Parmesh Sahni Talk transcription Part II

In this second part of the conversation, Parmesh talks about addressing casteism in Indian corporate spaces, possibilities of bottom-up change in corporations, queer futures and takes questions from the audience.


ND: Ok, so I want to pick up on two threads you have already spoken about :you mentioned there was this challenge of bringing in the question of caste in corporate spaces, and how when you bring in the concept of queerness with caste, they don’t acknowledge it, right? It’s not just a question of those in the employee class but also the working class,what about those that have been working in the plants, or factories?  In practice what have been the challenges, and what will it take to finally forefront the question of caste and ensure more inclusivity in the workplace?


PS: So again, I have done a bit of jugaad, if they don’t want to talk about it this way, we do a film festival or we do a panel to talk about Queerness to talk about caste. They don’t want to talk about religion, but at their leadership conference I will call Dr Ruha Shadab who heads Led By foundation, an organisation which has done incredible work but which also published a study on discrimination against Muslim women in the workplace. They think that they are listening to someone talk about women in the workplace but before they know it they are talking about Muslims in the workplace, and you can’t ask the speaker to leave. So, there are ways of going around stuff, for that you have to negotiate all these negotiations. One is how you create a space where you can interject what you want. Second, is structurally how  you create learning programs for people to understand their own privilege, question their own biases . I think that works at a senior leadership level. What I have found is, that whether its colleges, whether its institutions, India works in hierarchy, boss says karna hai, everyone does, principal says we’re going to do this, it happens. Sadly, in India companies are also mostly family owned, a large number of them are. Family members say this is what is going to happen. 

As a way out, I would say focus on where you can put the pressure, you can’t put pressure everywhere. Figure out who matters in the organisation, I’ve done that. In organizations I’ve worked, there would invariably be allies among the higher-ups.  ,,  I would request them  to write this emails to everyone, so we would write emails on International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, and send them. Typically, such allies would take a tough stance:   if people had  problems with such gestures of solidarity they would be shrugged off.  . People were also like boss ne keh diya now we have to. So, it’s Jugaad resistance and being very very chalu but just enough to not get fired.


ND: What about corporations where there isn’t will at the leadership level, is there a possibility of bottom- up change?


PS: There is a possibility of top down, bottom-up, side se, everything, because corporations listen to the Economic Times, they listen to the Mint, they listen  when  work surveys say you are not inclusive because you don’t have this. So, figure out what matters to other people. Prestige matters to some, so then tell them that according to FICCI, CIAM who’re their partners  that if you’re not LGBTQ inclusive then you are not prestigious. And now every CIAM, FICCI conference, come what may there is a queer panel, and we tell them what? You’re from this company? *tsk tsk* We have heard very bad things. 

So, figure out what people’s drivers are, you have to be very psychological, and very manipulative. And trust me, you’d know this, we’ve been manipulating our parents also. 

I’ve used whatever, the prestige angle, the money angle. I think companies are changing, and I think state governments are also changing, which is quite exciting, because now we have competition between states. We have Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Chattisgarh which are competing for foreign investment,  competing for talent, with an understanding that if we move up the curve in terms of how we treat women, sexual minorities, we can do better. There’s enough data out there which says if at the state level you create a more inclusive environment then you attract talent, you attract investment. For them to get it, figure out what button to press. That we have to do. 


ND: So, I have one last question, then we’ll go to the audience, I just wanted to hear a little bit about what your views are on the huge amount of focus that the legal movement has gotten within the movement Do you think there are parts of the movement that have become skewed because of this whole focus on law, and what are the kinds of Queer futures that you think we need to invest in?


PS: I don’t think the legal movement  got much traction.I mean it did get some publicity around the time of the verdict and so on. Besides that   I don’t think the general public really knows Even Ayushmann Khurrana, who has played a gay character, in an interview after that he actually said now that 377 is gone now gay marriage can happen. Ayushmann, no! Who tutored you on set? And he played very well, he acted very well and even he doesn’t know, so where is the hope?! I don’t think the general public would know a lot. I think the law has gotten attention around the verdict but I don’t think people have understood what it means. The general public still think haan 377 gaya now everything is ok for you. I have to say no baba, there is no anti-discrimination, there is no marriage equality, 

So I don’t think the law has translated into people really understanding. That’s number one. Number two is I don’t think that people who need to uphold the law have understood. I don’t think the police or offices have been sensitised. I don’t think that any office you go to as a trans person, you are treated with respect. Even if it’s a simple  Ration Card changing form. Law happened, some judgement came, but discrimination is still going on in every place but no one has invested to counter it. At least private companies have invested in sensitisation, but we deal a lot with the government in our lives, whether it’s the public sector corporations, or just various authorities and that level of sensitivity just hasn’t come. And that is why I actually think that the future is federal,to answer your question about the future. I think it is federal. I think a lot more work now has to be done within states, not at the national level. And we need to take experiments that work within one state to other states. 

