August 19, 2009

Lesbian and gay Indo-Americans and their allies marched and demonstrated last Sunday along the route of Manhattan’s annual India Day Parade today, with signs reading “Gay Hind,” “Indian Gay Proud,” and “Shame Shame FIA, Homophobia is so last year.”

The demonstrators were protesting the decision by the Federation of Indian Associations (FIA) to bar the South Asian Lesbian Gay Association (SALGA) from one of the largest Indian Independence Day celebrations outside of India. More than 50,000 people attend the annual parade, which stretches from 28th St to 41st St in midtown Manhattan. The FIA’s action came on the heels of India’s recent court decision, in July, that cited “the inclusiveness that Indian society typically displayed” as the basis for overturning a 150-year-old anti-gay law.

FIA Executive Vice President Nirav Mehta, characterized by the online newsjournal DesiTalk as “part of the younger leadership that is coming to the helm of FIA,” told a DesiTalk reporter in July that the FIA “has stood for the entire community on political, social, whatever issues” and hopes to continue to do so.

FIA President Dipak Patel, reached by telephone on Friday, August 14, echoed that sentiment, saying “anyone is welcome to march.”

But Mr. Patel quickly clarified that there was a process for organizations wanting to march, likening it to that of a college where some “some people get in, some people don’t.”  SALGA had filed an application but received no response. When asked whether the exclusion of SALGA was an administrative error, Mr. Patel forcefully said no.

On the same day in Mumbai, India’s largest city, thousands of people joined the city’s annual Gay Pride march to celebrate a recent court ruling that was a landmark for gay rights in India. On July 2, the High Court of Delhi read down a ban on gay sex that had been introduced by the British when they ruled India.

In a statement, SALGA expressed dismay with the FIA’s decision, particularly in the wake of the Indian High Court ruling.

“The court stated powerfully and succinctly that intolerance is not an Indian value,” SALGA said in its statement. “Despite such a monumental victory for sexual minorities in India, we are outraged and disappointed that … the FIA is once again trying to make Indian sexual minorities invisible through its discriminatory acts.”

The two organizations have a long history of conflict over the India Day Parade, dating back to the mid-1990s. Over a period of years, the FIA came up with various explanations for why SALGA could not participate. As reported in the New York Times, in 1995, only “Indian” rather than “South Asian” groups were allowed; in 1996, only “dues-paying” organizations were allowed; and in other years, “Federation officials had also said they considered displays of gay pride to be incompatible with a parade celebrating Indian pride.”

To combat such shifting policies, according to a Samar magazine article by activist Svati P. Shah, SALGA and its allies were able to “galvanize a coalition of progressive South Asian organizations, provisionally called the South Asian Progressive Task Force, in 1997.” After years of protest, and with the intervention of a local government body that required the FIA to sign a non-discrimination pledge in order to gain a permit for the use of public streets, SALGA was allowed to march in the India Day Parade in 2000.

Since then, the annual event has been a non-issue, until this year’s surprise action by the FIA.

This is the 29th annual parade in New York and the first year that the parade was webcast live and televised by TV Asia. Privately, some community members have speculated that the plans for television coverage led the FIA to take a more conservative stance.

Whatever the cause, progressive South Asian activists and bloggers have spoken out against the FIA’s action.

Sapna Pandya, coordinator of the South Asian Health Initiative in New York, called it “one giant leap backwards for Indian-kind” in an email circulated last week. SAKHI, the New York-based domestic violence organization, invited SALGA members to join its contingent in the parade. Commentaries were published on the well-read Sepia Mutiny and Desicritics sites, as well as on blogs by lawyer Leena R. Kamat and writer/academic Roopa Singh. Desis United created an online petition drive to protest the FIA’s action.

But responses to the blog postings have been mixed, with some anonymous commentators agreeing with the FIA’s decision to exclude the gay group because, for example, “I am sure that the organizers would have objected to something like ‘Lip and eyebrow piercing association of south Asia’ participating in that event as well.”

On the West Coast, activists gathered signatures in support of SALGA at the large Festival of India celebration in Fremont, California, on Saturday and Sunday.  The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender organization Trikone participates regularly in the Fremont celebration, which is run by the Federation of Indian Associations Northern California (FIA-NC) and is independent of the New York organization.

Longtime Northern California community organizer Shambu “Sam” Rao said in an e-mail,  ”Over the course of the many years of the festival, Indian senior citizens (straight) and housewives had spoken up at the FIA-NC meetings to continue invite gays to the Festival. … Gay Indians and supporters are welcome.”


Minal Hajratwala is a San Francisco writer and the author of the nonfiction epic Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Additional reporting for this article was provided by Barnali Ghosh. For more about the parade, go to minalhajratwala.com/blog.

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