- Episode 32 with activist, organizer and educator সুমি দাস (Summi Dass)
In this episode, activist, educator, and organizer Summi Dass shared how she started the Moitrisanjog Society, Cooch Behar, and collaborated with donors and academics. We also discussed the centricity of Kolkata in queer and trans organizing and how that impacts the community in rural Bengal.
Rajorshi Das (RD): Today, we have Sumi Das with us. She established the Moitrisanjog Society in 2009. It is the only organization in North Bengal, which works for the rights of koti, hijra, and transgender communities, particularly fighting for their livelihood and right to work. Her organization also made a documentary named Alpo Jana Golpo Guli (The Lesser Known Stories) (2018), portraying her journey as an intersectional marginalized Bahujan transgender woman. She also runs a gurukul now and is associated with many struggles including students’ and anti-caste movements. Thank you, Sumi. We were supposed to have this interview for quite some time, and finally, it’s taking place.
Sumi Das (SD): Greetings everyone. I’m Sumi Das. I am speaking from Cooch Behar, North Bengal, from the state of West Bengal.
RD: Oh yes, I am in Iowa City now. Like most of my podcast interviews, this is being done virtually via Zoom. I am keen to know, and you must have shared this in other interviews, but how did Moitrisanjog begin, and why in Cooch Behar? Were you born in Cooch Behar? Were you always eager to work for the koti-transgender-hijra community in Cooch Behar?
SD: I was born in Bonkoma subdivision of Dinhata, Cooch Behar. It’s a more of rural area. I was brought up in a middle-class family. When I was growing up, nobody used to talk about the issues regarding the trans-koti community, and even if it was there, it was limited to the town of Siliguri. We used to hear terms like homo, somokami and homosexual a lot at that time. And my journey started…yes, I wasn’t thrown out of the house, but a situation was created that would have led to that. Hence, when I was around 14-15 years old, I left my house. My mother expired at a young age when I was in Class I, and my father got remarried. Living itself had become very challenging. After leaving my house, my initial destination was New Jalpaiguri station, Siliguri, and there I got involved in sex work, to meet my economic needs. Afterward, a person from the community, associated with the hijra occupation took me to her home. That’s when my journey started. At that time, there was this organization called Manas Bangla, which since 2006 had been working on HIV-AIDS intervention in Bengal, particularly with hijras, homosexuals, and the community in general. Back then, the word was MSM, men who have sex with men. It was the technical language of TI- Targeted Intervention. Our journey started with sexual health, but later I felt that we were losing our rights. Within the global crisis of HIV-AIDS crisis, we were identified as a high-risk group. Back in 2007-8, I felt that nobody was discussing our rights and demands. Koti, somokami, hijra: no matter which name you use, we all are stigmatized. When the condoms were being distributed with our hands, we were being doubly stigmatized. Hence, I left the job in 2009 and returned to Cooch Behar. I didn’t have any idea regarding NGO as I didn’t have any understanding of it, so I tried to make a collective of people from the community. People used to come, dance, enjoy, chitchat and gossip at the place where I lived. We used to go for outings and picnic together. I took the initiative to create a sense of bonding. Finally in 2011, 2 years after starting it, we registered Moitrisanjog. We started to do it systematically. This was the start of Moitrisanjog’s journey and the beginning of the consciousness that we should stay united.
RD: You spoke about the HIV organizing work that Manas Bangla was doing in West Bengal. Whenever we talk about any kind of representation, be it news, Bengali cinema, or LGBT activism, it is very Kolkata-centric. Being based in Cooch Behar, did you ever feel that your work doesn’t get enough visibility or that you don’t get the support that the Kolkata-based organizations might be getting? How does one break this Kolkata centrism, and let people know that there are people from the community outside Kolkata, who need support?
SD: See, I’ve faced this multiple times since 2009. There is always discrimination at every step. For any event or program, you need some money to organize, and all the donors and funding organizations primarily rely on metro cities like Kolkata, Delhi, and Hyderabad. One reason could be that back in 2011-12, few knew about the internet outside the metros. We were not technologically equipped back then due to a lack of resources, and so there was a huge communication gap, and the funders primarily used to communicate in English and over email, which also caused issues for us. To date, we face these issues, and the big projects or donor-based work are still specific to metro cities. There is a need to break this cycle which we were trying to do. For instance, during COVID, we were posting and sharing videos, and images through social media, trying to reach out to raise donations for our community. So I believe that we need to get more active on the internet, social media, email, and other platforms. It is also important that donors are made aware that it is not only community people from the metro cities who face challenges, but that a lot of people in rural Bengal also face challenges in their livelihood, which was particularly hampered during the lockdown.
RD: Since you talked about Corona, I want to point out that Sintu (Bagui) recently shared an older article about how people are struggling to get employment in the aftermath of the pandemic. You also raised funds during the 2nd phase of lockdown. It has been almost a year or two now. How should one tackle this unemployment crisis? Are you getting any form of support now, be it from the government or in the form of donor-based projects?
