Kotis and Sexual Politics in Eastern India

On a sultry night in the summer of 2007 in Berhampore, a small town to the north of Kolkata (Calcutta) in Eastern India, I was returning to my lodgings accompanied by two friends. Both work in a local organization called Sangram ('Struggle') that advocates the rights of sexual minorities, and both identify as 'Kothi' or 'Koti', a category that loosely denotes male homosexuals, lower middle class to lower class, who avow an "effeminate" or "feminized" behavior or identity. However, as I'd often noticed, these two Koti friends of mine varied markedly in their self-presentation. One (whom I'll call A.) was often loud and flamboyant in public spaces, unabashed about his "feminine" mannerisms, the other (whom I'll call B.) was usually more subdued, and could have passed as conventionally "masculine." That night, B. was getting somewhat uncomfortable with A.'s tendency to loudly and publicly flirt with random men on the street, like the rickshaw-puller with whom we were bargaining for a ride. At one point, the man was called by a bunch of local rowdies who had been observing the scene standing some distance away, and B. got visibly nervous. But the rickshaw-puller didn't give us away—he gave them a vague response, and asked us to board so as to leave the place. A. followed us on his bike and continued his banter, loudly asking B. about the men in his life and asking if he'd share one of them that night. The rickshaw-puller maintained a tolerant silence and B. grew more at ease, while I wondered, bemused, about this little drama I had witnessed, about suburban resistance and its dangers.

I offer this story as an entry point into the precarious and internally-divided world of the "koti," a distinct yet loosely-bound category of identity among the sexual minorities of South Asia, a category that has been so debated, vilified and contested that any attempt to speak of those who still go by the term has to first work through that tangled web of (mis)representation. As per the extensive fieldwork done by the anthropologist Gayatri Reddy in South India, "Koti" is originally a word from the vocabulary of the Hijras—a culturally distinctive community of South Asian transgender males, often economically badly-off, quite separate from and marginalized by the mainstream. "Koti" seems to have been a broad category designating all "feminine males"(Hijra or non-Hijra) in the codes that the Hijras use to communicate within themselves. However, "Koti" as a separate category of identity has been propagated and made visible by NGOs that work on health and sexuality-related issues among sexual minorities in India, who use it to demarcate a prime "target group" for internationally funded HIV-AIDS prevention work. In the NGO sense, it comes to mean sexually receptive ("bottom") males who associate this "passive" sexual role with a feminine gender identity. Several activists and academics have pointed out how this category stereotypes the target group—Paul Boyce, in several academic articles, has demonstrated how it freezes and restricts the target of HIV prevention work in terms of a passive sexual role which is seen as especially vulnerable, while many males exhibit far more versatile sexual behavior and ambiguous gender identity. Ashley Tellis, in a piece entitled "The revolution will not be funded,"goes as far as to claim that the whole identity is a NGO fabrication imposed upon unwilling target groups, and advocates the "gay" identity as a far more politically progressive position coming from an actual resistant self-identification. The "Koti", in this view, is more in the service of donor-funded NGO work than real political mobilization.

However, none of these academics/activists other than Reddy pay much attention to how Kotis themselves interpret and talk about their position in non-English vocabularies, i.e. to their own attempts at self-understanding and representation. In emphasizing how NGOs construct and freeze the Koti identity, there is the danger of denying how lower middle class males with limited access to English and metropolitan media (and thus to the "gay" identity) appropriate and use the Hijra subculture as a resource, whether successfully or unsuccessfully. Even where academics like Boyce seek to understand non-metropolitan contexts, the neglect of Hijra linguistic and cultural resources, and of non-English material such as the nascent Bengali literature written on/by Kotis, perpetuates the blindness. Thus, some of the academic work critical of the NGOs can, in fact, contribute further to the ways this complex group is silenced or misrepresented.

