Central & South Asia

Are Online Spaces Safe for Queer People in India?

With the COVID-19 pandemic having haltered in-person queer events around the world, much of queer organizing, dating, socializing and networking has now shifted online.
Kanav Narayan Sahgal, India gay rights, India queer rights, India queer cyberspace, India queer discrimination, India homonationalism, India queer legal status, India gay marriage, India tech boom, India queer movement

Mumbai, India, 2/1/2020 © arun sambhu mishra / Shutterstock

August 28, 2021 05:01 EDT

Indian queer cyberspace has evolved drastically over the years. The internet arrived in India in 1995, and high-speed broadband technologies started only in 2004. Before that, queer mobilizing mostly took place through informal and clandestine channels. It was only in 1991 that the first Indian queer organization was formed in London, the Naz Project, which eventually established a presence in Delhi through its sister group, the Naz Foundation, in 1996.

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The late 1990s were a time when offline contact between Indian queers for non-sexual purposes was largely unimaginable, possibly because homosexuality itself was still a crime back then. Moreover, public attitudes toward homosexuals were fiercely negative, even among liberals. “When I was active in the women’s movement in Delhi from 1978 to 1990 as founding co-editor of Manushi, India’s first feminist journal, homosexuality was rarely if ever discussed in left-wing, civil rights, or women’s movements, or at Delhi University, where I taught,” recounts historian Ruth Vanita.

Globalization of Gay Rights

With time, things began to change. The policies of globalization, liberalization and privatization of the late 1990s opened up sections of the Indian economy to the world market in novel ways. These policies, which were a part of India’s overall structural adjustment program, marked a tectonic shift from old dirigiste ways of working and heralded a new era of sweeping economic reforms.

A chief consequence of these changes was the information technology boom of the 1990s. Starting in the 1970s, it eventually led the way for the proliferation of new technologies on the Indian market throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. These included Nokia smartphones, desktop computers like the famed HEC-2M, black-and-white television sets and so on. Over the years, not only did these technologies evolve, but so did their ownership patterns. In 2012, Neilsen reported that the number of smartphone users in urban India was approximately 27 million. That number shot up to 76 million in 2013 for urban and rural India, and has been rising steadily ever since. By 2025, India is projected to have approximately 974 million smartphone users.

These economic changes, however, weren’t merely restricted to urban areas. A 2019 report by the Internet & Mobile Association of India and Nielsen found that with 227 million active internet users, rural India had already surpassed urban India’s 205 million users. With 504 million active internet users over five years of age in 2019, India was the second-largest internet-user market in the world, just behind China with its 850 million users. The United States, by comparison, has 280-300 million users.

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What did the changing contours of the digital landscape in India mean for queer people? The late 1990s were a time when the Indian government finally allowed certain sectors of the economy like IT and telecommunications to engage private investment. As the strangleholds of the erstwhile permit-license raj began to loosen, queer activism also witnessed a genesis of sorts. In 1994, AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA) filed the first-ever petition in the country’s history against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, an infamous British-era law that criminalized homosexuality in postcolonial India.

Various lesbian support groups also emerged during this time in response to widespread protests by Hindu right-wing groups that displayed violent disdain over the screening of Deepa Mehta’s lesbian romance film, “Fire.”

These changes were intimately related to the economic transformations of the time resulting from the transnational circulation of capital, ideas, people and funding that helped give the queer movement the impetus it needed to thrive and survive. The advent of gay rights mobilization in India, for instance, arose as a consequence of international funding for HIV/AIDS prevention in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The easing of certain regulations in the Indian economy and the greater flow of capital and people from abroad also paved the way, directly and indirectly, for the eventual scrapping of Section 377. As one scholar succinctly put it, “queer politics in India has come to be embroiled in the politics of globalization, and many believe that this history of queer politics is inseparable from the rise of neoliberal agendas in the Indian sub continent.”

Queering Cyberspace

A lot has changed over the years. Most notably, in 2014, India’s Supreme Court recognized the third gender in its landmark NALSA judgment. In 2018, the same court decriminalized homosexuality. By constitutionally recognizing these hitherto delegitimized subjects, the very shape and form of queer politics had radically transformed. Today, queer identification in urban pockets is more common than ever before. Corporations have also joined the queer bandwagon by placating homocapitalist sentiments under the problematic guise of LGBTQ+ inclusivity.

With the COVID-19 pandemic having haltered in-person queer events around the world, much of queer organizing, dating, socializing and networking has now shifted online. This is a space that continues to boom.

On the one hand, online spaces can be liberating for those who can access them. These spaces promise queer people the possibility of digitally connecting with others with a mere click of a button. This is why the IT boom was so significant: It paved the way for greater internet access and made it possible for marginalized and discreet queer people to explore their identities in ways their geographic locations wouldn’t otherwise allow.

While no official government data on queer populations exist (for obvious reasons), and despite the police and the state actively harassing queer people over the years — even after decriminalization, they continue to do so — technology has ushered in what some are calling a “sexual revolution in India.” The technological boom has ignited and kindled a new generation of young Indians’ desires for sex, romance, intimacy, and even sex work in unimaginable ways.

These desires and aspirations are being facilitated through chat rooms, instant messaging applications like WhatsApp and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Indeed, these changes have “teased the imagination of a young India, expanding her horizons and aspirations with the click of the button.”

