The session was organized as part of “Beyond Binaries: Understanding Sexual Identities and Queer Rights Issues in India” – a Five-Day Immersive Online Certificate Training Course by the Gender Impacts Study Centre (GISC) on behalf of IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute of India on the instance of Pride Month.
Centering the discussion on the queer communities particularly in Northeast India, Dr. Kaustav Padmapati, an assistant professor (Senior Scale) at School of Modern Media, UPES, Dehradun India, enlightened the attendees on the history, culture and the present struggles faced by the LGBTQIA+ section of the society in the seven sisters of India.
Dr. Kaustav Padmapati, being a native of the Northeast region of India, commenced the session by highlighting how the region suffers from what Sandeep Roy calls “Double Minority”. Not only the people suffer from identity related issues culturally and geographically but also their identity as a queer person.
He then pointed out the long delayed recognition of the queers in the region. The first pride walk happened in Guwahati (Capital of Assam), Imphal (Capital of Manipur) in 2014, followed by Shillong (Capital of Meghalaya) in 2018, and Agartala (Capital of Tripura) in 2022. With no significant queer history and literature, Transgender protection Act (2019) was implemented in states of Assam and Manipur only.
Non binary people in folk cultures of Northeast India
Dr. Padmapati then went on to describe the conditions prevailing in particular states. Starting with Manipur, Dr. Padmapati stated that the queer community though are seen as different but not ostracized from the society. This is due to the great reference of non- binary people amongst the Meitei community, which recognizes the “Taloisanoba” and “Marupsanoba” relationships of same sex. The acceptability of transgender people is also present more so in Manipur as a result of their historic position as ‘maibis’, or transvestite priests. They are regarded as the most saintly souls in society and are accorded a great deal of respect.
Infact, Manipur was the only state in India which had separate quarantine centers for
the transgenders COVID-19 positive patients.
In the states of Mizoram and Meghalaya, the situation is quite the opposite. Dr. Padmapati asserted that both of these states were predominantly christian as a result of religious indoctrination under colonial rule, which sees homosexuality as a sin.
The hostility towards the queer people here is so strong that many organisations in Mizoram like Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP), Young Mizo Association (YMA), Mizo Hmeichhe Insuihkhawm Pawl (MHIP) etc. have especially run programmes to identify homosexuals and take action against them. Whereas in Meghalaya, transgenders are referred to as ‘Hic Mulier’ literally meaning ‘manlike woman’.
Queerness and singlehood carry a lot of negative connotations in Assam, many of which are either sympathetic or repulsive. Most often, being single is only honored when it meets the demands of the family, is based on circumstances, and is supported by the community. Single people are viewed as outcasts, burdens, and peripherals in many Assamese folktales and cultures. According to Dr. Padmapati, it is a constant fight for survival and nourishment for people to reimagine their lives outside of binary frameworks due to the stigma and branding associated with being queer or alone.
Many ethnic tribes and communities in Assam like Bodo, Dima Hasao, Mishing, consider same sex marriages as taboos and even have a norm of marrying a dead single person to a banana tree before cremation because it is believed that a single person is not even accepted in god’s home after death and therefore must be married.
Subsequently, to exhibit the discrimination and humiliation, ‘Hijra’ or the third gender face in Assam on a daily basis, Dr. Padmapati showed “Jonaki Porua,” the first film by Assamese director Prakash Deka, which took a bold move by featuring a transgender character in a rural Assamese setting. In “Jonaki Porua,” a teenage guy named “Jahnu” battles to become Jahnavi, a transwoman, while dealing with all the difficulties in a hamlet in Assam.
Despite all the hatred, Dr. Padmapati revealed that there is one full moon November night in Assam where the transgender community comes out freely and celebrates their true identity. On this day, the people worship Lord Krishna as a part of Lora (Boys) Raas, where boys dress like ‘Gopis’ or ‘females devoted to Krishna’ and dance to show their devotion to the god. The professor also showed a small clip of a similar dance procession taking place in Assam, for the attendees to get the essence of the celebration.
To bring the international arena also into the context, Dr. Padmapati proclaimed that Taiwan, given its three decades long social and political conflicts, is quite a liberal country with much more acceptability for the LGBTQIA+ ideas. It has established several laws like Act of Gender Equity Education (2004), Act of Gender Equality in Employment (2008) etc. for more inclusivity and progress.
Emergence of queer movement in Northeast India
Dr. Padmapati then moved on to the recent improvements that had taken place in the region for the queer community.
In the state of Assam, the living circumstances of the LGBTQIA+ community have significantly changed in recent years. When Xukia was founded, the problems with queer subjectivities of state received widespread notice, and they began to organize awareness campaigns in 2012. Many people in Assam have found a secure and loud venue to come out thanks to Xukia.
There are several queer collectives presently, including those in Assamese small towns like Xomonoy, Drishti, and Anajoree. Numerous Assamese authors, entertainers, and artists support the LGBTQIA+ community in Assam and promote gay rights via their work. Moreover, major Assam universities now offer courses in queer studies.
It is only recently that All Assam Transgender Association (AATA) was formed on 25th December 2015 for the welfare of the Hijra community. The professor also showed a transgender awareness ad film made with the joint initiative of All Assam Transgender Association and NEVARD, “Aami Tritiyo”. ‘Aami Tritiyo’ is a groundbreaking piece that specifically addresses the stereotypical behavior associated with the trans community. It was released in advance of Magh Bihu, which takes place on January 15 and is marked by feasting and celebrations, in an effort to assist community members in finding their place in the festivities.
Dr. Kaustav Padmapati concluded the session by revealing the campaign ‘#NO MORE HOLDING MY PEE, that he himself participated in. In this campaign, he along with several significant dignitaries led the movement to provide the basic human facilities like gender neutral washrooms and gender-neutral uniforms for the transgender people in the area. The campaign gathered a lot of attention by the Assamese government and several steps are taking place to cater to the need.
Read more session reports from Day 1 of Beyond Binaries: Understanding Sexual Identities and Queer Rights Issues in India:
Krishti is a Research Intern at IMPRI.