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There's been growing visibility and activism. What has come with it is a backlash from the Hindu right-wing government.

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Poster for the explosive 1998 movie, "Fire."

Gay in Hindu India

APRIL 12, 2002. An interview with Debanuj Dasgupta, co-founder of the first gay support group in Calcutta, founder of the anti-AIDS NAZ Foundation Calcutta, and of late, an urban planner in New York City and member of SALGA (South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association).

THE GULLY: From a distance, lesbian, gay, bi and transgender activism seems pretty lively in India. Is that so?

DEBANUJ DASGUPTA: That was true. In the last ten years, especially since 1994 or so, there's been growing visibility and activism, a lot of organizing and coming out. What has come with it is a backlash from the Hindu right-wing government. It has become really unsafe to do work.

In the past three to four years, state-sponsored brutality against gays escalated with the December 1998 release of Deepa Mehta's movie, "Fire," when fundamentalist Hindu activists burnt down theaters and tried to ban the movie. "Fire" is about these two women, housewives, who are exploring their choices in life, especially with regards to sexuality. As a result of the violence, and attempts to ban the movie, lesbian activists began to organize a group called Campaign for Lesbian Rights, also addressing freedom of expression. It's important to point out that the state never stopped the fundamentalist Hindu violence.

Now, for the first time, we see the government persecuting people for doing work related to the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. Aditya Bondyopadhyay's report goes into the harassment of AIDS workers and the "Lucknow 4" case. Offices are all the time being raided and shut down. Outreach workers are detained. There was another case in March in Bangalore.

Are the Indian authorities scapegoating queers because of the worsening relations with Pakistan, and the military build-up along the Pakistani border? Or because of the U.S. "war against terror?"

There's not a direct correlation, but it plays a part. You know India tried to be an ally of the U.S. government, but the U.S. focused on Pakistan, and India felt kind of left out, like a school kid. But that made it feel like a direct attack on Hindu fundamentalism, and they're really trying to build India into a good Hindu state. That means they try to stifle any dissenting voices, anything that undermines that good Hindu state. In their minds, that includes work around sexual issues. There've also been attacks on people doing work on women's rights, anything considered anti-fundamentalist Hindu.

Do you think things will get worse?

India has always had the reputation of having a liberal climate and a free press, sometimes undeserved, but with the right-wing Hindu government all that is changing. I mean, before, you would look at what happened to people in Pakistan because of their sexual identities, people being burned or buried alive, and think it was like another world. But we're not so far from there now. I hate to say it, but that's the road we're heading down in India.

Related links:

For the Datalounge's Lesbian Group in India Emerges from "Fire".

For the Fire site.

For SALGA (South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association of New York).

For the informative and entertaining GayBombay.com.

Photo: SALGA at NY Gay Pride 1999, by Bobby.

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