This is neither to deny that NGOs might often do vital work among Kotis in the absence of other supporting institutions, nor to negate the importance of the criticisms made by the above academics. Rather, my piece is motivated by a desire to further our inadequate understanding of how "Koti" functions as a hybrid identity, at the borders of community and class (the middle class Gay and the lower class Hijra) as well as gender (mainstream masculine men, whether they have sex with men or not, and the marginalized transgender). It comes out of my experiences in working with my Koti friends in West Bengal, Eastern India, at two separate locations—the town of Berhampore and the city of Kolkata—for two consecutive summers (June-August 2007 and 2008). I wish to neither idealize nor deny the political potential of the Koti category, and to examine the pressures and tensions that result in internal schisms in the group and even within single individuals, made worse by how their precarious strategies of resistance often do not find support in hierarchical structures of the NGOs that work with them.

During my fieldwork in Berhampore, I once had a long chat with one of the members—whom I shall call N.—regarding how she (Kotis variably use feminine and masculine designations; many prefer the feminine) came upon the Koti identity. She told me that they had come upon the Koti construct as well as the Hijra linguistic code (called "Ulti" or "inverted") only after the formation of their organization, when a prominent activist from Kolkata, Rajarshi Chakrabarty, shifted to Berhampore and gathered an existing, largely closeted network of local male homosexuals to form an activist platform. In their attempts to get training and funding, they visited established NGOs and came upon associated Koti and Hijra communities, from whom they picked up the word Koti itself. This account was corroborated by S., a young self-identified Koti from Salar (a large village south of Berhampore). She said that she had come to know of sexuality-related NGOs through Bengali newspapers, hunted up their addresses, and visited their offices in Kolkata—thus meeting other Kotis and picking up the lingo of Ulti. Only after this did she discover more such people in her area, including local Hijra groups. Thus, "Kotis" exist in a zone between formal NGO structures, often based in big cities and staffed by gay men, and dispersed Hijra networks—and their identity is influenced by both these locations. If we represent them either as entirely "indigenous" or as merely NGO-influenced, we lose sight of this non-metropolitan and vernacular hybridity.

One factor that makes this border position difficult is the social structure of gender. The males who take up the "Koti" identity are situated in a zone between mainstream "masculine'"men—socially expected to be straight, marriageable et. al—and the highly marginalized transgender Hijra group; and further, between middle class gay men who often lead the NGO structures, and the lower class Hijras who have a far less organizational role in the bigger NGOs. They, thus, form their identity in relation to these different sections, though the borders can be at times quite ambiguous. The first section against whom they often distinguish themselves are mainstream "masculine" men, even though in social existence some (not all) might be closeted within that same majority, some even married. But even closeted Kotis (called "gupti" or "kodi" in Ulti) find the expectation of heterosexuality and social masculinity oppressive, which is shown in how they will often immediately switch from mainstream Bengali to the codes of Ulti, and from straitlaced "normal" masculine behavior to a display of "feminine" behavior, within safe spaces. Whether straitlaced and closeted ("kodi") or out and flamboyant ("bheli"), Kotis generally seek their romantic or sexual partners among the mainstream "masculine" men and not in their inner circle. These potential partners are, in the Bengali variant of Ulti, designated as "Parikh" (in other parts of India the word seems to be "Panthi"). The "Parikh" is not usually a self-identification, in fact most of the men called "Parikh'"might not even know of such a term. The Parikh, whether short-term sexual partner or long-term boyfriend, rarely makes common cause with the Kotis or mixes with the internal network, and most whom I observed in Berhampore were quite content to merge with the straight majority and hypocritically maintain their relations with Kotis in secret. It is rather the Koti position that seems to be implicitly associated with a desire to maintain, and sometimes politically assert, a certain difference from mainstream men. As D., another friend of mine in the Berhampore circle, often commented, the Parikh would not do anything for them and to expect anything concrete from them romantically or socially (as many Kotis did, according to him) was foolishness. I observed this oppositional positioning to the masculine Parikh in other people as well. For example, an older Koti activist on a visit to Berhampore from Kolkata at one point said that Kotis shouldn't hesitate to take money for sex from their exploitative Parikh partners as a way to extract their due. Thus, the privileged status of "masculine men"- whether homo/bisexual or not—immediately sets apart "effeminate" or "feminine"men and creates the need for a safe "Koti" space, a space that the "gay" identity (which doesn't specify gender orientation) may not provide to them. Which is why, pace Ashley Tellis, it may not be an easy solution for lower middle class suburban Kotis to claim the "gay" identity as an available progressive position.

