With increasing levels of ‘wokeness’ and the spread of liberal activist culture, college campuses across the country have seen students come together to form certain groups which are known as social justice collectives. These groups are of varied nature – some function exclusively within the campus while others venture outside and try to address larger issues as well.
In my experience with three such collectives in National Law School (NLS Bangalore), I have noticed the following about them: first, each collective addresses an issue that is of larger social relevance but is understood and contextualised within the demographics of the NLS and second, the final push that led to their formation was not due to a general awareness of the problem but a group of students having personally encountered the same.
Many of the campuses that see student activism through such collectives are coveted to be the most liberal spaces in the country, and so is NLS. I don’t intend to critique the liberal status of my campus or any other campus through this piece. My only intention is to point out that these spaces even while being liberal, continue to be a sub-section of the society we live in and so reflect its biases and prejudices albeit in subtle ways.
NLS has three students collectives working on the issues of feminism, sexuality, and caste, called Alliance of Oversensitive Women or NLS Feminist Alliance, NLS Queer Alliance, and Savitri Phule Ambedkar Caravan respectively.
The NLS Feminist Alliance
Alliance of Oversensitive Women (AOW) or NLS Feminist Alliance (@willnotchill) is the latest addition to the law school’s social justice collectives. This group started calling out casual sexism on campus on our controversial 19(1)(a) notice board. Generally calling out people on their casual sexist remarks is seen as a mark of excessive sensitivity and are even ridiculed as such by many. The AOW founders decided to reclaim this term and show the whole campus that they’re not ready to take a ‘joke’ anymore.
Sexism on campus is extremely normalised and jokes which degrade and shame women are the norm. A term was even coined for those oversensitive ‘prudish’ women who took offence at such jokes – Vedika (full of knowledge). Moreover my interactions with the newcomers have also made me realise that even the privileged students from highly educated and mostly elite backgrounds were not very aware of what exactly feminism meant. Many even associated it with feminazism (whatever that means).
So AOW was formed at an opportune time with a bit of a spectacle, raising conversation about sexism on campus, as they called out certain ‘high profile’ students. Although this was done anonymously, as with most campuses, the grapevine works quite effectively in NLS, which resulted in the unmasking of the alleged perpetrators.
This led to a lot of criticism where the organisation was seen as merely a vessel to target certain individuals. But once this died down, the general student community seemed to accept the need for such a group. Our ever so supportive history professor, glad to finally see people raise their voices against sexism, even changed her second history course to one on feminist methods and history from a feminist perspective.
Currently, the group is still in its formative stages and is working on raising awareness in the campus through discussions, sensitisations, and other such activities.
The NLS Queer Alliance
According to Sakhi Shah, one of the founding members, what made a few of them come together and take up this initiative was the fact that many openly queer students were graduating. As teenagers, many students come to college confused about their sexuality and in a general environment where deviance is not taken lightly, there is a need for visible sources who could be approached for help and support. Thus, NLS Queer Alliance (@nlsqueeralliance) was formed in 2015 as a support group for queer individuals and allies on the campus.
The general culture of toxic masculinity is not something averse to the NLS campus and with that comes homophobic slurs as an expression of one’s ‘machoness’ or just as a general way of interacting with one’s ‘bro’ in a #nohomo fashion. So even when the student community tries to be liberal and progressive, the internalised heteronormativity and the constant need to have people’s sexuality ‘figured out’ means that coming out was not an easy process. Especially, when the person is already unsure of which box they fit into (it is only now that we have even come to the realisation that it is a spectrum and there is no need to ‘fit in’). It was in this atmosphere that Alliance started functioning.
Personally, for me, the first support group meeting I attended was the first time I felt like I belonged since I had joined law school.
Although it started out as a support group, Alliance slowly started taking up initiatives to raise awareness within the campus and even got involved with Pride planning and other forms of activism in Bangalore. This expansion came from the realisation that there is a whole community outside of the law school bubble which could help Alliance and which also needed whatever support they could possibly receive.
the first support group meeting I attended was the first time I felt like I belonged since I had joined law school.
The formation of Alliance was not the most well-received event on campus. There is a general indifference towards Alliance which sometimes even borders dismissal. People in such an elite institution don’t feel the need to be educated on these matters. But the sad truth is that while academically all the intellectuals of NLS may have the ‘right opinions’ on queer rights, it does not always translate to their everyday behaviour, which is still guided by their socialisation.