SD: Well, after the 2nd COVID wave, we started some projects like a beautician course, paper plate making, etc. with the support of donors. But I believe that after a point, the need remained but the urgency has died. We do not have any proper support from anybody, regarding livelihood. People who used to work in cosmetic stores and earn Rs 5000, now receive Rs 3000 or 4000 after COVID. Also, the community organizations are primarily working in Kolkata or Delhi for employment issues, and we don’t see any outreach outside that circle. We’re trying to contact some organizations, as everyone needs some livelihood measures, be it in handicrafts or some other form, but we are not getting any kind of support to be honest. During COVID, a lot of small initiatives were started, but sadly they were limited to training of 7-15 days and a photo session. This employment crisis cannot be half-heartedly solved in 7 days. There needs to be long-term support, and no one is ready to provide that.
RD: So, training is taking place, and some community people are already trained and skilled, but job opportunities are not available, right?
SD: No. Indeed, community people have the skills. But following a training of 7 days or 15 days, their learning and practices need to grow. For example, if someone has done a beautician course, they need to have an expensive phone, if someone learns bridal work, they need to click photos and post and share it. So, it is a long-term thing, and no donor is willing to invest in that. They are just done after the short-term training. But there are steps after that. Indeed, there was an initiative regarding livelihood work after the 2nd wave all over the country, but they were very shallow, and limited to photo sessions. No one was deeply trained in that project, as per my knowledge.
RD: Now, everyone is talking about horizontal reservation. Grace Banu and other activists have been fighting for it for months or rather years. I don’t know how much the West Bengal government is supporting it. Do you think that if this reservation is implemented, it will help the transgender community, especially regarding education and employment?
SD: I believe that education and employment are the primary issues right now. Both are very important. Some private companies are coming forward to recruit us, but again this is limited to metro cities. There are no corporate companies outside of Delhi, Bombay, and Kolkata and again they’re coming to only a select number of people, circling these few cities. I believe that this reservation will have a good impact, but a lot depends upon the state government. The Supreme Court gave a lot of rights after the 2014 “third gender” judgment and said that there will be employment based on ability, but standing in 2023, we haven’t seen it implemented. So, there is anxiety as to who will then be in power at the state level.
RD: So, this depends largely upon the state government.
RD: We met several times, and you also gifted me a saree when you came to the USA. At that time, you were working with Ani (Dutta), and maybe still working with her, ie, Ani Dutta, who is a professor at the University of Iowa. So, how did you and Moitrisanjog start collaborating with academia? And there is –
SD: I’ve been working with Ani Dutta since 2011-12. There are only a handful of scholars who have worked in rural Bengal. Among the professors who were previously associated with research work in the community, only a few have been associated with rural Bengal. I don’t have much experience regarding research, but I feel that the kind of papers they’re publishing and the book that Ani is going to publish, I believe should be shared with the community. Those who’ve made the research possible should get access to it. I’ve seen that after getting jobs, some researchers do not keep any form of contact with the community except maybe with a few people in the metro cities.
I would like to name some people, like Diya Bose and Ani Dutta. You are also working a bit on the community like this interview people will listen to. These are good work. But others have got jobs, and they feel like they do not need anyone from the community, except a few faces in metros. This hurts. I mean both good and bad people are out there, right?
RD: I know that between people who’re in academia and activism – and I’m not saying both are exclusive to each other – there exists a hierarchy, perhaps due to the nature of the workplace being so different.
SD: There are some people who after getting their jobs in a university, here or abroad, only show films made by people close to them. There might be some personal interest in it, or that their popularity might increase. I believe this will always exist, and we will have to work on taking cognizance of all the good and bad together. As we say, moong chine monger daal.
RD: I think if horizontal reservation is implemented by the state, this hierarchy will be addressed to an extent. The power of the researcher is reduced. It won’t go away–
RD: My work is not related to West Bengal and is rather limited to English literature and cities. But if more people from the community take an interest and come to do research abroad, I believe this hierarchy will further diminish.
SD: Exactly. And this is not about the English language only, as you ultimately need to use the language that people will understand, be it English, Bengal, Tamil, Hindi, or Telegu. I’m not saying any language is bad. Right now, there are a lot of people who’ve a very aggressive attitude towards the Hindi language, but this is based on class. Today, if I come across a Bihari Street vendor or an Uber driver and quarrel with them since they are speaking in Hindu, and then not say a word against the manager of the shopping mall who is also speaking in Hindi, this is one form of hierarchy. I’m differentiating between a driver, but happy to speak in Hindi with a Marwari shop owner. So the hierarchy is not only language-based, but rather whom you’re working and researching with, and researching them. Once you get a better position in your life, you keep only a few select people in your life. This hierarchy is not based on language.
RD: And again, there are a lot of variations within the same language. For example, Kolkata Bengali is different, and if someone speaks in a Sylheti dialect, like my mother who is from Bangladesh, they are judged. Anyway, you were talking about the documentary earlier.
SD: Yes, the documentary.
