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Impact of students collectivising on NALSAR’s gender-neutral policy

The efforts of minority and marginalised students, borne out of collectivisation, that paved the way for positive gender and LGBTQIA+ policies at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, have largely been ignored, to the detriment of progressive reform in Indian universities. 


EARLIER this year, as colleges across the country reopened for the new academic year, the students of NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, a national law university, were greeted by a campus evolving to accommodate more students. Construction work was underway at the dining hall, and hostels were being renovated. Still, its only gender-neutral washroom remained unattended and unused, as it has been for several months since it was declared a gender-neutral washroom.

Gender-neutral infrastructure

When the news about NALSAR creating gender-neutral spaces broke, students amused themselves by reading the barrage of tweets and reports around it. Each article disappointed more than the previous one. Little attention was given to the process or people involved as the outcome was considered satisfactorily progressive.

While the gender-neutral washroom is indeed a progressive decision, NALSAR’s washroom barely qualifies as ‘gender-neutral’. The washroom has remained the same as a men’s washroom infrastructurally, and only a new signboard signifies its change to a ‘gender-neutral’ washroom.

When universities make an attempt to create gender-neutral spaces, they send a message to the world that they also recognise and welcome those who don’t fit into the gender binary and those with non-normative sexual orientations.”

Such superficial rebranding without resolving the infrastructural and logistical concerns belie the idea that there is a cultural shift at the university towards inclusiveness and acceptance. After all, there is only so much a university can achieve when the role of its marginalised students is limited to offering suggestions, while the administration continues to hold the power to accept or discard these suggestions at their discretion.

While this is the fate of the gender-neutral washroom, the status of gender-neutral residence is much more disheartening. A floor in the newly constructed girls’ hostel was temporarily declared as gender-neutral space and, until today, nothing substantial has been done towards creating a truly gender-neutral residential facility despite multiple claims by the university administration.

Also read: Inclusive development: National Law Universities and nationalisation

Importance of gender-neutral spaces 

In essence, a gender-neutral space signifies a space where everyone is welcome regardless of how they identify or present themselves, without policing and censorship. It is a space where people do not constantly face the pressure of performing stereotypical gender roles and can feel comfortable about their bodies and mannerisms. It must honour the privacy and dignity of its residents and allow them to feel safe and affirmed.

In a world where cis-hetero patriarchy strangles those who do not bow in the face of its enormity, gender-neutral spaces offer refuge from surviving and performing in gendered spaces that are created and fiercely guarded by dominant patriarchial norms. When universities make an attempt to create gender-neutral spaces, they send a message to the world that they also recognise and welcome those who don’t fit into the gender binary and those with non-normative sexual orientations.

Laudably, by announcing gender-neutral spaces, NALSAR sent out a loud message to challenge those who want universities to continue excluding queer persons. The recent suicide of a queer school student named Arvey Malhotra in Haryana is a painful reminder of why such a message is more important now than ever.

Also read: Making schools a safe space for LGBTQI students: Issues and challenges

History of collective action at NALSAR

Surprisingly, many people still believe that universities take suo moto decisions for such progressive steps with goodwill. It is important to understand that, in a country where university administrations are infamous for consistently acting against the interests of its students, it is hardly plausible that such progressive policies come about in public universities without a substantial struggle by its students.

At NALSAR, the members of the NALSAR Queer Collective (‘NQC’) spent over two years appealing to the Student Bar Council (‘SBC’) and the university administration to make provisions for gender-neutral washrooms and hostels on campus. During these two years, the former Vice-Chancellor offered various reasons for his non-acquiescence, such as the faculty not being in agreement, the potential jeopardy cast on women’s safety, and the requirement of consensus.

Finally, thanks to the persistent efforts of the NQC and the SBC, a Trans-Policy Committee was constituted with a mandate of formulating a policy on “Inclusive Education for Gender and Sexual Minorities.” Glorifying the result, that is, the gender-neutral bathroom, erases the collective efforts and voice of the affected community, and ignores their struggle and labour.

“This vibrant culture of collective action, which is in no way a feature unique to NALSAR, inspires several policy decisions the university makes. It also challenges how marginalised students are excluded in policies and shared spaces like classrooms.”

NALSAR has an inspiring history of collectivising, as do many public universities across India, and it is safe to say that even the most progressive university administrations do very little to acknowledge, much less honour, the presence of these collectives.

