Facebook Solidarity: A Closeted Person’s Experience

Last Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriages legal across the country. It was an important moment, not just for people in the U.S., but for LGBTQ supporters all over the world. People on Facebook expressed their support by changing their profile pictures, and many of us here in India joined in too. Of course, there were those who were cynical and questioned whether a legal change halfway across the planet was of any relevance to us Indians. And then there were others who brought out the usual argument that we were merely ‘aping the West’, and giving undue importance to the United States.

Being queer in a country like India can be a lonely experience. Most of us Indians grew up in ignorance in a very homophobic culture. It’s taboo to even talk about sex and sexuality, and there are many who grew up without any inkling that there are other sexual orientations besides heterosexuality. There is also overwhelming social pressure to conform to traditional norms of morality, and those who reject it are at risk for violent ‘moral policing’. There is no relief from the legal system either: under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code you can be imprisoned for 10 years for having consensual gay sex. Because of all these factors, members of the LGBTQ community in India live under severe repression.

One of the striking parts of a queer Indian’s experience is the fact that homophobia is so pervasive, even among people who claim to be liberal and supportive of LGBTQ rights. Many of my otherwise progressive friends and colleagues continue to crack homophobic jokes without even pausing to ask themselves whether that is acceptable. And while my closest friends have accepted me for who I am, I know that my family is too conservative to accept my sexual orientation. Like most other Indian families, they believe in following the accepted traditions and values, and they want to make sure that their children don’t ‘bring a bad name’ to the family by going against social expectations.

Between the taboos around discussing sexuality and the pervasive homophobia, it is often very difficult to tell whether even the liberal people around you might be willing to accept you for who you are. So you dismiss the idea of coming out to those around you, and give up on the possibility of finding any support through them. It’s a difficult situation: you either come out to others and risk being harassed, shunned or physically assaulted, or you stay in the closet and find a way to deal with the isolation… Most people choose to stay in the closet.

So back to Friday night: I saw a couple of my friends change their profile pictures to celebrate the SCOTUS decision. I debated changing my picture as well, but there were too few rainbow-hued profiles among the people in my friends list. If I changed my profile picture, I would effectively be outing myself, or at the very least, I would’ve had to answer questions that I’m not prepared to answer. Eventually, I decided that it wouldn’t be a good idea to risk it, and went to sleep feeling rather blue over the fact that there was so much homophobia around.

Fast forward to Saturday morning: the number of friends who changed their profile pictures had grown to a steady trickle. I finally felt comfortable enough to change my profile picture, too – being part of a stream of rainbow-hued profiles wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows. It was huge relief to be able to express myself publicly through one of the limited avenues available to me.

By the afternoon, the stream had grown into an overwhelming tide of people expressing their solidarity with the LGBTQ community. The solidarity came from unexpected sources – people whom I hadn’t spoken to in years, people who had cracked homophobic jokes in the past. Hell, even among my relatives who I’m so intimidated by, there were two cousins showing their acceptance of queer folk.

I saw my fellow Indians embrace a more tolerant culture, and I saw the first signs of acceptance from mainstream urban India. I didn’t expect to see so many people who cared enough to publicly express their solidarity. It may only be a small number of Indians, but this show of support was unimaginable even a few years ago. This tolerance points to a future where the next generation of queer Indians are no longer forced into heterosexual marriages, or worse. For a group that has been repressed for so long, a group that is starving for acceptance, this is a huge deal.

For the first time in my life, I felt less isolated by my queerness. I knew that there were many people around whom I could be myself, that I didn’t have to hide myself from the entire world. And if the time comes when I’m ready to come out to my family, I know that I can reach out to my cousins for support. But most of all, I felt a huge relief that there would be a future where I wouldn’t have to pretend to be someone else. I was overwhelmed by this simple show of solidarity… And I finally felt optimistic about the future.

Indian Atheists Page Blocked On Facebook

Sorry, are you trying to promote rationalism and secular humanism in India, you may be unsafe for Facebook.

The Facebook page Indian Atheists is an initiative by the Nirmukta community. Our mission is to bring together a community of Indian Atheists and to build a society based on science, reason and humanistic values.

Yesterday we found that content from this page could not be shared as it has been flagged as unsafe. Facebook policies are such that, in case of an objectionable content, the said post would be removed by Facebook. But we found that no specific post was removed as objectionable. Instead the entire Indian Atheists page has been flagged as unsafe and we are not able to share our posts or tag Indian Atheists in any post, not even as comments in closed groups.

People trying to tag the page got this message:

Many of our members have informed Facebook that our page follows Facebook guidelines and that the ban is unwarranted by using the “let us know” button. But so far we have received no response.

