDS, the government says. But some experts suggest the actual number of AIDS sufferers is more than twice as high and note that the disease in India, with more than 1 billion people, is spreading fast.
May 1, 2003
Male model exposes gay Bollywood (Bombay)
by Khalid M Ansari
Gender discrimination is passe in Bollywood–both men and women are subject to the casting couch, says supermodel-turned-struggling actor Marc Robinson. Man-management skills could in fact be helping a majority of male models to boost their sagging careers in tinsletown, he alleges. "There are certain directors and producers who have a taste for eligible companions of the same sex. With sexuality being seen as a matter of choice, such liaisons are far more acceptable today than they were just a few years ago. Though industry bigwigs like Shahrukh Khan, Karan Johar, Mahesh Manjrekar and Sanjay Leela Bhansali may still shy away from publicly acknowledging the fact, their proximity to male friends is common knowledge", says the 35-year-old hunk who made his mark with a steamy campaign for Kama Sutra condoms.
His disastrous big screen debut in ‘Bada Din’ has not left him frustrated with his film career (or the absence of it), insists Robinson. According to him: "I’m not in the habit of making wild allegations about the sexual orientation of other people. Every word of what I have said is true and can be verified from independent sources."Despite the brave front, there’s a note of bitterness when he admits that refusal to enter into ‘male bonding’ may have cost him dear. "In my own case, I was happy modelling when a film was offered to me.
The project appeared interesting and I decided to give it a try. Sadly it took time for me to realize that Bollywood is full of hypocrites and talent alone does not guarantee success. All said and done, I am not a man who is comfortable rendering sexual favours to other men for a shot at stardom", he says. While not all male actors enter into same-sex relationships willingly, the rewards far outweigh the risks involved and in time they may even grow to like it, quips Marc. According to the man who claims to be a die-hard fan of veteran Hollywood star Robert De Niro: "Beggars can’t be choosers. It’s the classic Stockholm Syndrome –given enough time you fall in love with your circumstances, no matter how impossible that may have seemed at the start.
Were it not so, same-sex associations would not have become this common in the industry. Call it what you want –a ‘session of better understanding’ or ‘collective crew discussions’–the fact remains that Bollywood men have a penchant for their own kind. But that does not deter them from playing court to their wives. After all in a world of make-believe, appearances are everything."
19 June 2003
Gay Bombay comes out
by Zubair Ahmed, BBC correspondent in Bombay
A new book celebrating forbidden love between homosexual men in India has raised hopes within the country’s largely invisible gay community of the chances of coming out of the closet. The Boyfriend deals with love between an openly gay man and a young boy who feels unable to pursue his gay instincts, just like millions of other Indian men. It is an unusual storyline with an unusual theme in a country where homosexuality remains a punishable offence. A 141-year-old law prohibits "unnatural" sexual acts. The book is being seen as a symbol of the growing confidence of Indian gay men, best exemplified by their public behaviour in the western Indian city of Bombay (Mumbai). R Raj Rao, the book’s author, says the gay community wants the law to be repealed, but is still not vocal enough to demand its rights.
" There’s a need to politicise the issues," he says. "Unless that happens there’s little hope for the gay community." There are no official estimates for India’s gay community, but some gay organisations say it may be as large as 50 million people. "Here in Mumbai I can hold hands with my boyfriend and walk around, which is not possible even on the streets of New York and London," says Mohammad Yunus, a gay man who lives in Mumbai. He believes one in 10 Bombay residents in a city of 15 million is gay. "What’s changed is that our profile has been raised," says Vikram Doctor of Gay Bombay, an organisation that says it creates safe spaces for gays.
Thriving scene Indeed, Bombay’s gay scene is thriving by any standards. There are regular gay parties in bars and pubs. Voodoos, a night club in South Mumbai, has a gay night every Saturday. There are other clubs like it in cities such as Delhi and Bangalore. But in tradition-bound India, where homosexuality is either ignored, covered up, or treated as a disease, the openness of the Bombay gay night is unusual. Gay Bombay organises a gay party every month. It is considered an advertisement for the gay community’s growing boldness. The last one, on Friday, was attended by more than 350 people, roughly a third more than expected. "We are just a bunch of ordinary guys having a night out," said the party’s organiser.
Slice of normality
Middle class gay men danced with people from various social backgrounds. Several European tourists also joined in the fun. An Israeli from Tel Aviv said it was his third time at a Bombay gay night. "It’s better than the bars of Tel Aviv," he said. It was the slice of normality that Indian gay couples crave. And in a rare attempt to break the taboo of invisibility, many gay men at the party agreed to be photographed. The party’s organisers had initially refused to allow photography. Courage to come out Bombay’s monthly gay night comes just eight years after the city played host to India’s first gay conference. Now, says R Raj Rao, Indian society needs to grow up and gay men need to have the courage to come out. Rao describes himself as one of less than 100 Indian gay men to openly live as he chooses. "Many people are still not willing to come out of the closet, " he says.
" The number of openly declared gays may not be more than 100." But he says it is a good sign that Bombay has become the place to go for gay parties and discos. Creating awareness It is when the music stops that Indian gays are reminded that they still do not enjoy the freedom to declare their identity. "All we want is the acceptance that we exist and that we are not different from heterosexual people, except for our sexual and emotional attractions to men," says Nitin Karani, who contributes articles to a gay website.
Gay Bombay and Hum Safar, one of India’s first gay organisations, are working to create an awareness of gay rights through workshops, film screenings and parties. Their websites are used as a community forum to talk openly about their various problems. Mr Rao, who believes that Bombay has more gays than New York and London put together, says most of them do not come out for the obvious reason that society has not accepted them. "Gays still have a long way to go in India", he says.
June 23, 2003
Gay and Gloomy
by Georgina L. Maddox Mumbai
Picture a 10-year-old boy seized by a strong urge to commit suicide. Picture him locking himself up in a room, feeling totally worthless… It’s an effort to even get up and go to the toilet – one that makes him break out in heart-wrenching sobs. His name is Jai. At 30, after seeking medication and psychotherapy, Jai is no longer ashamed to talk about his depression. Or his homosexuality. "My depression is endogenous, which means I was born with a chemical imbalance in my body," he says.
While his ‘coming out’ as a homosexual, at 17, was a relatively painless experience, he’s still on medication for depression. "For me, the two things aren’t linked at all. But it’s probably true that the incidence of depression is higher in the gay community because of the social constraints and pressures we face," he says. Many homosexual men also suffer from Dysthymia, or mild depression. "I have never felt suicidal but I often felt a lack of initiative, loss of appetite and am generally non-communicative," says Ramesh who is thinking of seeking medical help if things don’t improve soon. Depression caused by external factors is called Reactive Depression. Clarifies Dr Ajit Dash, US-based neuropharmacologist, who presented a paper on the subject, last month, at a Gay Bombay meet, "While Jai’s case is one of Major or Endogenous depression, Reactive Depression is fairly common, in the gay community. However it’s sweeping to theorise that gay men are endogenously depressive."
Dr Rajesh Parikh, honourary neuro-psychotherapist at the Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, Peddar Road, says, "There is no research-based data to prove homosexuals suffer from reactive depression any more than heterosexuals. But individuals who are confrontational about their sexual orientation may be at a greater risk to experience it as a mood state (rather than an illness)." Parikh also points out that, earlier, homosexuality was considered a disease. This led lot of stigma associated with it. Now, this view has largely changed among the medical community. But it is yet to filter down to the layperson. Consequently, a lot of gay people aren’t entirely comfortable with their sexual orientation. Medically, they are known as ego-dystonic. "I find cases of this nature have higher depression rates," says Parikh.
Agrees Dash. " The stigma associated with being gay, known as homophobia, is a major hurdle. Many gay men are forced into marriage, which leads to feelings of aversion, inadequacy and depression." While there is no uniform response to ‘coming out’ – it has varied from beneficial to detrimental – the anxiety caused by it can lead to a depressive state. Other triggers that may cause depression range from a negative self-image to partner pressure. "Older homosexual men face a lot of pressure, since the community tends to focus a lot on physical beauty," says Salim, who is over 40, single and gay. Therapy has helped him stop falling into dependent relationships with sexual partners.