In our collective memory, the Savitribai Intersectional Study Circle (‘SISC’) was the first such collective founded in NALSAR. It was formed by Dalit and Adivasi students on campus in 2017, and was a pioneer in Ambedkarite collectivising.

Also read: Why students of National Law Universities are protesting

Over several years, members of the SISC have not only provided support to each other, but also challenged several casteist practices on campus, such as allotting hostel rooms based on the Common Law Admission Test rank. They have also organised several formal and informal events where students engage in political conversations regarding caste, class, and gender.

Inspired by the SISC, and in order to fill the remaining gaps, the NALSAR Minorities’ Forum (‘NMF’) was founded in January 2020. It aimed to facilitate inter-community action against the backdrop of country-wide protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (‘CAA’) and its adverse impact on religious minorities and refugee communities in India.

Within a few days of its formation, NMF, led by Muslim students and comprised of students from the Muslim, Dalit, Adivasi, and queer communities, led an anti-CAA protest on campus that redefined NALSAR’s way of engaging with politics outside the campus. This protest brought the communities participating in NMF closer, and helped people from marginalised communities find common ground for action by inspiring solidarity despite differences.

At one NMF gathering, the idea of a queer collective got crystallised, and the NQC went public in March 2020. Over the past two years, NQC has grown exponentially in numbers, hosted several study sessions, and has raised multifarious concerns regarding the status quo at NALSAR. It has also worked alongside the SISC and NMF to organise events on campus that further solidifies the inter-community solidarity present on campus.

When the pandemic forced colleges to move to the online format, this inter-community trust helped people from these communities quickly start working and negotiating vehemently with the administration and the SBC to create an online-learning policy that was not discriminatory, especially to students of minority and disadvantaged communities.

“Perhaps then instead of saying the university did something for LGBTQIA+ students, it would be more appropriate to say the university worked with LGBTQIA+ students (as any university should) to work towards creating gender-neutral spaces on campus.”

There is rarely an event organised by one body that does not receive support from the other bodies, and neither is there ever a demand that is not amplified by all these groups working with each other. This vibrant culture of collective action, which is in no way a feature unique to NALSAR, inspires several policy decisions the university makes. It also challenges how marginalised students are excluded in policies and shared spaces like classrooms.

Acknowledging student struggles

To overlook recognising the student struggle that forms the basis of most progressive university policies, results in a gross misunderstanding of how power operates in higher education and dismiss the extent to which it is shaped by identity, privilege and hierarchy.

Unfortunately, most reportage around the gender-neutral spaces indicate that the university did something great for the student body, including students. While what the university did is indeed a step forward, the discourse and activism around creating gender-neutral spaces has always been led by students and informal student collectives like NQC, SISC and NMF, among others.

LGBTQIA+ is an inclusive term that embraces people of all genders and sexualities, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, and queer. The LGBTQIA+ students of NALSAR would not have achieved this recognition of their fundamental rights without the support, solidarity and collective action by Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim, and Bahujan students.

Also read: Dr Ambedkar: lawyer of the marginalized

Ignoring the significance of such collectivising and solidarity-building in reporting around gender-neutral spaces led to the issue being understood as one of a good administrator versus bad administrator. This narrative trivialises the rights-based discourse around an issue, and reduces it to the benevolence of those in power. Such reporting also unfortunately misses the opportunity to engage with the enormous role that student collectivisation plays at universities across the country.

Perhaps then, instead of saying the university did something for LGBTQIA+ students, it would be more appropriate to say the university worked with LGBTQIA+ students (as any university should) to create gender-neutral spaces on campus. This narrative has been reported in an Indian Express editorial piece which, although encouraging universities to listen to their students to take meaningful action for the LGBTQIA+ community, misses the finer details of the issue of power dynamics.

Lastly, as Kranthi, the co-founder of the NQC told the Washington Blade“What has happened so far in our university is only little, and so much more needs to be done if we want to shift the whole institutional culture towards real inclusion of gender and sexual minorities”.

Without meaningful socio-economic support for trans and queer students who need it the most, these changes mean little. Hopefully, the collective efforts of NALSAR students will focus more on substantial aspects like capacity building and skill development, financial aid and scholarships, and internship aid for queer and trans students than on formal procedures and piecemeal changes. When these reforms succeed and usher in a new era for universities, the ideas, investments and labour of students and student collectives must be duly and appropriately acknowledged.