RD: It was the basis of our initial introductions. Hasratein, which was our student collective at JNU, had invited you to screen the documentary on campus. I remember we went to this popular canteen to have food.
SD: Yes! I think we had fish and rice.
RD: I guess so. Back then, you came along with the director, I don’t remember her name though.
SD: Sudarshana Chakraborty.
RD: Yes! Can you share how the documentary happened? Are you still screening it somewhere?
SD: The documentary was uploaded on YouTube during lockdown, as we felt it’d reach more audiences, as people were at their houses back then. The backstory behind is interesting. Most of the films we see regarding LGBTQ and transgender people are primarily focused on a feminine boy who wants to dress up as a woman and wear kajol, etc. I’ve seen most of the documentaries like that, and that the family is not accepting, and facing harassment in the school. But I felt that in rural Bengal, the dynamics are different, and that the person doesn’t have long hair, or has been forced to marry due to family pressure. How is their life? What does their livelihood means? How was their experience growing up? We primarily tried to portray North Bengal, people from Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Alipurduar, etc. and we interviewed people from the community from these locations. Our main focus was on rural people, who typically have never heard of sex change surgery, HRT, etc. How are they growing up? A few may have married due to family pressure and have a boyfriend. How are they managing these dual lives? We have screened this documentary in different places in Kolkata like Jadavpur University, Presidency University, at Delhi at Ashoka University and JNU, etc. When I went to the USA, it was also screened at multiple events. I got a lot of responses, and people still ask for YouTube links and comment on it, which I love. We didn’t have any guidance, and also, we didn’t receive any form of funding for the documentary. Our friends came together to help, and a few organizations also supported us, and with that, we made the documentary.
RD: Are you working with any organizations in the USA?
SD: Not really, we’re not working with any such organizations. We did a lot of work during the COVID, but right now, we’re primarily working on mental health support, and supporting specialized training in handicrafts, etc. We also have a gurukul which is primarily centered on children of migrant workers. Migrant workers, who returned during the pandemic from Hyderabad, Delhi, and Kerala, didn’t have any means of sustenance for their children. We started with 22 children, now it's 34. What we primarily do is tutor them, help with their schoolwork, and do extracurricular activities such as dance, yoga, arts, handicrafts, etc. They return home after having their dinner at the Gurukul. It is running on the donations provided by our friends, whatever they can contribute. Our target is stopping school dropouts. We had to drop out of school at quite a young age at classes 7-8, due to bullying and other issues. These children, who are under our care, might do advocacy work when they grow up to stop bullying in schools. That is our only little hope from them, as they are seeing us now. It is our motto
RD: And amongst those children, there might be some who’s a bit different, at a young age we can’t understand a lot about being trans or about sexuality and gender, but they might get confidence seeing you. For instance, tomorrow I have a virtual event and I’ve been asked to talk about student inclusion. I was thinking that due to bullying, a lot of children drop out of school. Bullying is also there at the college level, and we do have laws in general in pen and paper, but what can be done against this?
SD: The law isn’t always effective and well enforced. If a child gets bullied all the time…and sometimes from the teachers as well. It’s not always from peers and students. These kinds of work need to increase, across schools and colleges. We started taking some initiatives in this matter but since all work requires monetary support, we couldn’t continue. We’re planning to resume it. I mean education is very important. I am not saying that everyone can pursue higher education like colleges but basic education till high school is necessary.
RD: Do you get any requests from schools or teachers in Cooch Behar, regarding collaborations? Like attempts to conduct sensitization sessions or form a permanent position for a person who will do such s sessions regularly if possible. Have there been any such opportunities in the past or is something that can happen in the future?
SD: Yes. We have worked with the student’s union of AVNC College in Cooch Behar. We have conducted sensitization sessions with them, educating them regarding gender and sexuality through small, focused group discussions, etc. Sometimes, we had teachers cooperating with us, but some didn’t. We had both kinds of experiences. I believe we need more such sensitization programs and focused group discussions.
RD: So, this is my last question. I’ve seen you posting pictures of (Hindu) pujas and religious occasions on Facebook. How important is religion in your life? Have you found or looking for any inclusion, acceptance, or even peace of mind through religion?
SD: I believe that blind faith isn’t a good thing. As I live in a rural area, and we have a shelter where 3-4 people live together, I see religion in a very different way. When puja takes place in my home, 100 to 200 people have prasad at my home once a year, and I see that as advocacy. There is no barrier in religion, as we’re present in every religion, be it Christianity or Islam. And the place where I live, Hindus reside on one side, and Muslim communities reside on the other side. And all of them come to have prasad at our puja. We also go there to have seyaai at their place. There is no blind belief or knowledge here. We see it as a form of advocacy, that people of different ages are coming to have prasad, and they’re talking with our community. They talk to us. This is also a form of advocacy for us.
RD: We’re ending here. Thank you so much for the interview.
SD: This is the most important thing!
