On Thursday September 27, 2018, Dr. Chaitanya Lakkimsetti, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University, presented her most recent work at our Seminar. The research questions guiding this work involved questioning how previously marginalized and stigmatized groups become able to make claims on the State of India, and how the State responds to these demands. The case study is centered on HIV/AIDS as a biopolitical project where the State has a need to manage the bodies of individuals, in specific to micromanage sexual behavior, with special attention to non-normative sexual behavior. Here, the main argument is that effective biopolitical projects necessitate the engagement of the governed with the State, where biopolitics is read as a tool to analyze both the State’s need to manage populations, as well marginalized populations’ demands for rights from the State.
This particular conversation is made even more relevant by recent news coming from India. Just a couple days before Dr. Lakkimsetti’s presentation, the Supreme Court in India unanimously ruled to decriminalize consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex, which was ruled as unconstitutional. This law, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, had been introduced in 1864 by British colonial rule, and followed anti-sodomy laws imposed during colonization throughout multiple Global South then-colonies, including the Americas. Advocates argued that the present law made it harder for those at risk for HIV/AIDS to access needed healthcare, on the basis that their sexual behavior might come into question. According to National Crime Records, 1491 people were arrested under Section 377 in 2015, out of which 14% were minors.
While legal decriminalization will not be an immediate fix on social discrimination against people who engage in same-sex behavior, Dr. Lakkimsetti’s work adds a layer of analysis to the understanding of biopolitics as opening a space for new political subjectivities, where the contradictory nature of the Indian State can be theorized hand-in-hand with the resistant nature of political movements like those for LGBTIQ rights and sex worker rights in India. In her previously published Signs essay “HIV is Our Friend: Prostitution, Power and State in Postcolonial India”, which is also the first chapter of her upcoming book, Dr. Lakkimsetti discusses the possibilities HIV/AIDS provided marginalized groups, in specific sex workers, to negotiate citizenship with the Indian State. This talk in particular focused on the contradictory judgments of the Supreme Court on sexual rights politics during 2013 and 2014: the Koushal decision of 2013 (to retain colonial antisodomy laws) and the 2014 NALSA decision (granting rights to transgender groups). Here, the bifurcation of acts and identities is a hollowing move by the Indian State to LGBTQ activist groups, but it also provides them with an opportunity to challenge this dichotomy and consolidate a coalitional politics between similarly marginalized groups.
Using a feminist and postcolonial lens, Dr. Lakkimsetti deploys the Foucauldian concept of biopower to read sex worker and LGBTIQ groups struggles regarding HIV/AIDS, as both a moment of agency as well as a movement of self-discipline in order to enter a dialogue with the State. In her talk, she remarked the ways in which these legal struggles are a space where marginalized identities emerge and consolidate, a space to observe the dynamic interaction between the law and social movements. Challenging the idea of a top-down State with a totalitarian institutional space, Dr. Lakkimsetti makes way for resistance by remarking the ways in which the Indian State becomes accountable to communities that exert political agency by de-centering power from the State and bringing policies to question.
Dr. Lakkimsetti got her PhD in Sociology from UW-Madison, is an alum of FemSem, and her book “From AIDS to Rights: Using Biopower to Achieve Citizenship in India” is forthcoming. She can be reached at email@example.com
Malú Machuca Rose is a second year graduate student in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at UW-Madison and an artist/activist/educator in the transfeminist movement in Lima, Perú. Their essay “Giuseppe Campuzano’s Afterlife: Towards a Travesti Methodology for Critique, Care and Radical Resistance” is forthcoming in TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 6.2, special issue of Trans en Las Américas.