Episode 30 with activist and organizer অরি রায় চৌধুরী (Ari Roy Chowdhuri)

31m | Aug 1, 2023

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.

ARC: Okay.

RD: Thank you.

Translated and Transcribed by Mir Sadique Hasan (Zaheer)

Queerness and Storytelling in India