Some NGOs that work with Kotis influence the Koti-Parikh split further. As Paul Boyce shows in his work, the whole "Kothi-Panthi" framework as used by NGOs can be too rigid in associating a penetrative sexual role with the Parikh and a receptive role with the Koti, which are said to correspond with active/masculine and passive/feminine identification. In my own fieldwork, I kept discovering through conversations and the general gossip that there is no real uniformity of sexual role or fantasy among the Kotis in Berhampore. During my first summer there, at least two members opened up sufficiently in conversation to admit that they sometimes fancied a penetrative role in sex. The year 2008 provided more interesting instances—a Koti friend narrated how her Parikh partner had asked her to penetrate him, and then there was a much-discussed incident when two Kotis had sex among each other (subsequently, I once heard the one who had taken the penetrative role being described as a "dupli" Koti—"dupli" meaning versatile in Ulti). Even those who take receptive roles in sex are hardly "passive" in their self-perception—idioms like "eating Parikhs"and "sharing Parikhs" being common in Ulti. But the NGO framework often foregrounds those who are more typically "feminine" among Kotis, who gain more prominence within the group, and versatile behavior can thus become ridiculed and even taboo. To me, the feminization of Kotis often seemed less deeply psychological and more as resulting from a social situation—the desire to assert a difference and set boundaries from the empowered majority of straight-acting masculine men. This desire could be sexual, political or both, but does not correspond to any uniform identity or behavior.

The other important group against whom Kotis position themselves is the extremely marginalized community of the Hijras, with whom Kotis tend to have a deeply ambivalent relation, a relation again further influenced by the NGOs. On one hand, the Hijras certainly provide (sub)cultural resources for difference and resistance, proved by the fact that my Berhampore friends so readily picked up the Hijra code of Ulti to talk about their identities and desires. In 2007, I was once accompanying one, B., on visits to local administrative officers to invite them as guests to an awareness-raising cultural function. I was intrigued to note how she would switch from respectable Bengali to a sexualized and irreverent Ulti immediately after coming out of the strained and bureaucratic atmosphere of the government offices. On a couple of occasions, after tackling especially difficult situations, she jokingly said to me, "If these people refuse us help, we'll get Hijras to create trouble for them", clearly alluding to the Hijra practice of aggressively soliciting money from middle class homes on celebratory occasions such as childbirth. Here as elsewhere, the use of Ulti and the figure of the Hijra were clearly associated with irreverence and a resistance to authority. However, the allure of the Hijra comes in tension with the aspiration to assimilation and respectability in middle class society, by the norms of which the lower class Hijras appear as unruly and disreputable, even uncivilized. On another excursion with B., she got into a conversation on the challenges of working with Hijra groups, and described how Hijras were supposedly too resistant to well-intentioned activist efforts to wean them away from their traditional occupation of begging and dancing to "respectable" trades, adding the comment, "They, too, should stop doing all this... if you want respect from society you, too, need to act in a respectable manner." This attitude to the Hijras is also influenced by NGO structures, which—at least in West Bengal—largely relate to Hijras as "target groups" and less on an administrative power-sharing basis (barring a few small groups run by Hijras themselves). As Kotis wish to become a part of organizational ranks, the affiliation with the Hijras comes under strain—they often tend to relate to the Hijras more as target groups whom they need to present to potential funders. During the preparation for the advocacy function I mentioned, my friends would often discuss among themselves how they might obtain willing Hijras as tokens to show the government officers the reach of their work.