For example. Grace Banu, a Dalit trans engineer in Tamil Nadu, started something called Sandeep Nagar which is an agricultural daily cooperative run by trans women giving the labour, the Tamil Nadu government has given the land, and private companies are giving cows, animal feed, etc. It is a dairy farm. Public private partnership And thus a win, win!  Corporations are happy because they can look for talent, they can get them and at some point they can start selling it to them. Government is happy because they are upskilling. Trans people are happy because they have jobs and they’re selling the milk for profits. Why is not every state saying we need to take this and why is not every progressive state saying we need to take this and scale this up. Why is this not becoming the next Amul of India. There is amazing work coming out of Manipur which is Ya.all, my favourite queer organisation, Raipur and Chattisgarh have great pride parades and doing incredible work. There is such good stuff happening in non-urban areas that we don’t think of in popular imagination. We only think of Delhi and Bombay. We don’t realise there is a lot happening outside of these regions, whether in homes, families, on Instagram, there’s a lot of stuff happening, Trans people getting awards from the president of the country and using the awards ceremony to create such a wonderful gesture of inclusion. The out and proud Dutee Chand carrying both the India flag and the Pride flag, for instance. The futures are going to be federal, are going to be multiple, in homes, schools, colleges etc. and it’s going to be led by young people who didn’t have voices earlier but are most certainly speaking in multiple voices.


ND: That’s exciting! So, I’m going to open this up for the Q & A


Audience Member: We know that the conversation about LGBTQ becomes more prominent when it comes to the pride month, so most of the corporates act like they are inclusive but it’s mostly tokenism and don’t actually work when it comes to it. So how do we figure out whether an organization is truly inclusive?

PS: Good question, I think in today’s world you cannot fool people, you can’t fool your employees, you can’t fool your customers, you can’t fool your stakeholders, people will come to know. I think organisations which are doing tokenism, their own employees are laughing at them, their own customers are calling them out on twitter, Instagram:  “Okay, this organisation is a joke.” Organisations that are committed, do a bunch of things . First is, they talk about these issues all around the year, not only in June. Secondly, they invest in hiring more queer people, through job fairs, by working with agencies. There are vendors of queer talent now, so they closely coordinate with those agencies. You know you can go and ask; I want 20 trans people, and they will place them for you. So, working with Queer talent agencies, investing in training their staff and media and comms, in showcasing queer people in everything that they do. They give CSR money to Queer NGO’s. The ones that are not, only for that one month, they will change their logo to rainbow, will pay 10 lakhs to preview some fancy film; but will not pay 1 lakh to the media organization in their own city. People will understand and employees will be like, “What a joke yaar!”. That’s what I tell people, that it is stupid to be inauthentic. Because you will be caught. Do it with the same intention and money and be authentic. In the community you will get so much goodwill. You out 10 lakhs in some stupid ad that no one will see in June, and you’re being laughed at. So be authentic., Just walk the talk. And I think all of you have to hold your organisations accountable  this way. If you see them performing, say, this is silly, can we just do this instead. I think people will listen to you, because you all are Millennials, Gen Z. They all want to listen, because they’re afraid that without you what will happen. I mean, they need you. 


Audience member: “ So at the beginning when Nilanjan asked the first question you indicated that  accountability was something you talk to the corporations about and how it was essential for them to sell Queerness and inclusivity to the corporate world. So, does this mean if Queerness stops being profitable,  we will see some kind of backlash or drop in support because right now that is what’s sustaining the whole movement?


PS: That’s a very good question and it is what I struggle with all the time. I don’t think Queerness will ever stop being profitable, though. I mean from my limited sample size also of Queer people I know, I doubt it. It can’t, because queer people form 6-10 % of any population. I mean we spend in different ways but that also changes based on whatever. So, I think we will spend more on queer marriage if it becomes legal, which will be very profitable because all the queer people I know who want to get married and have been planning it for years, can suddenly get married for real! Imagine what an impact that 6 percent of the population will have on the GDP!  So, this company will become a 5000-crore company on its own. So, while I think people use a business case to make people understand,  queer people are never going to be unprofitable certainly.


Audience Member: Identity still matters and can flip any time, in that case.


PS: Yes! I think, globally too that is the case, , Look, its different everywhere, in other places, like the U.S. and all, more people identify as Queer, you can have a dataset which is like Queer, you can have a Queer dataset.

In India, majority of Queer people are closeted and would not wish to give those answers, so they have to tap into what is a Queer market and what do they want and things like that. Right? But, to answer you, I think yeah; what if this identity becomes uncool again. So beyond profitability, now companies are saying, because Tata is doing, Godrej is doing, Google is doing right now, let’s also do this.  Also, in many ways, this is less threatening than caste, religion or regional inclusion. So, within the hierarchy of inclusion, everyone says, “gender karna hai, haan PWD bhi karna hai chalega” and then the moment  it needs an   infrastructure revamp, they step back. The attitude then is, “arre okay LGBT ko kar sakte hai cool hai cool hai”, and then everything else goes into the “others”, all who can wait. So now the fear is, first it’s fundamentally wrong, because even I say, what about a Queer person who is Muslim, a woman and disabled, now, you know, who has multiple intersecting identities, now in which basket are you going to like, include this person? We say this because we all have a range of identities that we come to the table with. So, to think of people as just, “now we will include women” “now we will include this”, and putting them in one basket is very limiting A well-meaning organisation would understand that inclusion should be the lens through which we see everything, and it has various intersecting dimensions that we should all be talking about. I try and urge the organisation to look through this lens but it is a fear for a lot of us who are trying to create a Queer market, there is a genuine fear that tomorrow if it stops being cool, we’ll go into this basket of “others” and then it’ll again be women and “others”. So hopefully yeah, anyway. I don’t have a fixed answer except we’re trying very hard to help people get nuanced.