However, such spaces also feature as sites of discrimination, bullying and violence. Take, for instance, Rohit Dasgupta’s assertion in his 2017 book, “Digital Queer Cultures in India,” that “The concept of being ‘too transgressive’ is a growing issue within queer representations in India.” Thus, only certain queer bodies and identities are typically seen as normative in queer spaces; for example, gay men who pass as straight. Those who transgress cis-normative and heteronormative ideals — like effeminate gay men — are typically shunned by queer people (mostly gay men).

Caste Supremacy

It has been argued that even though the 1991 reforms had a positive impact on India’s economic performance, their uneven implementation exacerbated existing socio-cultural inequalities. We see these inequalities manifest in queer cyberspace today, where certain privileged queer voices (mostly dominant caste, urbanized and Westernized gay men) dominate, while others (mostly queer women, and queer people from marginalized castes and classes) are systematically silenced by those in power.

On the issue of caste, for example, there is a deafening silence among queer activists in India to even acknowledge the presence of caste inequalities within the movement. This should come as no surprise because most queer activists in India (including the author of this article) belong to oppressor castes. Because of this, the issues, concerns and traumas of queer people from marginalized castes such as those from Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi communities are sidelined.

While most of this marginalization is implicit, some of it also happens explicitly. Take, for example, writer-director Aroh Akunth’s account of how caste intimately shapes desires on gay dating platforms. Thus, “attractiveness,” skin color and a “good background” become ideas projected onto a caste, while politics of “respectability” becomes a politics of caste supremacy.

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Another pressing issue in queer cyberspace is the growing popularity of right-wing homo-Hindu nationalist aspirations. It should be noted that this problem plagued the queer movement long before the pandemic pushed everyone online. It’s just that these groups, like many others, have adapted to the new normal by moving online. They fashion themselves as advocates for queer rights while simultaneously peddling jingoism, Islamophobia anti-Black Lives Matter/Dalit Lives Matter propaganda as well as casteism.

Take for instance, “hindu_lgbt,” an Instagram handle that affiliates itself with the right-wing Hindu nationalist group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which supports the decriminalization of homosexuality in India but not the legalization of same-sex marriage. As an ideology, Hindu nationalism is premised on the political and cultural construction of citizen-state relationships and subjectivities that are homogenized and in synch with orthodox notions of the Hindu faith, sometimes referred to as Hindutva philosophy.

It should be noted that there are many social formations in India that support this ideology. The protests against Deepa Mehta’s film “Fire,” for instance, were spearheaded by the Mahila Aghadi of Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal and others, while resistance to decriminalize homosexuality in India came, in part, from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and RSS ideologues.

However, RSS views of gay rights have drastically changed over the years — perhaps more so than the views of orthodox Christian and Muslim organizations — partly due to the ruling BJP Hindu nationalist government’s relative silence on the issue, and partly because the RSS is itself trying to grapple with the ongoing social changes in India. In order to brand itself as an upholder of “inclusive” traditional family values, the RSS approach seems, on the one hand, to respect the Supreme Court’s judgment on Section 377 while, on the other hand, refuse to support any further legislation, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage, that might radically challenge existing family structures in India.

Web Citizenship

With the third COVID-19 wave expected to hit India in the coming months, online spaces will, in all likelihood, continue to facilitate queer networking for the foreseeable future. But with greater smartphone access and the increased democratization of content creation — what some scholars have called the rise of “web citizenship” — queer advocacy in contemporary India faces newer challenges.

The first is an issue of privacy. In its 2017 Puttaswamy judgment, the Supreme Court of India recognized sexual orientation as an intrinsic part of privacy but was silent about its applicability in the online realm, where catfishing and identity theft are rampant. The second is an issue of legality. Digital spaces transcend the boundaries of nation-states, thereby calling into question the juridical purview of national privacy and security laws. How do queer people facing harassment, bullying and extortion from international actors report such crimes to the police in India?

A contemporary example of this was the infamous gay marriage scam, as detailed in a UK-based investigation by VICE. This expose sent shockwaves through sections of the queer circles both in India and abroad, bringing to the fore the inadequacy of Indian laws, which, unlike those in the UK, neither recognize gay marriage nor extortion that specifically targets queer populations.

The queer movement in India is currently at a crossroads. On the one hand, it has to tackle the increasing popularity of right-wing Hindu nationalist sentiments; on the other, manage the tensions and contradictions associated with Indian law.

Indeed, the challenges are many and the means to address them are few. One way of effecting change is by pursuing the law and lobbying lawmakers like Dr. Shashi Tharoor of the Indian National Congress, Supriya Sule of the Nationalist Congress Party and Tejasvi Surya of the ruling BJP, all of whom have expressed support for queer rights in India. While some scholars are skeptical of using the law as a vehicle for bringing about social change in India, others, like Arvind Narrain, are less skeptical. To date, this dispute remains unsettled — as does the inclusion of the BJP into this discussion.

The other way of effecting change is by radically reimagining queer spaces as zones where people of all identities can be made to feel safer. This exercise is perhaps harder to carry out because it has no prescriptions and is contingent on the ability of privileged queers to self-reflect. Thus, would dominant-caste queer men be willing to cede space to marginalized-caste queer women and transgender people? We should hope so. All in all, queer cyberspace in India is both a stuffy and an expansive zone. Its contradictions and contestations make it an exciting site for further scholarship into queer mobilization in India.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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