Translated and Transcribed by Mir Sadique Hasan (Zaheer)41m | Nov 28, 2023
- Episode 31 with Associate Professor of Literary Art, Anita E. Cherian
Performance Studies scholar, Dr Cherian discusses the limits of subversion in Indian classical dance. She revisits her article on Narthaki Nataraj and Kalakrishna, and explains the political processes that led to the formation of the category of "classical." She reflects on the composition of the audiences for classical dance performances across different cities while addressing the questions of caste capital and appropriation. She also touches upon the challenges of being a Dean in a public university, and the ways in which she is able to center care in her everyday work as an administrator.48m | Aug 31, 2023
- Episode 30 with activist and organizer অরি রায় চৌধুরী (Ari Roy Chowdhuri)
In this episode, Ari explains why she wants to make a documentary on the trans and queer community in the Nadia district which is located at the India-Bangladesh border. The link to the fundraiser can be found here. We also discussed the hierarchies that govern the relationship between academics-researchers and grassroots activists. Please find the English translation and transcription of the interview below.
RD: Today, we are joined by Ari Roy Chowdhuri (ARC) from Kalyani, Nadia, West Bengal, India. Ari is the secretary of Nadia Ranaghat Sampriti Society. This organization works for grassroots hijra, Kothi and trans people. She was also the project director of the NETREACH project undertaken by Sampriti. She has also worked with several organizations in the past such as West Bengal State AIDS Control Society and Pechhan Trust. Thank you, Ari for joining.
I know that you have started a fundraiser for a documentary. Can you tell us if this documentary is specific to the work done by Sampriti or will address broader community issues in the region?
ARC: Thank you. Firstly, this is not so much about the organization itself, but rather about the language of the community. This documentary will be based in the Nadia district. Nadia is along the border of two countries, India and Bangladesh, and it consists of a number of historical and important heritage sites. We can see the birthplace of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a holy site for Sanatan Dharma. Similarly, we can see the important sites of Matua Mahasabha in the Nadia district and nearby regions. Also, there is a significant number of people in Nadia from the (LGBTQ+) community.
During the year 2010, the number of people belonging to the community started to get increase and become more visible, and there was a huge lack of awareness within the community. During that period, if someone faced any problem from the police, administration or authorities, they found themselves helpless and weren’t able to do anything. People who didn’t want to indulge in or stay in certain professions didn’t have any opportunities for alternate livelihood. Then, some of us, my friends and seniors created an organization. In 2013-14, we got our registration, as it takes some time to get registered. After that, I got busy with my studies for a while. Then in 2016-2017, I created the first transgender toilet in our college. Afterwards, I realized that to work for the community, I need to work through my organization. Gradually our organization was growing, and the base of the community was getting stronger. Back then, the members of the organization asked me to take charge of it. On the other hand, I gradually started to get acquainted with people with political power and background. Today, standing in this position, starting from the COVID-19 pandemic to bringing a number of different small projects for Sampriti to helping people from the community to stand on their own feet, I gave my whole life to the queer community. I remember that during the pandemic, our organization worked in all the districts in West Bengal, starting from Uttar Dinajpur in North Bengal, Murshidabad on this side, Hooghly, North 24 Parganas, and the whole of Nadia district. People from the community in our district have received food and rations at every moment, that’s our achievement, through the help of crowdfunding. But sadly, to this day, no one has ever come to see and hear the voices of our community.
There is a history behind my decision to make the documentary. What’s the history? We can see day by day, there’s an effect coming upon the cholla occupation. It can also be seen in badhai occupation, where kothis and hijras dance with the baby. But how will Kothis and Hijras will get their bread?! If you can’t provide food for someone, you shouldn’t take away the means of earning their bread. For that, we should look into the history of the origin of cholla and badhai occupation in the Nadia district.
Today, the Matua community, who are Dalits, who have their Gurudevata as Harichand, Gourchand Thakur are getting discriminated against. On the other hand, Vaishanavas of the Sanatan dharma is following Mahaprabhu Chaitanyadev through ISKON. They are ending up their lives as members of the queer community. Why are they doing that? What problems are the community facing? Why’re they getting initiated under pressure from their family? To open up, and let people know about these issues, we’ve arranged and initiated the process to film this documentary. The rest is in your hand, and we’re expecting help and cooperation from you and everyone. With your help only, we’ll be able to complete the film. Through this, you’ll be able to get to know a lot of unknown facts and issues. You might be able to see how people from the community who have migrated from Bangladesh to Nadia at a young age, are now living in poverty or maybe associated with different occupations. Some of them are old now, and you’ll also get to hear their voices and know about us.
RD: I feel that the documentary is going to be a story of not just one country, but that of India and Bangladesh. So, during the last few years, we have seen the NRC, and also protests against the Citizenship Act. How do you think the government, both the centre and the state will respond to this history of the community that you want to document?
