Kashmir’s LGBTQ Community Is Caught Between Conservative Society and Indian Ethnonationalism
New Delhi claims that Kashmir used its semi-autonomous status to discriminate against sexual and gender minorities, but its own moves are doing more harm than good.
In May, more than a month into India’s COVID-19 lockdown, Aijaz Bund started an online fundraising campaign with the help of some friends. The aim was to collect food and money to aid Kashmir’s minuscule transgender population.
Bund managed to raise 200,000 rupees ($2,600). Although not nearly enough to help all the transgender people of the region, it was a start. “The entire Kashmir has been in a state of lockdown for over a year now. It has been particularly hard on the region’s estimated 4,000 transgender people,” Bund told me in August, “who are mostly shunned by their families and rely on small gigs like performing at marriages to make a living.”
Before countries across the world were forced into an unprecedented shutdown due to the pandemic, Kashmir had already endured months of a communication blackout and oppressive military presence imposed after New Delhi unilaterally revoked the region’s semi-autonomous status in August 2019. The decision has severely affected life for Kashmir’s 8 million residents.
Through his campaign, Bund had managed to reach out to 120 transgender people with ration packs and money by July. He was hoping to provide assistance to another 30 before he was hit by COVID-19 himself.
Sporting a long wavy beard and short trimmed hair, the 30-year-old professor has been fighting for years for justice and equality for LGBTQ people in conservative Kashmir—where sex and sexuality are generally shut behind closed doors. Bund’s activism has garnered him regular trolling and sometimes even death threats. But he has kept at it. And of late, the fight has become more complicated.
When the Indian government revoked Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status last year, it argued that, among other things, the move would emancipate the region’s gender and sexual minorities. In 2018, the Indian Supreme Court decriminalized homosexuality after a decade-long legal battle, and New Delhi argued that Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomy served as an impediment in the application of that landmark decision. But Bund sees it otherwise and called such a narrative as “mere pinkwashing to provide credence to India’s unilateral decision to end Kashmir special status.”
In fact, he pointed out, “the Jammu and Kashmir High Court in 1995 had pronounced that all the decisions taken by the Supreme Court are binding on the entire country, including J&K. So legally speaking there was no need to abrogate the region’s special status.” And far from protecting LGBTQ people, New Delhi’s move caused a lot of harm, Bund says, to all of Kashmiri society—and the region’s LGBTQ community is part of that society. “The communication blackout imposed by the government,” meanwhile, “took away a major support system LGBTQ people rely on here.”
A case in point was a call for a pride march in June in Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s city center. The march was called by the Kashmiri Youth Movement (KYM), which describes itself on its website as a “student network of Kashmiris born post 1990”—a reference to the year armed conflict in the region forced the minority Hindus to migrate from Kashmir—and which has supported the government’s revocation of Kashmir’s special status.
Bund, for his part, denounced the event as an effort “to divide the people on the basis of religion and invalidate the experiences of the region’s Muslim LGBTQ people.” KYM, Bund argues, has never worked in Kashmir or spoken out for the rights of LGBTQ people. “They were misrepresenting the queer community. So it is imperative to call them out.” (The march wasn’t held in the end, and no explanation was given.)
Dibyesh Anand, a professor of international relations at the University of Westminster, applauds Bund’s activism. “He calls out societal invisibilization of queer voices in Kashmir while at the same time rejecting the trap of Indian homonationalism”—that is, the attempt to “demonize Kashmiris in the name of ‘saving Kashmiri queers.’”
And planned events like KYM’s aren’t the only element in that attempt, he says. Last October, five masked men interrupted a panel discussion that he was part of at SOAS University of London. The discussion was about New Delhi’s revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, the clause that had guaranteed Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status. The shouting men carried rainbow flags with “370 is homophobic” scribbled across them and left leaflets that read “Regressive Left, Don’t Betray Us.” Right-wing commentators in India cheered the incident. Kashmiri commentators, who at the time had little ability to communicate with the outside world, were left in the dark.
In 2008, when Bund’s eldest sister was to get married, a transgender woman came to visit their house. She worked as a matchmaker—a vocation taken up by some of the region’s transgender people to earn a living as well as to gain social acceptance.
After she left, Bund’s mother washed the cup the woman had used for tea multiple times. When Bund asked his mother why she did it, he was rebuffed. That incident had a deep impact on Bund. “In that moment, I realized how badly we treat some people based on our own ignorance,” Bund said.
A few years later, in 2013, while doing his Ph.D. in social work, Bund started advocating for the rights of transgender people. He began by writing to the Jammu and Kashmir government. After shooting off letters regularly for a year, he convinced the Department of Social Welfare to formulate a plan to improve the living conditions of Kashmiri transgender people. “We had made certain recommendations to the government. Among them was to provide reservation”—that is, to set aside seats—“in jobs and colleges for transgender people,” Bund said.
