There has been backlash since Nivedan, a student at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay, hijacked 10 minutes of a student orientation meeting to declare that Saathi, an LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) cell co-founded by him, would now be open to members. “Segregate the gays and create a separate IIT for them to go", was the first reaction on social networking sites; “saala chakkas" was another.

“Don’t they know, chakkas are transgenders while sexual orientation has nothing to do with gender identity?" asks the soft-spoken IITian originally from Salem. He insists that even to question his own orientation, or that of any of the 60 members of Saathi—many of them straight supporters—is to label them. How does it matter? he wants to know. The linguistic distinction is important in a campus of India’s brightest young minds. “If India’s smartest don’t get it, who will?" he asks.

From top : Main building of IIT, Powai, Mumbai (Photo by Girish Srivastava/HT) ; gay pride parade (Photo by Mayank).

Saathi remains unregistered and though the group did approach the dean of student affairs and the director, IIT, for support, and received it, sanction is not in writing. The cell has neither been registered nor institutionalized as a part of this most coveted of organizations. “In hindsight, I should have requested permission in writing instead of assuming it once we received their support," admits Nivedan, who has vowed not to jump the gun now, and admits the tacit support of the staff and faculty has been beyond belief. Their official sanction will bring untold credibility to the movement, he believes. It’s still a long way to the mandatory LGBT cells that American institutions incorporate in their educational systems, but the baby steps help break the silence on what he sees as an essentially homophobic culture. “Nobody ever uses the term gay in a non-derogatory way", is a common refrain on the campus. A study group from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences are at the IIT campus, on hearing the news, to talk to the members. They want to know more too, about campus behaviour, orientation and the ability to cope. In some distant future, this would be seen as the spark that lit a fire, is the hope.

Saathi is not a space where any of the members are asked about their orientation, or even forced to discuss it. Sensitization to Saathi means an environment where it is safe to be, or not be, gay. “Some people are just confused, others are questioning it, are being put through counselling by their parents, others are straight and want to support it. I know of one guy who told his friend he was gay and the friend wrote ‘for gay sex, contact…’ and put his phone number on the wall of the loo. When they contact us, they can be as anonymous or private as they want, or as open as they see fit. If they need it, we just assign a mentor to just talk to them," Nivedan says. Everyone is not as fearless as Harish, who has enjoyed writing about being openly gay. Since the group is unregistered and informal, they skirt the need to have legal issues addressed but ensure that no one below 13 adds them on social networking or below 18 sits in on their events—currently restricted to hanging out and film screenings. “Mainly because when you are underage, you could be confused and irrational, and because the law is everything," says Nivedan, who waited till he turned 18, two months ago, to launch his plan to make the world a safer place for gay people.

A founder member, who didn’t wish to be named, of the newsletter Bombay Dost explains that Saathi, as a first step towards establishing a safe space where sexual orientation can be discussed, is a great initiative. “Official sanction will come in its own time. There are many young kids who have talked about starting a space on campus, but few have gone out and done it in an organized manner. So this is a first in that sense. At least, let the discussion begin," he says. Saathi is screening the Oscar-winning Milk, a 2008 biographical film on the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, this week, open to IITians—whether gay or not. The dream is that, gay or straight, many will attend.

The first step is to break the stereotype. Dodge the label. “We avoid meeting in a fixed space to avoid the label. We don’t want the segregation to stem from ‘you go there so you must be gay’. People will be afraid to join," says Nivedan. Nothing here is fixed, stable or stationary in this labelless world. Safe houses must be such.

All surnames, classes and streams of study of participants have been withheld to protect their identities.