With its resource material to aid 1.65 lakh peer educators called ‘Saathiya’, the Union health ministry has taken a step in the right direction. Volunteers will use Saathiya material, prepared with the UN Population Fund, to blow the dust off several Indian taboos. The material goes boldly — and sensitively — where few establishment discourses have before. For instance, it addresses same-sex attraction with gentleness and wisdom. Despite Section 377 declaring homosexuality a crime, Saathiya says it’s alright to feel attracted to someone of your own sex. The key, the material remarks, is to treat such feelings with respect, prioritising mutual consent. Breaking through generations of Bollywood-style “romance”, which valourised harassment, Saathiya emphatically says a “no” means “no” — not a coy yes.
Elsewhere, Saathiya supports flexibility, saying it’s ok for boys to cry, to like “female” past-times like cooking or design. Not conforming to macho stereotypes doesn’t mean a loss of masculinity, just as girls who like sports are no less female. Saathiya highlights the absurdity of locking individuals into iron-clad roles, encouraging young persons to be their own selves. The material talks frankly about safe sex, contraception, abortions — by treating these as facts of life, not moral embarrassments to be covered under veils of ignorance, Saathiya regards adolescents in a radical new fashion. They aren’t babies to be chided or indulged. They are young adults, to be treated with dignity and wit, empowered with a full view of the complexities and simplicities, the rights and rites — and the possibilities — of life.
Saathiya’s liberalism should be reflected in other spaces too. Talk of “love jihad” or “anti-Romeo squads” doesn’t reflect respect or consent, but the Indian establishment’s tendency to behave as if the persons and passions of citizens should be policed, controlled, even assaulted, by officials or vigilantes. Saathiya makes a breakthrough, challenging such thinking. Other parts of the establishment should follow its lead.