Tag Archives: india

A giant step backward: Fellows Friday with Nitin Rao, who speaks out on India’s recriminalizing of homosexuality










In a major setback last week for the LGBT community, an Indian Supreme Court ruling upheld Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code — a 153-year-old law criminalizing gay sex. This act overturned a 2009 Delhi High Court ruling that this should not apply to consensual acts and, essentially, recriminalized homosexuality. While the Indian government filed a petition to the Supreme Court asking it to review its decision just today, it felt like the perfect time to talk to entrepreneur Nitin Rao, a 2009 TED Fellow from India. While he now lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area, he tells the TED Blog about the general cultural attitudes about homosexuality in India, how this ruling affects him personally, and how people are responding to the move.

Tell us about your experience as a gay man growing up in India.

While I knew that I was attracted to other men from a young age, it took me a while to come across the vocabulary for it, even the word “gay.” During college, none of my classmates publicly identified as being LGBT. In fact, according to a CNN-IBN poll [from 2009], only 6 percent of Indians said that they have a friend who is homosexual.

In response to my sexual orientation, my father asked me,”Could you wait until we die? Think about us.” His deep fear was that I would publicly identify as an Indian man who is attracted to other men. For years since that conversation, and after coming out publicly, I’ve worked to explain to my family that being gay is not a medical problem, that I value my own life enough to make thoughtful choices, and that they could not ask me to put their pride above my individual right to love a person of my choice.

What is India’s cultural stance on relationships and sexuality?

Growing up in what would otherwise be considered a relatively progressive and well-read family, we never ever spoke about topics like dating or sex. In a country where 90 percent of marriages are arranged, romantic relations are seen as a decision made by families, rather than by individuals. In that context, the idea of finding a same-sex partner is still seen as somewhat shocking, though that is changing.

How was the 2009 ruling decriminalizing homosexuality received at the time?

It was highly lauded, but the public response was subdued.

And had the December 11, 2013, ruling on Section 377 been in the works for some time?

No, it was unexpected. At a time when countries like the US and UK have passed gay marriage laws, it’s unfortunate that India took a step backwards in overturning the 2009 ruling.

How is the law used in practice?

It encourages police harassment and rent-seeking – police accepting bribes to not enforce the law. As the law criminalizes all sexual acts apart from heterosexual vaginal intercourse, even straight people who don’t conform are at risk. More importantly, it’s an issue of legitimacy. Indian citizens should be able to exercise the right to life and liberty without fear.

Nitin Rao (left) attending a candlelight vigil in front of the Indian embassy in San Francisco, California. 13 December 2013

What is the response of the LGBT activist movement in India?

Organizations like Naz Foundation and Humsafar Trust, and smaller local groups like Chennai’s Orinam and Bangalore’s Good as You, have done incredible work in providing support and resources to the LGBT community, and challenging Section 377. Events like the December 11 ruling bring these groups — as well as South Asian LGBT diaspora groups like Trikone – together.

There has been an outpouring of support for the Indian LGBT community via the I, Ally campaign. What is it, and how did it start?

As an initiative from the Equal India Alliance, Tushar Malik (now at the Human Rights Campaign), started the “I, Ally” campaign in 2013. Inspired by the support that straight friends showed Tushar as an “out” college student, he decided to go across India and find more such voices, recording video messages of support.

Why has this been important?

Not everyone can find support in their immediate surroundings, so for an LGBT or questioning young person in India, it is extremely important to see regular, day-to-day people who look like their friends, parents and grandparents — and who speak their language — to come out in support and tell them that they are not wrong, they are not different, and that they’ll always find a friend who loves them for who they are.

People in India and abroad can just upload their videos on YouTube and have “I, Ally campaign” in the tagline, and send a notification to info@ially.org or tweet the link to @iallycampaign, so that we can include it in the channel. If possible, they should draw the equality buddies on their fingers too!

How else can people help the cause?

Within India itself, the next time there is a survey, we should move closer to 30 percent of Indians saying that they know a friend or family member who is gay. For everyone around the world, have the conversations others may not, and speak to your friends across age groups about why the Section 377 ruling strips Indian citizens of basic rights, and why it’s a dangerous precedent for many others who don’t conform.

What happens next? How difficult will it be to reverse the reversal?

I frankly don’t know, but what’s encouraging is that some senior politicians, Indian brands and ordinary citizens, particularly youth, are taking a stand and being visible in their dissent.

How do you compare this to the Supreme Court decision of Bowers v. Hardwick, which upheld anti-sodomy laws in Georgia and therefore the US?

It’s scarily like Bowers v. Hardwick. The difference is that we simply cannot wait 17 years for justice. That wouldn’t be the India we deserve.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

After I published an article on Reason.com, “India Moves In the Wrong Direction on Gay Rights”, making the case that nobody should ever be asked a question like “Could you wait until we die,” many straight friends reached out to share they had very similar experiences and could relate. For one person, it was the shock from a father when she loved a Muslim man. For another person, it was identifying as an atheist. As my friend Ramki Kazhiyur-Mannar puts it, “I want to treat India as what it could be and it is a place where everybody can feel free, and I am going to do my best for that.”