But the plan was never implemented due to bureaucratic changes. Undeterred, Bund went on to form the Sonzal Welfare Trust, a nongovernmental organization, along with members of the LGBTQ community. “We wanted to create a platform where LGBTQ people can talk about their own issues,” Bund said about Sonzal, which means rainbow in the Kashmiri language. Over the years, the group has grown into a sizable network of doctors, lawyers, and journalists that provides online counseling and psychological aid to LGBTQ people facing mental health issues or abuse. In late 2017, Bund also published an ethnographic study of Kashmir’s transgender people titled Hijras of Kashmir: A Marginalized Form of Personhood.
Bund’s family didn’t know anything about his activism for years. He thought he could convince the entire world about the importance of his work but not his own family.
Then something unexpected happened. In 2017, when Sonzal filed public interest litigation in the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir, Bund’s family found out. But to his surprise, his parents’ reaction was positive. “My mother, who is very religious and prays five times every day, came to my room one day. She sat next to me and told me she was proud of my work.” Bund said it was one of the happiest moments of his life. “That day I realized, sometimes our psychological fears have no physical grounds,” he added.
But while his family stood by him, even praying on his behalf every time Sonzal had matters appearing in the court, Bund received derogatory messages and death threats on social media. And as he began to write more openly on the issue of LGBTQ rights in Kashmir, vicious online harassment turned worse.
“Some people would even message me,” he said, that “I could no longer call myself Muslim for my view. I never let that interfere with my belief. But it did pain me.” Bund tried to file a police complaint to make the online bullying stop. But the police officer assigned to his case dismissed his complaints. “He told me, ‘This is what will happen if you are doing such activities,’” Bund said. After that incident, Bund decided to deal with online hate and bullying on his own—by mentally blocking it out. “Somewhere down the line, I realized most of these people are not educated on LGBTQ issues and this was their knee-jerk reaction. So I decided to focus on my work to educate people,” Bund said.
Bund doesn’t deny that conservative Islam dominates some sections of Kashmiri society, but he says change has been gradually coming. “Today, young trans women wear feminine clothes in public. They visit cafes, ride scooters. Unlike the previous generation, who still conceal their sexuality or at least attempt to,” Bund said. It’s not just the clothing or access to public spaces that is opening up; the younger generation is also not limiting themselves to traditional jobs such as matchmaking. “They are working as makeup artists and fashion designers,” Bund said.
Although he is highly optimistic, Bund maintains that there is still a long way to go. “You can’t change the outlook of millions of people by simply changing a law. If that was true, there would be no more stigmatization of queer people in India,” he said, referring to the continued marginalization of India’s LGBTQ community even after the law that criminalized homosexuality was struck down.
Owais, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is an MBA student from Srinagar who met Bund online in 2018. It was a difficult time for the 23-year-old gay man. Owais had been struggling with depression, and there was no one he could speak to. “I tried to seek the help of experts, but when I opened up to them about my sexuality, they began to judge. It was a very unpleasant experience,” he said.
Initially, Owais went to Bund and his team for psychological aid. Owais talked to Bund online for days without fear. Owais said he was in the eighth grade when he realized he was different from his friends, but he wasn’t quite sure about the reason. “At that age, I had no understanding of sexuality, and there was no one I could talk to about it. I thought I was transgender. But then, when I got access to the internet in 12th class, I began to learn about myself,” Owais said.
Owais also struggled with religion in those years. “I felt conflicted about praying. I felt impure somehow,” he continued. But as years went on and his knowledge of religion grew, he began to feel more comfortable with the idea of being a practicing Muslim gay man. “I read stories of other Muslim gay people on the internet. I also got to talk to other queer people, and that really helped,” he added.
For the most part, Owais says, he is still not out about being gay. It is only when he is talking to a few friends made on matchmaking apps before last August that he can be himself. “I have had discussions with my friends about gender and sexuality. But to this day, I haven’t felt confident to open up to them. Some of them even think it is some psychological disorder. Other friends are relatively more liberal. But me coming out to them would still shock them,” he told me.
The communication gag imposed last year by the Indian government, which continues to date to some extent with a ban on high-speed internet, not only cut off Owais from his friends. It also meant he no longer could access the mental health experts he needed when he felt depressed. “For almost six months, I was trapped inside my house, and at the same time, I had no one to really express my feelings and emotions. I tried to read books and do chores to keep myself busy. But it wasn’t at all easy. I had many sleepless nights. I tried to assure myself it will be over soon,” Owais said.
Owais hopes Bund’s relentless work will someday change even his friends’ mindset.
In the last few weeks, Bund has finally recovered from COVID-19, and although his days are divided between providing online classes to his students and holding therapy sessions, he hopes to resume distributing ration packs to those who need them.
Bund says that, for the real emancipation of sexual and gender minorities, the stress has to be on creating awareness and educating people. “People here don’t understand the difference between gender and sexuality. Even for my own parents, it was difficult, even though we have had these discussions for years now.” Among his future plans is to hold a congregation of Islamic scholars in Kashmir to speak on LGBTQ rights issues.