On the other hand, Swapnil, who has been in a committed relationship for years, believes, "Older gay men are more confident about their sexual identity." While Transference (transferring the burden to an empathiser), a key concept in psychoanalysis, is one of the first steps of combating depression, it works better with a psychotherapist. If you’re the friend of a depressed gay man, one has to draw boundaries. "I have a friend who suffers from depression. And while I wanted to help him, there came a point when I had to say, ‘I am not your therapist’," says Lobsang, a young student who has recently found his way into Mumbai’s gay community. Jai, too, underwent a similar experience.
" It became an awkward situation, as he developed a crush on me. But we made a concerted effort to stay just friends," he recalls. Jai has access to monetary aid and education (he graduated at Harvard). But for many gay men, from conservative back grounds, ‘coming out ‘ itself is a cause for depression. While some associate visiting a shrink with ‘nuttiness’, many can’t afford to do so. But gay men are increasingly ready to address the issue. And this is the first step towards dispelling the blues. (Some names have been changed to protect identities.)
June 29, 2003
Rally to promote rights for sexual minorities
Calcutta, India – Gay men, many wearing earrings and bright lipstick, marched in Calcutta early on Sunday in a rare rally to promote rights for sexual minorities in conservative India. Around 35 men braved curious stares from puzzled onlookers to walk through the heart of the crowded city in a rally they called "Walk on the Rainbow." Some held up a large rainbow-coloured flag, a symbol used by international homosexual movements, while others threw flower petals at bemused bystanders. "If we bother about what people think of gays, we won’t be here," said Arpan Banerjee, who was wearing purple lipstick and gold earrings and gave his age as "late 20s."
Gay relationships and behaviour are frowned upon in largely traditional India, where there is a secretive gay sub-culture in the big cities. "We got many emails from gays and lesbians saying they wanted to join the march, but are afraid to come out publicly," said Rafiquel Haque Dojah, a march organiser. The marchers were also celebrating Gay Pride Week, which attracts millions of people in major cities around the world. Activists have traditionally celebrated June as gay awareness month because of the Stonewall riots in New York that sparked the gay rights movement.
21 July 2003
Gays slowly but stealthily coming out of Goan closet
by Vasco Herald Correspondent
Goa, India – He is only 24 years old, walks like a girl, wears an earring and likes to mix with people. He is a gay operating in Goa and is one of the over 7,700 gay homosexuals ‘listed’ in the State. Arun Tomar, a gay since the age of 14 years, is the Project Co-ordinator of the Non-Governmental Organisation Hamsafar Trust, which is fighting for the cause of homosexuals in the State.
Long ridiculed and disapproved by a conservative and tradition-bound Goan society, Goa’s middle-class gays are slowly coming out of the closet, to the puzzlement and consternation of their relatives and friends. But even as they revel in their new confidence, Indian homosexuals increasingly fear public health officials and have not woken up to the danger presented by the killer disease, AIDS. According to official estimates, 889 cases of AIDS from gay sex have been reported nationwide, along with an estimated 16,015 carriers of HIV, the virus that cause the disease. As for Tomar, he entered the gay community while he was studying and living in a hostel in Hyderabad.
" It was when I was 14 years old and homosexuality was very common in the hostel. I had a strong relationship with my partner and every night we used to experiment with sex," admits Tomar. He further revealed that it was the made-for-each-other relationship with a promise to remain loyal till in hostel, that was the secret of life with his partner. "It’s just like a relationship between a male and a female, or a husband and a wife. The wife would get jealous if the husband has sex with somebody else, so is the scene here. My partner would get jealous if I had sex with someone else," Tomar revealed. What happened after hostel life? Explains Tomar: "I was desperate when my partner left the hostel. I was in search of a new partner, when I came across a community in Hyderabad where homosexuality was carried out and it went on."
" All these years we’ve been forced to be hypocrites. It’s a great relief to find out that there are hundreds of others like me all over the country," remarks Tomar. "Before I came to Goa," he adds, "I did a bit of homework about the places mostly frequented by homosexuals," said Tomar. "Every week, we have programmes for the gay community on Saturday. We meet at various place and here, the community members have what is known as free sharing of feelings," says Tomar. The homosexual community, with an able and fast growing strength, has spread in Margao, Vasco, Panjim, Calangute and Baga. The community has recently set up an out-reach service and an office in Zuarinagar, to carry out various programmes for its community members. Another out-reach service has been recently set up in Mapusa.
" There are over 7756 homosexuals MSM (male having sex with male) on our list. We have seven out-reach workers, who cover entire state. Their work starts in the evening," informs Tomar. "We have 272 working days in a year and at an average, we contact 22 MSMs per day," he adds. Tomar has set a target for himself the battle for social acceptance and recognition of gays and homosexuals in Goan society just like neighbouring Mumbai. According to Tomar, the project first came into Goa with the support of the NGO Rishta. But since 2002, they decided to go on their own under the banner of NGO Mumbai-based Hamsafar Trust and the support of Goa State AIDS Control Society (GSACS).
" The GSACS was not immediately ready to fund us, but later on, the NGO advisor Marriette Corriea was quite understanding," says Tomar, who manages the project for a sum of Rs 3.81 lakh a year. Though the amount is less as compared with 2002-2003, when it received Rs 4.52 lakh, Tomar says the community manages with whatever it is funded with. "We use the funds for intervention project and other programmes, such as supply of flavoured condoms and education of safe sex counselling around for the guys that get hurt and need a shoulder to cry on," he informed. According to Tomar, there seems to be no age bar among homosexuals in the State. "We have gays who are even 13 years of age," informs Tomar and adds, "the average age is between 16 and 30 years. Most of them happened to be quite active during the first four to five years and later turn into passive members."
Active members, explains Tomar, are those who perform the penetration act, while the passive one are those who allow to do it. Another interesting aspect, Tomar informed, was the different type of homosexuals present in the community. "There are three different types of acts in the gay groups, who practice sex between men and men, bisexuals who practice both with men as well as women and the third transgender Eunuchs. There are no eunuchs in Goa but they arrive in Goa during the charter season in October and leave the State only in May," says Tomar. "These are the ones who are commonly known as Male Sex workers and carry out the business along the Calangute Baga coastal belt and charge anything between Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 for an intimate session," he adds. Arun Tomar pointed out that efforts were made by him to have a support group for homosexuals in the Goa. "It is very important," he said, "as the police in Goa has been carrying out atrocities on community members."
" Obviously, the community members meet in public places such as parks, bus stands and pay toilets. The police threaten us. Can we not meet in such places? There are no cases that we carry out our acts in public places. It is only that we meet our community members," asserts Tomar. "I have even taken up the matter with the police chief in Goa," Tomar informed. Community members, according to Tomar, come from different walks of life businessmen, people from educated families, professionals, college students. "There are no restrictions on anyone, poor or the rich," he says, "but it is mostly the high class." Tomar insists that homosexuals in Goa should be accepted. "The office should be accepted and I will work for it," pledges Tomar.
How would you identify a gay in a group? "The usual opening lines like, ‘do you have a light?’, ‘where can I find some fun?’, and seeing the response, I then drop a few hints and see how it goes," explains Tomar. Tomar said he had made up his mind that marriage as an institution was not his answer and pointed out that most homosexuals married because of family or society pressure. "My family has accepted me as a gay so what is the problem of the society," queries Tomar. He insists that gay marriages should be accepted in the society and claimed to have solemnized a couple of gay marriages in Mumbai.
Proud of his gay status, Tomar claims to have been popular throughout the country, Kolkata, Karnataka, Kerala, Chennai, Hyderabad, Delhi, Mumbai. He has delivered talks at various levels and conferences and meeting on his stand on homosexuals and their role in the society. Tomar was of the opinion that Goan society would shortly accept homosexuals in the State and predicted that time will help to change the social opinion on this topic.