These tensions cause splits within the group, and sometimes in the same person, on issues of identity and behavior. Kotis have an ambivalent and divided attitude to cross-dressing and flamboyance (called 'bhel' in Ulti), behaviors they often associate with Hijras and with lower class disreputability. The clearest schism in Berhampore is that between Kotis designated as "bheli" (those who crossdress in public) and those designated as "kodi" (subdued and/or closeted). The term "bhel' in Ulti signifies a certain flamboyance and is most often associated with public cruising, flirtation or seduction. The "kodi" Kotis, far more straitlaced in public behavior, often associate this not only with vulgarity but also with irresponsibility, as it tends to expose the entire group in a small-town context where many of them are closeted. As D. told me during a discussion, "Many just do it for the show, which is not right especially if the interests of many people are implicated." However, in private, even the "kodi" Kotis often employ the flamboyant performance of identity they otherwise criticize, especially to assert themselves whether jocularly or seriously. In fact, in another context, D. fondly reminisced of a rail trip the group had taken when K., one of the most notoriously flamboyant members, had pole-danced to some Bollywood number, scandalizing the co-passengers. He said, "It is true that when Kotis are together we have a lot of fun." There is thus an everyday tension between the allure and the censure of "bhel".

Here, one also senses the influence of dominant attitudes of middle class gay men, which filters down the structures and agendas of gay-led NGOs. Many gay activists disapprove of overmuch public display and flamboyance, seeing it as personal and sexual, and not as a viable act of resistance. During an interview, an activist in Kolkata recounted to me how the sartorial and behavioral flamboyance of some Kotis during the annual Kolkata pride walk "distracted" the media and "trivialized" their agenda. (A local gay-supportive celebrity, the singer Siddharta, makes the same point during an interview in Swikriti Patrika, a journal published by a community-based organization). Certain gestures associated with Hijra subculture—specifically, the "thikri" which is a loud clap used by Kotis and Hijras to assert themselves in public—have been, in fact, banished from the pride walk, and in the 2008 walk I observed how some Kotis would police the others to ensure this mandate was complied. In Berhampore, D. once laid out the point as follows: "If we don't respect social norms at all, then what is the society from which we want our acceptance and rights?" The other side of the struggle for equal citizenship and rights is thus the disciplining required to make Kotis into deserving rights-bearing citizens. However, this liberal rights-based model that privileges the society and the state as the giver of recognition is challenged by other modes of public resistance among Kotis. K., one of the most flamboyant of the Berhampore circle, once told me, "They say that we shouldn't dress or behave too flamboyantly in public, but I feel that there is also a necessity to bring this to people's attention, to let them know." Regarding her own adaptation into her neighborhood, she said that being conciliatory or subdued hadn't helped. Only when she returned taunts with insults did her neighbors stop messing with her.

It is hard to predict the future course of Koti activism, pulled as it is by these contrary tensions. Will Kotis get to a point where they can devise and assert effective and non-reductive public identities for themselves? In my perception, the hierarchized and interventionist models of NGOs are largely not conducive to a dialogue between the middle class gay and lower class Hijra, the two sites between which the Kotis negotiate. Thus, the Kotis who aspire to power through this structure have to forego their emotional alliances with the Hijras, thereby undercutting the cultural resource-base that has permitted the Koti identity to appear in the first place. How many can the NGO model of activism incorporate, and what will be the course taken by those who get excluded by it? Will the NGO models themselves reform adequately or will alternative organizations appear? These, then, are some of the big questions that need to be taken up in any future work on or alongside the Kotis.


One settlement in one town: from this small beginning in 1992, the peer education programme has grown to span six districts in Maharashtra and the border areas of North Karnataka.-Tax Tiger
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http://www.heartbanquets.com/ The rickshaw-puller maintained a advanced blackout and B. grew added at ease, while I wondered, bemused, about this little ball I had witnessed, about burghal attrition and its dangers.
http://www.heartbanquets.com/The rickshaw-puller maintained a advanced blackout and B. grew added at ease, while I wondered, bemused, about this little ball I had witnessed, about burghal attrition and its dangers.
