In conversation with Nishant Tiwari, Batch of 2017-2022. He is the founder of Abhayam-Centre for Gender Empowerment, which was established in AIL in February 2021. In this interview, he talks about the growth of the Society, his experiences as a founding member of a Society that promotes LGBTQIA+ rights, and the decision of Abhayam to sever its affiliation with the College.
TBP: The conception of Abhayam seemed ambitious. Considering that the atmosphere of the college was not exactly accepting of diversity in terms of gender, how did Abhayam come into being?
Nishant Tiwari: It started with negotiation only. I had asked a faculty member personally to head the team because she has been understanding and provided the liberty that was important for the Centre for Gender Empowerment that we had envisioned. Another joined us because she was assigned the role of a faculty coordinator.
When we had sent a proposal for the Society, we had consciously avoided any express mention of “LGBTQIA+” or language and symbols associated with the Pride Movement because we anticipated that they would outwardly refuse it otherwise. We knew that as soon as we included terms like “sexuality”, it would be over. Therefore, we conveyed the overall objective of the Society but worded it discreetly and cautiously.
Largely, we had written that the Centre aims to break the social construct about gender that society has created for people. And probably because authorities did not understand the objective, we were allowed to go further with the creation of the Society. This was perhaps also because at that time, the NIRF rankings were awaited and the submissions of the college for the rankings included a report on the Societies of the college and we knew it would be the right time to go ahead with it.
Surprisingly, the inception of the Society was not as difficult.
It was only after the inception that the real trouble began. In the first year of the Society, there were various instances when we had to directly lock horns with the authorities. They recorded and tracked our activity, scrutinising each post that went up and even the events that were unofficially conducted. That year, a well-intentioned professor called me in her personal capacity and warned me that running Abhayam can and will likely backfire in multiple ways and destroy everything that I had built in this college in my 3-4 years. She added that my image in front of the faculty had fallen because of my coming out.
TBP: How did it feel when the administration’s reaction came to be known?
NT: In all honesty, while it was disheartening, I had anticipated that. I have experienced it from the first year and seen for myself that they have had a vindicative approach towards anyone who has been raising their voice against their alignment of thoughts.
I knew from the beginning that starting Abhayam will come with consequences and we were basically ‘make-doing’ with everything. With all due respect to everyone, Abhayam has been one of the most active Societies in the college in the last two years. Despite that, officially, hardly any session was approved by the Principal. Because of that, we had to stick to Instagram Lives. Every time that we pushed for a session, the Principal retorted that it was not connected with law. There are other Societies, for instance, the ACRSS, which are not strictly legal; while I know for a fact that other Societies have had their share of struggles, there was always an added hurdle for Abhayam.
There were only two sessions of Abhayam on record. One was a seminar which involved an internationally well-known figure. Even for that rather simple seminar, we were asked to submit reports, research and official invitation. We had also planned a session with a scholarly alumna who has worked in the field of gender equality for years. However, the Principal refused at once without even looking at the proposal because the alumna, during her time in college, often dissented from her views and locked horns with the Principal’s favourite people.
There have been numerous instances like these. The primary reason that we considered detaching ourselves from the college was the personal harassment faced by the members of the Society at the behest of the administration.
We had an inkling that once Shweta and I, the last of the founding members of the Society, graduate, the college will try to dismantle the spirit of the Society. The Registrar had also implied this in one conversation where he said that the administration can discard any Society that they want. Or worse, there was a possibility that they keep the Society for their grading but censor it to an extent where it loses its spirit.
TBP: In what context was this said?
NT: In the recent past, we conducted a session on gender sensitisation and it also included sexual reproductive health in one of the ways. The administration was very against it, calling it strictly objectionable and vulgar and whatnot.
Shweta and I had divided roles for convenience. While Shweta dealt with external matters in terms of networking and conducting events, I dealt with trying to get approval for the sessions internally, because I enjoyed a good rapport with the professors before starting Abhayam.
Now, two out of the three people involved in a disciplinary proceeding related to students from different batches were, as unfortunate as it is, from the Centre. When they had gone in for the inquiry, the discussion pivoted from their conduct to the supposedly negative influence that Abhayam has on students, ironically courtesy of one Abhayam coordinator who initiated the discussion on this.