23 July 2003
Kolkata (Calcutta) activists highlight gay issues with theatre production
Kolkata – Gay activists will take to the stage on Thursday in Kolkata in their latest bid to win more acceptance for homosexuality in India.
‘Kinara’, which translates roughly as ‘The River’s Edge’, centers on a dialogue between male partners growing up in rural India who mull the social stigma of same-sex love.
The Bengali-language play is open to the public and activists are distributing tickets free to the media in hopes of highlighting the cause. "Gays are fighting for acceptance and peaceful coexistence in society," said activist Rafiquel Haque Dowjah, who wrote and acts in ‘Kinara’. "They want to make their presence felt and spread awareness about same-sex love in a conservative society like ours," he said. The play is part of a series of events in Calcutta aimed at increasing awareness about gay issues.
On June 29, more than 100 activists held a rare gay rights parade in the city coinciding with worldwide marches on the anniversary of New York’s 1969 Stonewall riots. In the past month, gay groups here have also launched a music video and organized a panel discussion on the status of sexual minorities.
Calcutta in 1996 saw the premiere of India’s first gay-themed ballet, ‘The Alien Flower’. The ballet, which chronicles a gay man’s life, was performed afterward across India and in Malaysia and Australia. India’s courts are reviewing laws that, while rarely enforced, make consensual gay sex an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison. While there are few open homosexual communities in most of India, Mumbai and Bangalore enjoy reputations as more hospitable to gays and lesbians.
July 27, 2003
India’s Sexual Minorities–Gay Parade in Calcutta a mark of changing mindsets–Homosexuality emerged from the closet with the gay march in Kolkata on June 29. Its public face is a mark of changing mindsets
by Swagato Ganguly
Globalization is creeping, even if on tiptoe, to a conservative city like Kolkata. I refer not to swanky shopping malls, styled like their counterparts abroad. I refer to a march by gay men in support of homosexual rights on 29 June, a first in Kolkata. It began, and wound its way through, impeccably middle class localities: Park Circus, Gariahat Road, Gol Park. I do not want to make the claim that homosexuality is a global import unknown in traditional cultures. Same-Sex Love in India, a recent book by Saleem Kidwai and Ruth Vanita, catalogues a whole bunch of references to, if not homosexual, at least homo-erotic passion in traditional Indian texts. I do agree, however, with French philosopher Michel Foucault, himself a homosexual, that heterosexuality and homosexuality as distinctive lifestyles are a modern, Western invention.
It is not that homosexual acts were unknown in non-Western cultures; what was unheard of was that anyone should predicate his or her whole being, and identity, on being homosexual. But that was what the marchers of June 29 were effectively doing. In traditional cultures, including India, men might have relations with other men while simultaneously leading married lives and having children. Although, as Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai have shown, there are references to homoerotic behaviour in premodern Indian texts, homosexual conduct is rarely spoken of approvingly, and judgments on female homosexuality are particularly harsh.
The same social arrangement continues, in effect, in the present day. There exists an underground subculture of homosexuality which is not violently persecuted in India. Homosexuals, on their part, must ensure their activities aren’t too overt and intrude into the public sphere. That implicit social contract was violated when gay men took part in a public procession on June 29.
It must be noted, though, that there were no lesbians in the march, although the topic has been aired in films and books from time to time. The emergence of homosexuality into the public sphere is still a hesitant affair.
What makes modern homosexuality shocking to many is its refusal of the "obligation" to procreate. Anyone who believes that the core of his (or her) being lies in his/ her relationship with another person of the same sex is, ipso facto, forswearing his/her "responsibility" for propagating the tribe/ community/ nation/ society. In other words, along with modern homosexuality, the modern individual is born. In any traditional culture, one of the biggest imperatives is to multiply its members. A community’s numbers may be depleted by nature’s depredations and by war. Replenishing those numbers is a primary need; individual rights and desires come a poor second. Thus the Bible says "go forth and multiply"; for Hindus peace in the afterlife isn’t possible unless funeral rites are performed by one’s offspring.
Modern culture, by contrast, has acquired sufficient control over nature to make overpopulation, rather than underpopulation, a problem. And as far as war is concerned, a million men do not count for much when faced with a single intercontinental ballistic missile, which makes gaining access to the latter a rather more important factor in contemporary power politics. There has thus been a loosening, in the last half-century or so, of the taboo against non-procreative partnerships. If consumerism makes possible an expanding array of lifestyle choices, and an individual is defined by the choices he makes, then there are alternate sexualities one can "consume" as well. It is in that context that the emergence of sexual minorities becomes a marker of incipient globalization.
Take the occasion that Kolkata’s marchers were commemorating on June 29, along with marchers in Sao Paulo, San Francisco and other cities across the globe. The occasion was the Stonewall riots in New York’s Greenwich village in 1969. On June 27, 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in Greenwich village. While such raids had been routine, on that occasion the crowds fought back, and the neighbourhood erupted in riots and protests for the next few days. That sparked the worldwide gay rights movement which has become a facet of contemporary modernity.
Many might scent dark neo-imperialist conspiracy here, as raids on gay bars are not yet a local issue in India. But what is a local issue, undoubtedly, is the existence of Section 377 on the statute books, according to which homosexuals can be awarded imprisonment for upto 10 years. And sooner or later the issue might capture the attention of the neo-Hindu right which is obsessed, after all, with questions of numbers and demographics. A marriage between Article 377 and a conservative BJP-type government could yield as offspring some serious persecution of sexual minorities. The ire visited by the Shiv Sena upon ‘Fire’, a film depicting a lesbian relationship between two women, can be a precursor of things to come.
While West Bengal’s Left Front government might be right up there with anyone else when it comes to the suppression of individual rights and the persecution of dissent, it must be placed on record that it did provide police protection and didn’t allow untoward incidents in the case of the marchers of June 29. If the backlash against homosexuality can be attributed to its privileging the modern individual over the social "necessity" to procreate, 21st century biotechnology could bring about a fascinating twist in this tale. I am not referring to cloning where, besides the complex ethical issues that it raises, the characteristics of only one "parent" among a homosexual couple would be transferred.
But can there be a procedure where a homosexual couple can have a child who will inherit the genetic material of both parents, just as the children of "normal" heterosexual couples do? The answer to that question appears to be yes. An experiment carried out with mouse eggs, and reported in the journal Science, raises that very possibility if duplicated with human eggs. In the procedure, called egg nuclear transfer and initially conceived to help infertile couples, the DNA from a damaged egg can be evacuated and placed in another egg, whose own DNA has been removed. In theory, the same procedure can be used to introduce sperm DNA into an evacuated egg, fertilize this "male egg" with sperm from another parent in the laboratory, then gestate the resulting embryo in a surrogate mother.
The baby born would have the genetic material of two male parents. The same procedure could be repeated for two female parents. If this or similar procedures of mixing human DNA were to become widespread in another fifty years, an offshoot would be that homosexual couples could become parents and have families just like everyone else. That would, of course, force us to radically revalue our concepts of "motherhood" and "fatherhood". It would do away with one problem, though. If the unconscious resistance to homosexuals stems from the fact that they do not contribute to society’s imperative of reproducing its members, that wouldn’t hold anymore. Radical individualists might rue the loss of homosexuality’s subversive charge, but it would lead to the integration of homosexuals into society, to the extent that even mashima and pishima might not take much notice of the family with same-sex parents living next door.
August 19, 2003
Arvind Narrain, 28 Lawyer fighting for the rights of gays, lesbians and sex workers
‘India is becoming an exclusive elite nation’ There is a sense of openness about the people of India. When I was studying law in England for three years I had this feeling of unfriendliness about the people. Instead, whenever anyone comes to India, they find it a very welcoming place. It’s like coming home. But there is a great degree of violation of rights today – rights of tribals, landless labourers, gays, lesbians or those affected with HIV. We don’t seem to respect some people as people and instead treat them with a great deal of violence. For instance, during litigation, I see violence inflicted upon sex workers by the police themselves who rape them while in custody or ask for sexual favours. In Gujarat we had a scenario where 2,000 people were killed on the streets simply because of their religion.
