A fine line

Sep 22, 2011, 09:40 IST | Vikram Phukan

A recent raid at a party in Jogeshwari proves preconceptions are alive, but, there is another side to the coin. Parties can be sleazy affairs at times

A recent raid at a party in Jogeshwari proves preconceptions are alive, but, there is another side to the coin. Parties can be sleazy affairs at times

As has now been reported widely, a party (in a villa at Jogeshwari) that appeared to cater exclusively to gay men, was raided last weekend by the Oshiwara police department. Community observers are sometimes quick to point out anti-gay prejudice at the slightest provocation and the police spin-doctors usually cover their tracks by trumping up a cornucopia of charges in convenient fashion. In this case, the organisers have been booked under the Bombay Prohibition Act and the Bombay Police Act for organising the party (for which tickets were supposedly 'sold' online) and for arranging liquor to be served without requisite permits. The disc jockey was booked under the Bombay Police Act for using loudspeakers in a public place. The police also mentioned provisions in the Environment Act against noise pollution as yet another trump card they could whip out if required (even though the venue in question is routinely rented out to equally cacophonous film units). So there have always been technical grounds on which these raids have been justified and in recent times, even parties at venues catering to a mainstream clientele have been raided or shut down early because of the tightening of controls by the excise department.

Event: Policemen at an Indian gay pride parade in Delhi. PIC/ Sonali Gulati

However, what is galling about this raid, given the kind of outrage it has already sparked in India and elsewhere, is the homophobia (latent or otherwise) that seemed to inform police action during the incident. The 'gay' word may be conveniently side-stepped in official statements due to the kind of perverse political correctness employed in policy matters; but on the ground the picture is disconcertingly different. In what is being described as retrograde moral policing, party attendees were rounded up and booked for 'indecent' behaviour and imposed with a hefty fine, despite the gathering taking place in what was clearly not a public forum. Anecdotal accounts from the evening talk of derisive comments about homosexuals repeatedly made by police officers, some of whom did not seem to be aware of the fact that Sec 377 of the Indian Penal Code had been read down and the so-called chakkagiri (as they termed it) was not a criminal act under Indian law any longer. The fact that the organisers of the party were kept in police custody for over three days, which is unheard of for a matter of party permits, doesn't show the police in any positive light. It isn't as if this kind of police action is unprecedented.

Art: Painting by Syed Ali Arif

A similar 'gay' party was raided recently in Mira Road, where the police orchestrated a strange kind of 'ragging' ritual on the hapless attendees, getting them down on their knees for a round of Hindu squatting while holding their ears in enforced contrition.

While anyone could be at the receiving end of over-zealous policing in an increasingly regulatory climate, the gay community seems to have been marked out as a soft target for the kind of excesses usually expected in more draconian regimes and not in an elected democracy of India's standing.

MESSAGE: Gay pride march in Mumbai

Going back a little more than a decade, many would recall one of the more important signposts of the gay rights movement in India-the infamous 'White Party' raid of 1999, in which gay men were paraded out of a farm-house by the Mumbai police under the sensationalist glare of the media that brooked no hesitation in 'naming and shaming' them. It was no Stonewall (there was no protracted anti-police agitation), but it lay the seeds of discontent that ultimately gave stimulus to the queer population in India to fight for their civil rights rather more vociferously, and in visible and organised ways. Given last week's events it may seem that not much has changed in some matters, although such reactionary raids may have been prompted in part by the proliferation of gay parties that have cropped up in the scene ever since the Delhi High Court ruling two years ago opened the floodgates. At that time, parties in Mumbai were organised by not more than a couple of groups about twice a month, now there are more than a dozen different outfits offering party experiences throughout the week that range from hearty bar nights in reputed lounge bars which attract both men and women equally, to retro-funk DJ nights with their own cult following, to the kind of old-fashioned bungalow parties favored by more discreet queers (as was the party that was raided on Saturday). The gay nightlife has opened up as never before and these parties cater to an entire cross-section of urban gay people in Mumbai, across social classes and cultural backgrounds.

