IIT B was one of the first educational institutions in India to start an LGBTQ+ support group called Saathi, in 2011. Other IITs soon followed suit, with similar support groups being instituted in IIT Delhi, IIT Madras, IIT Kanpur, IIT Roorkee and so on.
While Saathi was the first such support group to operate in an IIT, it remained a closed, selective group as few came out in the open about their orientation, fearing a backlash. On Oct.03, 2016 the institute’s magazine, Insight, released a survey of the views of more than 600 students on LGBT issues, which was widely discussed in the national media. This survey, along with Saathi’s continual efforts to spread awareness in the campus made a huge difference in the general attitude towards LGBTQ+ issues in their campus. Read on, as we talk to current Chief Editor of Insight, Aparajeya Dash about what motivated them to do this survey and how it changed the campus atmosphere.
What gave you the idea of conducting a survey on LGBTQ+ issues?
We wanted to know how accepting the campus is regarding LGBTQ+ people. Some of us were discussing this idea, and I was a fresher back then and this is an issue close to my heart. So we decided that if we wanted to know how accepting the students of the campus are, we as a group of students sitting in a café could not really just decide this. We needed to reach out to people, discuss their opinions and come to a conclusion. So we decided to not do a very black and white survey, but with shades of acceptance. For example, some people might be okay with queer people, but not be comfortable with queer rights like marriage rights, adoption rights, civil rights and so on. We couldn’t really design a survey the way we usually do, because there were a lot of nuances that needed to be taken care of. Initially, we went for an offline survey – we printed a few sheets and wrote simple questions like, “What do you think of gay people?” or something like that, a very open-ended, simple question.
Volunteers standing at different locations around the campus approached people and gave them the sheet of paper and asked them to answer the questions. We told them that we won’t be looking at the sheets right away so they can write whatever they want to. We did this to get a basic feel of what people think and then with these insights we designed the actual online survey which would reach everyone on campus.
Once we designed the survey, we got it vetted by the humanities department because they people have a better understanding of these issues than we undergraduates have. Then we uploaded it to the student mailers list and got responses from the students.
What kind of impact did the survey have on the campus?
At that time (in my fresher year), Saathi was a close group of people who were mostly queer. It was a known fact that to be a part of it you had to be queer. Now, the membership for the club is very diverse, and not limited to only queer people but it also includes people who believe in queer rights – allies. I can’t really personally take credit for this transformation, but when the article was published in my second year first semester, it started a dialogue. It forced people to acknowledge the fact that whether you like it or not some people are attracted to people of the same gender and it was completely normal. The piece was picked up by national media and they went crazy over it. The then insight team published rebuttals to what the national media was putting out. I could see that there was a sense of galvanization amongst the students regarding the issue. I think it kind of kicked off the discussion and it helped in the issue coming to the forefront.
What is the environment in your campus like, as of now?
I think ours is a fairly liberal campus. I know some people who are outrightly homophobic not just casually homophobic. I think casual homophobia is a very systemic issue and it might take a long time for it to go away. I think it depends on the purpose whether it is hurtful or in a friendly way. But, on an average, I think IIT-B is better than a general Indian population.
What other measures did the Insight team take after that?
Once the article was published, we talked to the administration saying that this is what we have, but at Insight we make the clear distinction between being media and an agitative body. We believe in highlighting issues, we don’t actually go on the ground and act on them because there are other bodies on campus which do it. So, Saathi felt really empowered because they had a voice behind them and they became very active henceforth.
I think that the soft power that media bodies have in influencing opinion goes a really long way.
How accepting were the administration of this program? Were there any concrete measures taken by the administration?
In our administration, the students have almost complete freedom. That might not be the case with other institutions.
As a gesture of goodwill, we just sent them a copy so that they can be prepared when the issue comes out.
The institute did take some measures. Just at the end of my third year, the institute recognised Saathi as an official body of the student gymkhana and they had their own constitution, their members and so on. I think there has been good progress after the article came out.
What does it mean to have an LGBTQ+ open campus?
One good thing that has happened is in light of the Supreme Court striking down section 377 is that many people, whether they like it or not, have had that debate about LGBTQ+ rights. I mean we are an educational institution and 95% of us have facebook and they follow some kind of news body, so they are not insulated from this discussion.
In my second year, there were a few prominent seniors who were queer and they were really outspoken. That also really helped.
What is the importance of a support group in your campus?
I think the greatest importance of such a group, apart from spreading awareness about LGBTQ+ issues through plays, movies, discussions, guest lectures is that it is a safe place for somebody who is confused. Or someone who is not confused but afraid. Somebody who is not able to accept himself or herself as having a non-heteronormative sexuality. These people need a safe place to talk about it and come to terms with it.
What would you say to those who say – now that homosexuality has been decriminalised, there is no need to talk about LGBTQ+ rights anymore, that India needs to move on to more important issues?
That is the exact opposite of what needs to be done! I think Section 377 was more of a symbolic victory than an actual victory because it had anyway become redundant by then. Now just because the law does not exist, it doesn’t mean that all the people around you would have magically transformed their views overnight.
Civil rights such as the right to marry, adopt and inherit are yet to be accorded to LGBTQ+ individuals. I think there is a long way to go before we declare total victory.
To those who say that this is not an important issue – I think this mentality stems from the fact that people consider this a micro issue.
[ The Supreme Court of India accepts the estimation that up to 8% of India’s population in India – 104 million people – might be LGBTQ+, making it one of the largest such populations in the world.]
While it doesn’t affect all of us, it still affects a sizeable population of this country and for them this is a very important issue. Because you are questioning their very identity – they cannot find a companion, marry or love in a socially acceptable manner in the country. It prevents them from achieving self-realisation. While it is probably not that important for you, because you’re not a part of this community, you can’t dismiss the issue because it doesn’t cater to the majority.
Take the adivasis for example. The issue of resettlement of adivasis, uprooting them out of their land so that forests can be cleared for industrialisation may not be important to you, because you live an urban lifestyle, but it is important to them.
Lastly, it should be important to everybody, because it is a question of human rights. It’s not just affecting a single community, it’s questioning how accepting we are to different views and different orientations.
Read our analysis on the survey responses we got on LGBTQ+ attitudes here.