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Issue In Focus: Perverse Justice

A poster that reads "No Going Back", with the word '377' crossed out. In front of it, there is rainbow-coloured Pride flag.

I am a perverse nomad. My journey encompasses cruising parks in Kolkata and New York City, friendships with didis of Sonagachi and young men living inside juvenile delinquent centers, jails, and detention penitentiaries. I am 40+, perpetually dissertating, and often read as brown, immigrant, unproductive alien in the US. In this brief rumination I bring my sexual explorations in the parks of Kolkata and New York City to playfully mingle with my ideas about social justice organizing. Recently a range of sexual scandals has hit the nation of India (and those of us in the diaspora) while we prepare for the upcoming parliamentary elections. Holy men vs. besharam feminists vs. freak homos ought to be the new memo for our political parties. These are queer times indeed!

Tarun Tejpal (founder of, dubbed as the investigative Blog Guru among progressive Desi circles) has been charged with sexually assaulting his female co-worker. A local court on December 23rd extended the judicial custody of our Guru for 12 days after his initial custody expired.

Members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attacked the house of Shoma Chaudhuri, the managing editor of Tehelka.  The BJP activists, allegedly protesting her inaction in the sexual assault case, physically jostled her.  Violent rape incidents such as the Kolkata Park-Street case, Soni Sori, and Nirbhaya case in New Delhi have left us in a state of outrage. Arrests of thirteen men under Section 377 in the southern state of India, Karnataka, and the over writing  of the Delhi High Court decision on Section 377 (anti-sodomy provisions of the Indian Penal Code) by the Indian Supreme Court  have gripped our political imaginations. The set of legal and social maneuvers related to the arrests of Tarun Tejpal, death sentence of the four young men convicted in the Nirbhaya case, challenges to the anti-sodomy decisions provide exciting potentials for new social justice formations. I move away from reacting to these spectacular crises in this blog piece. I take this opportunity to ruminate on the limits of juridical strategies and encourage fellow social justice activists to critically engage with modes of organizing which cut through courts and juridical strategies. I take into account the legal battles as strategic sites for furthering justice, and urge us to revisit our intimate bodily sensations as sites for a different kind of justice. For lack of a better phrase, I shall call my take on justice as perverse justice [1] First, I turn to discussing why in my opinion legal changes are necessary but never enough for ushering justice.

Justice in the juridical sense entails measuring the degrees of criminality and the exchange of pain. The suffering inflicted upon the victim needs to be passed onto the perpetrator (Jakobsen, 2012). Clearly the likes of Tejpal, and the five men deemed guilty in the Nirbhaya trial have violated acceptable codes of conduct in a liberal society such as that of India. Their arrests and death sentences respectively are sites of transferring the pain inflicted upon female bodies via the judicial system. Tejpal shocks us; the five men who violently assaulted Nirbhaya enraged us. Police harassment of gay identified men, men who have sex with men (MSM), Hijras, and Kothis incite us towards legal actions. The actions of rapists and violent cops unsettle the intimate order of gender required to channel bodies into social worlds based on gender binaries. The saga related to the overthrowing of the Delhi High Court Section 377 verdict by the Supreme Court of India bears testimony to the intense knot around bodies and pleasures, which haunt appropriate family and nation formation.  The Supreme Court (SC) decision to overrule (Delhi High Court’s) reading down of the anti-sodomy provisions hinges around the failure of Naz Foundation to prove numerically the discrimination met by gay men and MSM. The SC went on a tirade related to % and risks faced by MSM around HIV prevention. Secondly, the SC decision calls for a rethinking of the proper domains of constitutionality, redirecting our attention to parliament and legislative procedures[2]. The Court is neutral, and no charges of homophobia can be brought against the court. It is a numbers game vs. party game. In the meantime the party, which has no party-namely the perverse sexualities mentioned in the Supreme Court verdict is caught between the aamadmi type moralists and party of Durga and Shiva. Perverse sexualities must collude with nationalist dreams in order to figure out legal justice. Our rights must come to us through nationalist constitutional/religious masks as we struggle through another election cycle. Masks after all is one of the favorite gears at Queer Pride rallies across the country.

India is the land of dutiful sons, loving brothers, dedicated husbands, and sacrificial mothers (wives, and sisters). There is no place for perverse homos, prostituting Hijras, and shameless skin showing women. All of these perverse bodies are criminals. Feminists, sex positive activists as well as moralist political types are then left to duke out each other in courtroom battles and fights over workplace sexual harassment policies. One might ask why engage with moving away from the law as the site of justice at this critical moment? After all legal reform has provided those of us struggling for dignity and honor for all kinds of bodies with some of the most tangible changes. I argue law is a vital domain for activism, and yet fraught with severe limitations. In her recent analysis of upper caste feminisms in India, Huma Dar invites us to revisit the complex interplay of caste, class, and national security which frame bodies of those surviving everyday sexual and other kinds of assaults from nations’ keepers (military, courts, and patriarchs within nationalist and separatist communities).

