For the last two weeks or so, television news channels and, to a lesser extent, the print media, have been providing us with details of minute-by-minute developments in the life of Inspector General of Police D K Panda - or Doosri Radha as s/he is popularly known. This is perhaps the first time that such sustained media attention has been granted to an individual's gender transgression in India.
While the general tenor of the media coverage has been one of amusement, highlighting an apparent absurdity of h(er)is 'antics', one can glean an underlying sense of outrage, or perhaps an anxiety, at the chutzpah of a high-ranking police official challenging gender norms. We have been told that by dressing up in a lehenga, and by claiming Krishna as her/his spiritual husband, Doosri Radha has 'disgraced' the police force, and has caused untold damage to the 'morale' of the police force. That action needs to be taken against h(er)im is a given - how dare a 'man' who is 'entrusted with the task of maintaining law and order' make little of the great gender divide?
The demand was that Doosri Radha be removed from office (s/he has subsequently applied for voluntary retirement), or at the least, be presented to the scrutiny of a medical board that will assess her/his mental fitness to continue in office. This medical board, a news report suggests, would concentrate on whether s/he is suffering from bi-polar syndrome, schizophrenia or transvestism, or, merely trying to attract attention. In the meantime, Doosri Radha has had to be on the move and vacate her/his official residence, and then the shelter provided to her/him by a friend.
Gender transgression has thus moved her/him from a high position within the structures of power, to the margins of citizenship where s/he has nowhere to go.
This case is not merely about the experiences of one individual. It raises some fundamental questions about the gendering of the police force, imaginaries of 'law and order' and perhaps of the very nature of the State.
Let us ask the question of why Doosri Radha has attracted so much attention. Is it merely the fact of 'him' wearing women's clothes? Is it, in other words, an anxiety over gender transgression? I suspect not - had such transgression been deemed worthy of media attention on this scale, our newspapers and news channels would have little space for anything else, for radical gender transgression is an everyday fact in India, and arguably a central aspect of the sex/gender system in this country.
The Bhakti tradition in northern India, the devotees of Yellamma - the jogappas in Karnataka, the annual Aligal Thiruvizha festival in Koovagam, Tamil Nadu, the very existence of Ali, Aravani, Hijra and Kothi communities and cultures, and significantly, the fact that sex re-assignment surgery is offered in public hospitals - are all examples of spaces available to 'biological' men to challenge, transgress and transform their genders.
The point of panic in Doosri Radha's case is that s/he is a police officer, and a high ranking one at that. What has been challenged here is the gender of the police force, the 'protectors', those who carry out violence on behalf of the State - whose acts of aggression are deemed legitimate in the name of 'law and order'. And this legitimacy is hinged on a monopoly of the 'masculine' over violence. Consider, for example, that the image of Kiran Bedi in trousers and shirt - 'men's clothes' does not evoke aspersions of 'disgrace' and 'damaging the morale of the police force'. Clearly, then, the anxiety expressed in the case of Doosri Radha is about maintaining the seat of power in the masculine domain, of maintaining the patriarchal State.
This is not a mere abstract argument. The role of the 'masculine' police force is, inter alia, to exercise violence against those who challenge the heterosexual norm of 'real men' and 'real women' who have sex only within heterosexual marriage (between people of the same caste and religion).
Torture and extortion of money and sexual services by the police force against hijras, kothis, lesbians, gay men and sex workers are well-documented realities. This violence gains a de facto legitimacy from archaic colonial laws that are being maintained in the interests of the patriarchal State. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes all penetrative sex that is not penile-vaginal, and the threat of which is often the basis of the violence against Queer people is one such example.
These act as mechanisms of enforcing the heterosexual norm and of drawing a line that excludes Queer people from the domain of legitimate citizenship and access to basic fundamental rights.
In this context, the response of the media and of the Congress party, which called for action against Doosri Radha, amounts to an active exclusion of Queer people from the processes of the State. Where queerness was found within the circle of legitimacy, of 'respectability', the panic button has been pushed and the message being conveyed is clear - 'you who we deem to be outside of our circle, you who we have systematically marginalized, have no place within the structure of the State and no business having access to power'.
Whether s/he intended it or not, Doosri Radha has opened up the possibilities of asking fundamental questions about the nature of the State power and processes of exclusion. Perhaps it is time to move from flippant sensationalism and fearlessly engage these questions.