Sex, Lies and the Internet

On January 4, 2006, the police in the north Indian city of Lucknow, in Uttar Pradesh, arrested four men for what they referred to as running a gay racket. A prominent headline from the Hindi newspaper Rashtriya Sahara reads: '"gay club" ka bhandaaphod, chaar giraftaar - Dilli, Chennai, Singapore me bhee phailaa racket kaa jaal' ('Gay club' busted, 4 arrested - Racket's network reaches Delhi, Chennai, Singapore also). The place of the report is Lucknow while the English words in the Hindi headline and the metropolitan and foreign locations mark the 'global' impact of a local happening. 'Bhandaaphod' is a word rich in meaning in Hindustani - it means to publicly reveal a secret, but also the uncovering of an evil or debased practice. 'Bhandaaphod' can thus be seen as a shaming exercise, a public trial, which has a cathartic effect on those who will try the four arrested and their fellow racketeers.

'Gay club' is also the preferred term of the English daily The Times of India: 'Gay club running on Net unearthed' (January 5, 2006). Hindustan Times pitches in with: 'Cops bust gay racket, nab SAT official, 3 others'. The idiomatic flourish may be subdued in these cases, but the headlines clearly bring out the illicit quality of the event described.

The Net here is very much the 'jaal' of the Rashtriya Sahara headline, which has tentacles spread out over impossible distances. And then there is the earthier allegation of a 'gay racket'. A 'gay club' has the distinctive ring of an elite coterie, some exotic sect, albeit satanic and evil. But a 'gay racket' is an all too familiar invocation of the scams and scandals of India's postcolonial political life. A 'racket' is a scheme marked by illicit exchange of money, and has the distinctive quality of creating danger in an otherwise peaceful non-gay life of the city and the nation. In a previous incident, in 2000, over a report on HIV prevalence in the region entitled AIDS Aur Hum (1999)(AIDS and Us), by an NGO working with HIV/AIDS called Sahayog in Almora, also in Uttar Pradesh, the NGO workers were accused of breaching national security and booked under the National Security Act.

Coming back to this case, the preliminary investigation of newspaper headlines gives us a glimpse into the swift associations made with the subject 'gay' in contemporary India. That it has something primarily to do with sex, that it is illicit (not just in a narrow legal sense), and that it is worth revealing and reading about: these factors make gay lives matter for the Indian media.

An individual's panic is easy to characterize as a too specific reaction, unworthy of generalization. The Indian media's response to 'gays' has displayed a unified response of horror and spectacle to the very existence of sexual minorities in Indian society. The history of the 'gay racket' is not very old and can be seen clearly to have come up with another Lucknow incident in 2001. The Times of India took the lead in whipping up hysteria about the arrest of nine people of the Bharosa Trust under Section 377 on July 7, 2001. The July 10th article begins: "The Intelligence Bureau (IB) had, in its report, tipped off the Government of India way back in 1998 about the gay subculture spreading its roots in parts of Uttar Pradesh..."

In this curious formulation, we find the specific conjuncture of state security (the business of the IB), the interest of the government in subcultures, and the sudden surge in the presence of gay people in parts of Uttar Pradesh. Of course, the excuse was provided by the outreach work of a specific NGO working for AIDS prevention, and whose funding sources were suspect because foreign. But while the logic of NGO-funding has been under severe criticism in light of deracinated ways of generating money, the newspaper report proceeds to betray some other anxieties about 'gay subculture':

As a majority of the parent organizations funding these NGOs were based in Canada and Europe, which also has a chunk of Pakistani nationals residing there, the IB was pressed into service to monitor the inflow of funds and their mode of expenditure in India.

Apart from the fact that this ludicrous blaming of Pakistan shifts the focus from the fact that the neoliberal Indian government routinely takes money for its own purposes from North America and West European sources, the targeting of sexuality work-based NGOs as the first NGOs to be suspect is telling. Two things are ubiquitously suspect in India: the hand of the ISI/Pakistan and the racket of perverse sex. The above formulation comfortably slides the two together to justify one source of panic with another more concrete source of nationalist anxieties.

Gay people have not just imported the idea of homosexuality from the West, but their import of capital from the West (which happens, of course, to be teeming with Pakistanis) makes them a renewed national threat. It is not that a social/cultural threat is considered less pernicious than an economic one, but it is the logic of the new kind of economics meshing with the cultural that bolsters social and psychic hatreds. Such hatred would never be levelled at Manmohan Singh's globalized economics, which is completely a product of the contemporary West, but the focus is conveniently displaced onto the foreign 'gay' menace.