ARC: Firstly, our government, be it state or central, if they cared about our community, the situation wouldn’t have been this bad. Those who’ve come in 1971, still have to hear that they’re Bangladeshis. And who’s saying that? People who’ve been born here but maybe their parents have also come from Bangladesh. Most of the population of Nadia district is made up of refugees. But recently, there has been a surge among us, of dividing people on the lines of Hindu-Muslim, Dalit, and upper caste–lower caste to just an extent that if we don’t get united together, the situation will worsen for us in the future. This film or cinema will highlight our history, our struggle, of how the community was united together previously; why they aren’t they anymore, and what should be done to improve the condition.
RD: I heard that during the pandemic, at first, the government was providing some relief. Can you say something about that? Again, about the Transgender Act of 2019, a lot of transgender persons faced difficulties in making their ID cards. Did the community get any form of support regarding this? Has the government of West Bengal come forward to help the community in any way?
ARC: Nope. Firstly, I have no idea how the West Bengal government has created a Transgender State Board. Now they’ve created a cell in every district, but we’ve no clue about it either. Secondly, during the three waves of the pandemic, they’ve provided relief only twice. But they had not given any thought regarding where we will stay. Now, while they’ve started providing TG Cards, the government is still asking for an affidavit from the court, which costs around Rs 300; sadly, our community doesn’t have the financial means to provide that money as even Rs 100 is a big amount for us. Since the government hasn’t made the affidavit free and also the other amenities, the role of government is almost negligible. Our hopes and aspirations are not being addressed.
RD: It is usually said that there are no hierarchies within hijra communities regarding religion as individuals irrespective of religious background, stay together. So, when we talk about transgender people and people with marginalized gender and sexual identities, how is this division getting created, and how does this effect work?
ARC: It is true that the big division within the community on religious lines is starting to affect our work. You may know that the ARM of Alipurduar Railway Division has banned chibris to get on the train (for cholla). No one from the community or any NGO is raising their voice against this. Discrimination is always present within us, Hindus are discriminating against Muslims, Muslims are discriminating against Hindus, and on the lines of caste, class, Dalit and Namasudra identities. It is clearly visible in different places. But yes, this isn’t the result of something which occurred in one day, rather has been in process since ancient times in history. To get rid of this, it will take time. People need to make aware and learn more, that we’re already a marginalized community, and irrespective of the identity of being chibri, gay, lesbian, we fall under the same umbrella. It’ll take a huge time to make our community aware of this, as there is no awareness from the government as well. If the government was aware, this would have been done much earlier.
RD: Can you tell us the difference between cholla and badhai?
ARC: Badhai is mainly dancing with the newborn in their laps, and cholla is begging for Rs 1-2 on trains and somehow managing your life with it.
RD: So slowly the government is removing and banning you all from public spaces, right?
ARC: The Railways department has done this one. Particularly within Alipurduar district, not in other places yet.
RD: Is the transgender toilet you made in your college still there?
ARC: Yes it is still present till now. The college used to really have issues and problems with me. To remove this issue, I started protesting this and I created the first transgender toilet in my college.
RD: Is there any work or project going on with/in West Bengal or India, or with any other organizations?
ARC: Yes, we’re working with Seva International on the livelihood prospects of community individuals in beautician and tailoring. Overall, 24 people from the community are learning. If we get further assistance, we wish to open a parlour run by the community.
RD: Like your work with Seva, you’ve also worked with several people from the academia, but people who do activism from and within the academia, and I consider myself as an activist as well, our primary meaning of income comes from academia itself. And you see a hierarchy, a power dynamic gets created between us. How do you tackle this? People like you who are grassroots activists and who aren’t in academia, and whose means of earning are different, how do you navigate such relationships and build mutual trust with academics?
ARC: First, we need to realize that just like the difference between the rich and the poor in society or the difference between the scheduled category and general category, there is a similar kind of division present between the academics and activists. I, along with my associates, who’ve worked as activists in rural areas, those who do not give a thought about the weather being sunny or rainy, be it midnight or 1 am or 2 am, but just go to crisis situations, thinking about our community; we do not receive any form or help, any kind of highlighted in the media. We do not receive any big funding or at least minimum respect from people. The media isn’t interested in highlighting the problems of the community. It is similar to how news from villages does not get highlighted in the media. Similarly, people from academia come to us to take data and information, but after taking note of their data, they do not keep any kind of contact with those people. When their work is completed and they’ve gathered their data, they do not care about what happens to the activist and do not keep any form of contact. But yes, some of the academics are different. If all the general category people were bad, many people from the general category have come forward to fight for the scheduled castes as well. Similarly, all academics aren’t bad. But yes, those academics who work with this mentality (of othering us and seeing as data), because of them we’ve seen that other smaller grassroots level activists face a lot of problems working with academics. We’ve lost trust in them. Because we don’t know English, we asked them to write down something for us. Initially, they used to do it for us, but after they’ve completed their work or nearing the completion of their book or of their writing of research paper, they start to turn their backs on us. This mentality needs to be changed. Secondly, we need to think that academics are made only because of activists. Today activists are getting beaten and academics are writing about it, but if academics could’ve truly written about it themselves, then activists could’ve done a lot.