This is one thing we cannot afford to have in India as it threatens the culture of diversity of our country, a diversity that includes sexuality, ethnicity and gender. This enormous diversity is the best part about India. There is never any boredom when you are meeting people in India. What we in our organization are striving for is to make this country a more just and human place. We want to see the recognition of gay and lesbian rights in India. I say ‘we’ because you can’t be a part of a social movement process and say ‘I.’ Change has to be brought about collectively. Increasingly our country is being identified with a smaller segment – the rich and urban India.
We are leaving out vast sections of society since they don’t matter much in our consciousness anymore. India is not an inclusive nation anymore. It is becoming an exclusive elite nation. Among the things I would like to see change in India is legislation like POTA and the Armed Forces Special Pass Act that gives the an army officer in Northeast the power to shoot to kill. These laws target fundamental human rights and they should go. Section 377 of the IPC which prohibits intercourse ‘that is against the law of nature’ should go as it treats homosexuality like a crime.
We also need a genocide law in the country to avoid a repeat of what happened in Gujarat. My vision for this country is one that treats all its individuals the same, respects the rights of each one of them and builds a more democratic process of looking at the law itself. The law can become a tool of oppression at times. What I look forward to is a country which looks critically at itself and the law and brings in a world where all of its citizens have the same human rights. . As told to Priya Ganapati
September 10, 2003
India’s gays see small improvement in cultural outlets
Marriage-conscious society mostly frowns, but homosexuals are finding a club here and a movie there that accepts them. It’s a ‘sea change,’ says one.
by Vanessa Gezari, Special to the Tribune
New Delhi – Under purple strobe lights, a man in a sleeveless T-shirt with "Daddy" on the front slow-dances with a long-haired guy in a tight seersucker blouse. At the bar, a slender man in a tie-dyed shirt whispers into the ear of his muscular friend, who wears iridescent green sunglasses despite the darkness of the room. In shadowy corners, under the stairs and behind the half-open door of the women’s bathroom, men embrace, taking advantage of the relative safety of the Indian capital’s only gay nightclub to meet and flirt.
Others, unable to forget the stigma attached to homosexuality in India, sit alone at tables, eyeing the men on the dance floor with a mixture of admiration and anxiety. "If my family knew I was here, they’d kill me," said Samir Agarwal, a 25-year-old businessman who attended the weekly gay night at Pegs N’ Pints, a New Delhi club, recently. "In India, if a family knows their child is gay, it creates a big chaos. Gays and lesbians are not acceptable. It’s a matter of shame, a matter of embarrassment." In traditional India, where marriage is life’s most important event and no family is complete without children and grandchildren, homosexuality is rarely acknowledged, let alone accepted.
But increasingly, gay Indians are meeting in Internet chat rooms, organizing marches, hosting parties and showing up at support groups, generating a wave of activism that is bringing the gay community into public view. "It’s been like a sea change," said Shaan Thadhani, 25, a fashion designer who returned to India recently after several years in Britain and attended the gay dance session at Pegs N’ Pints, which is a bar catering to heterosexuals six nights a week and a gay club only on Tuesdays. "Before I went to London, we never had this. We had one support group. The scene here is very new." In the last year, the Bombay-based Indian film industry, known as Bollywood, has released several movies featuring gay characters, including "Mango Souffle" in which two male characters skinny dip in a pool.
Activist writes novel "The Boyfriend," a novel published this year by Indian college professor and gay activist R. Raj Rao, offers what may be the most detailed account yet of gay life in Bombay, exploring the relationship between a journalist and his lover, who is an untouchable, a member of India’s lowest caste.
Neither the films nor the book have generated the level of controversy that surrounded "Fire," a 1998 film about two women falling in love that drew angry protests from the Shiv Sena, a right-wing Hindu group. Lesbians are even less prominent than gay men in India, in part because of the "basic inequalities" that hamper women in most aspects of life here, said Geeta Kumana, chairwoman of Aanchal Trust, a lesbian group in Bombay. In June, about 35 men, many wearing jewelry and lipstick, took part in a rare gay pride march in Calcutta.
The Internet, which is easily accessible in India, has given the gay community a relatively safe way to connect, while at the same time exposing young people to the more permissive cultures of the West. "The Internet has changed so much for the gay community," said Shaleen Rakesh, an activist with Naz Foundation Trust, a Delhi-based group that works on HIV/AIDS and sexual health issues. "The way society, even in Delhi, has changed in the last four or five years, people are so much more open to the issue of sexuality, and it’s so much easier to talk about sexuality and being gay." Activists from Naz, which runs a clinic for people with HIV and AIDS, recently went to court in an attempt to repeal India’s law against homosexuality.
Under the law, enacted by the British in 1860, "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" is punishable by life imprisonment or up to 10 years in jail and a fine. In India, where there are an estimated 4 million people with HIV and the number is expected to surge in the years to come, police have used the law to justify harassment and detention of AIDS outreach workers. A report by New York-based Human Rights Watch said "police abuse" has sometimes prevented workers from handing out condoms and information to sexually active gay men. The Humsafar Trust, a gay non-governmental organization in Bombay, offers workshops in how to hide condoms "because if you’re caught with a condom by the police at night, you can be badly beaten up," said Ashok Row Kavi, chairman of Humsafar’s board. "We teach men to hide them in socks, in wallets." Rakesh said the court appears to favor getting rid of the law against homosexual activity.
But on Monday, the government submitted a strongly worded affidavit suggesting that efforts to repeal the law should be directed at parliament, not the court, and that the law should remain in place because "Indian society by and large disapproves of homosexuality." "Deletion of the [law] can well open the flood gates of delinquent behavior and be misconstrued as providing unbridled license for the same," the affidavit said. Naz activists have three months to file a response. Gay activists say that many gay men in India are married and have children. Yadavendra Singh, 27, said that although he is committed to leading a gay life, the pressure from his family to marry has been too strong to ignore.
When he told his sister he was gay, she said it was "not possible" and advised him to meditate, he said. Drum beat to marriage Soon afterward, his family began pressing him to marry, sending the relatives of single women to meet him and arrange a match, as is commonly done in India. Singh sought help from a gay-rights group in Delhi, which suggested an alternative: he could marry a lesbian, placating both their parents and allowing them freedom to pursue relationships with others. Through gay support groups, he met a young woman who agreed to the plan. They are to be married in March. "I told my parents it was a love affair, and that I had been with the girl for the last four years," Singh said. "Now my mom is OK, [and she says] ‘My son is not gay. He’s marrying a girl.’"
September 11, 2003
No ‘unnatural’ sex please, we are Indians!
Indo-Asian News Service New Delhi
Sexually adventurous Indians may be unwittingly committing several crimes in the bedroom, including some punishable with life imprisonment. If the Government has its way, homosexuality, oral sex and anal sex, which are increasingly an accepted form of sexual behaviour in many parts of the world, will not be legalised in India just yet.
The Government’s contention in a court that homosexuality should not be legalised as it was not accepted by Indian society has outraged not only the gay community but many who believe the state should keep out of the bedroom. The Government was responding this week to a petition questioning Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that deems "voluntary sex against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal" a criminal offence to be punished with imprisonment for life or up to 10 years. "We expected nothing better from this Government than the old bogey of Indian culture and society that is completely divorced from scientific realities," Aditya Bandopadhyay, a member of the Lawyers’ Collective HIV/AIDS unit that formulated the petition for the NGO Naz foundation, said.
