‘Closets Are For Clothes’: Hyderabad Queer Pride

‘Do I look like a criminal?’ The reporter paused, hoping he wasn’t expected to answer. ‘No, but according to IPC [Indian Penal Code] 377, I am a criminal.’

In a historic judgement by the Delhi High Court in July 2009, the 150-year old article that prohibited ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ was revised to decriminalise same-sex relationships between consenting adults. Yet this landmark victory has done little to change perceptions of the LGBT community in Hyderabad over the last three years.

Alternative sexuality is still widely perceived to be a mental disorder. Cases of young men being sent to asylums and subjected to electric-shock therapy or anti-psychotic medication are disturbingly common. Alternatively, homosexuality is denied and blamed on cultural influences. One ‘extremely disappointed father’ told the Indian Express recently, that his son has been ‘corrupted’ and is now ‘living in the assumption that he might be gay’. The complete lack of recognition for the LGBT community in India was epitomised by a Home Ministry release last year that challenged the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships as ‘highly immoral and against the social order’.

It was against this backdrop of misunderstanding and prejudice that hundreds of people gathered on Sunday to celebrate Hyderabad’s first ever ‘Queer Pride’. After four years of protracted negotiations with metropolitan authorities, the occasion of people being ‘allowed’ to gather in support of queer rights was an achievement in itself. In a city that has no trouble in hosting political demonstrations courtesy of the Tellangana movement on what seems like a weekly basis, it is indicative of prevailing attitudes that organisers faced so many obstacles to the parade. And though the persistent lobbying finally succeeded, the fact that the police dismissed the band on the grounds that people had permission ‘to rally but not to sing’ – this in a country that celebrates the majority of religious and cultural festivals with musical processions – was further evidence of the widespread refusal to recognise the LGBT community in Hyderabad.

On the day, past frustrations and struggles were forgotten, as the combined efforts of over 40 organisations working for LGBT rights and the visible support of several major corporations, including facebook and Google, prevailed in organising a hugely successful event. The backing of major international companies was particularly important for a community that is regularly on the receiving end of discrimination in the workplace, with employers citing a whole host of reasons for sacking employees upon discovering their sexuality. By conveying the message inscribed onto placards that ‘Lesbians and Gays too make good bosses’, perhaps these corporations can lead by example in instituting greater equality.

Although only 300 of an estimated 50,000 people of alternative sexuality in Hyderabad joined the rally, the opportunity for people to express and celebrate their identity can be viewed as a landmark victory for a community that has been marginalised by mainstream society for so long. Although only a small percentage of the LGBT community, demonstrators delivered a key message that people are not alone and their sexuality is not ‘unnatural’.

The event was strategically organised for wide exposure to a populace that displays a critical lack of awareness about sexuality. Marching down a 2-mile stretch on Necklace Road, alongside Husain Sagar – a popular hang-out despite the stench of Hyderabad’s central lake – the colourful parade attracted the attention of bystanders; led by a horse-drawn chariot, participants carried placards and flags, raised slogans, and somehow managed to acquire several camels along the way. Culminating at the People’s Plaza, live performances drew in scores more people to the event.

The message was, sadly, not well-received by all: several people who asked what was going on laughed or turned away in disgust; there may be others who left the Plaza after a series of increasingly provocative dances, believing that transsexual entertainment is the only meaningful expression of the LGBT community. (Although, perhaps the relative visibility of hijra and other communities that do not fall clearly within the LGBT category is one of the reasons that the organisers used the more inclusive label, Queer Pride, over the commonly-used Gay Pride). Yet any negativity is superseded by the weight of Sunday’s triumph: for the first time, the people of Hyderabad are talking about queer rights.

A cursory glance at this morning’s newspapers confirms its impact. Despite at times revealing subconscious stereotypes and implying that only queer people support queer rights – they must have missed the placard, ‘Straight but not Narrow: We support our gay brothers and sisters’ – the rally received wide and positive coverage. Doubtless many still reject claims to equality from a ‘moral’ standpoint, and support for the community in Hyderabad is not yet as visible as in Delhi or Mumbai, but this is a decisive moment for the city’s queer community.

Walking away from the People’s Plaza on Sunday evening, gratified by the feeling of inclusivity, I was handed a pamphlet. I reached home and read the publicity circulated by Hyderabad Organized for Moral Environment [sic] – ‘The Uncensored Truth about Homosexuality’. The contemptible document expounded a thoroughly misguided moral philosophy, supported by wildly irresponsible manipulation of statistics, to vilify the gay community for ‘polluting’ the ‘values’ of the ‘Beautiful Country called INDIA’.