Audience Member: I don’t think Queer people have the option of not being cool anymore. There is pressure on the Queer people to just perpetually be cool or they won’t be taken seriously by them.


PS: And that’s pressure. Every straight person is like can you be my gay best friend. (laughter) No! Everyone, like, I went to, I went to a talk on corporate politics and the senior leader of a major bank  there was an invitee that said that everyone should bring one Queer person with them, and then (the leader) is like you be my Queer person. It’s like , if told to  meet some other Queer people  they say   we’re at least known to them, unlike those . So, I mean, that’s the problem.


Audience Member: But like the pressure of being cool, I think, won’t that also put a lot of pressure? You know, the ideal Queer we see in movies or shows,  doesn’t that disenfranchise a lot of already marginalised Queer people ?


PS: Totally, totally! I mean, first I don’t think there’s an ideal Queer. 

Audience Member: As in, stereotypical


PS: There are stereotypical Queers, which is, thankfully because OTTs have just changed, like the Queer character you see in ‘The Fame Game’ is so different from the Queer police person you see in ‘Aarya’ is so different from, you know you would see maybe in ‘Made in Heaven’ or so on. Maybe one of the good things about all this OTT is that it has enabled a lot of Queer possibilities to come out in terms of representation so it’s not just you know like, funny Queer or sexual Queer or like tragic Queer or whatever, there is a range of possibilities which are good. But certainly. Because of the stereotyping people think Queer people are cool and cashable and funny or in fashion or hairstyling or in the theatre industry. Because most of the Queer people that I know are accountants, marine biologists, nuclear engineers, taxation experts and so on and so forth. We have to work at helping people get this. I think a good strategy is to reverse, to say that “Oh! Straight people are also this! Oh! I see, I see.” There’s a question there, I think that can be the last one.


Audience Member: Sir you flagged your concerns about macro revolutions when it comes to topics like these. But do you think the Jugaad revolution will expose individuals to an amount of threat that they wouldn’t feel had they been a part of a larger revolution? For instance, you were, you know, being a part of the corporate world, you were brave and often worthy enough to do the great work that you have done. Do you think many other people can afford to be a part of this Jugaad resistance?


PS: So, Jugaad revolution, the way I think of it is an individual, it’s just a framework of doing daily small acts of resistance. I don’t think of it as a larger revolution as such and I am already seeing people doing it. Like Grace (Grace Banu) in Tamil Nadu said no way! I’m going to get my degree as a trans, as the first Dalit, transgender person, it’ll take one year but I’ll get my degree. So, there are people, enough people now across our country who are doing these small acts of change. And because they are doing these small acts of change, they’re making it possible for everyone else as well.

So, I see that continuing throughout. I think this tension (sic) between whether these small acts of change are enough, or whether we need a bigger way of seeing the world is just going on in the world in general. Is capitalism all that it’s meant to be, is democracy really the answer to everything, I mean these large questions have always been.   Within the Queer movement itself, there are deep divisions around marriage; I think these tensions will always exist in the world.

See ,maybe it’s also because I’m becoming older and a bit more impatient.  In my 20s I really wanted to change the whole bloody world, now I’m 46 I’ll be happy if I can help place 5 Queer people in a job.

So, I’m just scaling down because I know a job for those 5 Queer people will mean they can fight marriage again, they can tell their parents we’re not getting married, they can imagine a life as an independent person, they can maybe move and live with their partner, they can co-habit, you know, have a shot at happiness. So, while I think we should grapple with the big questions, where I am at in my life right now, and of course it’s a good change, I want to see small successes. 


Audience member: So, while you say that corporates would like to pitch queerness  for profit, what are the incentives for government institutions ?


PS: Again, try figuring out what matters for them.  Is it respect? In which case, make sure that the Times of India or whatever writes about this event that happens positively. Is it respect within the media and the world outside; is it respect within? Are there rankings of universities in which you can say okay we do all of this and hence we are the first law school in India to. . You can put all of this and tag it, India’s coolest law school – Is there something like that that matters to them? Who are the donors, who are the trustees, take the matters to them. It really helps if you do some research. If you find out, you know, do any of them have Queer kids; can they pressurise their parents? 

 You have to figure out what works. So, do some  Jagat Jaasoosi and figure out and use whatever works. Everyone has to do this anyway, you’re going to do this as a professional lawyer someday anyway; you’re gonna do research, you’re gonna figure out what you need to do to win the case.  Do the same thing here as well.

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