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Sayan Bhattacharya: Memory, Invisibility, and Trans and Hijra Persons in India

Sayan Bhattacharya (they/them) is a Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota, as well as a queer and trans rights activist in India. In this piece we explore Sayan’s academic work about the role memory plays in queer and transgender movements in India and their daily negotiations with the nation state.

Interviewer: Nicolette Gullickson
Co-written by Alexander Champeau and Nicolette Gullickson


Definitions and Word Usage, According to Sayan’s Accounts

  • Transgender : Started circulating in India in the mid-2000s in official documents. Even though it attempts to subsume various gender embodiments in India as local and regional, the latter continue to thrive alongside transgender.
  • Hijras could be transfeminine individuals, gender nonconforming folks assigned male at birth or even women who live together in closely knit structures of kinship. They dance at weddings and the birth of newborns. Their blessings are considered auspicious even though hijras are one of the most marginalized communities in South Asia. 

“Memory keeping is a form of care labor we commit to for the sake of our movements.” This statement reflects the foundational philosophy of Sayan’s dissertation, which explores how memory circulates in the everyday lives of India’s trans and hijra communities. Even though there are very few organized archives that systematically record queer and trans histories in all their complexities across various linguistic and geographic locations in India, unofficial histories can be gleaned from oral histories and cultural ephemera. Accordingly, Sayan explores how such cultural artifacts can be read as modes of memory making, work that requires a lot of care and labor. Sayan’s academic work has been buffeted by personal and political work as an activist within queer and trans communities in eastern India. The last few years have been breathtaking in terms of the shifting landscape of queer and transgender rights in India and the political situation in general in India. In 2014, a Supreme Court verdict stated that individuals could self-determine their gender identity irrespective of any gender affirmation surgery. The court also advocated for affirmative action to uplift India’s transgender communities. Yet, the Indian government which is headed by a Hindu majoritarian party, violated this judgment and introduced a law that instituted complex bureaucratic processes to decide if a person is transgender. It has also not committed to any welfare and affirmative action for trans people. Overall, these are increasingly precarious times for India’s marginalized communities – be it religious minorities, subordinate caste people and queer and transgender communities. Yet, the government keeps claiming on global platforms that it has instituted laws to safeguard the interests of transgender communities. Sayan’s research on memory plays against such a challenging political backdrop. The work of documenting memory becomes even more important now to speak truth to power and demonstrate how the government’s claims of being a liberal administration is actually not borne by the ground realities. 

How does memory circulate in communities that have been rendered invisible by the State? How do trans and hijra persons, whose very existence had been denied for a long time in official histories, claim their space? For instance, during the peak of the HIV crisis in the 1990s, the Indian state continued to deny the vulnerability of queer and trans communities to the virus because it kept insisting there is no gender and sexual non-normativity in India. These communities had to build their own networks of care and mutual aid to fight this apathy.  Investigating these questions of memory become more challenging because memories of people differ and often give contradictory accounts. Sayan feels such contradictions can help construct a multilinear account of trans and queer communities in India.  

Trying to understand these thriving histories is incredibly important in a transnational context as well because much of the global conversations on queer and transgender movements revolve around the US whereby stories from the global south remain on the periphery. US produces queer theory which is supposed to be universal and applicable across all contexts. Joining several scholars from the global south, Sayan’s work seeks to disrupt this hierarchy of knowledge production. 

Sayan’s work is also supported by their experience of working as a journalist prior to joining academia. As a journalist, Sayan regularly reported on issues of gender and sexuality and helped coordinate press conferences and media outreach for the Kolkata Pride Walk. Currently, Sayan is part of a team of mentors for Varta, an online forum for issues of gender and sexuality in India that is mentoring transgender and queer youths to become journalists and write about issues facing their communities. Sayan also volunteers with a disability rights group.  

During their coursework, Sayan worked with the Tretter Collection, an archive of queer and transgender histories housed at the University of Minnesota for a semester. Though the Tretter Collection is renowned for its archives on the mid-west, it also houses materials from other geographic locations in the US as well as from other countries. Sayan had a great time working with the curator, Rachel Mattson. Sayan was tasked with organizing the South Asian files. Sayan noted that the collection was not accurately catalogued and though the materials were mostly from a single organization in Sri Lanka, the collection was described as pertaining to the whole of South Asia. Sayan rewrote the finding aid for these files and learnt about archiving while working with Mattson. 

When the Covid pandemic hit the globe last year, the trans and hijra communities in India were rendered further precarious because they lost their primary sources of income through sex work, dance performances and begging. Sayan was part of several initiatives that provided emergency supplies and rations to these communities during the time when the whole country was shut down due to the pandemic. Being part of these processes were very emotionally fulfilling for Sayan. 

Sayan’s research and activism is playing out against a rapidly shifting political landscape and in that sense, their research is an attempt to both document the past and its relationship to an ever shifting present. They feel that it is imperative for academics to be able to translate their research for non-academic audiences as well and only then will it be possible to bridge the differences between academia and activism and mutually benefit both. Sayan’s research in India has been supported by various fellowships in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota and Culture Corps at the International Students and Scholar Services.

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