The pamphlet was a sad reminder of the ingrained prejudice that prevails in many quarters. There is a long way to go before LGBTs in Hyderabad, India and the world succeed in reversing such reactionary, bigoted judgement. Yet Hyderabad Queer Pride 2013 should be viewed as a significant victory for equality; hopefully it is a platform for education, increased awareness and, ultimately, acceptance for the 50,000 LGBTs in the city.

Written by Ben Thurman

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Who sings for the Hornbill?: The Performance and Politics of Culture in Nagaland, Northeast India – Part II

Sumi (Sema) Naga men in traditional ceremonial dress, resting near their morung at Naga Heritage Village, Kisama

By Arkotong Longkumer

‘AUTHENTICITY’ IS WHAT DRIVES many tourists to the Hornbill. I meet a group of tourists from Bangalore who are part of a photography course. Priya, Sandesh and Ashwin came across Peter van Ham’s coffee table book on the Nagas and were fascinated by the vivid picture of ‘traditional-authentic’ Nagaland. I ask them if such representations are highly ‘exotic’ and problematic?  They react positively and say that the ‘exotic’ element is one of the reasons why they came in the first place. Of course, coming here, they realise that things are different between ‘image’ and ‘context’, but nevertheless it is the motivating factor.  Our conversation drifts to ideas of indigenous peoples’ rights, the Hornbill Festival and the Naga national movement for sovereignty. Hema, an eco-tourist, says that through this Festival she can see the unique ‘indigenous’ and strong national culture of the Nagas. Before she was wary of such intellectual tropes, but now she can see why the Nagas want to be left alone: ‘self-determination’ is a right. Malini disagrees and says that Nagaland is an integral part of India – even if they gain independence, how would they sustain themselves? These questions are at the back of the minds of many national tourists from outside Nagaland, due to its long history of violent insurgency in the region.

A day out in the sun, with a group of Indian tourists.
A day out in the sun, with a group of Indian tourists

The visible presence of the security forces, both the Naga police force who provide security at Kisama to VIPs and delegates, and the throngs of Indian Army jawans, officers and their families, are a constant reminder that issues surrounding ‘Naga independence’ are hotly contested. One Kashimiri stall owner says that it is striking to compare Kashmir and Nagaland due to the overt and visible military might on show. The Indian Army even has a separate, cordoned off plush seating area for their officers and families.

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Army personnel and tourists co-mingle at Naga Heritage Village, Kisama

The co-mingling of the forces of exclusion and inclusion is what makes the paradox of nationhood striking: the uneasy relationship between the Nagas and the Indian state, even though it is funding from New Delhi that enables such a festival. On the other hand, questions of indigeneity provide international legitimation that allow the Nagas to perform and represent a ‘distinct’ Naga culture and link with United Nations ideas of indigenous people’s rights of cultural uniqueness, self-determination, and sovereignty. These debates circle each Naga morung in the Hornbill though couched in a different, and sometimes ambivalent, language.

‘Nagas are not Indians’ is a common sentiment one often hears in the Hornbill (and elsewhere in Nagaland). Some Nagas say that this idea becomes even more coherent when international tourists (mainly) recognise such disjuncture of the territorial imprint of the Indian state and the national imaginary of the Nagas. The jarring of these two ideas is evident during the opening session of the Hornbill Festival. The event starts off with the Indian national anthem that is greeted with indifference by the largely Naga audience (a number of tourists also told me that it felt rather forced). This message of national integration of the Indian Republic is further extolled in speeches made by the Governor and Chief Minister of Nagaland. Yet, some of the Naga public are uneasy with such rhetoric because for them Naga sovereignty is non-negotiable and the intrusion of the Indian state (read Indian Army) in such national festivals is flexing muscle – to ‘show who is boss’. Other Nagas favour being in the Republic because it brings economic development – Naga independence anyway is a far off dream! Some are not fully aware of what it even means to be ‘Naga’ let alone Naga sovereignty. Khiamniungan Nagas from places like Noklak in Eastern Nagaland (near the Burma border) told me that the Festival is a chance for them to see other Nagas. They have only ‘imagined’ and heard of the Angami and Chakhesang Nagas, now they can actually see them. The constructed and dynamic nature of Naga identity is played out interestingly in the Hornbill Festival.  For some it allows a visual glimpse of other tribes, while for others it’s an opportunity to be included into the Naga fold. Many Kachari, Garo, and Kuki people told me that even though they are recognised ‘officially’ by the Government of Nagaland as ‘Naga’, the other Naga tribes don’t. Having a morung in the Hornbill is helpful and legitimises their claim to be ‘indigenous’ inhabitants of Nagaland – for them territorial indigeneity is the sole marker of Naga identity, not blood, language or customary practices.  Although they have kin relations elsewhere: the Garo (in Meghalaya); the Kachari (in Assam); and the Kuki (in Assam/Manipur/Mizoram), they say they are Nagas and have nothing to do with their kin (although cultural ties are strongly maintained through marriage). When one Kuki lady said that they are not ‘Naga’, she was quickly reprimanded for her foolishness. The politics of the moment necessitates their inclusion into the Naga fold.