She, on the face of it, pretended to be a supporter of the opinions and choices of people. However, behind my back, she would gesticulate, mock me and use homophobic slurs against me in the belief that I would never get to know of it.
TBP: In your journey with the Society, what has been your experience when it comes to the students of the college?
NT: It was the support from the student body that neutralised the trauma given by the administration. Even as I speak, I have a smile on my face because we did manage to make a difference among the students of the college.
When we started out, many students did not know the basic difference between gender identity and sexual orientation. However, gradually, through our efforts, we fostered a space for discussion at least, a space for the people who might be confused or feeling unsafe. There is, undeniably, a disparity in the statistics when it comes to the Boys’ and Girls’ Hostels, but I am happy that generally, it was well-received. It is the student body of the institute that keeps the college going.
The current student members of Abhayam are running it really well. One advantage of Abhayam detaching itself is that I get to be a part of it even after graduating. We have certain ideas and plans that we look forward to executing now that we enjoy that autonomy of expression. We would like to thank everyone who has supported us so far, thank you for being awesome.
TBP: Abhayam has so far conducted a lot of activities unofficially. Was that a conscious choice?
NT: Every time we planned an event, as unfortunate as it is, we would always have to think over the possible repercussions of it and ways in which we could circumvent them.
Right from the beginning when we had gotten the proposal of the Society approved, the members had decided that we will at least try to cause a stir in the management, so as to compel them to at least acknowledge that things like this do exist.
The founding student members would always stay divided as to whether a certain event was to be kept officially or unofficially. At times, we would say, let’s give the administration some time and not become too vocal about it just yet or else they’ll strangulate our existence and at other times, we would consider the importance of what needs to be done, instead of laying dormant. So, once in a while, the Society ruffled its feathers one way or the other.
TBP: What hurdles did you commonly face in conducting events?
NT: We were told that if we don’t work in alignment with the “policies of the college” and based on their understanding of decency and indecency, we would be scrapped off.
Then we were told to remove all affiliations from the college and erase its name from everywhere so that it could not be linked with any teacher. I understand their apprehensions. Initially, the title of our page consisted of Army Institute of Law in brackets but we had to remove that, after which it was just Centre for Gender Empowerment. We had to pull down the images of the college and anything associated with it from our feed.
There was one instance where Shweta and I had gone to the Registrar for approval of one meeting we wished to have with the first two years. Any event, session or meeting in the physical form requires his permission. To this, he said that we won’t let it happen. We tried convincing him and told him that this was to advise them against the use of homophobic slurs. He asked if we were referring to ragging, to which we clarified that since it leads to mental harassment, it could be in a way but not exactly. Eventually, he said “Mr Nishant and Ms Shweta, this is your last year, aapke liye accha hoga ki aap apni padhai pe focus karein aur yahan se chalein jaaye”. At that moment, I had gotten up to leave while Shweta was still engaged in a conversation with him since now the talk had somehow shifted from Abhayam to a completely irrelevant and unrelated thesis he wrote.
That was the time we had received our first clear threat and knew that we needed to get our members out of their radar. We were impliedly told that they have our character certificates and can ruin them at any time that they want.
While Shweta and I had the liberty of being honest and upfront with the authorities given that it was our last semester, the junior members did not as they had things at stake.
TBP: What was the event going to be about?
NT: We wanted to address the first two years after homophobic slurs were hurled at a student when he had gone up the stage during one of the events. I take the blame that I had pushed for addressing them because I have personally experienced it and did not want someone else to go through that.
Even if you are someone who things usually do not affect much, instances like these make you hesitant and you start being distant for the sake of your mental peace, lest you come into the limelight and receive hatred.
When I was in my first year, some people in the college at the time were extremely homophobic. One senior came to the mess this one day, looked at me and said, “hey chammiya”. I did not look up and continued eating. At this, he was angered and was about to throw the volleyball in his hand at my face and two other seniors had to physically stop him. He shouted at me, asking me why I did not come to play with them and no one else spoke up for me the entire time this was happening. I could have been potentially harassed that day.
TBP: You mentioned that the college insisted that the Society abides by the “policies of the college”. Were you ever told what these policies were? Is there a list of Do’s and Don’ts that you were provided with?