Assaults upon Kashmiri Muslim women, laboring unwanted bodies do not even reach the doors of NGOs and feminists (including folks such as me). If I juxtapose Huma Dar’s critique of upper caste feminisms with the attacks on Shoma Chaudhuri by members from the BJP, I am left with no other option but to call this moment extremely Queer. Sexual scandals interlaced with debates over national security, religion, proper conduct and sexual moralities flow through this present election cycle. What do we make of the outrage, anger, and shame so many of us feel at this moment? If we restrict our conversations to legal analysis and maneuvers, we miss the broken boat, which many of us are straddling! This is the time to let go of the legal bandwagon, and jump onto this boat called our perverse desires.

Perverse justice shifts the focus from polarities of decency vs. perversity, those with legal rights vs. the oppressed, and instead moves toward messy spaces wherein people are suffering, dying, enduring, and rebuilding within everyday constraints. I wonder how the family and friends of Jyoti Pandey (Nirbhaya) are coping with the in-between shorelines of life and death. How do men, women, hijras, and kothis who cannot access bars, pubs, and queer support groups navigate pleasure through public and private spaces? How do refugee women labor and protect their bodies through being defined as illegal or disposable? I wonder how economies of shared favors cohere in such incredibly difficult spaces.

Courtroom battles operate as spectacular events, often covering over the mundane and everyday negotiations a whole social world of perverse bodies engages with. Perverse for me is an inquiry (not justification) of the interface between middle-class upwardly mobile female bodies with working income men in neoliberalizing zones of India such as Gurgaon, Bangalore, and Hyderabad. Perverse for me are living arrangements between run-away young boys and men (many are escaping gendered violence from elders and poverty in rural areas) while they work as security guards at malls and high rise complexes, fantasizing incredible acts of pleasure with mall going modern feminized bodies. In my opinion all of these bodies constitute queer masses. Section 377 decisions and changes in sexual harassment legislations will not touch their lives. It will merely be a news piece in local newspapers they use to wipe their ass as they shit in makeshift bathrooms.

Acts of ’perverse justice’ are sites of embodied queer fantasies. Fantasies, which do not hinge around universal or cultural relativist claims to human rights, rather rethink the categories of human, in/sane, righteous/perverse, and call for reorienting our bodily memories of trauma, sexual assault, rape and torture. In his ongoing work with survivors of trauma in conflict areas of India, Sri-Lanka, and Bangladesh,Vikramjeet Sinha utilizes art therapy as a tool for reorienting painful memories. He has been inviting women and children to sketch their bodies, create masks, which represent their pain and pleasure. In his blog Vikramjit (one of the earliest staff members of TARSHI) mentions The idea of the mask represents the expression of the four quadrants of suffering and that is how it was explained and introduced to the participants. The four quadrants of suffering are oppressor /oppressed, the wound of loss, the wound of inadequacy, and the wound of inauthenticity. The participant had to express the personal suffering without words. The masks are also a suggestion that suffering can also betaken off as suffering can also be shed.”

If masks represent suffering, they also represent nationalist imaginaries. Masks at LGBT parades are symbolic of the wounds we reinvent while navigating courts and parliaments for civil rights.

As we battle over sensational legal manoeuvres, perverse justice requires us to work towards undoing all kinds of nationalist masks, while paying keen attention to our bodies, friendships, and interconnections. In the end I need to reiterate the idea behind this blog piece is not a call to retrenching from the law, rather it is a call for reengaging with modalities of transformative justice. Survivors of assault, rape, gender policing, and long term trauma do not receive justice through shifts in the lawscape, rather their bodies in pain are put on spectacular display by those of us who worry about human rights and legal equality. I want us to embrace our lovers with pleasurable sensations, initiate conversations about consent, sex, and violence with young men. Doing men’s work requires allowing young boys and men to unpack their own experiences with violence, and gendered socialization. In my recent work with young men and run-away boys in Kolkata and neighbouring small towns I am letting go the gay vs. straight imagination, we are talking about desire, pleasure, intimacy in ways which do not push them against the law.

Perverse justice is the potentials for a new form of life emanating from the songs, sketches, and friendships among unruly bodies who remain maimed, tortured, and traumatized in their interface with the law. It is clear from the Supreme Court verdict related to section 377, that the law is a numbers game. Instead of fashioning our ideas of bodily justice based upon barbaric injustice of the courts (noted author Vikram Seth dubs the SC decision as return to barbarism)[3] perverse justice calls for re-engaging with questions of safety, pleasure, and consent in everyday contexts. In these incredibly Queer times, let us open up spaces for pleasurable and yet dissident movement buildings.

Acknowledgements: Deep Purkayastha, Director of Prajaak Development Society for providing me with vital feedback.


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