There’re a few activists who’re city-centric, they work by themselves in their own way and earn money sitting in their homes. But the problems of grassroots-level people won’t be solved in one day right? The problems in traditional occupations date back hundreds of years, even between Hindus and Muslims, be it the hijra profession or the LGBTQ+ community. The society is going forward, including the community. But suddenly, it is possible to give jobs and employment to the community in mainstream society. In some cases, we can see that when people in the community get assaulted at work, calling the police and authorities doesn’t really help much as we aren’t educated much and good in English, we live in rural areas and hence they don’t give much value to our words. If the same thing is said by some academic or some activist from Kolkata, the authorities pay attention. So we should think about why there is such division within people themselves. First, we need to remove these differences. Whatever big words they say, in due time they only start creating differences. We’ve seen multiple times that the academic, after completing their course and research work, gets placed at some college or university here or abroad and starts their work life; but the activists get left out, and their lives do not change for any better. After the academic wraps up the work and leaves the activists, the activist gets hurt.
RD: So, between activists and academia, I’m talking about ground-level activists who’re not in academia, do you think there is a space for friendship between the both of you?
ARC: Firstly, I think there is still space for that. That’s why we still want to hold your hands (academia) to work together. But some academics misuse this opportunity. If they do not misuse this opportunity, and truly stay and work together with us… See, I understand that everyone has their personal work; but if they can just give even 20% of the time after they are done with the research, then we would feel that the friendship is still there. It feels really small to forcefully mix with them if they do not want to mingle with us. Even if we’re activists and grassroots-level people, we still have humanity within us, right? We can’t forcefully do anything, right? We’ve heard repeatedly from academics, “Yes I written our book, but haven’t you and the community hadn’t taken money from us?” Yes, people from our community have asked for maybe some food to eat, but they’re from the grassroots level. They face a lot of problems, and they do not expect anything good or bad from society, they roam around the street for their room rents and even sleep on the platforms. But, when an academic or a friendly person comes to them, they feel comfortable with them talking about their feelings and think they’ll help them, and they start to get mentally dependent upon them. They expect to live a better life depending upon them. When the academics are done with their work, and throw away all the grassroots-level people, this causes the community not to further believe in other academics. So, I hope that friendly interactions, which have been going on for a long time between academics and activists, it will continue forever, and this friendship will not get destroyed due to some people. And I feel like the few academics who get distanced from us, do it because of some kind of mental problem they were facing, because our community people who think of them as their own, they might not have their own peace of mind, and so they get distanced. So, in future, when academics come to us for research, we need to get a contract that when they’ll get established or when their work will be done, they’ll also need to help and think for us.
RD: Yes, this is totally correct that a little money (from academics) does nothing. In the US, for example, a person becomes tenured after publishing a book, and other places have different systems. This book only became possible because of activists like you and people from the grassroots level. But of course, we have different kinds of researchers, some of them maybe not be permanent and be students as well. So, we need to think about people with whom we are researching, and not make it a one-time engagement.
ARC: But sadly, this happens mostly to be honest. Academics generally come from a rich upper-class family background, and as a child, they study in an English medium school and then they come to work for the community. But if instead of changing their mindset when their work is over, they keep the friendship and constant engagement, their work would further get refined in the future, and more people will get to know about the problems of our community. Today cholla work is being attacked by YouTubers, authorities, etc. Alipurduar Railway Division has banned it and, it might be banned in other divisions as well, and misinformation is getting spread on social media by the YouTubers as well. How will the people from the community eat and earn their livelihoods?! No one is raising their voice against this. I mean I understand that activists do not know English, but the academicians should raise their voices then. We can work together, activists are trying to do their best but academicians are doing nothing, just taking pictures and getting silent after collecting their data. But yes, we hope that the friendly interaction between academics and activists will not end due to a few people’s actions. Some people might be bad, but I know that there’re academics who still think and work for the betterment of our community; I don’t know whether they’ll stay the same or not in the future, but change is normal for humans. But yes, I can say that there can be no academics without activists, and academics need to understand that.
RD: You told us about work-related issues. Recently, we saw that the Supreme Court has been discussing marriage equality, same-sex marriage, etc. But there hasn’t been much discussion regarding horizontal reservation. Though marriage equality is not specific to gay couples, the reservation is exclusive to transgender persons and there hasn’t been much discussion on the latter. Activists like Grace Banu from Tamil Nadu have worked quite a lot on it, and articles have also been released. Why do you think there hasn’t been much attention on this issue?
