In a First, Assam's Cotton University Discusses LGBTQ Rights 

"This is a sign of progressive approach."

Guwahati: On a sultry April afternoon, students of Assam’s Cotton University – earlier, Cotton College – were going about their usual business. A few, however, could be seen waiting outside the conference hall, contemplating whether or not to go in. Inside, handful others – some who had come from Gauhati University – were talking about the discussion that was about to commence. The subject – Gender Equality: LGBTQ Perspective in India.

The invite for the event was widely circulated on social media, which invited several ‘likes’ on Facebook, for an important issue, long ignored by the society, was finally being taken up by the students of Cotton University. A discussion on gender equality in relation to homosexuality and transgender rights, in an attempt to create awareness among the students, was to be held for the first time in the premier institution.

The event, held on April 5, was a break from convention for the university, which was a witness to several students’ agitation in the 1980s. A prominent one was the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU)-led movement on setting the ‘norms’ for the Assamese society, including a dress code for female students.

The conservative reputation of the institution was reinforced in 2001 when hundreds of Cotton College students, along with AASU, took to the streets to vehemently oppose a concert by the Dutch dance-pop group Vengaboys in Guwahati, simply because they viewed at it as a cultural invasion. The concert, ultimately, had to be called off.

A BBC report from September 12, 2001, quoted a student leader as saying, “Pop groups like Vengaboys do not fit into a conservative culture like ours. We do not want the band to perform here.”

“Cotton College or Cotton University can be at times the face of contradictions. It has a rich past and a glorious history which no one can deny. But I feel the institution is stuck in nostalgia. And that is why it is refreshing to see students coming forward to have a discussion on LGBTQ issues and gender equality. This is a sign of progressive approach,” said Abhishek Chakraborty, a former student and former member of Xukia, Assam’s only LGBTQ collective.

Feminist and activist Banamallika Choudhury, of NEthing-Everything North East, led the discussion and interacted with the students on the issue, the aspects surrounding it and its importance in present time.

“There is a need to talk about it because a proper system is not in place for the LGBTQ people. This discussion is important as there is the need for it to carry forward the rights of the people and create a perspective that gender is not just about two sexes but variations attached to it. We need to acknowledge people from the LGBTQ community and to value them as human beings,” said Choudhury.

While the discussion was welcomed, several students claimed that were was still a lot of apprehension in their fraternity when it came to revealing one’s sexual orientation for fear of being stigmatised.

“This is a positive step that students here carried forward discussion on a subject which is widely being discussed in contemporary India. It really sets an example and maybe other educational institutions should follow. We need to break down the idea of gender that it is fixed. Ideas keep changing and it is the society that gives fixed ideas,” Choudhury later told The Wire.

There were, though, some in the hall, including faculty members, who felt that the issue was more about the society and therefore it should play a bigger role than the administration of the university in spreading awareness about it.

“This discussion was organised by the debating and symposium society. The university administration has nothing to do with it. To do something positive for LGBTQ students, the people should push the administration to bring in positive changes. There are different sets of rules,” said a faculty member of the university after the discussion.

A member of the debating society added: “We had taken permission from the university’s administration to hold this event but we doubt that the official who permitted it could understand what the discussion was all about.”

Social activist-writer Akashitora, a former student of Cotton College, reflected on the AASU’s diktat on their attire then vis-à-vis the discussion on LGBTQ rights, saying, “I and few other female students had opposed the dress code issued by the student’s union then with support from AASU. We were also members of the union but we strongly argued as to why it was only for the female students. It is good that students have come forward with an open discussion on LGBT issues. I feel that cultural narrowness is not healthy in a college or university environment. Maybe, one day, Cotton University will hold a mirror to Assamese society about progressive values and ideals.”

It should be noted that in 2015, the university (Cotton College State University back then) introduced the option of transgender in their admission form.

Referring to the popular saying in the state that what Cotton College thinks today Assam will think tomorrow, Akashitora remarked, “Let us wait and see how Cotton shapes our thought process on this issue. I pray that it is for the betterment of overall humanity and not just for Assamese society alone.”

Gaurav Das is a Guwahati-based freelance journalist.