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Freedom’s Pride: Looking Back Ten Years On

Photo from a queer pride march. We can see the back of two men holding hands. On the back of one's tee shirt is witten "Human rights for all" in caps by a red marker. The photo is cropped such that we can see only their torso and hands. In the background we can see more people walking in the march.

In 2008, there were two important sets of events that happened: six weeks of intense hearings at the final arguments stage in the Naz Foundation case at the Delhi High Court, where section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was being challenged, and a bunch of folks in Delhi deciding that they were going to organize a Pride March. While these don’t seem obviously connected, they were both expressions of freedom, one in constitutional terms within the courtroom, and the other, a very public expression of freedom, taking to the streets.

In India, the only city that had witnessed anything like the Pride was Kolkata, which in the early 2000s had seen a Rainbow Walk. A group of us (lawyers, techies, activists, NGO representatives) in Bengaluru excited by this idea began calling interested individuals and organizations, and we planned the event meticulously with a series of meeting on the terrace of the Alternative Law Forum (where I worked at the time). One of the main concerns then, was whether such a public event, would invite a backlash, and fear for the safety of those who would be out there, and, of course, how we could enable enthusiastic LGBTI persons to join the event, without necessarily having to out themselves.

After a brief discussion we agreed to organize the event under the banner of the Coalition of Sexuality Minorities Rights (CSMR), a loose coalition of sexuality rights groups that already existed in Karnataka. We decided to call the series of events the Karnataka Queer Habba (festival), which would culminate in the Bengaluru Pride. The first Bengaluru Pride began at the National College Grounds, a venue in the heart of the relatively conservative South Bengaluru neighbourhood. We looked around for existing ideas that were being floated in Delhi to put on a logo that would reflect both the global and local aspects of the event, and the designers in our group settled on the paisley pattern, usually associated with textiles from different parts of the country.

It was perhaps the first time, that the more serious LGBTI protests marked by more straightforward sloganeering and posters, gave way to a riot of colour, with a large number of rainbow-coloured umbrellas, masks and wind wheels. People showed up in large numbers, and again for the first time, we saw LGBTI activists completely outnumbered by allies and supporters. Many young people made their way to Bengaluru from neighbouring cities and states, and the energy and excitement at the time made it obvious to us that we had tapped into energy and excitement that was waiting for an outlet. The first Bengaluru and Delhi Prides were timed around Stonewall Day, commemorated globally every June to mark the Stonewall Riots. Ten years down the line, both these events have shifted to November, although they are not always held on the same day anymore.

The sheer novelty and audacity of the Pride in 2008 drew intense media attention. Here were hundreds of LGBTI persons and their supporters with their colourful attire and slogans surrounded by a large number of police, who were there to prevent any trouble, and a huge contingent of journalists. Live coverage from mainstream television channels, and massive coverage from the local media, ensured that the event made a huge splash in every single newspaper the next day, with many of them carrying photographs of the event on the first page. I will never forget going to the newspaper stall and buying a copy of every newspaper that day, and seeing photos of the Pride splashed in the English, Kannada, Tamil, and Hindi press, including the business papers.

This November, both Delhi and Bangalore have witnessed 10 years of Pride marches. These ten years have coincided with a period of momentous legal battles and decisions. These include the Naz Foundation judgment that came just a few days after the second Pride marches in 2009, the anger in the streets during the Nirbhaya protests in 2012 and the legal changes that followed, the reversal of Naz in the Supreme Court’s Koushal judgment in 2013; and the NALSA (National Legal Services Authority) transgender rights judgment in 2014. The publicness of the Pride events were in direct contrast to the Supreme Court’s observations in Koushal that there was no LGBT ‘community’ to speak of, and that as far as they were concerned this was a ‘miniscule minority’.

One of the themes that runs through all these key moments and all these debates, has been the question of what it means when we talk about the freedom of minorities that are not politically or electorally powerful, disparate groups that may not be clustered in one area, or organized enough to have clout at the national level. Seen from this perspective, there is a tension between freedom and democracy– between the majoritarian impulse and identity, and the rights of discrete minorities. It is here that the counter-majoritarian role of the courts, and of the possibility of constitutional protections becomes crucial. The voices from within the women’s movement opposing the death penalty and castration for those convicted of sexual offences against women, while at the same time making the law more effective, are another example of tempering the voices of the majority with an ethic of constitutionalism inflected with fundamental rights.

In Naz, the judges talked of inclusiveness as a constitutional value, an important contribution allowing for a worldview that respects diversity of belief, identity and values. In the NALSA judgment, this idea of inclusiveness is fleshed out, with the court enabling a semblance of citizenship rights for transgender persons. While there has been an intricate tie between legal discourse and public discussion around LGBTI rights in India, it is interesting to see that legal setbacks, including the 2013 judgment of the Supreme Court have not diminished the public discourse in anyway. If anything, Pride marches, film festivals, and public discussion around sexuality have continued to proliferate, with events being held across the country in smaller cities and towns, and led by activists and groups, who are not necessarily part of NGO networks.

This year’s Bengaluru Pride events included a display of historical material and artefacts from previous Bengaluru Pride events, which is part of a larger project to create a queer archive in India called QAMRA (Queer Archive for Memory Reflection and Activism). As we move forward, initiatives like these are crucial in documenting this period, and in recognising their contribution to the discourse around sexuality and freedom in India.


Here are links to some pictures including the logo I refer to:

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