LGBTQI harassment at Tiss: Issue gets voice in institute, but what about the rest of India?

Students from the LGBTQ community in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences have complained of being harassed and discriminated against, according to a report by The Times of India. Some even submitted their complaints with the institute's Gender Amity Committee (GAC) citing harassment in relation to their non-normative appearances or sexual preference claims the report.

The institute is known for fostering social justice, birthing and nurturing equality, and as the defender of all social identities. It provides multiple specialisations even within a single master’s category: such as on the topics of identity, women’s citizenship and governance, women’s writing and engendering governance, all offered as a sub-range within the MA in Women’s studies. In particular, it has stood out as the champion of the liberals, champion of all causes, in what other universities have stayed woefully inept in cultivating – a human agenda.

It was in May this year that we celebrated the news of a street sweeper with the BMC, 36-year-old Sunil Yadav who beat all odds to secure a MPhil degree from Tiss Mumbai, in ‘Globalisation and Labour’ and expressed the aim of pursuing a PhD to deeply understand the social system that has “marginalised our (sweeper) class in the society.” When the news of discrimination against the LGBTQI community arises in an educational institute such as Tiss, it must be taken up as matter of serious concern.

Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Wikimedia Commons

Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Wikimedia Commons

The provision of such keenly domain knowledge by the institute serves as the metaphorical potter to shape experts out of all kinds of clay. Though, where such temples of knowledge are often unfairly seen as churning partisan intellectualism, the knowledge of discrimination within its halls could have finally falsified this notion and proved that it truly is a melting pot of different thought processes. A member of the Gender Amity Committee (GAC) said it like it is: "Tiss still exists in India."

A student* who identifies as queer studying in the institute has said that he faced discrimination in the form of ostracism. He was refused as a roommate and in another instance, a fellow student refused to take a selfie with him based on his gender identity. "I think the campus does claim to be inclusive and sensitive but fails to really provide us a safe space," he said.

But on the other hand, a student of media studies in the institute, Kamesh S denies having witnessed any discrimination. He has said that there are two formal unions to deal with such issues — the GAC and the Centre Against Sexual Harassment (CASH). "They have many procedures against sexual discrimination, ranging from counseling to stricter ones such as suspension or withdrawal of admission, depending on the case," he clarified.

Following these complaints, the GAC has issued a circular against discrimination and have launched initiatives to increase gender awareness and sensitisation programmes.

A GAC member went on to say that the committee, which though is independent of the Students’ Union, is running joint programmes with the union to ensure a wider reach. “The committee has received a total of two or three formal complaints, and no reports of physical abuse. We have planned for open talks, role play activities and panel discussions in the coming months, with a proper timeline to combat the problem. Our objective is to destroy the pre-conditioned biases of people, and thus big or small we’re taking this very seriously.”

However, a student who identifies herself as an outsider to the community, and is taking her masters in social work from the university, said that she had heard about two separate incidents of discrimination from other students, one where a security guard had taunted a person for his appearance and another incident where a technical staff from the library made comments. “Tiss constitutes of a very diverse campus and attracts people from very multicultural backgrounds and so everyone is largely accepting of one another. But this very reason could be the cause of clashes – too different a background.” When asked as to what was done to counter this after the first incident, she said that a mail was sent by the Tiss Students’ Union, but not much else.

The mail, dated 29 September, 2016, by the union acknowledges the problem, and reads:

"Many of us find it difficult to go beyond the binary of ‘male’ and 'female.' However this does not give us the right to infringe upon the dignity or personal choice of any individual whatsoever. While it is necessary to immediately activate a mechanism to ensure that no one faces further discrimination or/and harassment on the basis of gender or sexual orientation; establishment of a gender-just campus will take some more efforts."

The mail also announced that the union has strongly condemned any acts of discrimination while simultaneously calling upon the student body to engage in a process of dialogue to unlearn biases. The union has committed to working closely with the GAC-CASH in the future.

Furthermore, the mail confirmed that the administration of the university had taken cognisance of the incidents and had arranged for an immediate sensitisation program for the security guards.

However, one of the students* who lodged a formal complaint has accused a member of the Student Union of allegedly making insulting remarks. “I joined Tiss knowing that they follow a zero tolerance policy towards discrimination and inequality. But some queer people have been at the brunt of humiliating taunts and interrogations based on their dressing style. We have filed a complaint and in the process have started to see what can be done where we cannot seek legal intervention.” Nevertheless, he expressed confidence in the institution’s existing system to take corrective measures. “GAC and CASH have boosted its attempts at sensitisation. Where these matters used to take place before as well, they have now planned for more movie screenings and peer awareness programmes,” he said. “In a way these cases have propelled our visibility in the campus, made it stronger,” he added.

A source within the GAC pointed to the fact that this was an internal issue, and they were not allowed to talk about it. However, the GAC page on the Tiss website states that they have to follow the Vishaka Guidelines against Sexual Harassment mandates that “it shall be the duty of the employer or other responsible persons in work places or other institutions to prevent or deter the commission of acts of sexual harassment and to provide the procedures for the resolution, settlement or prosecution of acts, of sexual harassment by taking all steps required,” which is further delineated in the Sexual Harassment of Women (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) at Workplace Act 2013, in which it is outlines that sexual harassment constitutes physical contact and advances; or a demand or request for sexual favours; or making sexually coloured remarks; or showing pornography; or any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature. But the purview of this law is restricted to women, and the section 377 ruling of the Supreme Court that re-criminalised homosexuality makes it difficult for such bodies to operate, and find an outlet to help other genders and sexual identities.

There might be no written procedure or legal process that unions all over India can follow to address harassment to LGBTQ people. Long time LGBTQ rights activist, Sonal Giani saw both negative and positive aspects to these developments. She said: “On the one hand it’s distressing that a place as progressive as Tiss has witnessed such discrimination, but on the other, it goes to show that its students have the courage to stand up to bullying. It’s heartening that there is a redressal mechanism that exists, and nothing is shoved under the carpet. It’s however a catch-22 situation that the student has to come out and talk about it. Where the onus should lie on the varsity to make space inclusive for the trans-person, it is often expected that the trans-person has to take the onus of claiming space for himself or herself. More than anything, this episode highlights what should be the larger focus that the government can’t just expect to create reservations for various minorities to build a pluralistic society, it has to do more to sensitise the spaces.”

Diversity is a social condition, but “pluralism is a political programme; a manifestation of what we wish India to be,” says Ramachandra Guha, and goes on to list five varieties of pluralism that universities must seek to achieve, in his essay on Pluralism in the Indian university. Tiss has almost achieved all — a pluralism in the student body, then in the teaching staff, a plurality of disciplines, approaches within a discipline, and pluralism in its funding. As Hunar Mehta, currently studying community organisation and development practice in the institute, has said, “discussions among friends and in classes help to change your perspective subtly. When exposed to scientific reasoning to what is not considered ‘normal,’ it helps one accept reality.”

Moreover in the case of Tiss, that has about two years to work with its student population to break years and years of prejudices, sensitivity is the key word. We would have to be boorish at the very least, to say that in the light of the recent events that it has failed in serving its reputation. It is perhaps because it is Tiss that these issues have received attention, and the kind of propriety it deserves.

The Supreme Court had heard a curative petition in February, 2016 to revisit its 2013 judgment, signifying that it recognised that the LGBTQ issue was a 'constitutional' one and not a 'moral' one, according to this Firstpost article. And the Tiss issue among many, may hopefully pave the way for another one.

*Students spoke to Firstpost on the condition of anonymity


Updated Date: Dec 04, 2016 14:48 PM

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