India’s Engineering Students Join Gay Rights Fight

29 July, 2018

Twenty-seven-year-old Debottam Saha remembers how he became a victim of blackmail earlier this year.

Saha is a gay man. One night, he went to meet a man who seemed kind to him, at first. But, as he told VOA, that soon changed. The man started making demands. He threatened to cut Saha's throat unless he gave him money.

In the end, Saha gave him money and left unharmed. Yet he could take no legal action: An Indian law dating back to colonial times says sex between members of the same sex is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Saha is doing research at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. He recently joined an effort to overturn the anti-gay law. He is working with a group of current and former students from the country's top engineering schools, called the IITs.

Debottam Saha, a gay man, recalls a time as a child when his father asked him to see a doctor for help.
Debottam Saha, a gay man, recalls a time as a child when his father asked him to see a doctor for help.

Hopeful court will reverse law

Anjana Pasricha, VOA's reporter in New Delhi, says many Indians are hoping that the Supreme Court will do away with the law. Earlier this month, the court heard several petitions disputing its 2013 ruling to uphold the measure.

One of the petitions came from members of an IIT group called "Pravritti," or Different Thoughts. These engineers say the decision to add their voices is meant to demonstrate that India's LGBT community has some of the country's best minds.

Indians compare the IITs to America's best colleges and universities. Many IIT graduates now work for technology companies in California's Silicon Valley.

Saha says their stories exemplify what the gay community suffers from — discrimination, trauma, threats, dishonor and violence. The anti-gay law has made it difficult to change opinions in a country that is still mostly conservative.

Saha recalls that his father treated him poorly after his mother read his diary, a book in which he kept notes about his day-to-day experiences. In the book, he had written about his interest in boys. Saha was in the seventh grade at that time.

After Saha's mother told his father, his father told him to seek medical help.

"And then he asked me to consult a doctor so that, you know, I can change myself."

And he went through school afraid that other students would learn his secret. He knew that another boy was severely punished because of his interest in boys.

"He was put behind the class and the doors were closed and I don't know what hell used to happen with him. And often, at that point of time, we were really scared, and we didn't know. It may happen the next day with us also."

Support group's help

During his studies at IIT, an LGBT support group at school helped Udai Bhardwaj leave behind the uneasiness he had felt for years about his interest in boys.

That is the biggest problem, says the 23 year old: Having to live with this secret while growing up. He admitted to himself that he was gay when he was 13. But, he was afraid to tell anyone else.

Bhardwaj is another petitioner against the anti-gay law.

He has battled depression twice, the first time in grade school and later at the university.

"One of my friends told me that he thought that gay people should be set on fire. I had to hear that and that really affected me because I thought, ‘OK, this guy was supposed to be my friend.'"

In his final year of undergraduate studies, Bhardwaj struggled a lot.

"I was quite depressed. I took counseling. I took medication and I got off medication only a few months ago. So, yeah, I mean... and this is something that's very, very common in the LGBT community."

But now, Bhardwaj works for an international company that is LGBT-friendly.

He only told his family about his sexual preferences two years ago. His parents were hugely supportive. This helped him join the petition and talk freely to the media. He admits he is the exception: He has many friends who can never hope for that kind of support.

"I just thought that with this petition it would be easier for kids to start coming out. It would be easier for kids to you know, accept themselves. It would be easier for families to accept their kids."

The fact that only 20 of the 350-member group "Pravritti" could come out is a sign of Indian public opinion on the issue.

Battle for gay rights

The battle for gay rights has taken a complex path in India. The law criminalizing sexuality was ended in 2009 by the Delhi High Court. But, then in 2013, it was restored by the Supreme Court, making India one of the few countries that outlaws gay sex.

However, the hearings in July come 10 months after the top court defended privacy as a basic right, and that includes sexual preference. Some observations by judges have also raised hopes in the community that things are finally changing.

The activists also hope that their petition will increase sensitivity among university officials about the need to support student LGBT groups.

I'm Alice Bryant.

Anjana Pasricha reported this story for VOA News. Alice Bryant adapted the report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

blackmail – n. the crime of threatening to tell secret information about someone unless the person being threatened gives you money or does what you want

gay – adj. sexually attracted to someone who is the same sex

petition – n. a written document that people sign to show that they want a person or organization to do or change something

LGBT – adj. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender

graduate – n. a person who has earned a degree or diploma from a school, college, or university

trauma – n. a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time

consult – v. to go to someone, such as a doctor or lawyer, for advice

hell – n. the place where the devil lives and where evil people go after they die according to some religions

come out – v. to say openly that you are a homosexual