Episode 32 with activist, organizer and educator সুমি দাস (Summi Dass)41m | Nov 28, 2023
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)