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Saleem Kidwai stood against the tide, in life and work

From colonial-era courtesans to queer rights, historian Saleem Kidwai’s life and work combined rigorous scholarship with committed activism

Saleem Kidwai challenged the contention that there existed no room for queerness within Islamic traditions.  (Photograph by Sunil Gupta; Courtesy the artist)

I first encountered Saleem Kidwai (who died on 30 August), via his writing, in 2001. I was at the Oxford Bookstore near Churchgate, Mumbai, to purchase Same-sex Love In India: Readings From Literature And History, the path-breaking scholarly masterpiece he co-edited with Ruth Vanita, which had just been published to universally enthusiastic reviews. Brimming with the passion of a wide-eyed undergraduate in the history programme at St Xavier’s, newly out of the closet, I picked up the volume and presented it at the book store’s checkout counter.

A customer in the next line pointed to the cover featuring two women in an amorous embrace, and giggled. This form of public discomfort with queerness was routine at the time. Sometimes, though, mild discomfort gave way to outright hostility.

In 2001, four queer men were arrested and imprisoned for 47 days in Lucknow, Saleem’s home town. They were charged under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, even though there was no evidence against them—a move that precipitated a climate of fear within the queer community. That same year, the Naz Foundation and Lawyers Collective petitioned the Delhi high court against the colonial-era anti-sodomy statute. As the case proceeded over time, and public opinion intensified in favour of decriminalisation, Ruth’s and Saleem’s opus transformed how Indians perceived homosexuality.

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Before its publication, conservative sentiment typically cast same-sex love as a foreign import in spite of traces of evidence to the contrary. Their research compiled these traces into a wealth of testimony, which upended this premise by demonstrating that such love had long-established roots in India. Another base, communal, yet fashionable assertion suggested that Hinduism was uniquely receptive to same-sex love; there existed no room for queerness within Islamic traditions. Saleem’s translations from the Persian challenged this contention, arguing that plurality and inclusivity have always been the cornerstones of our history. 

Queer people wielded the book as a shield against bigots, who found our identities vulgar. Here, finally, was an extensive tome that celebrated a love that did dare speak its name—in narratives of gender fluidity and sexual diversity, from Sikhandin in the Mahabharata, through the medieval Sufi poetry of Amir Khusro, Shah Hussayn and Sarmad, to the modern fiction of Ismat Chughtai and Bhupen Khakhar, in most of India’s major languages. The book also located the emergence of a new, modern homophobia in social transformations around the colonial imposition of Section 377 in 1860. It made Ruth and Saleem our spokespersons and champions; it made them beloved.

Saleem always encouraged young students, treating us with grace and kindness, even if we disagreed with him.

I first met Saleem at the home of a common friend, Sunil Gupta, in Delhi in 2005. I had graduated from a master’s programme in history at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and was enamoured of his work, not just on same-sex love but also on the ganewali, the female singing courtesans of colonial India. Sunil, a gay photographer who is out about being HIV-positive, had recently moved back to India from a life in Canada and the UK. Saleem and Sunil met first in Montreal in 1976, where Sunil’s natal family lived, and where Saleem was pursuing a PhD at McGill University. Before Montreal, Saleem lived a complete, sexually active gay life in Delhi. In his friendship with Sunil, however, he encountered something new: camaraderie with another gay man with whom he was not sexually involved, an element that cemented and greatly strengthened their relationship.  

Montreal introduced another novelty to Saleem’s life: activism, a vocation that summoned him after he experienced prejudice and humiliation. In 1977, he was at a gay bar, one of two raided by the police. He was arrested, along with 145 other gay men, under a law—inherited, unsurprisingly, from the UK—which criminalised being “found, without lawful excuse, in a common bawdy house”. The arrests at Truxx and Le Mystique transformed gay activism in Canada: Quebec became the first province to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation later that year. However, they also transformed Saleem: He was determined now to return to India and fight for gay rights in the country of his birth and belonging.

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Over the next decades, Saleem taught history at Delhi University. He built intimate friendships with queer people in the city, initiating and participating in various efforts at political organising. One of these was the campily-named Red Rose at the Indian Coffee House in 1990, where an identificatory red rose was placed on a table, alerting and beckoning queer people to join the meeting, discreetly. Another was Humrahi in 1999, which hosted film screenings and ran a phone helpline out of the Naz Foundation office.

One of Saleem’s significant friendships in these years was with the young, charismatic gay activist Siddhartha Gautam, who too had returned from an education abroad. After Siddhartha’s untimely death, Saleem and others helped organise the Siddhartha Gautam Film Festival, the Capital’s first queer film festival, in 1993. When the Section 377 case was being heard in the Delhi high court, he also helped gather support for the case from eminent personalities.

This was the intellectually rich, occasionally argumentative world of older queer activists Sunil and Saleem welcomed me into. Saleem always encouraged young students, treating us with grace and kindness, even if we disagreed with him. I once shared an essay I had written, in which I challenged some of the arguments in Same-sex Love In India. He took no offence, nor did he ignore the essay. Instead, he thanked me for sending it his way and soliciting his opinion. It was a hallmark of Saleem’s approach to scholarship; he loved engaging with younger queer generations in acts of mutual pedagogy. He was also keen that our own histories be documented, admiring the posters, memos and assorted scraps that Anjuman, the students’ queer collective at JNU, had carefully archived and preserved. At a time when the law still designated us all criminals, a new generation was nurtured and taught by those who came before us.

For the greater part of his life, Saleem also lived as a single man. This was, perhaps, a conscious choice. He certainly met other men, because he once described the electricity supply in Lucknow to be as erratic as his love life. In a recent interview with Sunil and his husband, Charan Singh, Saleem said he was happy being untethered to a partner, and that although he was single, he was not lonely. In this choice, indeed in his many accomplishments that spanned different worlds, he resembled the autonomous colonial-era courtesans, whose lives and contributions he wrote about passionately. Like same-sex desire, courtesans too were neglected, marginalised and written out of history.

Saleem’s life and work stood against this tide, and against this instinct to forget. He once told me to follow the path of life’s many journeys, no matter where they took me. Many, like me, found the courage to follow these paths because he had already set a trail for us. Many, like me, found the courage to speak our truths because he had spoken out before us, for us all.

Mario da Penha is a queer historian and activist. He is a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University.

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