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Monday, July 23, 2018

SC hearing on Section 377: Among voices calling for justice, a spirited chorus from IITs

SC on Section 377: Even as the three seem hopeful of the impending verdict, they are also painfully aware of their long journey so far — filled with stigma, shame, confusion, the need to fit in, and bittersweet relationships with parents and peers.

Written by Somya Lakhani | New Delhi | Updated: July 13, 2018 7:34:35 am
SC hearing on Section 377: Among voices calling for justice, a spirited chorus from IITs Debottam Saha, Anwesh Pokkuluri, Ashris Choudhury, all IIT petitioners in Section 377 case. (Express photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

ON THURSDAY afternoon, after the Supreme Court had wound up the day’s hearing on the question of decriminalising homosexuality, three young men got together to compare notes outside. They were there on behalf of a group of 20 — all IIT students and alumni from Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Kharagpur who are among the petitioners challenging Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.

“We are members of an informal pan-IIT LGBTQ group called Pravritti, which has 350 members. We decided to file a petition in the end of April, collected funds for lawyers’ fees and travel costs and are now here…small players in a long history of fight for justice,” says Ashris Choudhury, a 23-year-old IIT-Kharagpur alumnus.

READ | Being gay is variation, not an aberration: Supreme Court signal on Section 377

Standing next to him are Debottam Saha (26), who is finishing his PhD in IIT-Delhi, and Anwesh Pokkuluri (24), an IIT-Madras alumnus. They say that apart from Pravritti, which was formed in 2012, each IIT has its own LGBTQ group on campus – Ambar in Kharagpur, Saathi in Mumbai and Indradhanush in Delhi.

“They are safe spaces for the LGBTQ community to express themselves but since the Supreme Court set aside the Delhi High Court order that decriminalised homosexuality in 2013, it’s been hard for these groups to exist…secret meetings take place, sometimes group are asked to disband. But today, it’s because of these groups that we are at the Supreme Court,” says Saha.

According to Pravritti, “The youngest petitioner is a 19-year-old, 90 per cent of us petitioners are below the age of 30 years…there are two female petitioners and one trans-woman”. And representing them in the apex court is advocate Menaka Guruswamy.

For Choudhury, admission to IIT-Kharagpur helped him understand his sexual orientation and reassured him that he wasn’t “alone”. For Pokkuluri, the fear of being “kicked out of college if word got out that I am gay” was almost too real.

READ | Government walked BJP tightrope on Section 377: said yes — and a no as well

“It was my final year of B.Tech Engineering Physics at IIT-Madras in 2013 when a junior told me he was gay. I still hadn’t told a soul and, while I was relieved to know there were more like me, I was afraid that if the administration found out, I would be thrown out of college…there were no support groups at that time,” says Pokkuluri.

Even as the three seem hopeful of the impending verdict, they are also painfully aware of their long journey so far — filled with stigma, shame, confusion, the need to fit in, and bittersweet relationships with parents and peers.

Choudhury, who identifies as a bisexual, says, “While growing up, when I realised I was attracted to boys and girls, I had to be ultra-conscious of how I walk and talk due to hyper scrutiny by your peers. I used to pray that I would wake up a normal boy…I would memorise football games to fit in.”

ALSO READ | In big shift forward, govt not to contest challenge to Section 377, leaves it to Supreme Court

For Saha, who grew up in Kolkata, his sexual orientation resulted in a bitter relationship with his father, “who once slapped me for putting on my mother’s lipstick and said I needed to go to a homeopathic doctor”.

After finding support from his mother, brother and peers in JNU and IIT, Saha underwent more trauma, when a man he met on a dating app extorted money from him at knife-point. “That’s one reason I am a petitioner today…at that moment, the man took advantage of the fact that I wouldn’t go to the police for fear of being booked under Section 377…I want that fear to go away,” he says.

ALSO READ | 18 years since Law panel said ‘delete’ Section 377, report quoted in Supreme Court hearing

On the other hand, years of growing up in a small, conservative town and family in Andhra Pradesh — and the untimely death of his younger brother in 2013 — led Pokkuluri to depression. “I am currently on a break because of my mental health. While growing up, I didn’t even know the word ‘gay’ existed. When I told my parents that I was going to be the lead petitioner, they wondered how it would impact my mental health…I told them it would only do me good if the Supreme Court tells me that I am not a felon,” he says.

As Pokkuluri prepares to leave for his hometown Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh, the three promise to meet again – “Once the verdict is out in our favour, hopefully…to dance, to celebrate, and paint the city in rainbow colours.”

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