Friendship Walk '99: Revisiting India's first Pride March in Kolkata on its 20th anniversary

50 years ago on 28-29 June 1999, a group of gays, angry with harassment and extortion, rioted during a police raid at Stonewall Inn in New York. Many of them were drag queens. The Stonewall Riots kicked off a queer movement that refused to stay out of sight in a closet and shady bars. And a giant LGBTQI (the alphabet soup keeps growing) march now takes over cities like Manhattan and San Francisco on the last Sunday of June every year.

This year, to mark 50 years of Stonewall, there will be World Pride in New York. Hundreds of thousands will gather. Halfway across the world in Kolkata a motley group will gather as well to mark another anniversary – 20 years of the first Pride March in India.

There were no drag queens at that one. And only 15 people. No trucks. No floats. No loudspeakers blaring Bollywood anthems. They didn’t even call it LGBT Pride. “That seemed too overt,” says Pawan Dhall, a long-time queer organiser in Kolkata and one of the original 15. “We thought of calling it Human Rights March but that seemed too diffuse.” So they called it Friendship Walk which sounded innocuous, un-militant and welcoming.

In those days there were no smartphones and apps. Queer organising happened via telephone and Yahoo groups and listserves. A group called LGBT India wanted to do Pride marches in different cities to bring visibility to the issue.

“We are about to enter the new millennium,” wrote Owais Khan, one of the conveners of LGBT India to the group on 28 April, 1999. “And we are still as invisible as we were 52 years ago.” While thousands in New York were celebrating “Gay Liberation Day” he asked “can we not do a small pada-yatra complete with pink triangles and rainbow-coloured peacocks? Perhaps not a Pride Parade if a lot of us do not want to be seen thus? Perhaps just a celebration of the Liberty Day?”

 Friendship Walk 99: Revisiting Indias first Pride March in Kolkata on its 20th anniversary

Some 30 people agreed to march. On the day itself 15 showed up. Image from archives of Friendship '99

Khan says his inspiration came from Mahatma Gandhi and the Dandi March. “Let’s do this small thing. Gandhiji got a lot of opposition from the Congress who thought it was silly. But that small event captured people’s imagination.”

The Pride version of Dandi March almost didn’t happen. One by one most cities backed out for various reasons. Kolkata was the last city left standing. This was right after angry protesters had stormed theatres showing Deepa Mehta’s lesbian film Fire with characters named Radha and Sita. “Kolkata was one city where no trouble happened,” says Dhall. He was still reluctant to do a march though. He already had his hands full with two groups, Integration Society and Counsel Club, the first gay support group in Kolkata. “And then another procession in Kolkata! I’ve been part of many processions and it’s quite a pain.”

But Khan was persuasive. And adamant. “I said I’ll walk even if I am the only guy walking. They said they can’t let this guy from Bangalore walk alone,” chuckles Khan.

Planning got underway. Bright yellow t-shirts with pink triangles were designed. Some 30 people agreed to march. On the day itself 15 showed up. A recent article Chhai chapa Agoon (Smouldering fire under the ashes) in a Bengali newspaper had unlocked the doors to a flood of newcomers to Counsel Club. But in those days no newcomers wanted to march in public wearing their sexuality on their sleeves (or t-shirts).

“Some were critical saying it was too ahead of its time and we were copying a western idea. A group of MSM (Men who have Sex with Men) community members said I was such an attention-seeker I had decided to put a GAY label on my back to become popular,” remembers Rafiquel haque Dowjah, another of the original cohort, then a consultant on social research and communication.

Dhall says “we had a lot of stickers and stuff on safer sex. If there were too many questions we would say we were doing health awareness work.”

Rafiquel haque Dowjah had other concerns. The march was going to happen in Park Circus Maidan in the middle of Kolkata. “I was a known character there but as a social worker and artist. It was still a coming out process for me in public.” But there was anticipation as well. Navarun Gupta had just left a teaching job in Atlanta to be with his mother in Delhi for a few months in 1999 after his father’s death. “It was exciting to learn about it. I wanted to go to Kolkata to visit my relatives so this was a good chance to kill two birds with one stone,” he recalls. “My relatives had no idea where I disappeared on the day of the walk.”