Poor polemical me must reply to purely intellectual Mr. Dutta, from the depths of my polemical misery. How kothis see themselves, which is one claim Mr. Dutta makes, presumes that there is a cultural identity out there called kothi. My point was that decades of work by anthropologists like Lawrence Cohen show that there is no such identity, historians like Kidwai have shown it does not exist after decades of historical work and my own cultural work for over a decade has critiqued the ‘identity’ as a new-fangled NGO category and Mr. Dutta, ignoring all that, speaks of it as if it is a self-evident identity. It is a self-fulfilling account, just like that of the NGOs who conjure identities as and when the funding need arises. Each year we appear to have a new set. That is the critique being made but Mr. Dutta is so busy playing the intrepid anthropologist that he fails to question his own conceptual categories. This is especially suicidal in the context of same-sex politics in India because every category is politicized and created by certain constitutive contexts. Kothi is a “hybrid identity,” is definitely based on a claim to authenticity and if Mr. Dutta cannot see it, he needs help. I am not claiming kothi is inauthentic as an identity; I am claiming it does not exist, except in the NGO imagination. If it must be taken seriously at all, it must be as a conceptual category, as a word that sprang out of a specific NGO-funder conjuncture at a specific moment somewhere at the end of the last century and found a ‘group’ to which to append itself. That there seems to be so much division even within this ‘group’ never makes Mr. dutta stop and think whether this may be a problem because the ‘group’does not actually exist. Some people who rally around a label because of what it offers them concretely and materially from NGOs do not a identity make. I did not set up any ‘we’ and I certainly do not endorse Reddy’s work at all and have a published critique of it. But Mr. Dutta does not bother to find out any of this. He dreams on in his world, now trying to appropriate Reddy, now the many readers of SAMAR and so on. My whole Himal article, and every other article I have ever written on the subject, is an obvious critique of categories like ‘gay’ being used in India without situating them and certainly of their mindless application to the multiple context of Indian same-sex sociology. No one can be forgiven for not seeing that sentence as anything but a contradiction with the rest of the article. But the rest of the article does not seem to matter to Mr. Dutta and he takes my last paragraph to mean what he thinks it means and has the gall to accuse me of distortion. Even so, G stands for gay in LGBTblahblah so Mr. Dutta might use his brain to realize that if I am criticising this letter soup, I am also criticising ‘gay’ as the concluding paragraph I earlier quoted makes amply clear.
"My article in question was not polemical, though Tellis’s response was. Nor shall I attempt to respond in kind here. Not because I am trying to take a high-and-moral stance – after all, he has exposed me as a pseudo-ethnographer who can’t ask any theoretical questions, so what standing do I have left to be polemical or not – but simply because I don’t think it is a fruitful way to engage with the issues at hand. Some of which, as I see them, are: My apparent dismissal of a decade of academic work. Tellis scrupulously draws attention to the ways I have ‘distorted’ his argument (more on which later), but in the process has far less compunction in distorting my own. In my article, I critique certain SPECIFIC aspects of SOME academic work, which I argue do not do justice to the complexity of the Koti/Kothi group. I quote – “However, none of these academics/activists other than Reddy pay much attention to how Kotis themselves interpret and talk about their position in non-English vocabularies, i.e. to their own attempts at self-understanding and representation… Even where academics like Boyce seek to understand non-metropolitan contexts, the neglect of Hijra linguistic and cultural resources, and of non-English material such as the nascent Bengali literature written on/by Kotis, perpetuates the blindness. Thus, some of the academic work critical of the NGOs can, in fact, contribute further to the ways this complex group is silenced or misrepresented.” This is immediately followed by a caveat, as to the continuing importance of their critiques of NGOs. I thus