It is not that the Indian Atheists page has never faced problems. We keep getting threats from haters in the form of messages. We have always heard of atheist pages being easily blocked on Facebook because of “hurting religious sentiments” and given the hostile environment in India, have always tried to keep within the limits set by Facebook. But we are not sure of the reason for the ban.

We keep surmising about the possible reasons. Was it our stance against Hindutva, or posts against endorsement of homeopathy and other “alternate medicines” issued by Delhi government in Delhi metro? Was it our articles on the mid-brain activation scam, that plagues our country, has upset a lot of practitioners of the scam? Or was it the article that talked about beef eating practices in ancient India and criticised the banning of beef in some states? Recently we have also been posting frequently against the derecognition of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in IIT Madras which could have offended the religious and caste apologists. We are left wondering which of our reason-based humanistic posts has offended the sensibilities of bigots and reactionaries.

We the humanists are offended by this gagging of our page and we react to this in a humanistic manner. The voice of reason cannot be stifled for long. And when we regain our voice be rest assured we will speak even more loudly the language of reason and humanism. So long!

(This is an edited version of the article first published at Nirmukta)

Update (Jun-9-2015):

The same way Indian Atheists was restricted, it has been unblocked without any official statement from Facebook. We were neither notified about the blocking, nor the unblocking.

We are now able to share any post from the page without facing any restriction. We wish to thank all members, fans and well wishers who raised their voice enough. It wouldn’t have been possible without you. We cannot emphasize this enough.

We will continue to promote science, secular humanism and freethought on the page and our groups.

Dear Buzzfeed, That Man’s Arse Should Not Have Been Funny

So Buzzfeed published a post two days ago, titled “This Dude’s Butt Is Breaking The Indian Internet“. It’s about an unnamed man, seemingly a poor working class man, who is sitting on a slab of ice butt-naked.  The post goes on about how the Indian twitterati is having a laugh-riot over this man’s butt (not really, as of now it has only 319 retweets).

CF15CmMWIAA4v2RTo be honest, even I found the pic funny when I first saw it and joined in this virtual classist cacophony. But not anymore. It stopped being funny the moment it occurred to me that India is suffering a heatwave that has killed over 1,100 people as of today. To top that, it also occurred to me that all the people laughing at that man are nothing but raving a***holes (pardon my french). Such classist sneer and mocking of the poor and deprived has always been common among the Indian middle class (the usual suspects are homeless children who beg inside trains and the transgender community). People with access to facilities and the technology to keep themselves cool in that atrocious weather really have no right to mock this man who is doing whatever he can to not die in the heat. The day this post was made Huffington Post reported a death toll of over 500 people because of the heatwave. The heatwave has been all over the news for atleast a week. So either Buzzfeed’s reporters had no idea about it (in which case, they should really stop calling themselves journalists) or do not care enough.

That man’s arse is not an object for your amusement. It’s the sign of his desperation, his poverty and his deprivation, and also of the thousand plus people who are dead today. If anything it shows our failure as a society.

Bhagwati Denies Communalism

Jagdish Bhagwati in an interview with Barkha Dutta (Source: NDTV website)


Jagdish Bhagwati’s opinions aired on NDTV and his op-ed in LiveMint are both laughable and obnoxious.

In the op-ed he begins with the classic Friend Argument. Talking about how his family and friends are ‘minorities’ and how that makes him “pro-minorities”, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.

He then goes on to use the not-all-Hindus rhetoric, painting a picture of the likes of Mohan Bhagwat (who controls the biggest Hindutva group, the parent organisation of the ruling party, and not to mention the fact that he is the mentor of the Prime Minister) as being outliers among Hindus. He also denies that the Modi government has any responsibility over nutjobs like Bhagwat. While I do not think that every single Hindu is responsible for Bhagwat or the attacks, shrugging them off as fringe elements, when they clearly are not (especially when they are afforded generous platforms in national public TV and radio by the present government), is at best irresponsible and at worst enabling of such lunatics.

Then he has the nerve to ask Christians to “relax”, while denying communal motivation in any of the church attacks. His only reference for the denial being Rupa Subramanya (yes, the same person who shrugged off untouchability as a matter of hygiene), whose “admirable investigative report” is nothing but an anthology of police statements which she gulped down as facts without any questions asked.

Then he ends it all with such nuggets as Hinduism is “inclusive, not exclusive” and “… why did (Ambedkar) not pick Islam or Christianity? He instead picked Buddhism because Buddhism is not into conversion in the way in which these two religions are.”

Jagdish Bhagwati is what you get when you combine Hindu pride with neo-liberalism, and articulate it in academic mediocrity and dishonesty. It’s pathetic!

Looking at the Civilising Mission in the Mirror

With full disclosure, I am against the proposed ban on Leslee Udwin’s film; at the same time not a big fan of the film myself. But, I am not here to talk about the film. I am here to say why the positions taken by many of the Indian detractors of the film, um well, annoys me.