The intrepid 15 set out on their great adventure on the appointed day. As predicted, the city at large paid them little heed. An elderly woman asked Ashok Row Kavi, the founder of Bombay Dost and Humsafar Trust, what they were marching for. He told her they were homosexuals and the state did not allow them their right to love. The woman retorted “Kheye dey kaaj nei (no one has any work) people are just policing private lives.” Then, this being the middle of the monsoon, it rained and streets got waterlogged. They still have photographs of themselves in yellow t-shirts with their pants rolled up.

After their initial walk, they split up into two groups and went north and south for a bit of bridge building with other groups and NGOs. Dhall remembers walking into the state Human Rights Commission office. The junior official who met them was completely flabbergasted. “He was completely surprised about what this issue was. What is lesbian, what is gay, what is bisexual.”

From archives of Friendship '99

From archives of Friendship '99

Later that day there was a press meet. Television channels and newspapers showed up and scolded them for not inviting them to the actual walk. “So we had to do a mock walk, a victory march I guess, in front of George Bhavan where we were doing the press conference,” chuckles Dhall. “And that’s what appeared in the newspapers!”

That led to some unforeseen consequences as the news spread nationally and internationally. Aditya Mohnot, now a fashion designer in Kolkata, had come to the walk secure in the knowledge his parents were out of town. The Times of India had just launched in Kolkata and they splashed pictures of Friendship ’99 on its pages. “My friends’ parents read about me in the newspaper,” he says. “My friend’s mother was surprised but proud.” His own parents remained blissfully unaware, he says, because newbie Times of India had hardly any circulation in Kolkata those days.

Dowjah says his immediate neighbour, a very loving didi who taught him all kinds of art suddenly shut off all communication with him and his family. “It was very hurtful and painful. Her family had known me since I was born, I grew up in their lap but I had no option but to move on,” he says. Years later, at the prodding of her brother, an eminent lawyer, she knocked on his door and said “Babu, I am sorry.” He says the lesson he learned was that “if you know you are doing the right thing keep doing it. People will come around if not today, then in 20 years.”

It’s been 20 years since that first walk. Much has changed in India since then. 1999 also saw the first lesbian and bisexual women’s group, Sappho, form in Kolkata. Transgender activism has led to a Trangender bill in parliament. Section 377 has bitten the dust. There are Pride Parades in cities big and small. Every year a new city joins the Pride list, the latest being Amritsar. Corporations are doing LGBT outreach and sensitivity training.

“We’ve come a long way,” says Dhall. “But there was some charm about those early walks which were more spontaneous.” And precious because they were so rare. They still have letters from gay South Asians all over the world. “Maybe I’ll take a solitary cruise around town here at the same time to show solidarity albeit teensy-weensy,” wrote in Arif from Chittagong in Bangladesh. “I am moved to tears,” wrote in Faisal Alam, founder of the queer Muslim support group Al Fatiha in the United States. “I promise to hold hands and march next year. In the meantime may I have a t-shirt. I would love to wear it around,” wrote Saleem Kidwai who went on to co-edit the seminal Same Sex Love in India with Ruth Vanita.

Owais Khan has kept his t-shirt. “I have it in a safe corner somewhere,” he says. He will get a chance to wear it this weekend. On 29 June 2019, some of the original marchers will gather in Kolkata to commemorate the first baby steps of LGBT Pride Marches in Kolkata. “I hope there is less loud music and less balloons and more shouting slogans,” says Dhall. In a sign of changing times, the day will end with panel discussions hosted by the Tatas at the Tata Centre.

It will be nostalgic but at a time when many think the gay movement is synonymous with gay parties and partners are just a click away on an app, the Friendship Walk ’99 is a reminder of time when everyone had to have everyone’s back because they were trying to build not just a movement but a community.

Updated Date: Jul 01, 2019 10:37:02 IST