How The English Language Both Facilitates And Restricts India’s Queer Liberation

In India – and this has been true since the British rule – English education has been indispensable for not only socioeconomic but also cultural mobility.

A Yoruba proverb goes something like this: the white man who made the pencil also made the eraser. This metaphor demonstrates a begrudging recognition of the ambiguous consequences of colonialism – not all bad, but certainly not all good. Fittingly, it also holds literally true: by appropriating the coloniser’s linguistic tools, postcolonial subjects can rewrite their selves to liberation only as far as they can erase whatever links them to their linguistic origin. The erasure of this link is the cost of liberation – one that has only ever been articulated in the language of the coloniser. While this has wide-ranging implications, I shall limit myself to the question of queer liberation and demonstrate, in part through my own experiences, how its privileging of the English language as its sole means of articulation makes it, at least in India, an exclusively urban form of politics. Let me acknowledge at the outset: my own story is one of privilege; all I expect it to do is put into perspective the lack suffered by so many Indian queer people.

Another preface: I take as self-evident my conviction that queerness is not an exclusively urban issue per se, even if its most visible incarnations occur in urban contexts. Just because the concept of queerness as a self-conscious identity is imported from the modern (i.e., post-Stonewall) West, the rights of queers cannot be dismissed as an ideology of the Western bourgeoisie. However, it will be difficult to seriously advocate this until the Indian political discourse surrounding queer rights moves beyond its Western roots in order to become inclusive of those who cannot participate in it, simply because they cannot engage with English.

In India – and this has been true since the British rule – English education has been indispensable for not only socioeconomic but also cultural mobility. In 1993, researcher Modhumita Roy wrote, “Forty-five years after independence, English remains firmly entrenched in the lives of Indians. Although the compulsory teaching of English has long been abolished in almost every state in the country, it continues de facto, as in the early nineteenth century, to be the language associated with social mobility, power and privilege”. Twenty-seven years later, English has only tightened its grip on the Indian society.

Let me demonstrate this by recounting my own experience with English as a cultural capital. I spent most of my adolescence in Rewa, which, although located in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, is curiously marginal in its relation to the rest of India. Suffice it to say that growing up queer in a third-tier Indian city cut off by the largely urban politics of queer liberation is a potentially debilitating prospect – that, unless you have the means to leave. Thankfully, I did. Being upper caste and economically well off took away the potential of my queerness to handicap me, and at eighteen I left for Bangalore fully funded. Thus, I went from a life of queer isolation to a life in the queer capital. However, before all this could come about, English functioned as my sole bridge to any form of queer activism, a largely urban phenomenon that manifests itself in corporate and social media initiatives bound to big cities. Far away from any local pride parade as I was, simply being able to access social media, books and television helped me approach my queerness in positive terms. In particular, my exposure to the western political discourse, which posited self-conscious and self-determined identities as a framework for political theory and practice, taught me the vocabulary and, hence, the confidence to put myself out into the world with defiance. Furthermore, my ability to speak the language of the privileged afforded me the luxury to move about in an exclusively urban, liberal bubble of sorts. Many privileged queer people I know can have claims to a similar narrative, because we could somehow afford to transcend our hegemonic constraints. James Baldwin put it thus: “The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim”. In a similar fashion, when we as queer people are able to articulate our own experiences in a language of affirmation, we cease to be the other to our own selves.

However, this rewriting of the self cannot exist without trauma. In his book Decolonising the Mind, Kenyan writer Ng?g? wa Thiong’o describes how the imposition of a foreign language can alienate us from our own culture by “taking us further and further from ourselves to other selves, from our world to other worlds”. According to him, a community’s language is inseparable from its culture, values and history. Therefore, those of us who find it convenient to adopt English to shape ourselves must also contend with feeling uprooted from our immediate surroundings, where identification with indigenous languages is much stronger. I know this only too well. I feel more comfortable expressing myself in English than Hindi, my mother tongue. Not so with my parents, who can’t understand English. Naturally, much is left unsaid at home, where my ability to articulate my queerness isn’t of much use without the availability of a good translation. How do you say “heteronormativity” in Hindi? If there is a word for it, nobody ever bothered to teach me.  I have made peace with this peculiarity of my existence; at least I have access to safe spaces outside. However, these spaces are so exclusionary that they elude many queer people. We must acknowledge these subaltern queers that the urban politics of queer liberation refuses to help.

Language can serve an ideological purpose by prioritising certain perspectives. Consequently, marginalised perspectives are often left unarticulated. While many academics working in the humanities and social sciences have consciously attempted to expand English’s ability to carry the weight of marginalised experiences, these reforms have as yet no counterparts in our indigenous languages. Therefore, while the Indian queer rights movement is certainly benefitting from appropriating these linguistic reforms, it is also languishing by not introducing these reforms indigenously. Simply put, the language of social justice must go local, and we must all commit to this responsibility. To borrow wa Thiong’o’s phrasing, those with alternative visions of tomorrow cannot afford to cocoon themselves with English.

Of course, I understand the irony of writing this in English. I am also aware that by employing a specialised vocabulary, this article reveals itself to be a product of the same exclusionary structures it critiques. I anticipate and welcome this criticism. I must admit that in this article I have failed to demonstrate a radical new ethic of writing – entangled as I am in the same hegemonic processes that make us all complicit. Perhaps my attempt in articulating this problem can instead be looked at as a small step towards a paradigm shift, where those of us with privilege would be moved enough to participate in a radically transformed discourse around language and activism. Such a change would first require us to face the reality that as long as it is asked of a queer person to speak, read and understand English in order to even be afforded the luxury to visualise liberation, India’s non-English speaking population will continue to be excluded from the purview of queer politics.

About the author

Abhishek Chauhan

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