" How can you criminalise a whole community when it is scientifically, sociologically, anthropologically and historically accepted that homosexuality is not a depravity or an aberration?" The petition, filed in 2001, argued that consenting homosexual acts should be legalized because the fear of arrest and harassment from the police had driven gay people underground, hampering the anti-AIDS campaign. Responding after a long time, the Government told the court that Indian society was "intolerant" towards homosexuality and repealing the law would "open the floodgates of delinquent behaviour". It was argued that this was the only law against child abuse and male rape. But Bandopadhyay retorted, "Why not frame separate laws for child abuse and male rape?
Anyhow homosexuals and victims of male rape are harassed by the police." The Section under consideration also bans acts such as oral sex and anal sex that could be described as "unnatural" since they were not "penal-vaginal". Said Sarah Fernandes, a students’ counsellor, "Is this a police state? Why should the Government decide how or who do I have sex with?" Echoing the indignation, bank executive Yogesh Mishra said the law could not dictate what consenting adults did in their bedrooms. "People have the right to choose their sexual behaviour. In a progressive society, such a law is redundant and should be dumped post-haste."
The petition said the sodomy law was at cross-purposes with the fundamental right to life and liberty. "The Government’s view is shocking and effectively means sex should be only for procreation, not pleasure," said Lok Prakash, technical consultant with the Naz Foundation International. Stating that this attitude was detrimental even to heterosexuals, Prakash remarked that, legally, even a husband and wife could not have anything but conventional sex. This is a strange irony for the land that produced the most ancient treatise on sex, the Kamasutra of Vatsayana, and the renowned Khajuraho temples that depict most explicit, and no-holds-barred acts of lovemaking.
Noted sexologist Prakash Kothari refers to instances of homosexuality, premarital sex and alternative sexual behaviour in Indian mythology as well as scriptures. "It is true that many acts are not accepted by society today, but between mutually consenting adults, oral sex etc are acceptable sexual behaviour," he said. "There is nothing like unnatural sex between adults – only alternative sex." Kothari pointed out that it was better to have homosexuals satisfying their relationship in their own way than becoming "destructive heterosexuals". "Laws are meant for citizens’ comfort and not discomfort. Under the present scenario, IPC Section 377 needs to be abolished."
September 14, 2003
‘Homosexuality okay if practised in private’ New Delhi
The State will turn a blind eye if homosexuality is practised between two consenting adults in private, a Central Government affidavit suggests. A Home Ministry affidavit, submitted in Delhi High Court, said the basic thrust of the argument of pro-gay activists was the perceived violation of the fundamental liberties guaranteed in the Constitution.
However, there was no violation of fundamental liberty as long as any homosexual/lesbian act was practised between two consenting adults in privacy as in the case of heterosexuality. This was contrary to the estabilished law that if an act amounted to criminal offence, it would be so even if it was done privately. ”In India, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code has been basically used to punish sexual abuse to children and to compliment lacunae in the rape laws. It has rarely been used to punish homosexual behaviour,” the affidavit said. The provision became operable only when there was a report to the police for either sodomising or buggering, it added. The purpose of the Section 377 IPC was to provide a healthy environment in the society by criminalising unnatural sexual activities against the order of nature, it said.
If this section was taken out of the statue book, a public display of such affection would, at the most, attract charges of indecent exposure which carry a lesser jail term that the existing imprisonment for life or ten years and fine. While the Government could not police morality, in a civil society criminal law had to express and reflect public morality and concerns about harm to the society at large. The Government’s reply came in response to a plea challenging the vires of Section 377 IPC and seeking to legalise homosexuality. ‘Naz Foundation’, a voluntary organisation working to prevent the spread of AIDS, had filed the PIL seeking amendment to the Section which made sexual relations between two consenting adults of same sex a criminal offence, saying it was a hurdle in the AIDS awareness campaign run by the NGO.
It claimed that Men who have Sex with Men (MSM), who were very vulnerable to the disease, were harassed by the authorities and the law enforcing agencies, which forced them to go underground and came in way of HIV/AIDS prevention efforts. Though acknowledging that a number of countries had done away with the criminal content of homosexuality/lesbianism, the Home Ministry affidavit said that there was no tolerance to such a practice in the Indian society. ”In any Parliamentary secular democracy, the legal conception of crime depends on political as well as moral considerations… Public tolerance of different activities changes and legal categories get influenced by those changes.
The social dynamics take into account the moral aspect also,” it however said. ”In our country criminal law, unfortunately, is not based on a fundamentalist or absolutist conceptiion of morality and it reflects shift according to changes in public attitudes.” Acts which had been glorified in the past, like dowry, child marriage, domestic violence, widow re-marriage, had now been brought under the purview of criminal justice. Therefore, changes in public tolerance of activities lead to campaigns to either criminalise some behaviour or decriminalise others, it added.
September 15, 2003
Mumbai gays against Centre’s stance
by Shibu Thomas
The Central Government’s stand supporting Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that makes homosexuality a criminal offence has come in for vociferous criticism from the lesbian and gay community in the city. They feel the government’s open support may lead to increasing harassment and victimisation of the community.
"The government’s stand makes gay men vulnerable to extortion, abuse and violence," said gay activist Ashok Row Kavi at a meeting in Santacruz that was convened to evolve a counter to the government’s stand. According to Section 377, whoever voluntarily has sex against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal will be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 10 years.
On September 8, in response to a public interest litigation filed by Naz Foundation, the centre told the Delhi High Court that homosexuality cannot be legalised in India as society disapproves of such behaviour. The government said "deletion of the said section can well open the flood gates of delinquent behaviour and be construed as providing unbridled licence for the same". Tejal, a member of LABIA (Lesbian And Bisexual Women in Action), is concerned about the government affidavit bringing lesbian women under the purview of the Act. "It is scary, and translates into the government sending out a message that it will prosecute homosexual men and women.
The government has effectively said that its own notions of culture override human rights," said Tejal. R Sridhar, a filmmaker who was present at the meeting, believes that "society’s non-acceptance" argument is not valid. "Society has never accepted widow remarriage, ban on sati and child marriage," argued Sridhar. His immediate concerns, however, are whether the government can prosecute two gay men who are living together. Ernest Noronha, who works with gay organisation Humsafar, believes the law can come in the way of HIV prevention campaigns. "What will stop the police from now booking outreach workers in the area of HIV/AIDS intervention?" he asked. Row Kavi said Humsafar might intervene in the case, since the government has questioned Naz’s locus standi (the right of a party to appear and be heard before a court).
September 16, 2003
Mumbai to host film festival on sexuality
by Vidyottama Sharma, Times News Network
This time they are coming out in the open, and with a bang. The homosexuals and bisexuals are going to celebrate their existence and the heterosexuals are invited too, to partake in the debates and discussions that will be held as a part of the festivities. Did someone hear Dr Alban crooning "It’s my life?" Well, to hit the nail on the head, come October 17 and Mumbai will play host to ‘LARZISH’, a three-day International Film Festival on Sexuality and gender plurality.
Larzish, in Urdu, means, from the slightest trembles of the lip to the tremors of a revolution. Replete with feature length, fiction, shorts, experimental, documentary, animation or mixed media presentation, the non-profit festival will deal with queer, gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, bent, deviant, kothi, eunuch, hijra, panthi, queens and drag kings forms of sexuality. " We are dealing with nuances of sexuality and gender," avers Tejal Shah, co-organiser (along with Chatura Patil and Natasha Mendonca) and an activist. "The festival is an attempt to reach out to people through visual medium on issues and begin a dialogue. In MIFF and IFFI, we are left out and the right wing fundamentalist slant of the government is very visible."
The fest is being organised under the banner of ‘Humjinsi’, a lesbian and bisexual women’s group, which is a part of India Centre for Human Rights and Law. "It’s a support group and a helpline for women, who love women," informs Shah. The festival, along with screening 40 films, will also have two panel discussions – one on issues of representation and media and the other on sexuality and gender.