The creation of a sexually deviant and Pakistan-oriented subject in the media has proved productive in generating apprehension about the sexuality rights movement in India. In the case of the NGO Sahayog in 2000, which caused the public humiliation and detention of the office-bearers of the organization and the effective closure of the organization's work in AIDS prevention in Almora, similar anxieties were revealed. The report (AIDS Aur Hum) was seen to hurt local sentiments in its 'factual' suggestions about the sexual practices in this particular region of Uttarakhand. It must be noted that it was a local newspaper's allegations that sparked off the government and judiciary's responses.

The 'nuisance' of sexuality-based work was first booked under Section 133 of the Code of Criminal Procedure which effectively disbanded Sahayog and its work in the area (not just confined to AIDS-related activism, but also women's rights and Dalit activism). After this, four people from Sahayog were detained under the District Magistrate's order of preventive detention under the National Security Act of 1980. The Act allows for long terms of detention without trial for actions 'prejudicial to the security of the state'.

Although the charges were withdrawn later, the very invocation of this law against an NGO working for AIDS prevention shows a huge gap between notions of illegality and the fuzzy fears of the government. It is not so much the actions of a person that qualifies as illegal; illegality contains categories that are always already illegal. In Lucknow, in 2001, workers from Bharosa, an outsource center linked to Naz Foundation (a British NGO with offices across India), Lucknow, were arrested on the basis of similar fears and similar charges were levelled against them. Safe-sex educational materials were considered porn, an office was mistaken for a sex hotel and HIV outreach work considered running a gay racket. It was only after concerted pressure from same-sex, feminist and Left groups across the country that the men were released.

Committed to the agenda of liberalization, the Indian government has built a thriving system of funding from international bodies for 'development' and other such excuses. A similar trend can be observed in the working of Indian NGOs. But the same action translates as an attack on national security when committed by an organization working with sexual minorities and sexuality. Homophobia has always deployed the two registers of individual pathology and national-cultural purity to oppress 'gay' people in India.

The latest happening in Lucknow is significant as no NGO is involved in the police case against the four men arrested. It is also significant that the accused (all adult men) have been charged under Section 377, since apologists for the colonial law have always maintained that it is merely there for protection against child sexual abuse and that no one in modern India has been charged under it.

The first report that catches our attention is Times of India's 'Gay club running on the Net unearthed.' The report is structured around two poles - what the police say about the incident and the accused, and what the accused themselves are (where the journalist evaluates the data). These two poles construct the fabled objectivity of modern media. In the reportage of the police's findings, it states that one of the prime accused is called Ahmad who convened the 'gay club' and was found having sex in a public space with the other three accused. As we look over other newspaper reports, we find the name of the prime accused change from just Ahmad to Nihal Ahmad, and finally settling on Nihal Naqvi.

While this reveals the precarious nature of objective and accurate reportage, there remains the crucial issue of exposing who the accused really are. The National Campaign for Sexuality Rights (NSCR) fact-finding team's preliminary report states that after the arrests, newspapers carried photos and full details of the four men. One is then struck by the competing demands of objective reportage and a hurried cobbling together of an article that, obviously, got the name of the accused wrong. But, again, Nihal/Ahmad's individual identity and actions are only incidental to the production of the gay menace. He is a social type, as the report will illustrate in its analytical part.

After the description of the incident and the arrests, the report tells us what it is that these people do:

The members used to contact each other through Net. They used to put phone numbers, photographs and 'vital stats' of their body on the net, inviting men like them for conversation and get-together.

Even minor details about tattoos, sense of humour, religion, preference, hair style, body hair were also included in the profile. "Decency" and "Safe Sex" was the part of code of conduct which every member was required to follow.

This is the anthropological evidence the writer has gleaned from the police confession extracted from Nihal/Ahmad. But what is the status of this evidence as reportage? The words are apparently addressed to the innocent among the public who wouldn't know how 'gays' operate. Yet everybody has seen the Sunday supplement of Times of India, the pages of matrimonial columns with phone numbers, 'vital stats' of the body, inviting men/women for marriage talk, even minor details like caste identity, religion, facial complexion, height and job status. Or, perhaps the point is that 'their' practices are so similar to 'ours', an almost complete (but not quite) replication of 'our' heterosexual edifice. Whatever the real intent of the report, the addressee is not the gay subject, but his interrogators.

Something to do with the Internet has the added piquancy of a general euphoria about unlimited social and economic opportunities. This strain is picked up by most of the media reports we encountered. The following statement by Ashutosh Pandey, the (Senior Superintendent of Police) SSP appears both in the HT report ('Lucknow police not to release gays' January 11, 2006) and the BBC online report ('Anger at "shameful" India gay law,' January 11, 2006):

Pandey said: '... The group had established on-line Internet links with gay groups outside the country too and strictly speaking, these groups too could be liable under the abetment laws in India.'

