- Queer Activism in India: A Story in the Anthropology of Ethics by Naisargi Dave
Naisargi Dave’s Queer Activism in India explores the shifting terrain of queer politics in India and the emergence of new forms of identification, belonging and loving in the wake of global campaigns for LGBT rights. Clearly written, with vivid and vibrant descriptions of intimacy between women involved in feminist and lesbian activism, the text grapples with the entanglements of affect and political engagement in a cultural context where challenges to normative configurations of gender [End Page 263] and sexuality have increasingly come to be articulated and absorbed within judicial, governmental and quasi-governmental frameworks of legibility. Dave offers a nuanced and delicate analysis of the workings of liberalism and the efforts of lesbian and feminist activists who simultaneously fight against homophobia and sexism, while competing for limited funds within the sphere of NGO and grassroots politics. Central to the ethnography are moments of contest and friction through which social and political relations come to be figured, disrupted and reconfigured. Such moments are used to illustrate the ways in which queer activism and ethnographic research involve similar and often overlapping sorts of ethical consideration.
As the title suggests, the text deals with queer activism, yet it might be more precisely described as an ethnography about the emergence of lesbian organizing in India. Dave carefully opts to use the term lesbian to refer to identities and practices, even if they do not fit neatly within that category. She explains her use of the term as a starting point for describing intimacy between women—an acknowledgment that the concept of lesbian, though it may have its origins in the West, retains no essential or stable meaning as it travels across cultures. She writes: “The term ‘lesbian,’ then, is one of writerly convenience but also of potentiality—instead of thinking of ‘lesbian’ as a fixed thing that people are or are not, I see it as a practice of enunciation for a set of loosely recognizable behaviours and longings” (p. 20). Similarly, the term queer is invoked to harness the limitations and potentiality of “the-thing-that-is-not-yet-imagined” (p. 20). These terms help with setting up the paradox at the centre of the text: the trade-off between confinement and emergence. As in all decision-making, there are compromises that inevitably disrupt and foreclose current and future possibilities. Yet, within the forms of queer activism that Dave examines, moments of confinement or limitation are always paired with the arrival of new arrangements that move activism forward. This movement between closure and potentiality is part of her understanding of queer activism as ethical practice. Drawing on Elizabeth Povinelli’s (2001) theorization of commensurability and radical difference, Dave shows how semi-autonomous queer activist concerns and demands are often addressed as though they were commensurate with the aims and goals of NGOs and the Indian state. As her account finely illustrates, activism is propelled by the desire to maintain alliances, as well as the need to protect against intrusive and regulatory forms of encroachment.
What distinguishes Dave’s book from much of the existing work on affect and politics is its attention to the ways in which affect leads and provides the momentum for the feelings, emotions and desires that colour queer activism. Descriptions of conflicts and disagreements between activists and activist groups are addressed as integral to the constitution of social and political arrangements and to their transformation. The Introduction, as well as Chapters 1 and 2, explores the public emergence of the category of “lesbian” in India against a backdrop of earlier articulations of gender and sexuality. Sifting through an archive of correspondence between members of Sakhi, a Delhi-based lesbian network, the author traces a realm of lesbian existence in the making. She describes it as a dual world in which the circulation of letters and the rare intermingling of bodies generated distinctive experiences of time and space (p. 57). She describes the ground-level work of connecting women, focusing...