specifically critique some aspects of the work discussed in the paragraph before the quoted one – for instance, Gayatri Reddy’s seminal work doesn’t even fall in the purview of this critique as I clearly mention that she does pay attention to Hijra and Koti self-representations (and incidentally, the spelling ‘Koti’ that Tellis marks as ‘sic’ is the one used by Reddy throughout her brilliant ‘With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India’. Is he or am I less cognizant of the work of academics in question?) I am far less ambitious in this piece than Tellis would construct me to be, so that he can then tear down the straw man of my hubris. My claim to ‘authenticity’ in talking of Kotis/Kothis. Again, I wish I had the standing or daring to make any such claim. In fact, the whole piece argues against any singular or ‘authentic’ representation of Kotis, such as the ones Tellis makes (‘Kothis are not a complex group but an opportunist category riding on the NGO creation of them as a group and silencing the real oppression hijras face and using them... etc.) My piece is motivated by the far humbler desire to ‘further our inadequate understanding of how ""Koti"" functions as a hybrid identity…’, and I consistently try to show that this term does not have any singular valence, is internally-divided, tension-ridden, split between various kinds of Kotis: not all of who have equal power within or access to NGOs, some of whom (the more out or ‘bheli’ ones) are in my experience even excluded or suppressed by NGOs. In claiming that the Koti/Kothi is a ‘manufactured’ or a ‘fake’ identity (which is NOT a claim I make) by virtue of using an NGO categorization, it is Tellis who plays the whole fake/authentic game, not I. Neither are my use of categories like ‘border’ and ‘hybrid’ intended to fetishize the Kotis: ‘I wish to neither idealize nor deny the political potential of the Koti category, and to examine the pressures and tensions that result in internal schisms in the group…’. ‘Pressures and tensions’ - This is not even the valorization of the border or the hybrid one finds in, say, Anzaldua or Bhabha respectively. It is just an attempt to not relegate them as a whole to either being timelessly ‘indigenous’, or as recent opportunist free-riders of NGOs (which some of those who identify as Koti are, no doubt: but others get left behind in that very process). The self-representation of Kotis: again, I hardly fetishize these self-representations or render them in a pre-political or atemporal vacuum given that I try to show how these representations are influenced by institutional and social pressures (e.g. in the paragraphs describing the Parikh-Koti and Koti-Hijra divisions), resulting in various degrees of complicity and/or resistance. I do insist, however, that these self-representations cannot simply be neglected, and I see that as way of silencing. That is why the need to examine non-English vocabularies and literature – not to automatically give them any ‘street-credibility’ or positive political valence (the negative attitude to ‘bhel’ for instance, is clearly identified in the piece with a problematic middle class aspiration to respectability. The use of Bengali/Ulti there does not undercut this problem). Thus, Tellis claims that I an enamored of my “beloved, marginalized, subversive and resistant kothis” to again put up a straw man to tear down, such that he may perpetuate his own biases against the group. Koti/Kothi as ‘role’ or ‘identity’? Let me here quote from Gayatri Reddy, whom Tellis subsumes in the ‘we’ (Cohen, Reddy, Kidwai, Tellis) all of whom I am being accused of dismissing for their ‘misrepresentation’. I have already tried to show how this accusation massively distorts my argument, which is actually quite inspired by at least Reddy’s work, and starts from her fundamental insight on the genealogy of the ‘koti’ term. But as we shall see, maybe there is no such uniform ‘we’ in the first place – maybe at least Reddy is saying very different things from the position to which Tellis conveniently appropriates her. “I argue that while hijras (and kotis) are constituted in part by their sexual differences, this very domain in turn is constituted by and cuts across various other axes of difference within which hijras and kotis situate themselves and through which they evaluate their moral differences and construct their authenticity. “ (p. 16, Introduction to With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India, Chicago