The name QAMRA is an acronym for Queer Archive for Memory Reflection and Activism but it is also meant to invoke other meanings.

news LGBTQI+ Tuesday, January 14, 2020 - 11:52

As a queer person living in India today, I’m expected to believe that this is a time of great jubilation for our community because Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code has been read down, effectively decriminalising homosexuality, and even the corporate world is joining the party through diversity and inclusion programmes. What more could we possibly want?

To be honest, my pride is mixed with rage. I think we have miles to go, particularly in terms of demanding rights and legal safeguards for the trans people among us because the new Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act subjects them to a regime of indignity, medical surveillance and biological determinism. There is also an urgent need to address caste discrimination, ableism and Islamophobia in the community. Without that, intersectionality would be reduced to nothing but a meaningless word used to earn brownie points in close-knit circles that celebrate performativity over having skin in the game. When I think of a queer movement that foregrounds the struggles of the most marginalised - Dalits, sex workers, trans women - in our community, and also resists the hegemonic narratives of Delhi-dominated discourse, Bengaluru is the city that comes to mind almost immediately though I have lived there for a very short while.

It seems only fitting that QAMRA, a multimedia archival project that has set out to chronicle and preserve the histories of communities in India that have been marginalised on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, is based in Bengaluru.

Writer-filmmaker T. Jayashree and lawyer-researcher Siddharth Narrain, who are part of a team of volunteers putting together this archive, were at the Godrej India Culture Lab in Mumbai on 10th January to speak about their work. I met up with them before the talk to learn more.

The name QAMRA is an acronym for Queer Archive for Memory Reflection and Activism but it is also meant to invoke other meanings.

T Jayashree

“In Urdu and Hindi, a ‘kamra’ is a room, and the archive will be a physical space when it is made open to the public later this year. It also sounds a lot like ‘camera’, the object I have been using consistently since the early 2000s to film the history of the gender and sexuality movement in Bengaluru,” said Jayashree.

“I think that one could also interpret ‘kamra’ as a metaphor for ‘closet’, and this archive hopes to tell the stories of so many who stepped out and made themselves heard,” added Siddharth.

Siddharth Narrain

They are part of a team of volunteers putting together this archive to support the community’s activism and advocacy efforts in the future, instead of merely collecting documents and artefacts for the sake of nostalgia. Their hope is that the archive would also draw in people such as students, educators, artists and scholars who would use the material in creative ways to understand, interpret and disseminate these histories. They want to build the archive as a place for conversations that are relevant to the present and the future, and also where people can come when they feel alone and unaccepted by the families they came out to.

In the Supreme Court judgement on Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India, Justice Indu Malhotra wrote, “History owes an apology to the members of this community and their families, for the delay in providing redressal for the ignominy and ostracism that they have suffered through the centuries. The members of this community were compelled to live a life full of fear of reprisal and persecution.”

This history needs to honour the people who put their bodies, careers and reputations on the line to lead up to the landmark ruling on 6th September 2018. It also needs to provide the fuel for struggles that are still being waged because decriminalisation is only one small step in the journey we need to make. At present, the archive contains over 500 hours of video footage from interviews, protests, meetings and pride marches. It also includes newspaper clippings in Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Urdu and English. Apart from that, they have photographs, legal documents, audio recordings, field notes, personal diaries and other kinds of materials gathered and donated by community members, grassroots organisations, activists, lawyers and families of queer persons.

This collection is precious because a community that was once dismissed as a “miniscule fraction of the country’s population” in the Suresh Kumar Koushal v. Naz Foundation case in the Supreme Court of India in 2013 gets to narrate their own histories without sanitising or whitewashing for the normative gaze. That this community will not be invisibilised or shut down is hopefully clear to those who had failed to read the signs earlier.

“Because we were told that we were a miniscule minority that did not matter, we had to produce evidence of our existence. The entire community was invested in this process, that is why we have a very thick description of the legislative process around Section 377. QAMRA wants to highlight this history,” said Siddharth.

“We have learnt a lot from other archives, and are still learning -- the Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW) in Mumbai, Schwules Museum in Berlin, and the Interference Archive in New York. We want to create an open, independent space for dialogue,” added Jayashree.

Their talk in Mumbai was accompanied by two video installations and one photo exhibit at the Godrej India Culture Lab.

The first video titled ‘Dignity First’ was produced a year after the Supreme Court ruling in 2013, which re-criminalised the intimate lives of people from the community. It captured the anger and resistance that flowed out into the streets when the rainbow coalition and its allies mobilised to fight against the judgement, and assert their willingness to go on for as long as it would take.

The second video offered a glimpse of the various protests to repeal Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code leading up to the first Pride march in Bengaluru in 2008. The photo exhibit titled ‘Tracing Queer Histories Through Images’ was a beautiful display of magazine covers, postcards, brochures, newspaper clippings, photographs and other materials from the QAMRA collection.

It included a ‘Declaration of Freedom’, a resolution drafted and passed by “We, The Gay People” at the weekly meeting of SAATHI, Hyderabad on 28th May 1995, wherein the signatories affirmed their birthright to be, love and live.

It also featured a photograph from the Kolkata Friendship Walk in 1999, a statement titled ‘Voices of Resistance’ from Rainbow Planet at the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004, and the cover of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties-Karnataka’s 2003 report titled ‘Human Rights Violations Against the Transgender Community: A Study of Kothi and Hijra Sex Workers in Bangalore’. It also honoured the memory of trans people we have lost - Chandini, Famila, Kajol and Tara in particular. Before the entire archive is made public, QAMRA has some challenges to grapple with, especially around questions of privacy, consent and ethics. 

“It is important for us to sit down with people, and get their permission. This is challenging in the case of people who have passed away, especially if they were estranged from their families. We also have issues when there is video footage of people who have transitioned from one gender identity to another, and they want the data deleted, but to erase it would mean losing the record of their public contributions to the movement,” said Jayashree.

“There is definitely a tension between memory and preservation on one hand, and the possibility of state surveillance on the other hand. What we want to focus on is putting in the checks and balances,” added Siddharth.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer-researcher working on peace education, queer rights, and India-Pakistan dialogue.