Beyond the Kashish Film Festival controversy, members of Mumbai's queer community allude to a widening rift
The Kashish Film Festival row has brought to the fore differing opinions about whether Pride overlaps with political issues, as well as the discrimination that trans individuals face within the Indian queer community
On 6 July, queer activist Pallav Patankar featured in a video posted by a prominent Mumbai-based LGBTQ+ film festival, as its director of Marketing. On 8 July, the festival – Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival – announced that Patankar had stepped down from his role “in light of recent concerns… to keep the festival going without any encumbrance”.
What transpired in those 48 hours was backlash against Patankar on social media, connected to an event from early 2020: Following this year’s edition of Mumbai Pride, Patankar posted a statement which condemned an anti-CAA/NRC protest by Kris Chudawala, a trans non-binary media student.
Amid the backlash on social media, two organisations – One Future India and Nazariya – which were previously associated with Kashish, distanced themselves from the festival over this issue. When actress Celina Jaitly, an ambassador of the film festival, was tagged in a tweet that asked her to look into Patankar’s appointment, the actress expressed shock and stated that she would ask for an investigation. On 7 July, Kashish posted an update on their social media channels that it had begun this investigation.
News of the resignation came the next day. Ever since, Patankar has offered his version of the events, Celina Jaitly has dissociated from the festival, and Patankar’s supporters have accused the “Left” faction of the Indian queer community of robbing him of an opportunity.
What the Kashish row exposes is a rift that many members of Mumbai’s queer community feel has opened up within it.
In the statement posted after Mumbai Pride that he has been criticised for, Patankar commented unfavourably on Chudawala’s demeanour and objected to the slogans they raised at the event. “They are ill-behaved, entitled posers who do glib talk but do precious little on the ground… The content of their sloganeering give me good reason to believe the reasons for the QAM Pride March permissions being denied by the police,” he wrote. He also alleged that they misbehaved and undermined the efforts of Mumbai Pride’s organisers.
For the first time in its history, Mumbai’s annual Pride march, which is organised by Queer Azaadi Mumbai (QAM), took the form of a gathering, after permission to march was denied by the city police. This was at a time when a number of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) were taking place across the city.
An additional condition was that attendees would not use “placards/banners/posters/displays that may offend the sentiments of any person or community” — an aspect that QAM was criticised for. How could Pride not be political, critics asked. In the aftermath of the gathering, QAM posted a statement which said the organising bodies and permissions team of Mumbai Pride “completely dissociate ourselves from and strongly condemn the abrupt radical slogans”.
Chudawala was charged with sedition by the police a month after Pride in February. They were given interim relief by the Bombay High Court after a sessions court previously rejected their application for anticipatory bail. Patankar received flak for dead-naming Chudawala in his statement (he used their given name instead of the name they prefer using, which is Kris) and allegedly tipping off the police by naming them in the first place, which some individuals claim led to Chudawala’s arrest.
Patankar has been a part of Kashish in different capacities since the festival’s inception a decade ago. He said that the decision to step down was not solely his; Kashish’s core team asked him to do so. “I refused to sit like an accused party and defend myself because this incident is related to the Pride march and has nothing to do with Kashish. I feel I have explained myself enough… I told Kashish they should decide, because these are voluntary positions, you’re doing it for the community. If it’s not helping the community or festival, then I didn’t want to be a liability.”
Though Kashish did express that they would like to have Patankar back, they decided it was best he step down to prevent further backlash, Patankar said.
In an interview with Firstpost, Patankar said that the police had taken note of Chudawala’s presence at prior protests in the city. He said that neither he nor QAM had complained to the police, and further, that he and others who had sought permission for the Pride gathering were summoned by the authorities. “The police said Chudawala was already mentioned in their records — by their dead-name — because they had attended protests across the city. The police had taken their name from their college, because a lot of students from the college were participating in protests… I asked the police if it was my post that led them to arrest Chudawala — they looked at me as though I was an idiot. Once Kirit Somaiya and other political leaders raised an issue about the slogans and the videos came into focus, Chudawala was easily identified by the police,” Patankar said.
Responding to the allegation that he dead-named Chudawala, Patankar said he referred to them so because the name on their Facebook account and in legal matters is their dead-name. “These are new, fancy terminologies. I don’t know what dead-naming is. I’m also learning,” Patankar said.
(Chudawala countered parts of this narrative in a conversation with Firstpost. They said they had met Patankar before Pride, at an event in January. “My photograph was there, my name was presented as Kris, we interacted with each other, he knew my name, the fact that I am trans non-binary and that my pronouns are they/them. Following this, if he uses my dead-name and gives excuses for doing so, it is not fair,” Chudawala said. A member of the queer community who Firstpost reached out to for this report also noted that while Kirit Somaiya may have asked the police to take action against Kris and shared their video, the BJP leader also included Patankar's statement in his complaint.)