A few days ago, Kavita Krishnan wrote an open letter declaring that “we” don’t need a civilising mission. Reading the very title two questions came to my mind. 1. What does she mean when she says we, and 2. who or what does she think is the civilising mission? The answer to the first is quite clear. By using “we” in her statement, she has constructed an identity that clubs herself with the nation’s most underprivileged and everyone in between, and at the same time makes herself and her company at AIPWA (and by extension the larger liberal and left intellectual and activist class of India) representatives of the entirety of India. This leads us to the second question: who does she think constitutes the civilising mission? Reading the opinion piece, the impression one gets is that the BBC, Udwin, and the entire neo-imperial West form and drive the civilising mission, as an extension of the colonial “white man’s burden”. So to put it simply, Krishnan thinks of herself as part of the Third World India standing up against the First World cultural hegemony.

There is a big irony here, illustrated by the fact that she is one of the activists featured (that too very prominently as compared to the rest) in the film. I can’t help but wonder, if the civilising thing ever occurred to her when she agreed to be interviewed by the filmmakers, knowing that it’s a British production primarily supported by none other than the BBC. This irony in the film is representative of the delusional stand that is taken by many post-colonial intellectuals and activists, including Krishnan. The delusion being that they believe themselves to be different or rather outside the colonial/neo-colonial system they so vehemently oppose. And it is this delusion that leads Krishnan and her comrades to distance themselves from the civilising mission, not realising the fact that they are very much the part of it. Let us not forget that this is the same Kavita Krishnan who admonished the many Dalit activists of the country, for speaking up against the appropriation of Ambedkar by Arundhati Roy and S. Anand’s Navayana, by conflating their discourse with the rabid nationalists and Hindutvavadis. She always acted like the missionary of civilisation, and continues to do so with her use of “we”.

But she is part of the larger class of urban bourgeois Savarnas, who are beneficiaries of the neo-colonial system, who speak, write and think in the colonial language, and who have no problem with dissecting, studying and judging the spaces of the “subaltern” (while leaving the spaces that they occupy untouched and pristine). They are the ones who go around the West talking about the problems ‘back home’, they are the ones who get featured in newspapers and documentaries of the West, and they are the ones who have the gall to represent the many subalterns of this country and fight for them (Note: And there should be no doubt that I belong to this class).

The Savarna bourgeois of this country very clearly needs to snap out of our delusions and need to wake up to the harsh reality that we are part and parcel of the same colonial and capitalist systems and institutions. Like a male feminist fighting against patriarchy, there is nothing wrong in attacking the system that is essentially ours. But the bare least we must do is to start acknowledging the privileges we acquire from it and contextualise our ideological and normative positions with the relational positions of our self. For that, our class as a collective needs to reflect.

A Male Feminist’s Dilemma

So yesterday I was faced with a big dilemma, both as a man living in a patriarchal universe and as a feminist. I was out tonight with some of my friends to watch a play, after which all of us decided to go out for a quick detour for some drinks, before dinner. After the end of the “detour”, it was decided that I would accompany one of my friends (an adult woman) to the train station in a cab, even though both of us were high if not drunk.

We had to walk for a couple of minutes, to get to a corner of one of the arterial roads, so that we will have a better chance at hiring a taxi that would be willing to take us to the station that my friend had to get to. While we were walking, my friend (a feminist herself) made it very clear that she was both annoyed and offended by my attitude. The fact that I felt it was my responsibility to accompany her to the station at 10:30 pm, was very clearly something that she did not appreciate. All the while she had a very straightforward question: “Do you not trust me in taking care of myself?”. The answer was very obviously that I do trust her to take care of herself (and neither do I believe her to be someone who needs a man to protect her or accompany her late at night). But then the question also had multiple implications, because if I had complete trust in her ability to be self-reliant, what is it that made me feel insecure about her boarding a taxi all alone, at night.

The answer then became very clear to me at that moment. I did not trust the working class, the taxi drivers in this case, enough to not inflict violence on my friend. Neither did I trust them to be human and not opportunistic sex offenders. I realised the prejudice in my reasoning, at the same time I also realised the patronising attitude  that I exhibit quite often towards women around me. I realised that while my elitism did not make me trust the rest of the world to be decent human beings, I was also at the same time guilty of making public spaces inaccessible and insecure to women.

At the end of the road, where we got a taxi that was willing to go to the station, I finally decided that I had to trust both my friend and the taxi driver. At the same time, I had to convince myself to not be an apparatus in perpetuating patriarchal norms and practices, the ones which I so fervently oppose in public. It was very difficult to do and I was restless till she called me from her home, and I am still not convinced that I should have left her alone in the taxi. I will be faced with the same dilemma, the next time a female friend tells me she would be using public transport to reach home without any company. But I keep telling myself that things need to change if we aspire for a better tomorrow.