ARC: Firstly a different but correlated issue should be noticed. Who are the gays who’re getting married? Only a few who belong to the elite section of society are getting married. I’ve seen a lot of gay couples from rural areas, who love each other but are forced to separate because of their low economic conditions. The guy is protesting in front of their partner’s house, but they’re getting beaten and thrown out by their partner themselves. Hence, this largely depends upon the financial status. And where there is money, media is there as well. There are many trans community members who are beautiful, but they are only used and then discarded. But some gays are getting married. How is this possible? Because they’ve strong financial status. If I’ve money, I can marry multiple people together; but if I don’t possess money, I cannot marry even a single person. It’s similar to the mainstream society. The guy having a lot of money will have a lot of women in their lives; and those who don’t possess money, their own wife will not stay with them anymore. Today there’re so many different kinds of reservations, but why is nobody questioning the Supreme Court why transgender persons are not being recruited? Why are the Transgender Board and Cell in West Bengal not working in an open process with transparency? Why is nobody able to know the details of this process? It is because there’s no opportunity to know. How will a kothi who is living in a village like Karimpur get to know that there is a Transgender cell in the district? One who is earning their livelihood by having sex with BSF Forces, how will they get to know about this TG Cell? No cholla wali (one who does cholla) knows what law does what. But who knows this? The academics and educated activists, who gather data from grassroots level people from the community, and after their work wait for awards and medals.
RD: You are right. I’m thinking that I call myself an activist scholar, but what is its actual meaning? Is it only about going to protests and movements, or working for the community as you said? I was born and brought up in Kolkata. There is also a hierarchy between those who do Kolkata-centric work and those who don’t. Kalyani isn’t far away from Kolkata, but still, we don’t know how much work has been done in Kalyani, and how much attention our community from Kalyani is receiving.
ARC: The funders who come get already tired after reaching Kolkata. They do not have time to visit the rural areas and reach out to the community in villages.
RD: Yes exactly!
It was really nice having you for this podcast session, and I’m glad you were able to share your thoughts with us. So, today’s podcast ends here.
RD: Thank you.
Translated and Transcribed by Mir Sadique Hasan (Zaheer)31m | Aug 1, 2023
- Episode 29 with lawyer and bioethicist Rohin Bhatt
Queer rights activist Rohin Bhatt has been at the forefront of the struggle for marriage equality in the Supreme Court of India. We discuss the legality of the matter and the arguments from the opposing bodies. Bhatt insists that the demand for horizontal reservation for trans people should get more attention. He also explains his role as a bioethicist and elaborates on the small wins for gender inclusivity on the Supreme Court premises.53m | Jul 6, 2023
- Episode 28 with publisher Dibyajyoti Sarma
In my first-ever interview with a publisher, Sarma, the founder of Red River gives me an insider's account of what small-scale and independent publishing looks like in India. He discusses the joys and the risks involved in creating a poetry book. Sarma also reflects on the making of Whistling in the Dark: Twenty-One Queer Interviews which he co-edited with R Raj Rao.
Editor: Shubang Gautam1h 11m | Jun 20, 2023
- Episode 27 with artist Jyoti Singh
"Candles are my claim, hula hoop, my release"
Known for her handmade aromatic candles, Jyoti Singh shares what it means to tell a story with wax and dry flowers. This story is also informed by her belief in anti-caste politics and social and political justice. She also tells me how trauma changed her body's relationship with dance. This prompted her to seek refuge in the hula hoop.
Editor: Shubang Gautam47m | Apr 18, 2023
- Episode 26 with poet and teacher Debolina Dey
Dey shares their standpoint on queer politics and why "queer" as an adjective matters more to them. We speak about poetry, queer pedagogy, intimacy, and identity politics. Dey also reflects on belongingness and exile, about living in Delhi and being brought up in Siliguri. She asks, "Can Bengalis imagine having a Nepali CM?"
Editor: Shubang Gautam1h 6m | Mar 4, 2023
- Episode 25 with feminist Minakshi Sanyal (Malobika di)
I spoke to Minakshi Sanyal aka Malobikadi about her co-edited anthology, Monologue: Lesbian Narrative of Bangladesh and West Bengal, and her journey in relation to Sappho for Equality. We reflect on the distinctions between "bari" and flat and what it means to be at home. She shares her experiences of collaborating with Anindya Hazra on the Dialogues: Calcutta International LGBTQIA+ Film and Video Festival. Working across movements and organizations is key to her feminist vision. Malobika di also expresses her disappointment and anger at being excluded from intra-community events and initiatives that were led and dominated by cis-gay men.1h 31m | Feb 3, 2023
- Episode 24 with poet and researcher Anil Pradhan
In his interview which was conducted in October 2022, Pradhan shares how he negotiates different places of belonging and what that means for his queerness in a globalized world. We discuss his forthcoming anthology and the process of writing and performing for digital platforms. In response to a question, Pradhan also shares some critiques of Kaustav Chakraborty's book which tries to "queer" tribal folktales.