The former will have Mahesh Bhatt and Farah Naqvi as the panelists. The issues that will be discussed and debated upon, says a note, include lesbians, gays, intersex recognition, masculinity, campy piss-takes on mainstream media, autobiographical sketches of transgender and transsexuals, anti-globalisation resistance and "loads of fun and fiction of lesbian, gay, bisexual and bent themes." Of course marital rape and domestic violence will also be handled. "It will, in a way, mean like the other rising for gays, who will sit in the audience and know how their subject is positioned and represented by the others. Plus, they themselves will be able to display their beliefs and expectations. It is a formal, proper festival wherein the panels will also have representation from the parents and families of gays and lesbians," says Shah.
As part of the festival, LABIA (Lesbians and Bisexuals In Action, formerly known as Stree Sangam – a lesbian and bisexual women’s collective) will bring out a publication that will act as the catalogue and a zine rolled into one. The magazine part will use scripts and submissions by activists. Titled ‘Scripts’, this effort of LARZISH and LABIA will see the revival of LABIA’s magazine by the same name that was started in 1998. It will also have an on-line edition that will be linked to the web site. Interestingly, the opening (short) film in the festival, Beauty Parlour is by Mehreen Jabbar of Pakistan. The other opening (long) film, My friend Su is the story of a man who feels like a woman trapped in a man’s body. The film is by a Delhi based filmmaker Neeraj Bhasin.
The closing night film, from the USA, is Brother Outsider: The Life of Byard Rustin. This film deals with the life of Byrad Rustin, best remembered as the organiser of the 1963 Washington March. It hints that this master strategist and activist’s amazing non-violent efforts, largely went unreported because of his gay identity. "It is not easy for the activists to completely come out in the open, because of fear of reactions of families or at work places. We are inundated with heterosexual images in our daily lives but our side goes largely unrepresented. It is not that films are not made on these subjects but people don’t get to see them.
This festival will be open to public and we look at it as a political tool to generate more visibility, facilitate a public discourse and celebrate our various existences," avers Shah. "We are not asking for legal changes but for broadening the understanding of these subjects and articulating one’s own right. The value of marriage and family is made so sacrosanct that nothing is given sanctity outside its purview." Shah is upset with the recent section 377 of the government.
" I think our festival is very timely because the government has taken a very regressive stand on the issue of sexuality." The organisers are hoping the collegiates to attend the festival in large numbers and partcipate in the festival that will have films from Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, France, Finland, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea, Serbia, Sweden, South Africa, the UK and the USA. "Our agenda is to primarily create a forum for showcasing works emerging from South-East Asia, Middle East, Africa, Latin America as well as other parts of the world. This festival is an attempt to compliment already existing and on going work within the sexuality and gender minority movement at the grass-root level," says Shah.
October 18, 2003
Sexual minorities put up united front
Times News Network
Emerging from the shadows of public psyche, sexual minorities, including gays, lesbians, transsexuals and bisexuals, have come forward to form the India Network for Sexual Minorities (Infosem). The alliance, a first of its kind in the country, will raise the collective demands of various sexual minorities, including abolition of parts of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalises homosexuality. Other issues include harassment by police and lack of proper medical facilities for sexual minorities. " For years, several organisations have been working in isolation with people of alternate sexualities," gay activist and convener of Infosem Ashok Row Kavi said on Friday. "By banding together, we will build strength in numbers and will be able to lobby more effectively for our demands," he said. The alliance so far includes 15 organisations working with sexual minorities.
"Membership is by invitation only," Mr Kavi said. "Regressive laws, like Section 377, make it very difficult for us to talk openly about issues like safe sex and prevention of HIV/AIDS among homosexuals," said Manavendra Singh of the Baroda-based Lakshya Trust.
In July 2001, five outreach workers of Bharosa, an organisation working among homosexuals, were arrested in Lucknow while they were distributing free condoms. "This is only one example of misuse and abuse of Section 377, which forbids consensual same-sex activity and places it in the same category as bestiality or sex with animals," said Geeta Kumana, project coordinator of Aanchal, a lesbian group. The law even hinders homosexuals from seeking medical attention for sex-related problems, as doctors are supposed to report cases of homosexuality to police.
A prominent member of the alliance is the Dai Welfare Society representing the ‘Hijra’ community. Narrating the community’s problems Lata Guruji said, "If we go to a hospital for treatment, doctors often ridicule us by asking whether we should be admitted to the male or female ward." Others narrated how they were often harassed by police and ostracised by society.
October 21, 2003
Take lessons from gay, lesbian couples
Research shows that married heterosexual couples can learn a great deal from gay and lesbian couples. According to the research, they are more mature and considerate in trying to improve a relationship and have a greater awareness about maintaining equality in a relationship than do couples with no such affiliations or tendencies.
John Gottman, a University of Washington emeritus professor of psychology, who directed the research along with Robert Levenson, a University of California, Berkeley, psychology professor, says, "I think that in 200 years heterosexual relationships will be where gay and lesbian relationships are today." In the first of two papers published this month in the Journal of Homosexuality, the researchers explored the conflict interaction of homosexual and heterosexual couples using mathematical modeling techniques. In the second study, they looked at factors influencing gay and lesbian couples’ relationship satisfaction and dissolution.
" In the modeling paper we looked at processes, and they look so different you could draw a picture," said Gottman. "Straight couples start a conflict discussion in a much more negative place than do gays and lesbian couples. Homosexuals start the same kind of discussions with more humor and affection, are less domineering and show considerably more positive emotions than heterosexual couples.
"The way a discussion starts is critical. If it starts off in a bad way in a heterosexual relationship, we have found that it will become even more negative 96 percent of the time. Gays and lesbians are warmer, friendlier and less belligerent. You see it over and over in their discussions, and their partner is receiving the message they are communicating. In turn, their partner is allowing himself or herself to be influenced in a positive way. With married heterosexual couples a discussion is much more of a power struggle with someone being invalidated."
Gay and lesbian relationships seem to be marked by what Gottman calls "the triumph of positive emotions over negative emotions." "Negative emotions have more impact in heterosexual relationships," he said. "This is why our previous research has shown you need a 5-to-1 ratio of positive to negative statements. This seems to be universal in heterosexual couples. But it may be different in gay and lesbian relationships where positive emotions seem to have a lot more power or influence."
October 26, 2003
Male callers harass lesbian helpline
by Priscilla Mehta
Sixty per cent of the calls that Mumbai’s only lesbian helpline receives are crank calls from men. "At least that’s down from 90 per cent crank calls we received when we first began," says Chatura, co-ordinator at Humjinsi, the organisation behind the helpline. Started about four years ago, the helpline that is currently operational two days a week – Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 3 pm to 6 pm – has women from all over the city calling for help. "It’s primarily a helpline that provides information and space to talk," says Chatura. " We get about 20 to 30 genuine callers every month, a lot of them are repeat callers.
We ask them to give themselves a name, but don’t ask for any identification as such. ”Each call lasts for about 15 to 20 minutes, but if it’s a crisis, it can go on for up to 45 minutes. We do not direct people to make choices regarding their sexuality, we only give out information. If they ask about safe sex practises we can give out authentic information." However, through experiences are organisers are able to say that if the callers are male, the calls are mostly crank. "One kind is not sure and just calls to find out what we’re about.
Another type will call and verbally abuse us, or breathe very heavily on the phone. Yet another kind of male caller will say, ‘I’m a lesbian, I don’t know what to do,’ or weirdly enough some others think we’re a sex line in the business of supplying women," says Chatura. "Occasionally," she continues, "we get gay men calling us up for help, then we direct them to organisations that work with men." Gleaning away the husk from the grain, Humjinsi is able to say that the genuine callers are either college students, housewives or working women and either English, Hindi or Marathi speaking. "For women sexuality is a very tricky issue, so it takes a while for them to open up.
Sometimes the husbands of the wives call first, we’ve never had a parent call, I suppose that’s because normally the first thing they do when they find out their daughter is possibly lesbian is to either get her married off or treated by a psychiatrist. Recently we had a call from a man who told us when that his sister ‘came out’ he reacted very badly to her. He was trying to grapple with the notion of it himself and was trying to bridge the gap between them." The infamous Section 377 and its implications don’t hold back this organisation.