Patankar opined that there were other people at Pride who felt their voices were being stifled because the gathering became “all about CAA and NRC”. “You’re endangering people who came, not for a protest against CAA-NRC, but for a Pride event,” he said.
Patankar also posted a personal statement about alleged hostility against him within Kashish spaces because of what transpired at Mumbai Pride. He wrote that the core committee of the film festival featured people who were “close and sympathetic to Kris” and went on to state that Chudawala was “supposedly deadnamed” — after mentioning Chudawala’s dead-name in the statement.
He further alleged that there was a “systematic orchestrated campaign” to attack him by questioning his involvement as director of Marketing by people within the film festival who are Chudawala’s “friends/fellow trolls”. He added that he was attacked for his views regarding the curation of panel discussions by the same individuals who campaigned against him.
“They felt it was their personal victory to get me thrown out. It all became about how trans men and non-binary women are going to show the gay men how they can be thrown out. Things got ugly within the core committee itself. I think there was a lot of sabotage in the team itself, because of an incident which took place in February. It was festering for long, so I thought it was better to be out,” he said to Firstpost.
“The issue is not about identity, it is about misusing community platforms — and misusing platforms can be done by cis, trans, gay, or lesbian people. Someone cannot get away with misbehaviour merely because they’re trans,” Patankar said, and later in the conversation, asked if Chudawala was misusing their identity and “transgender privilege”.
“If I’m being credited with outing them, give the credit to me, I don’t mind being the villain in this story as I have thus far. If you’re going to shout slogans in front of a crowd, you should be ready to face the consequences,” he said.
For their part, Chudawala said they have no opinions about everything that has transpired at Kashish. “I’ve been focusing on my work and case. I genuinely don’t care about what has been happening, I wasn’t even aware of what was happening till I began getting tagged in posts,” they said.
In response to Firstpost’s questions about Pallav Patankar’s decision to step down, Sridhar Rangayan, director of Kashish, said, “We have said whatever we have to say in the statement KASHISH MIQFF Core Committee has put out on our social media handles,” and attached a copy of the statement. There was no response to a question asking for Kashish’s comment on Patankar’s statement which named Chudawala.
As of 9 July, Celina Jaitly announced that she has decided to dissociate from her role at Kashish. “As a war heroes daughter, a Special Forces officer’s sister and my 4th generation army lineage, I am unable to be part of anything which garners allegations that are ‘DIRECTLY or INDIRECTLY’ unfavourably associated with our nation’s integrity,” Jaitly wrote in a statement posted on Twitter.
QAM issued a fresh statement on 9 July about the timeline of this year’s Pride gathering; among other things, it stated that the Thane Queer Collective, which Kris is associated with, allegedly did not participate in any of the organising efforts. The statement notes that permission was granted only after one member volunteered to sign a legal bond and affidavit, and other members gave their credentials to the police, assuring the authorities “that the gathering would adhere to all the law and order restrictions pertaining to Azad Maidan”.
The statement contains a number of allegations against Chudwala: That Kris exceeded the stage time allotted to them, intimidated senior attendees, threatened a member of QAM with physical violence, and raised slogans about Sharjeel Imam. According to QAM’s statement, it was the police who identified Chudawala themselves, without any information from QAM’s members, when QAM was summoned to the Azad Maidan Police station after videos of the sloganeering went viral on social media. It mentions that Chudawala used their dead-name on social media, in the attendance record of QAM’s meetings and for their legal submissions. (It is not uncommon for queer people whose names have not been officially changed to use their given names/dead-names for official purposes).
Beyond the calls for Patankar to step down from Kashish, and the blame-game that the Pride event was swept up in, there are long-festering issues within the community.
For instance, on social media platforms, some members of the queer community accused “Leftist mobs” of “cancelling” Patankar because his ideology did not align with theirs. An individual who has long been a voice of the Indian queer community, tweeted that a “lesbian mafia” has managed to “infiltrate Kashish and subverted a very successful LGBT event that has helped thousands to come out”.
However, Siddhant Talwar, an artist, says that those labelling others as being the ‘Leftist mob’ are the ones wielding power within the community, and who others are, therefore, apprehensive of challenging. “They are unwilling to have a conversation… If these people run the structures within which we exist, do trans people have a space to exist in, without being attacked? Do young queers, who are just discovering themselves and might not fall in line with the ideology that [those with power] believe in, do they have a right to exist in the community?” he asks.
Dipannita, a 30-year-old Gender Studies scholar, says that this issue is also a portrayal of how trans and gender non-conforming persons are often treated by cis-gay men in the Indian queer community. “When others in the community object to this treatment, they are subjected to the same transphobic vitriol,” she said.
