Remembering Priya Thangarajah
Many of you have heard and read about the death of Priya Thangarajah, our friend, comrade, fellow activist, and close associate of the Alternative Law Forum.
I first met Priya at a meeting of the Delhi-based sexuality rights advocacy group, PRISM in 2003. I had just moved to Delhi, and started my first job, as a journalist. Priya was studying at JNU part of LGBT rights activism on campus and in the city. Over the three years I spent in Delhi, we became very good friends, and part of a larger community of gender and sexuality rights activists in the city
Priya moved to Bangalore after a stint at JNU to study law the National Law School, Bangalore. In her stint as a law student, and then as a lawyer and legal researcher, she worked closely with, and forger deep friendships with those at ALF. While it took a while for Priya to adjust to NLS’s culture of politics from the more activist JNU campus, she soon became engaged with human rights legal issues there. During her stint in Bangalore, Priya became increasingly associated with ALF, and began working with us on range of issues.
Priya’s first association with ALF began with a study she co-authored with Ponni Arasu, on the specific legal issues that queer womenface in India, a pioneering attempt at highlighting specific ways in which queer women negotiated with the law, shifting the focus from the direct criminalization of homosexual men that had become a focal point of the LGBT movement.
Through their work, Priya and Ponni, highlight specific ways in which laws that deal with wrongful confinement, abduction, kidnapping etc. are mobilized by families and the state against queer women. In these cases, it is the ‘adulthood’ defence, or the claim that women who have attained the age of majority are deciding to take decisions of their own accord becomes crucial. Priya and Ponni complicated this narrative saying that in cases of lesbian relationships, the adulthood defence is also marked by an invisibilization of lesbian identity.
In 2006 Priya was part of a small group of queer lawyers who decided to put together a collection of essays around sexuality right, queer struggles and the law after the Critical Legal Studies Conference in Hyderabad in 2006. These papers were edited by ArvindNarrain and Alok Gupta, and published as Law Like Love: Queer Perspectives on Law in 2011.
Priya remained an integral part of the campaign against section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that led to the decriminalization of homosexuality in July 2009. She was one of the many activists, lawyers, researchers and academics who helped research and fight this battle. Following its re-criminalization in December 2013, Priya like many of us was angry and upset at the callous manner in which the Indian Supreme Court had dismissed the claim to recognize the rights of LGBT persons.
Priya was acutely aware of the need for solidarities among human rights struggles across South Asia. Priya was an active member of the Law and Social Sciences Research Network She was central to the organizing of the third Lassnet conference in Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, the first time the event was held outside the country.
Being a Sri Lankan, who spent many years studying in, and having forged intimate friendships and solidarities in India, she was aware of the complex relationship between civil society, and state actors in South Asia. She was very critical and aware of Indian hegemony in the South Asian region, while at the same time extremely engaged with struggles and movements in India. She spent time traveling in the North East of India, understanding the complexities of the region and the demand for self -determination in the region.
In January 2007, Priya was part of a small group of us from ALF who visited the Rameshwaram, which was the site of some of the largest refugee camps for Sri Lankans in India. We spoke to refugees from the Sri Lanka who had arrived recently, felling the war there. Priya was fluent in English and Tamil, and was deeply affected by the stories of those who had arrived. Priya continued to act as a Tamil language interpreter in the human rights work she did in Sri Lanka when she returned there after she graduated from law school. She remained engaged with issues around democratic rights in Sri Lanka and was associated with many civil society groups and collective there.
In her final year, Priya was one of the ten students in a seminar called ‘Laws of Desire’ that we at ALF had co-taught. I remember the three months of summer as being grueling yet rewarding, the best of part of which was being able to interact with the bunch of extremely bright and involved law students, who would graduate in a few months.
Priya has taught me much more over the time I have known her – her wide range of interests and understanding of politics across the subcontinent, her refreshing frankness, her ability to listen and empathise, her sense of humour that lightened the most serious of conversations. The serious issues that Priya advocated for were in stark contrast to her personality. She was funny, fun loving and had an infectious laugh. She often joked about the irony of her name, Indira Priyadarshini, which was the result of her father being a fan of Indira Gandhi. Looking back over the years, it is the moments of absolute madness, laughter and a sense of camaraderie that I remember clearly.
It’s not easy to write about Priya in the past tense. If she were advising me on what to do now, the Priya I knew would urge me to raise a toast to her, to dress fabulously in her memory, to cherish existing friendships and renew old solidarities.
Farewell Priya. So long and thanks for all the love.