University Press). So, according to Reddy, the kotis (sic!) also situate themselves and construct themselves – like hijras – vis-a-vis multiple axes of difference, and in this passage as elsewhere, Reddy does not interpret the ‘koti’ to mean just a sexual role, whether in the vocabulary of hijras or kotis. In fact, in the article ‘Geographies of Contagion: Hijras, Kothis and the Politics of Sexual Marginality in Hyderabad’ she mentions how ‘hijras might always have perceived themselves as part of a wider kothi universe’ (p. 262) and how ‘communities such as hijras and kothis… do not necessarily identify as ‘homosexual’” (ibid.). Reddy clearly does posit the existence of a koti/kothi community and gives some value to their self-identification, which she neither understands as just sexual role or even sexual identity, nor as NGO opportunism, though she does problematize and critique how kothis might perceive hijras as less respectable than themselves in the same article. So, Tellis puts his foot well into his mouth when he says ‘Of course, kothi is a word from the hijras. But it refers to a role, not an identity. This has been made into an identity by NGOs and unthinking ‘fieldwork’ specialists like Dutta’ for he thereby shows very little cognizance of and respect for the work of “unthinking ‘fieldwork’ specialists” like, I suppose, Reddy. In fact, if there be a genuine problem in my article vis-à-vis Reddy’s insights, it is that I – for reasons of easy and comprehensible categorization to the lay reader – use transgender and homosexual as terms to mark hijras and kotis. This is a simplification I regret, but which I try to redress through greater descriptive complexity within the piece. Lastly, my ‘distortion’ of his argument on ‘gay’ vis-à-vis ‘Koti’. Since I do not attack or denigrate the whole of Tellis’s work in my piece but a specific argument I see him as making, I am going to stick to that issue. The sentence that spurred my assessment of his argument in ‘The revolution shall not be funded’ (Himal Southasian, March 2008) was indeed the one he points out. “How can any change be expected if the fire that comes from self-identifying as 'gay' - a term with a long history - has been replaced by suddenly grafting a new word onto populations, largely without their knowledge or input?” He claims that the Himal editors are responsible for this ‘awful sentence’ and that this is in contradiction to the rest of the article. However, seeing that (as he himself admits) this was sandwiched between the critiques of the ‘kothi’ and ‘queer’ categories, and seeing that he does not explicitly critique the ‘gay’ category anywhere else in the article, anyone could be forgiven for thinking this is a political valorization of the ‘gay’ category that is coming from Tellis himself and not from the journalistic imposition of the editors of Himal (and even if so – too bad, it appeared under his name, presumably with his permission. I could correspondingly point out that I was asked to make an originally theoretically-invested piece ‘accessible’ by the editors of Samar, and thus try to exonerate the anecdotal (‘pseudo-ethnographic’) nature of the piece, but I shall not pass the buck as it was a mutual decision, and my stands in the piece remain my own.) The conclusion of the Tellis piece in Himal – advocating a language less premised on the West and on identity politics and closer to South Asian sociological realities – seems to be directed, in the context of the article, far more at the NGO language of LGBTQKH than at ‘gay’ as such, unless we are supposed to implicitly figure the ‘gay’ as western and not having any South Asian sociological valence? As for his other work, I do not pass any value judgment on them or dismiss them in my piece; my ambitions are far more humble in critiquing a very specific argument he (or maybe the editors of Himal) make/s in ‘The revolution shall not be funded’. I have written long enough; not just for the sake of defending myself but also such that readers do not receive, without any counterpoint, the dangerous oversimplifications that Tellis makes in his post. So, my intention is less to spar with Tellis himself, and more to get my response out to future readers of Samar. So, should he choose to respond to this further with more of his polemics, I can at least assure him that he shall not evoke my reply. I shall leave the intelligence & open-mindedness of our readers to be the sole judge from this point on."