Talwar says this difference in attitudes towards trans people and others with differing opinions stems partly from a caste and class privilege and the privilege that comes with being a cis-gendered person.
He also sees it as a matter of creating truly safe safes and being inclusive. “What I find sad is that since they have contributed to the queer movement in the past, they seem to think they can make no mistake. They say, ‘Let my work speak for itself.’ Yeah, it does, but you too should speak for yourself. Right now, you’re saying extremely transphobic stuff, and for all I care, you are putting people from the queer community in danger, so I’m not going to see you as the queer icon you brand yourself to be… You don’t get to select who belongs in the community. There are going to be different people in the community, and you don’t get to de-value someone’s identity… You can hold someone accountable, but being accountable should be the individual’s own prerogative first, and this person thinks they can do no wrong.”
Vivek Dsouza, a 25-year-old researcher, recounts the existence of an unofficial QAM group where there was a visible imbalance in power. This group, which featured mainly gay men, was allegedly toxic towards trans people and queer women: The trans people in question were frequently shut down, something Dsouza highlights as happening even before Pride. The split in approach began to take shape during the anti-CAA and NRC protests in the country, he said.
“When some trans people left the group, they were mocked. Gay individuals accuse others of not attending meetings and not being involved and not doing ‘real’ activism, but they’ve done nothing to reflect on the spaces they’ve created… From my own experience of queer activism and involvement in QAM, I found that a lot of women were not given opportunities to speak. Pallav Patankar was among those who spoke over others while making his points. Some women gave up and said they didn’t want to come for any further meetings,” Dsouza said.
Dsouza added that as a cis person he can affirm that solidarity within the queer community is often brittle and fake. “What I also fear is that solidarity coming from cis-heterosexual people, in the sense that it co-opts the politics of gay people, is rewriting queer politics in a way that looks down at trans communities and those who are most marginalised.”
A young activist who has worked in queer spaces, who requested anonymity, outlines two episodes which further illustrate the lack of inclusivity and mindfulness in the community. The first concerns a pre-Pride March discussion. "Cis men from the community who largely lead these discussions in Mumbai wanted the Pride march theme to be 'welcome change', signifying how the community is grateful for and celebrating the Section 377 verdict. This was, of course, shot down when people from the "Left" group attended one such meeting and dismantled this argument entirely," she said.
The second episode involves the response to the Trans Act 2019 and the protests that followed. "None of the bigger organisations in the city stood up against the Act. In fact, it was smaller groups who made the protests in Mumbai happen. They were poorly attended, but led entirely by young trans people. The cis gay 'old guard' were nowhere to be seen," she adds.
However, Ankit Bhuptani, a member of QAM, offered an alternate version of the events that took place, in a series of tweets responding to this report. Bhuptani states that QAM had discussed the Trans Act as early as December 2018, that its statement criticising the Act was shared as a handout during the 2019 edition of Mumbai Pride and that in December of that year, multiple requests were made by a QAM moderator for inputs to a draft statement critiquing the Act. He says that there was no response from individuals who are now criticising QAM for inaction.
A committee was later created to draft a statement, but Bhuptani alleges that Chudawala, Thane Queer Collective and TISS Queer Collective, who were part of this committee, did not contribute to the first draft. The statement was ultimately drafted by a cis gay man.
The need for an intersectional approach to queer politics cannot be stressed enough.
As Dipannita notes: “The Trans Act 2019, if looked at from the lens of disenfranchisement that the CAA, NRC and NPR will lead to, will show us that as it is already difficult for trans persons to have legacy documents and even documents that show the name and gender they are, and not the ones that were assigned to them. Thus, it cannot be seen as a "left agenda" as it has been termed. Queer identities are not monolithic, and it is important to recognise that.”
On their part, Chudawala points to the diversity within the Indian queer community: “There are people of different sexual orientations, people who are asexual, people who are trans and non-binary, there are socio-cultural identities which are trans. Though we are referred to by one word – queer – we are far from being homogeneous. Then what the community bases itself on is solidarity – you stand for me, and I stand for you,” they said.
They said they have observed a gradual breaking down of solidarity after the reading down of Section 377, which until then acted as a unifying factor. “Since the 377 judgment, the community has fragmented a lot, because that solidarity isn’t there. For example, with the Trans Act 2019, which concerns those who are trans, non-binary and intersex, in an ideal scenario, everyone in the queer community should have come together to fight it, irrespective of whether they are cis or trans. We did not see this… Within a heterogeneous community, there are bound to be varying degrees of marginalisation. Queer-ness is also not our only identity; we live intersectional lives, and these composite identities add to the levels of marginalisation. It’s very simple: ‘No one is free until all of us are free’.”
This report was amended on 18 July 2020 to incorporate QAM member Ankit Bhuptani's response.
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