How IIT Bombay’s queer resource group, Saathi, is repping the LGBTQ experience
Coming together for fostering a sense of community
Growing up queer can be hard. There are few resources one can tap into, and virtually no safe spaces outside of monthly events held by a few equal rights organisations. And then there’s college, which can feel like navigating a minefield of peer pressure and ridicule as a walking-talking cocktail of conflicted hormones for anyone who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ).
That’s pretty much how Harishchandra Ramadas, a former student at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay felt. Which is why, after years of wrestling with his sexuality, he set up Saathi, IIT Bombay’s LGBTQ resource group, along with Devesh Radhakrishnan and Nivvedan S, just before they graduated in 2011.
“As I began coming out to my friends, and later to the public, the overwhelmingly positive responses I got made me realise that the primary obstacle to LGBTQ acceptance in India is a simple lack of exposure. I wanted to utilise my position of privilege as the only openly gay person to the fullest and make IITB more welcoming for other LGBTQ students,” he says.
A poster for renowned author Ruth Vanita’s talk at IIT Bombay
In its early days, Saathi met with indifference, mockery and fear; it was even termed a “sex club”. But gradually, the derision waned and it even became popular once it was featured in the students’ newsletter, Insight. Soon, Saathi earned the approval and support of professors, which led to their first freshers’ orientation. It was at this orientation that a wide-eyed Aditya Shankar heard Ramadas deliver a speech that would change his life. Inspired, he joined Saathi and came out as gay one month later. By then, Ramadas and Radhakrishnan had already graduated, so Shankar stepped up and helped Nivvedan run Saathi. “We started working as an independent body, to further the cause through various crowdfunded events: film screenings, talks, open mic sessions and a lot of meetings, with generous help from our faculty, especially from the humanities and social sciences departments,” says Shankar. “But the major challenge was to mobilise people.”
Then, word got around. Students from other IITs around the country began calling in for advice on how to start local chapters, starting with IIT Delhi’s Indradhanu. “They put in a lot of effort to fight a hostile administration to establish it,” says Shankar. Then IIT Kanpur got Unmukt, IIT Kharagpur introduced Ambar and IIT Madras started Vannam. “We helped them understand Saathi’s mission and saw them through their teething period. Their passion drove the rest. A pan-IIT queer group also came into existence to help facilitate these conversations. At present, it has over 350 members; Saathi itself has 250.”
Saathi’s current members with Aditya Shankar, second from left
Two years ago, they launched Saathi Connect, an illustrated zine of poetry, articles, stories and musings in English, Hindi sexuality in the vernacular. “Often, we saw that content on alternate sexuality was restricted to English,” says Shankar. “This creates a class- and linguistic-divide, which needs to go. Queer people exist everywhere.”
Shankar now works at Bain & Company, but continues to be involved with Saathi and mentor its two current leaders: fifth-year student Anisha Bajaj and fourth-year student Omkar M. “It’s been two years since I first came out as a lesbian and Saathi was instrumental in it,” says Bajaj. “Self-acceptance was never the issue for me, but the confidence to openly talk about it was. Saathi gave me the boost I was longing for and the safe space to do it comfortably,” says Omkar.