As Chatura says, "We’ve had the Shiv Sena call us up and tell us, ‘We know what you are doing, we’re coming to your office’, we told them, ‘This is a helpline, giving information is not a criminal activity’. And anyway the law is not specific and it is certainly not anyone’s business what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their space." Despite this and other phone calls they wish they could just simply eliminate, the organisation hopes to get Section 377 repealed and help more women understand themselves better.
October 20, 2003
Despite Widespread Poverty, a Consumer Class Emerges in India
by Amy Waldman
Urgaon, India — Tarun Narula, a 25-year-old computer instructor, celebrated Mohandas K. Gandhi’s birthday on Oct. 2 by going to the Metropolitan Mall. So did so many thousands of others that the parking lot was full, as were those of the other two malls across and down the street. Indian-made sport utility vehicles, cars and motorcycles fought for space, choking the roads of this satellite city south of Delhi.
Inside the malls, young people sipped coffee at Barista Coffee, the Starbucks of India. They wandered through Indian department stores, Marks and Spencer, Lacoste and Reebok. Families took children to McDonald’s, or the Subway sandwich shop. Moviegoers chose between "Boom," a Bollywood film with a decidedly Western touch of vulgarity, and "2 Fast 2 Furious." This is no longer the India of Gandhi, among history’s most famous ascetics. The change in values, habits and options in India — not just from his day, but from a mere decade ago — is undeniable, and so is the sense of optimism about India’s economic prospects.
Much of India is still mired in poverty, but just over a decade after the Indian economy began shaking off its statist shackles and opening to the outside world, it is booming. The surge is based on strong industry and agriculture, rising Indian and foreign investment and American-style consumer spending by a growing middle class, including the people under age 25 who now make up half the country’s population. After growing just 4.3 percent last year, India’s economy, the second fastest growing in the world, after China, is widely expected to grow close to 7 percent this year.
The growth of the past decade has put more money in the pockets of an expanding middle class, 250 million to 300 million strong, and more choices in front of them. Their appetites are helping to fuel demand-led growth for the first time in decades. India is now the world’s fastest growing telecom market, with more than one million new mobile phone subscriptions sold each month. Indians are buying about 10,000 motorcycles a day. Banks are now making $15 billion a year in home loans, with the lowest interest rates in decades helping to spur the spending, building and borrowing. Credit and debit cards are slowly gaining. The potential for even more market growth is enormous, a fact recognized by multinationals and Indian companies alike. In 2001, according to census figures, only 31.6 percent of India’s 192 million households had a television, and only 2.5 percent a car, jeep or van.
Foreign institutional investors have poured nearly $5 billion into the Indian market this year, already more than six times last year’s total. The Bombay Stock Exchange’s benchmark Sensitive Index has risen by more than 50 percent since April, hitting a three-year high. Foreign exchange reserves are at a record $90 billion. After huffing and puffing in place for eight or nine years, "the train has left the station," C. K. Prahalad, a professor at the University of Michigan Business School, said of the Indian economy.
More than a decade after India began opening its economy by reducing protectionism and red tape, slowly lifting restrictions on foreign investment and reforming its financial sector, the changes are starting to show substantial results. Companies that stumbled in the face of recession and new competitive pressures in the 1990’s have increased productivity and are showing record profits. India is slowly making a name not just for software exports and service outsourcing, but also as an exporter of autos, auto parts and motorcycles.
Nature has played a part as well. The seasonal monsoon that ended recently was the best this agriculture-dependent economy has seen in at least five years, with normal or excess rainfall in 33 of 36 of the country’s sub-regions. That, in turn, is putting income and credit in rural pockets, spurring a run on consumer goods that will only strengthen when the harvest comes in later this year. In some places, the economic transformation is startling. Look at islands of prosperity like Gurgaon, or Bangalore, and you see an India that many Americans — not to speak of Indians — would not recognize.
It is a place where a young fashion designer like Swati Bhargava, 27, who works for a company that exports clothes to American and French chains, can buy stylish Indian clothes, eat at Pizza Hut, drink at Barista and contemplate the country mutating around her. " The culture is changing," she said. "People are becoming more broad-minded."One sign of change is the proliferation of malls. India’s first opened only in 1999, and its second in 2000, according to Harminder Sahni, a principal in KSA Technopak, a management consulting firm in New Delhi. By the end of next year, it will have almost 150.
Of course, truisms about what holds India back have not disappeared. The shortfalls in infrastructure, particularly power and education, are staggering. Twenty-six percent of Indians still live in poverty, and data suggest inequality is widening even as the poverty rate falls. Overall employment is essentially stagnating. The heavy dependence on agriculture, which still accounts for 25 percent of gross domestic product and 70 percent of employment, means that a bad monsoon, like the one last year, can hobble the economy.
The country remains politically dependent on subsidies that have helped swell fiscal deficits that limit growth and investment in education and health. A recent Supreme Court ruling suspending the sale of shares in significant state-owned industries prompted concerns about the slowing of economic reforms, as do continuing red tape and corruption. Moreover, not everyone embraces change. Many bemoan the aping of Western culture at the expense of a much older and richer Indian one. Still, an acceleration of the transformation seems inevitable, in part because the booming consumer culture is being driven by the young. The youth of India’s population is a demographic trend of such economic and cultural significance that even the country’s aging leadership recognizes its importance.
Yogesh Samat, the chief executive of Barista, which was founded four years ago and now has 125 coffee bars across the country, said that before economic liberalization began in 1991, "there was a great deal of guilt associated with spending of any kind; saving was the done thing." But today’s youth — those born in the 1980’s — never experienced either the shortages or the psychological constraints of the country’s socialist, Soviet-oriented past, he said. " Consumerism as a term is no longer seen as a bad word," Mr. Samat observed, "and the acquisition of material things is no longer seen as going against Indian traits."
The young people at the Gurgaon malls would agree. Most of those interviewed here work, a change itself from the past, when jobs for college-age students were few. Most of them have jobs in service industries, like hotels or marketing, that now constitute about half the economy. They tend to live at home with their parents, following Indian tradition, meaning that almost all of their income is disposable. Mr. Narula, the computer instructor, for example, earns $2,173 a year, more than four times India’s per capita income of about $480. He lives at home, and has spent his money on a Nokia phone, a Maruti car and clothes. On Gandhi’s birthday, he spent about five hours with his friends at the mall, eating at McDonald’s and watching "Boom."
The lifestyle changes for this cohort have come at warp speed. Mr. Sahni of KSA Technopak is only 35, but marvels at the variety open to young Indians today. "When I was a young person, nothing was happening — every day, life was the same," he said. No longer. A year ago, India was in a national funk over China having surged ahead economically. Now, there is a cautious sense that over time, India could prove the turtle to China’s hare, thanks to its entrepreneurial spirit, its strong higher education system and its democracy. " There’s a lot of confidence in India today, even in respect to China," said Jairam Ramesh, the senior economic adviser to the opposition Congress Party.
India now has a $500 million trade surplus with China, and Indian companies increasingly see China less as a threat than an opportunity. A delegation of Indian industrialists is now in China to market everything from steel to pharmaceuticals. Indian companies say the advantages of the country’s high-skilled, low-cost work force are outweighing the disadvantages imposed by its infrastructure and bureaucracy, and even there they see improvement.
Ratul Puri, the executive director of Moser Baer India, which has become the world’s third largest producer of recordable media like DVD’s and CD’s, said his company had recently built the world’s largest production site for such devices — 1.5 million square feet — in Noida, another Delhi satellite city, in just six and a half months. " Pre-1991, it would have been impossible," Mr. Puri said. "We would have spent six and a half months trying to get the license for construction."
