On the eve of the annual Bangalore Pride, our favourite Professor Kunal Ambasta answers some questions on Pride, the queer rights movement, and his *celebrity* status. This interview was conducted by Madhunika Vardarajan (Batch of 2021) on behalf of the NLS Queer Alliance.
Interviewer: Thank-you so much for taking the time out and doing this, sir. Shall we proceed to the questions?
Kunal: Yes, we can. I’m very nervous for this right now.
Interviewer: So, to start with, will you be going for the “Bangalore Pride March” this year?
Kunal: My mother is landing in Bangalore on that day. So, I’ll have to go to the airport to pick her up. But I think I will be there at the beginning at least. I should be there when it starts off and then I’ll go to the airport.
I: Given this year’s judgement on Sec.377, do you think this year’s pride will be different for you or in general as such?
K: Well….Pride means different things for different people. For a lot of people, it is a method of protest for making your presence felt. For a lot of other people, it is a source of affirmation of their presence or of their identities. A lot of them come to just enjoy and express solidarity. So, a lot of these things may be different for different people. But, irrespective of legality, the need to conduct Pride and walk the Pride remains the same. So, in that sense, I would say that for me, the judgement itself does not make that big a difference but of course, I’m hoping that many more people will come now that there’s the decriminalisation judgement.
I: What was your 1st Pride like?
K: My 1st Pride was several years ago and it was a lot of fun! Going for your first Pride is obviously a different experience because it is all so new. You’ve only seen Pride in a movie or on TV. It’s also putting yourself out there. You are making a statement, not just to anyone else but to yourself as well. Once you see that happening to yourself, you see yourself transforming. It’s in a sense, owning of your own queer identity in public. That is important. That is, to use the term very out of context, transformative. And once you go for Pride, you realise that there are a lot of people who are just like you. So, yes. It is an experience.
I: Have you observed any change with respect to the way the Bangalore Pride has looked/felt over the years?
K: Pride has become huge in Bangalore. Thousands of people walk it now. When it started off several years ago, it was not happening on such a large scale. Very few people actually started it off. But it was a very good start. Bangalore Pride has also been very conscious of how it has to be managed and how it has to be acceptable to all sections of the queer community. The Bangalore Pride is one of the only Prides that does a disability access survey of the Pride route to see as if the disabled allies and members of the community can walk. The Bangalore Pride has also stopped accepting corporate funding and sponsorship. In fact, corporate markers are not allowed at Bangalore Pride. This was done to stand in solidarity with people who might be exploited by such corporate giants. And personally speaking, I think it is a good move. But of course, I am not the best person to talk about this. The Pride Planning Committee in Bangalore is a better authority.
I: You completed your LLM at the University of California, Berkeley. Did you observe any differences with respect to the feel and execution of the queer rights movement or Pride in Berkley /the United States and NLS/ Bangalore?
K: Yeah! There’s a HUGE difference. Well, Berkeley is in the Bay area which is a liberal enclave of a liberal state which is California. It is also very close to San Francisco and Castro, which are considered to be meccas of the gay world in the Western Hemisphere. Pride over there is preceded by a lot of other events. In Castro, you have the Folsom street fair, for example. It’s much bigger and has a lot of planning done in a very corporate sense. There are floats, choreographed dances and other performances. There’s also a critique of this Pride from within the community saying that Pride has lost its radical edge and that it is no longer the angry protest that it originated as. And there is some truth to this critique. It is not like all sections of the queer community have achieved their rights, especially in a country like the United States which still does discriminate against the trans community in a very severe fashion. A very colourful and happy Pride does not showcase the protest of the transgenders against the discrimination they face. But having said that, you can also say that for a lot of people, this is their moment to affirm their identities. But a response to that is that as long as the “gay boyz” and lesbian women get their rights, they don’t care about anyone else. They have won their rights for marriage and civil partnership. But what about the rest of the queer community? So, you’ll have to see that…*chuckles* …. I’m sorry I don’t remember your question
I: Sir, the 2nd part of the question was about the difference in the feel and execution of the queer rights movement in NLS and Berkeley. Did you see any difference?
K: Yes, of course. UC Berkeley takes a much more positive stance with respect to the rights of the queer community. The students as well as the staff aren’t allowed to gaslight queer identities by asking them questions like “what if, this is actually unnatural?”. In NLS, you don’t see that. Of course, the students of NLS have been extremely supportive of each other and of other students who might be queer. But institutionally, we have zero mechanisms to ensure that there is no discrimination on campus. As far as I know, we do not have an openly transgender student or staff member. So, inclusivity and diversity over here is not that great. Not to say that Berkeley is heaven and that there are no problems over there. Of course, there are. But yes. We have a long way to go.