*Audio editor: Shubang Gautam*1h 5m | Jan 9, 2023
- Episode 23 with writer and gender rights activist Santa Khurai
Santa Khurai who is a Manipuri indigenous Nupi Maanbi shares her insights on the challenges of doing activism in the region. She takes a strong stand against racism and colonialism which impacts how mainland India treats people from the Northeast. A poet and an artist, she wants to be recognized as a writer, rather than a trans writer.53m | Nov 16, 2022
- Episode 22 with transgender rights activist & digital content creator Rachana Mudraboyina
Mudraboyina, the co-founder of Telangana Hijra Transgender Intersex Samiti and TransVision discusses how religion can be a site of negotiation for trans people. She explains what respect means for trans sex workers and what are the challenges of archiving the contribution of trans people to the Telangana movement.1h 0m | Nov 3, 2022
- Episode 21 with CPI(M) member and theatre activist Gourab Ghosh
Currently teaching in Mumbai, Gourab Ghosh is the "first openly gay candidate to contest a university election." He believes that a Queer-Left alliance is the need of the hour. Ghosh shares the processes of filming for Debalina Majumder's Gay Matrimony and the importance of law in the life of LGBTQ+ people.1h 7m | Oct 12, 2022
- Episode 20 with academic and writer Ruth Vanita
Professor Vanita explains the processes that went into the making of Same-Sex Love in India. She emphasizes the need to make academic scholarship more accessible to the general reader. Vanita also shares her thoughts on the legalization of gay marriages and what that would mean for Indian gay and lesbian subjects.39m | Sep 29, 2022
- Episode 19 with poet and writer Hoshang Merchant
I interviewed Hoshang at his Hyderabad apartment while he was still recovering from the flu. He had just returned from an event in Shimla. We spoke about the afterlives of his edited anthology, Yaraana: Gay Writing from India (1999), and non-fiction publications such as Gay Icons of India (2019) and All My Masters: An East-West Encounter (2021). The poet-writer remains unapologetic about his choices even as he calls out fellow LGBTQ+ writers for being egoistic or staying in the closet. Hoshang also revisits his relationship with his father and emphasizes the need for care and intimacy during the COVID pandemic.35m | Sep 23, 2022
- Episode 18 with editor and labor activist, Ashwini Sukthankar
"artifacts have a place in the archive"
Ashwini Sukthankar recollects the processes that went into the making of the anthology, Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India (1999). She also shares her thoughts on the 2019 edition's book cover and the institution of gay marriage. Sukthankar also believes that transnational labor movements can make strong alliances possible.1h 1m | Sep 19, 2022
- Episode 17 with social worker সিন্টু বাগুই (Sintu Bagui)
সিন্টু বাগুই পশ্চিমবঙ্গের শেওড়াফুলিতে অবস্থিত একজন ট্রান্স অ্যাক্টিভিস্ট এবং সমাজকর্মী। তিনি পশ্চিমবঙ্গ রাজ্যে লোক আদালতের বিচারক হওয়া দ্বিতীয় ট্রান্স মহিলা। এই সাক্ষাত্কারে (বাংলা/বাংলায় পরিচালিত) সিন্টু ট্রান্স সম্প্রদায়ের মৌলিক চাহিদা পূরণে রাজ্য প্রশাসনের ব্যর্থতার কথা পুনর্ব্যক্ত করেছেন, যেমন ট্রান্সজেন্ডার সার্টিফিকেট প্রদান। তিনি COVID মহামারীর তিনটি পর্যায়ে তহবিল সংগ্রহকারীদের রাজনীতির ব্যাখ্যাও দেন এবং LGBTQ+ চেনাশোনা জুড়ে সংহতি এবং একচেটিয়া উভয়ের উদাহরণ স্মরণ করেন।
(অডিওটিতে স্ট্যাটিক রয়েছে যা সরানো যায়নি।)
Sintu Bagui is a trans activist and social worker based out of Sheoraphuli, West Bengal. She is the second transwoman to become the judge of a Lok Adalat (People's Court) in the state of West Bengal. In this interview (conducted in Bangla/Bengali) Sintu reiterates the failures of the state administration to fulfill the basic needs of the trans community, such as the issuing of transgender certificates. She also explains the politics of fundraisers during the three stages of the COVID pandemic and recollects instances of both solidarity and exclusivity across LGBTQ+ circles.
(The audio contains static that couldn't be removed.)41m | Sep 11, 2022
- Episode 16 with journalist Premankur Biswas
Premankur and I discuss our critiques of Bollywood and the representation of LGBTQ+ people in news media. He shares his opinions about companionship and the institution of marriage.
P.S. Do check out the new intro voiceover, and let me know how it sounds32m | Aug 26, 2022
- Episode 15 with queer feminist and peer counsellor, Rituparna Borah
Rituparna shares her experiences within the queer activist circles in Delhi. She emphasizes the lack of conversations on race and indigeneity and her changing perceptions of marriage and companionship.48m | Aug 18, 2022
- Episode 14 with novelist and journalist Sandip Roy
Sandip Roy discusses his writing process and the way in which a story need not conform to expectations of political correctness. He answers specific questions related to the plot of Don't Let Him Know. Sandip also shares some tips on how to make a good podcast!49m | Aug 7, 2022
- Episode 13 with curator and ethnographer Kumam Davidson Singh
Kumam recollects the conversations that led to the formation of the Chinki Homo Project. We discuss issues of language, region, ethnicity, and livelihood. Kumam also comments on the political power of anthologies.1h 2m | Jul 23, 2022