NT: No, we were never told what these policies were. That is the characteristic of this administration. It is always left in ambiguity and always left vague. But based on experience, anything that can come off as vulgar even distantly or is even remotely liberal is against policy. For us, we knew that anything related to LGBTQIA+, sexuality or reproductive health will be perceived as damaging the image of the college.
TBP: You mention that the authorities have been vindictive in their approach, have you personally experienced that? Did the junior members have to face any repercussions as well?
NT: Yes, not by the administration directly, but by their teachers. And, the teachers are the primary reason that half of the people have to go through inquiries. They’re always searching for something against the members. When the offence is of a speculative nature, the Principal usually asks the teachers about the nature, academic record and discipline of the student before starting an inquiry. This is why we wanted to put all the members in the backseat.
When I think of the vindictive approach shown towards me, an instance comes to mind. A faculty member had called me to their office and questioned me about the content that Abhayam was uploading on Instagram. She kept asking for the name of the person who was leading the Social Media page. Although I did not mention anyone, the teacher went to the Principal and said that as per Nishant, Shweta is the one running the page.
There are two problems with such teachers. They will take a personal vendetta against any person challenging the administration. Secondly, they enjoy people getting pulled down for things.
TBP: Could you tell us more about the conversation with this teacher?
NT: I have still asked my members to put things on hold because of a recent call I had with this teacher. On the call, she demanded the credential of all the accounts we had. When I asked why that was needed, she said that she was to manage all accounts now given that she is the officially instated faculty coordinator. I pointed out that it is mentioned nowhere in the proforma that she has such authority. I further reminded her that the college has asked that all affiliations be removed from the college on the social media accounts and so the account was no longer related to them in that sense.
She said that I need not bother with how the college chooses to run the Society now that I have graduated.
I maintained that I will not be sharing the credentials because of the foreseeable censoring and removal of content. She affirmed my apprehensions and said that yes, certain things were extremely objectionable and needed to be removed.
She went on to say that things related to the LGBTQIA+ are objectionable and a Centre for Gender Empowerment should only work for women empowerment.
I corrected her and told her that it is more than just women empowerment. To this she said, “tumhe lagta hai society se hatt ke chal lenge, beta, society se alag ho ke koi nahi chal sakta”.
I still refused to give her the credentials, to which she threatened me to delete the page. She said, “yeh sab college se shuru hua hai, college mein hi khatam ho jayega”. The 25-minute conversation ended with her saying that we had ruined the interpretation of “gender empowerment” and a threat that I will make sure that the members of your Society never join any other in the college. That was the tipping point for me and I advised that she work on her plan for a new Centre for Gender Empowerment as we did not want to associate with them. I was asked to write a letter to officially rescind our membership from college.
TBP: So is it official yet? Has Abhayam gone solo?
NT: Yes, it is official AF. Now that we are uncensored, it’s good for us in all ways. The content and publishing of that content will be free from censorship, the former members of Abhayam can bring in more support for the cause and in general, the advocacy is going to get stronger. There is a slight apprehension that now that it is not official, it has become a volunteer initiative.
Notably, the Alumni have been really supportive of Abhayam and I often receive delightful messages from them expressing their joy that AIL has come out of its patriarchal times. At times, I feel like correcting them and replying that the students have, but the college has not. The management is still holding the system back. But I hope they start educating themselves on the spectrum of gender and accept the diversity.
TBP: Now that Abhayam is independent, what all can we expect in the coming future?
NT: We are deciding on certain things. Akshiti and Harmanpreet will be leading the team next year as they rightly deserve to, they have stayed with Abhayam for the longest. We had to hold ourselves back until now but now that’s no longer there, we will push harder.
TBP: What advice do you have for the students currently in college?
NT: Keep your stakes very clear, know what you want. Whether or not you want a social movement, it is alright. It is not important to get at crossroads with the management because unless it is not a good and clear objective, it will not yield any results. In cases where you do not see anything coming out of it, focus on your life, on being a good person and being respectful to everyone.
PS. All the information published on this website, or in any article herein is true and accurate to the best of the authors’ knowledge and is based on the information provided; The views herein represent the opinions and experiences of Nishant Tiwari (Batch of 2022), Founding Member of Abhayam.