Cops bust party: Oshiwara police arrested gay revellers in Jogeshwari

Understandably, the police must feel left out. Entrapment of innocent gay men by constables standing in as 'sexual bait' has been a profitable sideline for many in the force for years before the 2009 ruling put paid to such things. These stories that have been part of urban folklore for ages, have now been memorialised on celluloid in films like Onir's I Am because it is important to remember the injustices faced by an entire generation. Prejudice still runs very deep although there is a decidedly schizophrenic aspect to the attitudes displayed by the Mumbai police. For example, amongst the higher-ups in the police department, there are many officers who are sympathetic to the gay cause and offer full support to the queer community in its many endeavours. This could come in the form of permissions for the annual pride parade that is conducted in January each year (each metro in India has one), and the arrangement of adequate security during such occasions. Outreach workers working for AIDS prevention amongst high-risk groups are also afforded a measure of protection that may not have existed in the past. In fact, one of the NGOs that works actively in the area of gay sexual health, the Humsafar Trust, has conducted sensitisation programmes for the police which does appear to have paid dividends in part, but regressive attitudes still remain and afflict many of the rank-and-file policemen who make up the bulk of the force. Ultimately, a city's police reflects much of society's own attitudes. Outrage is important and must be expressed each time incidents such as the one in question come to the surface; but so is conciliation.

The reason why urban gay parties are such an important part of the queer experience is because there have ordinarily not been too many spaces where gay identity and culture could be openly expressed and celebrated.

Most Indian gay men lived and continue to live with their families, and parties have traditionally been the only places where they could congregate and make connections with the legions of other men who shared the same concerns, and have lived through the same shared experiences. These days, we have a plethora of community events like film festivals, picnics and adventure trips that take place on a regular basis, but it is the gay party culture in India that offers the most tantalising glimpse of the extended network that gay men are inexorably drawn into � a swarming incestuous circle, a seemingly unending roster of familiar names, faux online identities, and vital statistics. A person's sexuality, however parochial the prevailing attitudes may be, needs to be explored. Parties can sometimes be sleazy affairs and little more than pick-up joints but they also instill in its patrons a sense of being celebrated for that essential quality that is more often than not derided in the outside world. Desirability is an important ingredient of confidence. Much has been made of the reductive hyper-masculinity in display and how the parties seem to almost propagate the closet especially in a conservative society like ours, but ultimately sexuality is about the kind of expression that seems to flourish in the cultural citadels constituted by urban gay parties.

The recent move of having parties organised in mainstream venues is a welcome one, since these venues usually have the permits in place to conduct events of this kind, and it also reflects a change in a social mindset as more and more gay-friendly establishments come up. However, the pace with which gay men can embrace this openness varies from person to person, hence there will continue to be a need to have safe spaces that can be retrofitted according to the variable sensibilities and persuasions that exist within the community. As much as it is desirable to have a 'one size fits all' universal gay culture that thrives on openness and visibility, it is important to protect the diversity that also includes the tucked-away bits, and the nooks and corners that are not hungry to be seen. The line between what is illicit and what isn't is a thin one, and the party at Jogeshwari may have called its fate upon itself by flagrantly flouting the rules of the land, but it was already creaking under the baggage of pre-conceived notions.

There will continue to be gay parties each weekend, ripe for the kill, missing out on complete legal status due to some obscure technicality or the other, and the police could continue to have a field day. However, in order to regain the trust of the queer community, they will need to demonstrate a lot more character than is their usual wont.

A few days ago, police raided a villa in Jogeshwari after receiving a tip-off that a rave party was in progress within its premises. Tejas Yogani, the organiser of the party, was arrested for conducting a party in a residential area without obtaining police permission, and for allowing guests to engage in allegedly promiscuous activities. Yogani owns Spanish Villa Hotel on SV Road in Jogeshwari (West) where the party was organised. The DJs who were entertaining the guests were also arrested for playing loud music beyond the permissible hours. Although cops did not seize any drugs from the premises, they penalised about 130 of the revellers for consuming alcohol and engaging in obscene acts. They were let off after paying a fine.

-The writer runs the theatre appreciation website Stage Impressions, and frequently writes on queer issues

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