However, over the past three years the campus has grown accustomed to the presence of Alliance. While the activities organised by them do not always see the greatest turnout, those who do come to the events, end up becoming a close-knit group. Now, Alliance conducts conferences, sensitisations, partakes in Pride, and this year is planing on having movie screenings, theatre workshops, and slam poetry sessions.
In 2016, it was shortlisted for the Herbert Smith Freehills Community Engagement Awards. But at the core of it, it still exists as a support group so no one at NLS is excluded or bullied for their sexuality. As for my personal experience as a member, we were all confused teenagers who entered law school and found support in the seniors who set up Alliance. Now all we’re doing is just taking it forward and trying our best to give back the same support we got.
Savitri Phule Ambedkar Caravan
The Savitri Phule Ambedkar Caravan or SPAC for short (@spacorg) was formed in 2016 by a group of 4 students having realised that while law school had multiple discussions on social issues, caste was mostly not addressed. While it was Rohith Vemula’s suicide that gave the much needed push which prompted them to form such a group, the NLS campus was not free of casteist biases either. One of the founding members recounts experiences of fellow students who have been told that they do not deserve a place in the college and of an instance where a girl resorted to checking the rank list to know a person’s caste before deciding whether or not to go to the college ball with him.
Another factor that played an important role in the formation of SPAC was that students from the lower castes were easily falling prey to the academic trap of going from one carry-over to another and finally ending up in having year losses. A socio-economic survey conducted by another group of students around the same time SPAC’s founding members were coming together provided empirical evidence to the same end.
Each member of the group had their own diverse experiences that shaped their identity as part of the community. Through sharing these experiences they learned the need for a larger platform to save incoming students from the vicious cycle of repeats and carry-overs. At the same time there was also the need to address the casteist comments, discrimination and create a discourse on the same. Thus with a lot of support from alumni, faculty, and parts of the student community, SPAC was formed.
these spaces even while being liberal, continue to be a sub-section of the society we live in and so reflect its biases and prejudices albeit in subtle ways.
Since their inception, they have had talks by various persons on the diverse aspects of caste discrimination in the country and have been encouraging a continued discourse on Dr. Ambedkar’s ideas. Last year, SPAC was successful in bringing Irom Sharmila to NLS to share her experiences in her fight against the AFSPA. This academic year, the administration as per their demands have changed the initial roll call for incoming first years to alphabetical order rather than using the rank list which makes a clear distinction between general and reserved category students. They are currently working on increasing sensitisation programs and on drafting a code against caste discrimination.
While these collectives open up spaces for discussion and debate, they are not completely free from shortcomings either. The major problem I have faced and have seen others face in being part of these collectives is a clear lack of intersection. Each collective concentrating on one issue has led to some amount of ignorance of intersectionality in the identities of individuals. Thus, SPAC may not always be aware of the issues women from reserved categories face specifically while AOW tends to be ignorant of the issues related to caste and sexuality. The QA might be more sensitive on issues of gender but suffers from an absolute lack of knowledge and awareness of how this intersects with one’s caste status.
This problem was especially brought to the fore when recently the QA was engaged in drafting a Trans Code and the SPAC and AOW were mooting the idea of having separate Anti-Discrimination Codes. A combined code might be better able to acknowledge and address the issue of intersectionality but it also causes the fear that the individual interests of each community might get lost in such an attempt.
Therefore, at this point it is hard to determine what the best approach to understanding marginalised identities on campus is. Irrespective of that, these collectives create the much needed space for self-expression for a lot of students and act as pillars of support for the many perplexed souls entering the complicated law school life. I’m sure the same applies for such collectives across campuses throughout the country.
Feminism In India (FII) is curating a crowdsourced list of social justice collectives (SJCs) on Indian campuses. These collectives could include feminist, queer, anti-caste and disability rights groups, Women Development Cells (WDCs), Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs), Equal Opportunity Cells (EOCs), Enabling Units, among others. The aim of this list is to empower students and ensure they have access to such groups and safe spaces on their campuses. To view to FII’s crowdsourced list of social justice collectives or add to it, please click here.
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