Manohar Elavarthi was set to raise queer rights awareness in Devara Jeevanahalli, one of Bengaluru's largest slums, on April 19, 2024.

Elavarthi, co-founder of a gender and sexual minorities rights group called Sangama, intended to discuss LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, and more) issues with residents, along with broader social concerns like rising living costs, unemployment, and secularism. He teamed up with members of the Gender and Sexual Minorities for Secular and Constitutional Democracy (GSM) to lead the discussion.

Incidentally, this was also the first day India began its 2024 General Elections, and a week before Karnataka's Bengaluru would go to the polls.

Just as Elavarthi started canvassing, 10 men from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – wearing saffron scarves and party insignia – surrounded him and me (the journalist covering the awareness drive) in the narrow lanes of Devara Jeevanhalli, popularly known as DJ Halli. Most voters here are rural migrants, many are from the Muslim community.

“You're just a Congress party agent!” shouted a BJP member, triggering a chorus of support from the other men who gathered around  Manohar and me.The other volunteers were yet to join Manohar at this stage. Brandishing the GSM leaflets, the BJP men declared “these are illegal.”

PHOTO • Sweta Daga
PHOTO • Sweta Daga

Left: Manimaran Raju, Vice President of the local BJP party office (left), and Manohar Elavarthi,  founders of Sangama, a gender and sexual minorities rights group (right). Right: BJP party workers led by Manimaran Raju (in red and white checked shirt), who stares at Manohar (in blue shirt with beard) while he tries to call other GSM volunteers

Any civil society group can legally distribute pamphlets that critique the ruling party. Election commission norms say that a political party, however, is prohibited from circulating critical material about another party.

Manohar tried explaining this to the agitated party members. Suddenly, their attention turned to me and they started questioning my presence there, demanding my camera be turned off.

On learning that I was a journalist, they became less aggressive towards me. This allowed Manohar and I to walk further to meet the other volunteers. Manimaran Raju, the Vice President of the local BJP party office, who was among the men in the group, decided to let us proceed.

But the volatile situation quickly changed and in no time we were surrounded by twice the number of BJP workers. An official car also appeared on the scene with Electoral Officers and the police.

In under a few minutes – before any canvassing began – Manohar, GSM volunteers, and I were asked to go to the Devara Jeevanhalli Police Station.

PHOTO • Sweta Daga

Manohar with Election Commission officer M. S. Umesh (yellow shirt), a member of the flying squad team. Also present are BJP party workers, other members of the Electoral Commission, and police officers who accuse GSM volunteers of breaking the law


Since 2014, the BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been in power and is now seeking a third term in 2024. The locality is part of Bangalore North Lok Sabha constituency and standing candidates from here are Shoba Karandlaje from the BJP and Professor M.V. Rajeev Gowda from the Congress.

GSM pamphlets included criticism on the rising prices of gas cylinders, unemployment among the youth, and the sharp rise in religious intolerance India has witnessed in the last 10 years.

“Its representatives are constantly making speeches dividing us in the name of religion, caste and language. Can we allow them to spread hate in Karnataka, our land of peace and harmony (?)’’ the pamphlet asks.

“When democracy is under threat, we don’t see a point in just defending one community, but we need to defend the larger idea of democracy,” says Manohar. “We don’t necessarily think Congress is the best party for GSM but the present regime is the biggest threat to our Constitution, secularism and democracy. If democracy is lost, then all marginalised communities lose,” he says, as we walk through the narrow lanes of the slum.

“This is the first time in Karnataka’s history that such a large coalition of LGBTQIA+ people came together during an election,” says Siddharth Ganesh, a queer scholar. The GSM has members from the queer community and allies from various Karnataka districts of Kolar, Bengaluru Urban, Bengaluru rural, Chikballapur, Ramanagar, Tumkur, Chitradurga, Vijayanagara, Ballari, Koppal, Raichur, Yadagiri, Kalaburagi, Bidar, Bijapur, Belagavi, Dharwad, Gadag, Shimoga, Chikkamagaluru, Hassan and Chamarajnagar.

“The queer community coming together under the umbrella of GSM to coordinate campaign efforts is a step towards achieving a more just and equal society for all minorities,” says Siddharth, also a part of the Coalition for Sexual Minority and Sex Workers' Rights (CSMR), one of the members of the larger GSM.


PHOTO • Sweta Daga
PHOTO • Sweta Daga

Left: BJP workers who surrounded Manohar. Right: Police officer Syed Muniyaz and Election Commission officer M. S. Umesh (yellow shirt) talking to Manohar (blue shirt, bagpack)

Addressing our group of activists surrounded by aggressive party workers, Election Commission officer, Syed Muniyaz said, “A law was broken”. Muniyaz, who is a part of the Election Commission Flying Squad, was investigating the complaint lodged by the BJP members. When we asked to see it, he said it was only a verbal complaint.

"What is the complaint that was registered against the volunteers?" I asked. “They broke the law so they have to go,” Muniyaz said, referring to the distribution of pamphlets. The GSM volunteers decided it was best to comply in order to diffuse the situation.

As we were walking to the station, motorbikes with men wearing saffron scarves zoomed past us, almost brushing up against us in the small lanes, shouting harrowing taunts, “You should die”, “Go to Pakistan” and “You people are not Indians.”

At the station, another 20 men were waiting for us. When the GSM volunteers and I went in, they surrounded us. These men, all party workers, threatened to have my phone and camera taken away. Some men moved towards me, but others held them back. Then they wanted me out of the room when the police inspector was speaking to the volunteers.

After nearly half an hour of being detained in this station, the group was let off. No written complaint was filed. The GSM volunteers were asked to leave the station, with no room for questions about why this happened despite the legality of events. They were shut down from canvassing that day too.

PHOTO • Sweta Daga
PHOTO • Sweta Daga

Left: Muniyaz talks to two hecklers on a bike, who were previously shouting at the GSM volunteers. Right: Muniyaz taking the GSM volunteers to the police station

PHOTO • Sweta Daga
PHOTO • Sweta Daga

Left: BJP party workers waiting at the police station for GSM volunteers.  Right: GSM v olunteers telling the police their pamphlets and intented canvassing are legal

“After centuries of being criminalised by the state, this is a movement towards undoing state neglect, apathy and violence, where the queer community is working towards increasing queer representation in politics,” says Siddharth, a scholar who studies queer activism in Bengaluru.

I couldn't pursue the story I had planned, but it was essential for me to share this incident.

"What can I say?” said the BJP’s Manimaran Raju when asked about his colleague’s behaviour. “I don't know what to say. I will speak to them as soon as this is over. They should not act like that (trying to physically take away the camera)."

With less than a month left in the election process, not only has the Election Commission been called upon several times to intervene across the country, but many other citizens have faced harassment and intimidation during the voting process.

The volunteers and I were able to leave, physically unharmed, but the question remains: how many more people will be intimidated for exercising their democratic right?
Sweta Daga

Sweta Daga is a Bengaluru-based writer and photographer, and a 2015 PARI fellow. She works across multimedia platforms and writes on climate change, gender and social inequality.

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