I: How has the viewpoint on the queer movement changed over the course of years at NLS? And if you do you feel the change; do you think it is because of the fact that you are no longer a student and rather a teacher on campus?
K: When I joined NLS, what I felt, and I might be completely wrong, was that the heyday of the queer movement at NLS was over. I joined in 2007 and back then, there were very few openly queer seniors to look up to and to talk to. Priya (Thangaraja) was one of them. I must mention her because Priya, for me, was the first person who ever publicly owned her sexuality as being queer in a classroom. I was just sitting there and listening and it has a very different effect. But with regard to say, organising talks and conferences, a lot of that did not happen when I was a student over here. There was also a lot of homophobia when I was a student at NLS. But you also constantly realise that this is not the worst that you can get. That you could do much worse in another college. Of course, I’m not saying that you should compare yourself to that.
When I joined back in 2013, there was that incident with the slur on the door and the thing is, as a faculty member, I still have that amount of privilege to choose to ignore such incidents. Which was also what I did. I told myself that this was obviously done to elicit a reaction and that I will not give it a reaction. So, I will not take it (the slur) down nor will I say anything about it. I told myself that I will not let it get to me. This displays some privilege because I don’t have to stay here. I don’t have to live in a hostel twenty 24/7. I don’t have to deal with students at a professionally equal footing. There is a power relation there and I am in the more powerful position. So, to not react is also a privilege. As a student, I don’t have the privilege of not reacting. That’s because a reaction would have been forced out of me. And if you don’t react it is not like it is going to go away. But here, of course, with respect to me, I had that. But what was heartening to know was that after the slur incident, the students rallied in large measures. So, the whole thing with the19(1)(a) board happened. However, what was more important was that a conversation around this issue started. This does not usually happen in hostels. I was never interested in catching the kid who did it and ensuring that the kid got punished. What was the more valuable and important takeaway was the fact that it sparked off this discussion and this conversation around the issues of gender and sexuality and that the students took the lead in that. It wasn’t as if it was forced by the college admin or by the teachers. I think the Queer Alliance also came up after that.
I: So, in the context of the aforementioned incidents, do you think NLS is a “safe bubble” to discuss and take action with respect to such issues? Is it harder in the outside world?
K: Things can get pretty bad outside and for a lot of people being in college, irrespective of whichever college it might be in, is liberating in terms of the autonomy it gives you, your decision-making skills, your inter-personal relationships without having adults to constantly look out for you. But in terms of NLS, I think, universally, NLS students have to acknowledge the fact that a lot of things that happened with respect to the queer movement in India happened from NLS. This also includes people from NLS participating in the movement. So, in that sense, we come from a very, very rich history of activism on this issue. There are other issues as well of course. Like the Narmada Bachao Andolan in which a lot of NLS alums cut their teeth with civil rights activism, including people like Prof. Sarasu. But to answer your question, I would say that yes, NLS is slightly safer as compared to other institutions in the sense that you can always harp back and look up to that history. A lot of other places do not have the role models that NLS does. And this does help. See, as queer people, you tend to look for roots. Institutionally, these roots don’t usually exist in a lot of spaces. But in NLS, they do. So even if there is nothing right now, you know that things have happened or that you can make things happen over here. In that sense, I think that students at NLS are also more sensitised than in other colleges. However, this is changing as well. Other universities and colleges are also changing very quickly. IIT’s have queer support groups now. It has changed from what it was 10 years ago.
I: I’m pretty sure you must have seen a bunch of students at Pride over the past few years. What is your reaction upon seeing them?
K: *laughs* Well they usually ask me to pose for a picture! But it is heartening to know that Pride has become such an annual and happy event for NLS students and that you guys come for it in such large numbers. It’s a good thing. I’m guessing a pub pool happens……and this interview is happening! So yes. It is a very good way of engaging with the outside world. That is important for students. Especially students of law. You get to see as to what is being demanded historically as rights. And the fact that you have students from NLS come to Pride and make it their space to find a sense of belonging and have a good time is something that even Pride organisers should take “pride” in. Because, the ultimate message of pride is inclusivity. Everyone is welcome at Pride, irrespective of whether you are straight, gay or anything else on the spectrum.