From abstraction to the vibrant female form: Fellows Friday with Sharmistha Ray


Artist Sharmistha Ray has spent her life moving between India, the Middle East and the United States, discovering, layer by layer, her own sense of self, sexual identity and artistic vision in contrast or harmony with each new environment. Now, as her latest exhibition Reflections + Transformations is set to open at the Aicon Gallery in New York City on October 24, she tells the TED Blog about how her journey has unfolded so far, taking her from figurative art to abstraction and back to vibrant colors and lush, sensual textures that celebrate and reclaim the female body.

You have quite a complicated background. When people ask where you are from, what do you say?

It’s complicated because I’m an artist. People want to know where you’re from as a way of understanding your deepest creative impulses. I started to define myself as diasporic because the many migrations in my life played a very big role in terms of defining who I was, as well as my outlook on life and my artistic practice. I was born a British citizen in Calcutta, but spent my growing-up years in the Middle East and then migrated to the United States with my family later on. I didn’t stop there; a residual nostalgia beckoned me towards India, and after exploring Kolkata for a few months in 2006, I moved to Mumbai and made it my home.

Growing up gay in a traditional Indian family in an Islamic society in Kuwait also created its own displacement. I experienced oppression very early on within my family and society. My sexuality, which started to emerge in my early teens, was a terrifying realization for me. I lived in mortal fear of anyone knowing my dark secret. But ironically, the fear also bore my love for art. It was through art that I was finally able to find my own voice.

Even though I spend most of my time in Mumbai now, I can’t attribute any one of my multiple social, linguistic, cultural, queer, ethnic and geographic ties as the singular source of imagination. It’s really the grazing together of all these identities that has created a messy hybrid form, with many points of location. I am even starting to recast the term “diaspora,” as it feels limited to a binary of homeland and not-homeland. Once the migrant has moved back to the homeland, does he or she continue to be “of the diaspora?” I’m gravitating towards a new term I encountered in reading Gyan Prakash’s excellent historical account of Mumbai in his book Mumbai Fables. He revisits the notion of cosmopolitanism throughout the book, and it struck me that to be “cosmopolitan” strips the subject of a desired location or need to belong. To be “cosmopolitan” essentially means “being in the world.”

Nude #6, 2013

Nude #6, 2013

What prompted your decision to move to India?

I was curious — and curiosity is probably the starting point for deep infatuations. I had schooled in Kolkata for close to two years during the Gulf War in Kuwait, where my family lived at the time. Becoming a refugee and living in forced exile with my family formed, at a young age, a confusing network of associations between stability and belonging. As I matured as a thinker, the idea of India took shape as a sort of dreamland, a place of possibilities. I wanted to live without the burdens of identity politics for a while and investigate a more poetic entry point into the question of “being.” Of course, I’m not saying that identity politics is exclusive of poetics, but my work had become riddled with an anxious rhetoric caught between the binaries of “self” and the “other.” I wanted to find a different way of locating myself in a milieu that accepted me first as “Indian.” Interestingly, in India I found myself thrust into other negotiations — with gender and sexuality in particular — which took me many years to untangle. And despite my initial longing to connect to an Indian identity, I am as much an outlier there as I was in America, as I am anywhere else!

You mention gender and sexuality. When did you start exploring these themes in your work?

I started in the last year of high school. Although I lived in a conservative Islamic society in the Middle East, I became emboldened in my final year of art studies and decided to take the plunge. But as I had to be careful, the work is very subtle. In those early works, some of which are lost now, the narratives center around myself and a female agent, but there’s always this physical and psychological distance between the two figures in the frame. It mirrored my life at the time, and the feeling of disconnect from my family and society.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>


Speaking at Mobile VAS Asia 2009 Conference

It has been a while since my last post. Well, I have something to share.

On 22nd October, I will be at the Mobile VAS Asia 2009, SIngapore and doing a short 30 min talk on ‘Voice activated mobile VAS services for emerging markets’. My talk would cover topics on developing a strategy to create new market niche through the use of Voice activated services.

I would be sharing insights on developing voice activated mobile services for a multi linguistic, multi ethnic society like India where the literacy levels are still below the threshold level of 75%. I believe that literacy is a critical factor to understand the need of voice based services in vernacular languages to reach out to the common man. I am excited to show the demo of  Mobile Antakshari, a Multi-lingual speech recognition game enables consumers to play Antakshari( popular indian music game) in person or in a group & has many users already addicted!   Pls visit the presentation to know more about the game and  don’t forget to share you thoughts :)

I’ll also be a part of the Panel on second day with Anushka Ranasinghe, Alloiscius Tan and Benson Ong where we will be discussing  on how to “Maximize your marketing capablities through mobile advertising” and answering any questions from the audience. If you have a question that you maybe don’t want to ask in the session, just send it to me directly or leave a comment here, and I’ll see if the panel can discuss that topic too.

Outside of these presentations, I will be wandering around and looking for people to talk about any topic that intersects mobile and social web technologies.If you’re there, be sure to come by and say HELLO :)

More info on Mobile VAS Asia 2009 conference here. http://www.gii.co.jp/conference/mobile-vas-asia09/catalog.pdf