Here is another message that says more than it states. In Pandey's statement, we find a clear statement of the linkage between aberrant behaviour and anti-national behaviour (a jump the District Magistrate of Almora also easily made). Pandey could very well be talking about the several 'terrorist' groups considered a threat to India's national security. But there is also a wider significance of his statement for the NGO network that has been a thorn in the flesh of the liberal state. After all, these 'groups' he mentions are merely Internet chat rooms having no effective real existence. So, who are these abettors, and what are they abetting? An answer is not risked by the, ostensibly, truth-seeking press, nor does the Lucknow SSP's discourse warrant explaining himself.

But the unanimity of thought behind this statement is deafeningly clear. Gay subjects need to be injured/disciplined, in systemic ways, so that first you take away their citizenship (since they are abettors to waging war against the state), then their right to assembly (since they only meet to have sex and create a racket) and finally their right to be who they are (since that is anyway illegal, and those who don't respect the law shouldn't expect to find any protection under it). Pandey ends by saying: 'If laws were made against homosexuality in India, it must have been done keeping in view the Indian social ethos and moral values.' The ironies of a British law sensitive to Indian social ethos and values are left ringing in our ears as well.

After the intervention of the NCSR team's report, some newspapers started mentioning the alternative view of things, and speaking of how the police could have trumped up these charges against the four accused, who were not even present at the site where the arrests occurred. If we turn to a 'sympathetic' news report ('Four held for "unnatural sex" in UP, Indian Express, January 14, 2006), it is clear that the dissenting voices are registered and police extremities are shown up for their utter illegality. But the tone of critique now shifts to mocking the Neanderthal policemen who are perhaps fascist by nature.This, especially after they have been exposed by the NCSR report, comes too little too late. The report has a significant statement:

The law, which Pandey and Yadav are drawing on, is Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. But what they don't tell you is that this law doesn't recognise a homosexual act as having taken place unless there is medical evidence of intercourse.

This is not a particularly good piece of journalistic sleuthing, but it must give us pause. In the examples we have cited before, the issue of law, its applicability and its excesses were hardly under discussion. The date is January 14, and the 'gays' have responded with a protest through a fact-finding team (that the team members were gay-identified was established by one of their interviewees, the Assistant Director General (Crime) who asked them blankly whether they "approved" of homosexuality). Now this article weighs the legal pros and cons of the police case and effectively exposes their duplicity.

But the conjuncture of this report cannot be overlooked. At this moment in time, these are safe statements, even redundant statements (the men have been publicly reviled; their identities exposed to their family members; their photographs, phone numbers, addresses and other details published in newspapers; they have been beaten up and tortured by the police, made to reveal other people's numbers, and are too scared to even talk to the fact-finding team of the NCSR).

The rhetoric of law works both ways: it can invest legality and dignity, but when pedalled as the truth in a newspaper, it makes for a poor substitute for an activist, socially responsible journalism. The reports raised a chorus merely regurgitating the version of the police. Now, some sections of the media attempt to offer a more nuanced version, when they have been caught sleeping on the job, when theirs are the pants that were down along with the police's, not those of the gay men.

There are clear indications of why the police and other agencies of the state use sexuality work-based groups to raise anxieties that act as a smokescreen covering the really dangerous deals of neoliberal capital between the state and foreign sources.There are also clear indications of why and how the media duplicate these procedures: for at least two decades now the media have been eroded from being news-based to being advertisement-based, from covering issues to becoming platforms for the corporate world. Everyone is aware of the scandal of corporate sources buying editorial space in national newspapers uncovered at The Times of India, arguably India's most sold-out and insubstantial national newspaper.

The media in India, instead of being mere stooges of the neoliberal governmental regime, need to be made to offer serious critiques of the state, of its agencies like the police and what they seek to do through these periodic and dramatic attacks on 'gays' and, finally, also bring a critical eye to bear upon NGOs and their practices in a more credible and productive way than simply accusing them of terrorism because of their acceptance of foreign funding.

A truly critical media that is forced by us to do these three things will automatically produce a gay subject that is not simply the sensationalist spectacle of an ignorant heteronormative imagination, will keep the government and it agencies on their toes about masking their own neoliberal and imperial moves through these attacks, and, finally, will make NGOs accountable for the narratives of global queer subjects they produce. Till then, the media will produce monsters that we, as independent, urban, political same-sex subjects in India, do not even begin to recognize.


Today we have gay cams available and you are telling me that this title in the newspaper is shocking? Not at all... From my point of view, maybe India should try and build a better legal system.

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