I: After you put up your flag on your door on the day of the Sec. 377 judgement, there was a huge influx of WhatsApp statuses with a picture of your door with the Pride flag on it……
K: I heard it became “viral”.
I: Yes!! It was all over everyone’s feed. Many law schoolites are dying to know as to what you think about this incident. Given how you basically became a celebrity on campus.
K: Wait. So, am I not already a celebrity on campus? Do I need to put up a flag out to become one?
I: Well of course you are a celebrity. People ask you for “celebrity style” pictures on pride. However, this particular act of yours got you “trending” on campus…
K: The idea of putting up this flag was not to elicit a bunch of WhatsApp statuses, of course. A lot of us had been anticipating that judgement and it was quite clear as to which way the judgement would go. But you can never be too certain. But we were ninety-nine percent sure about what was going to happen. I thought I would put up the flag on the door to “queer” up this place a bit and to make sure that NLS and its staff do not pretend as though nothing has happened on a very historic day. I did put up the flag there before the judgement came out. So, one idea was also that irrespective of what happens in the Supreme Court, the flag should be there. Whether it is something like 2013, like Koushal, or something in the opposite direction, the flag should be there as a symbol of the fact that life must go on. We might mark legality or illegality as points in our lives. However, we are much more than that.
I: Either as a celebration or as a protest…..
K: Yes, of course. That was the idea! You know that there are queer students on campus and if they see it and they feel good about it then that’s good.
I: I think that’s what got it trending. It was nice to see that a professor cared about this issue. Given how such issues with respect to the Queer movement are rarely spoken about in most of our day to day classes. Unless you have a few “woke” teachers sensitising us about it. There are also several seminars and talks which are organised on this issue. However, the general trend is that queer rights are always spoken about in an academic sense. People don’t talk about what it is like to be queer on campus.
K: Sensitisation is one part. And it is very important. This is because at the age that kids come to NLS, a lot of them maybe questioning, repressing their different identities. And sensitisation needs to happen because of this. A lot of Queer people long for this moment. To see someone like themselves talking about the things they wonder about and from a position where it seems like this someone has figured it out. You see a successful person talking about things; you see that they are happy and are leading fulfilling lives. This successful person is telling you to do something. So, you are willing to take a chance. You figure you will turn out okay as well. This is very important.
Alongside this of course, there are a lot of legal issues which we study that intersect with the issues of the queer community. I understand and I agree completely that Law School ignores those intersections to a very large extent. I still remember my Family Law-I midterm question as one of the few times when queerness was fore-fronted. It was a question with a lot of sexuality and gender issues. It involved a same-sex marriage, a gender confirmation surgery, a divorce and bigamy… To see a question like that, I mean, you have to engage with it. It was interesting
I: I think Nicky (Collins) and I had a conversation about this once. The founding members of the NLSQA like Padmini, Sakhi etc. did really well in law school and they built up this really good image around being queer and the NLSQA given the fact that they were considered to be “studs”. And then these people have left this legacy to us. We have to live up to this benchmark of having to balance out “being the faces of the queer movement on campus” and “being confident studs”…..
K: That is a very important point you are making. Because even I had a very similar burden during my stint as a student in Law School. After accepting myself in Law School, I had put upon myself an additional burden to think that I must do extremely well academically and that I must be a role model for other people so that even when people realise that I am queer, they are forced to give respect to me. Nobody should dismiss me in a trivial fashion. I should be a shining example of my community. However, when you grow up, you realise over time that that is a very unfair position to put yourself in. Because I was entitled to make all the wrong choices and mistakes that anyone else was entitled to make. I was entitled to letting myself go once in a while. I did not owe it to anyone to do well. Nor does anyone owe it anyone to do well or be an example.
I: I personally feel like a lot of people on campus are afraid to be open with respect to their sexuality mainly because of the fact that they feel like they aren’t academically “strong enough” to come out yet. These people don’t want to be brand tagged and only be known for the fact that they are queer…
K: That is essentialism, right? We all live such complicated lives. I am gay and so many other things.
I: Our last question is a bit related to the PnP we need to do for pride. Why do you think the students of NLS should go for Pride this year?
K: Do you want a quote of some sort for this?
I: Yes!! A quote which acts as a source of encouragement to our readers to participate in Pride….
K: Oh. You guys have “readers”?
I: I guess Quirk does have a decent reader base. But why do you think they should go for Pride?
K: I’m sorry Ma’am. I haven’t done the reading for this class.
I: I am going to take that as your quote.