October 19, 2003
India Film Festival Examines Homophobia
by Ramola Talwar Badam
Bombay, India – One film focused on the life of a lesbian truck driver. Another showed two older men lovingly feeding each other. In a country where homosexuality is a crime, and where gays rarely gather publicly, India’s first gay film festival was more about coming out than it was about filmmaking. "We need to create public awareness and confront prejudice," said Chatura, a young activist for a Bombay-based lesbian support group. "We hope the film festival will dispel ignorance about us and our lives and spark debate." Chatura, who would only give her first name, joined about 200 other activists, college students and relatives of gays at the festival, titled "Tremors of a Revolution." Organizers had a hard time finding a venue for the three-day event, which ended Sunday. In the end the audience squeezed into a college auditorum on the outskirts of Bombay.
The Indian news media published articles announcing the festival, but photography was banned because organizers said audience members were "in various stages of coming out." Many of the 40 films featured criticized Indian law, which defines homosexual relations as a crime against nature punishable by 10 years to life in prison. "Homosexuality is abnormal, it’s an illness," said a frowning, unnamed police officer in one documentary. Other films focused on the ridicule and discrimination faced by same-sex couples in India. "Manjuben, Truck Driver" focused on the life of a cross-dressing truck driver who said economic independence helped her lead life on her own terms.
Another documentary showed the relationship between two men in their 60s who see each other on the sidelines of what seems to be heterosexual lives. Each is married, with grandchildren. Most homosexuals in India live with their parents, referring to their partners as "friends" for fear of being disowned by their families. Those who live together don’t advertise their sexuality, for fear of being evicted by landlords. But over the past decade, the Indian media and gay activist groups have reported instances in which lesbian and gay couples privately exchanged marriage vows in temples and mosques. The marriages have no legal sanction.
" We’re getting more active and more bold and we’re trying more and more to get out," said Nitin Karani, 32, an activist with a gay rights group, Humsafar Trust, which has 8,000 members in Bombay. "There is guilt and shame in pretending to be friends and not lovers and meeting each other on the sly," said Karani, who told his parents and colleagues eight years ago of his sexual orientation. In June there was a gay pride parade in Calcutta, in eastern India. In August, gay rights groups in Bombay held a rare news conference to criticize a Vatican document that urged lawmakers and religious leaders to campaign against gay marriages. Filmmaker Natasha Mendonca said the film festival would open people’s minds. "Most Indian films are about marriages. They don’t reflect my reality or that of many other people. This one does."
1 December 2003
City homosexuals to march for their rights
by A Mid Day Correspondent
The city’s gay and lesbian community will be out in full force this evening at Sion hospital. On the occasion of World AIDS Day today, homosexuals will take to the streets in a candlelight march to compel Mumbaikars to open their eyes to the community’s problems. "The march is to highlight the ignorance and shame that surrounds homosexuality in India, and the resulting grave effects on the physical and mental health of the community," said gay activist Ashok Row Kavi. Geeta Kumana of Aachal, a lesbian NGO said that not only gays and lesbians but also heterosexuals would participate in the march.
Nitin Karani, guest editor of Bombay Dost, a publication catering to the homosexual community, said the march aimed to raise a debate over Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits "unnatural sex between the same sex, either male or female". "The section is forcing a lot of people to go underground and not reveal their true selves.
The act makes it all the more difficult to teach them about safe sex and also to counsel them and inform them about testing centres," said Karani. Karani said the harm the act was causing was evident as estimates by the National AIDS Control Organisation reveal that around 16 to 20 per cent of the homosexual population in Mumbai is HIV positive. The march will start from Sion hospital at 6.30 pm and will wind its way up to Maheshwari Udyan at Matunga. Dr Hema Jerajani head of the department of dermatology and sexually transmitted infections at Sion hospital, will address the gathering.
December 20, 2003
Out of the closet and onto the silver screen
by Karishma Upadhyay, Times News Network, firstname.lastname@example.org
Is getting out of the closet finally okay? Many asked that question while watching two men kiss in Karan Johar’s Kal Ho Naa Ho (KHNH). But, talking to Bombay Times, many Mumbaiites indicate that it’s not so much the concept of homosexuality, but its portrayal that bothers them. Like Tarna Vaid (51), a mother of three, says, "We are mature enough to understand that homosexuality exists, and our friends and family could be gay.
But, it’s still a little uncomfortable to see it on screen, largely because of the way they are portrayed." Thus far, portrayals of gays on the Indian screen have been limited to garishly loud drag queens with ridiculous names like ‘Flower’ a la Satish Shah in Out of Control. But, KHNH dealt with the issue with a little more finesse, and not entirely without humour. "We haven’t made fun of people with alternative sexualities. We used humour only because we didn’t think our society was mature enough to deal with the issue without a dash of humour,” explains Nikhil Advani, director of KHNH.
For most Mumbaiites, homosexuality is a way of life. "I appreciate the fact that more films and serials are talking about gays. It’s nice to see a mainstream film like KHNH had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of two men kissing. At the same time, I dislike stereotypes. For instance, most gays are shown as designers or hairdressers and that’s irritating," says flight instructor Sonal Gopujkar. In recent times, apart from the Shah Rukh starrer, TV serial Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahi’s cast also features a gay designer. "I don’t think they make fun of gays in Jassi… The designer’s character is not ridiculed," says Jaipan Verma, an HR professional at a call centre. Comfortable watching homosexuals on screen, Verma admits that it wouldn’t have been the case had he he lived in a small town.
"In Mumbai, things are different. But had I been living in Patiala or Patna , I would feel weird about watching gays on screen." However, it’s not so much about being exposed to someone with an alternate sexuality but more about how they are portrayed. "I have gay friends like everyone else in this city, and none of them are as loud as they are portrayed in our films. On screen they are almost made to look like eunuchs," says Aalim, a hairdresser. "It’s very irritating to see a gay hairdresser in every second film. Why do people expect all male hairdressers and designers to be gay? Just because we are polite and friendly?"
December 31, 2003
Bombay Gays’ night out-News Years Eve Parties
by Ketan Tanna, Indo-Asian News Service Mumbai
Bombay – The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) community here faces a tough – though welcome – dilemma this New Year’s eve: choosing between two public parties. Perhaps for the first time in the history of this cosmopolitan city of 15 million, this "silent minority" has two parties to choose from.
The community in Mumbai – and their number runs into hundreds of thousands – never had it so good. Far from being relegated to the sidelines, it is all set to welcome 2004 by throwing two public parties in Mumbai. One party is being held by the Gay Bombay group at a prominent hotel near Colaba in south Mumbai. Its organisers are a motley group consisting of young professionals who came together to form what is popularly known as the GB (Gay Bombay) group to bring Mumbai’s lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals on a common platform. Gay Bombay, which began as an e-group in 1998, moved on to a few off-line activities like fortnightly meets, movie-nights and parties. The profits from such parties are used by the group to fund non-revenue generating events. The GB party is an annual event that is a must on the list of the community. But there is competition.
Ashok Row Kavi, the prima donna of the Mumbai LGBT community, and his group Bombay Dost is throwing a party too in Madh Island, a popular picnic spot. So what is the problem? On the surface there seems to be none. But dig deeper and you have the community divided right down the middle. Organisers are working round the clock to draw the maximum numbers. The GB party has an entrance fee of Rs.850 while the party being held by Bombay Dost is being pegged at Rs.550, with students’ discounts being thrown in for good measure. Both the organisers have been advertising their respective parties in e-groups for the last few weeks. Detractors of the party organised by the Bombay Dost say the crowd attending it will be a downmarket lot and the crème de la crème would be attending the GB party. On the other hand, the Bombay Dost party organisers ridicule such arguments, pointing out that more then 200 people have already brought advance tickets and that the GB party is way too exorbitantly priced.
Whatever the case may be, the bottom-line is numbers. By and large such parties are well attended and attract 400 plus members on New Year’s Eve. The community, not only in Mumbai but also across India, is a dream segment for canny marketers. And the fuss over the December 31 parties is probably just the beginning.