"I am appalled not just at the distortion of my argument in Aniruddha Dutta’s “Kotis (sic) and Sexual Politics in Eastern India (sic) but also by the general naivete of his faith in the ‘authenticity’ of his own claims. To clarify on the misrepresentation of my argument first, nowhere in my article in Himal do I “advocate the ""gay"" identity (sic) as a far more politically progressive position coming from an actual resistant self-identification.” Nowhere do I claim kothis must adopt a gay identity. What I did say is that kothi does not exist as an identity. But Dutta knows no epistemology; he swims in the warm bath of pseudo-ethnography and can’t ask any theoretical questions. The paragraph from my article from which Dutta gets his argument is this: “How can any change be expected if the fire that comes from self-identifying as 'gay' - a term with a long history - has been replaced by suddenly grafting a new word onto populations, largely without their knowledge or input?” This was framed by the editors at Himal (one of the vagaries of working with journalism – I had no such embarrassingly awful line in my original piece) but, in any case, it comes sandwiched between my critique of ‘kothi’ and my critique of ‘queer’ as terms. Any general reading of the overall argument in my piece would find this line strange and mark it as a contradiction with the overall piece, not claim it as the crux of my argument. It is obvious that if, at the end of the article, I write: “Southasians must forge a language and a politics closer to our own contexts, a locally grounded politics that respects sociological particularities and our own languages. This would mean eschewing the identity politics that have led to widespread impasses, even in Western Europe and the US where they were born. Only when we learn to speak our own language, not simply parrot an identity-laden, alienating language from the West, and only when we are able to forgo dependence on Western support structures, will we finally have a same-sex politics that can begin to make a real difference.” then I cannot be taken to uphold ‘gay’ and want ‘kothis’ to call themselves gay? My point was, and is, that an interested and shallow engagement with the native or the indigenous will not make that difference; it will only produce categories like ‘kothi,’ which I had already signposted, as Dutta himself notes, as a manufactured and fake ‘identity.’ Indeed, the article to which Dutta refers does not have a detailed account of kothis at all. My other article “Postcolonial Same-Sex Relations in India: A Theoretical Framework” in Space, Sexuality and Postcolonial Cultures: Enreca Occasional Papers 6 Ed. Manas Ray (Calcutta: Centre for the Study of Social Systems, 2003). has a more detailed critique of kothi as a category but Dutta has not bothered to look at it in his eagerness to champion himself as the only ‘real’ representer of ‘kothis.’ Kothis do not inhabit any marginalized state; they are a bunch of lower middle to middle class cross-dressers (many of whom are married to women) who are offered space by NGOs who have made of them a category to get funding from Western funders. Of course, kothi is a word from the hijras. But it refers to a role, not an identity. This has been made into an identity by NGOs and unthinking ‘fieldwork’ specialists like Dutta. Gayatri Reddy, Lawrence Cohen (who points out that he never came across an identity called ‘kothi’ in his fieldwork through the 80s in northern India), Saleem Kidwai (who discredits the idea floated by some NGO sociologist Board members that kothi is a medieval word/identity) showing that no such word exists in any historical record, I, who have argued that this ‘identity’ circulated post-NGOisation, are all wrong, but Mr. Dutta, of course, is right in accusing us all of misrepresentation. This is based on his few weeks of fieldwork in Behrampore while decades of our research has produced only misrepresentations. The naivete of the authenticity game Dutta wants to play (“the way Kotis (sic) themselves interpret and talk about their position”) presumes that these self-identifications happen in some apolitical and ahistorical vacuum. Playing the English and non-English game is another tired arrow in this belaboured quiver. Almost all work on same-sex minorities in South Asia is done in English with words like kothi used by NGOs to gain some street-cred and appear authentic. Hijras are different from kothis and kothis using hijra lingo is both unfair on the hijra community with who few, almost no, NGOs work and who face real marginalization, are not married to women, do not cross dress temporarily and are kept out of all the processes (ration card, vote, jobs) that kothis are not. Kothis are not a complex group but an opportunist category riding on the NGO creation of them as a group and silencing the real oppression hijras face and using them, as Dutta himself shows, even as they distance themselves from hijras. Kothi is not an identity, hybrid or otherwise; it is an NGO category. Fetishizing them as border identities because of location (Dutta himself shows how they rallied together when they heard of NGOs speaking of this category) or class does not work. The very fact that, as Dutta himself points out, they switch from playing man to playing effeminate (“within safe spaces”) show that they offer no real critique of masculinity. Dutta himself shows that panthi is not an identity (it is a role). Similarly, kothi cannot be an identity, because it is just the opposite role. That’s like making ‘active’ and ‘passive’ into identities or ‘inserter’/’insertee’ into identities. Instead of his mindless little ethnographic anecdotes, if Dutta learnt to ask some serious theoretical questions and saw the various political players (including his beloved, marginalized, subversive and resistant kothis) with some acumen, it might help."

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