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Khiamniungan gentlemen relaxing, capturing an image of a foreign photographer (M.T.Heneise)

While the political dimension of the Festival clearly resonates with the larger project of national identity, especially when one digs deeper, the cultural aspects of the Festival are also significant. What is ‘culture’ is often asked when interacting with the many performing artists and tribal delegates in the morungs. For some, they haven’t changed one single song or dance routine, it’s ‘original’ they say. Others confess the painful tattooing process and vow never to do it again, and point to cohorts’ tattoos that have been painted using ink (some even wear plastic Hornbill feathers due to its rarity). Amongst the Nagas, they comment that the ‘wilder’ you are, the more tourists you attract. So the Konyak, Yimchungru, Chang, and the Khiamniungan morungs are busier than most. Some, like the Phom morung, are largely empty while the Lotha morung serve mainly food. The Ao morung involves a lot of joking and jesting around one Ao comedian who is being recorded on mobile phones to show to their villagers upon returning home. The idea of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ are part and parcel of the surroundings and there is no denying that the two often go hand in hand when discussing the politics of ‘culture’. This particular dimension has become significant in the past few years and the future of the Hornbill signals the happy co-mingling of both the local and the global.

Speaking to Abu Metha and Himato Zhimomi, both distinguished officers in the Government of Nagaland and organisers of the Festival this year, one gets the sense that the Festival is expanding its reach in terms of the scale of organisation, variety of programmes; making this truly a mecca of Festivals both nationally and internationally. ‘Why can’t we make the Hornbill Festival like the Edinburgh Fringe?’ Abu told me as we stood inside the venue of the Naga Art Exhibition. He said that along with the Chief Minister of Nagaland, Neiphiu Rio, they came to Edinburgh during the Fringe and were in awe of the scale, infrastructure, organisation, the events on display, and its reputation. He wants to make the two festivals more alike and even showed me the Hornbill catalogue of events that resembled the Edinburgh Fringe one.  Such is the vision, but not shared by all. Some see the Hornbill as a waste of time, money and exercise, which needs to be reduced to three days – it takes immense human labour, inconvenience (traffic during the Festival is a nightmare), and expenses that don’t justify its scale. One tourism officer told me that the investment far outweighs the return, and it is unsustainable for the long run. Church leaders are equally sceptical. They see the Hornbill as encouraging drinking (Nagaland is a Christian dry state!), sexual freedom and partying (most of the local youths emerge only during the night entertainment of music, fashion and drink). One young Ao pastor told me that the Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC) held a day walk around Kisama praying against the evil and licentiousness the Hornbill was encouraging amongst the youth. The church holds that reviving traditional Naga culture mustn’t clash with Christianity – the famous ‘Christ and culture’ debate is being rehearsed in many church corners.

Instead of viewing the Hornbill Festival as a micro-event, it is more useful to think of its links to the larger economic, cultural, religious and political processes that have wider consequences for the future of the Nagas. A sort of ethnographic ‘thick description’ has been attempted through the Festival that tells multiple stories with many actors and audiences. Its success has truly put Nagaland on the map in terms of its global outreach and tourist destination, but difficult questions are also being asked that involve many sections of the society with ideological positions in the global arena of fluid connections on the one hand and the increasing crystallisation of its boundaries and identities on the other. A balance between the two is most prudent but also the most difficult.

Sitting around a warm fire outside the Kachari morung, Joseph, a Kachari elder, and I are in deep conversation when one of the Kachari youth come up to him and ask if he could change into his ‘proper clothes’. Joseph laughs and asks why, and the youth says because it’s cold in my Kachari traditional clothes! I left the Hornbill thinking that there are many ways this puzzle can be completed, it’s just that I still haven’t found all the pieces.

*Cover photograph: Sumi (Sema) Nagas in traditional ceremonial dress, near their morung at the Naga Heritage Village

Dr. Arkotong Longkumer is a Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research and teaching interests lie in the intersection between indigenous religions, Hinduism and local Christianities in South and Southeast Asia. Longkumer is also interested in theory and method in the study of religions, and its interface between the different disciplines of religious studies, anthropology, and history. Longkumer is a member of the Advisory Board of The South Asianist.

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