This India Will Not Mourn For Al Saud

Never, perhaps, in the history of international relations does one see the kind of charade that is being played right now, over the death of a warlord. After the death of yet another Al Saud, we see leaders across the globe overcome by grief and sadness and international news agencies fawning over an autocrat. It seems that death, unquestioned loyalty to Western powers, and huge reserves of oil can work wonders. It can turn an autocrat and tyrant of a parochial oligarchic state, that runs a slave enterprise and continuously exports and aids horrifying hate-mongers and terrorists, into the face of moderate Islam, a closeted feminist, and a peacenik.

To top all this, we have the Indian government declaring 24th of January as the national day of mourning for Abdullah. We at Nirmukta condemn this decision by the government, and exhort everyone in India to stand against it. Let us all publicly dissociate ourselves with such blatant abrogation of our secular and republican ideals, done to mourn the death of a person who doesn’t deserve a minute silence.

Let’s Talk About Tim Willcox

Image Source: Mail Online (www.dailymail.co.uk)


So I hear that Tim Willcox apologised. For those of you who do not know, Willcox is a BBC reporter who was covering the Paris rally in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. He came under fire for doing something as messed up as asking a random Jewish woman about Israeli atrocities in Palestine. Here’s a report:

During a live report from the streets of Paris, Willcox was speaking to a number of participants in the march, including one woman who expressed her fears that Jews were being persecuted, and ‘the situation is going back to the days of the 1930s in Europe.’

To this, Willcox, who was broadcasting on the BBC News channel replied: ‘Many critics though of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well.’

When the woman, shaking her head, responded saying: ‘We can’t do an amalgam’, he told her: ‘You understand everything is seen from different perspectives.’

She was identified during the broadcast as ‘Chava’, and told Willcox when she was introduced on screen that she had lived in France for 20 years, but was originally from Israel.

In no time the social media started trending #WillcoxMustGo and very rightfully so. The repercussion was so much so that he had to apologise for the question the very next day. The case should have closed then and there. But today in my news feed I see that a few in my friends list had found it in them to condone his statement; the reasons being free speech and Willcox’s supposed “bravery” to point out the plight of the Palestinians.

The notion that Tim Willcox’s freedom of expression was suppressed is both misguided and, to say the least, absurd. Of course one has the right to express oneself, but that does not give one the right to be an insensitive fool. Willcox wasn’t being brave when he asked that question, he was being stupid and also borderline bigoted. The attack in Paris has only recently highlighted the spiraling anti-semitism in France, which triggered the flight of thousands in 2014. The attack on the kosher store has, reportedly, created a situation of heightened fear and anxiety among the Jewish population in Paris, who barely even got the chance of moving on from the anti-semitic violence that erupted last year at Sarcelles in a pro-Palestinian rally. In a situation like this, when you as a journalist find a Jewish woman ready to speak to you about the experiences of the Jewish people, it doesn’t take a genius to know that making her answer for the atrocities committed by Israel on the Palestinians is not only irresponsible but outright racist.

In the end, I find the incident, while unfortunate, a little ironical. Where else do we hear about persons of a community being made to answer (and sometimes pay) for the crimes of extremists among them?

Into the Woods: Giving “Snow White” a New Meaning

I happened to watch the trailer of the upcoming Disney musical “Into the Woods” recently:

Notice anything peculiar? Everyone is white. It’s a large ensemble cast of white people. (Scan through the cast on IMDB for more.) I wonder if this occurred to the people making the film. Did Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick (who I’m guessing are liberals) exchange glances during the shoot and say “Hey Meryl/Anna, how come everyone here is white?”

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Bonding Social Capital

In a post titled “Social Capital and Cultural Capital” last year, I talked about the British class survey which measured a specific type of social capital – “the number and importance of social contacts”. This type of social capital is referred to by social scientists as linking social capital – the connections we have to people of importance, influence, who can get things done.

There are various other types of social capital used by sociologists. One type generally recognised today is bonding social capital. Bonding social capital is that which exists within a social group, and consists of shared norms and values, reciprocity, trust, expectations and obligations. Social “group” seems akin to the social identity model used by social psychologists – an “in-group” formed through categorisation, identification and comparison (here is a good primer on Social Identity Theory which explains this). We all belong to various social identities – based on gender, ethnicity, wealth, nationality and caste for example. Bonding social capital is the capital we get by virtue of being part of the in-group. Note that like social capital in general, bonding social capital is an asset – a resource that you can use (consciously or not) to your benefit. Secondly, it comes from social structure and processes – the social mechanisms described by sociologists and also the social-psychological processes described by social psychologists.

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