Hostels in Indian Campuses Still Off-limits for Trans Students
Yashika with other students protesting in front of the V-C office at Panjab University, Chandigarh.
It took six months, nine letters, several meetings and two sit-in protests for Yashika to get a hostel room at the Panjab University (PU), Chandigarh.
Yashika, a Dalit trans woman from Delhi, is a first-year student at the university's Centre for Human Rights and Duties. Although she applied for a hostel room in September 2021, a committee to examine the matter was formed only in January this year after Yashika complained to the Chandigarh UT administration.
The committee kept delaying the allotment even though Yashika had a name on the merit list for hostel accommodation under the Scheduled Caste category.
"In the committee meetings, they were discussing my gender instead of talking about how to make arrangements. I had asked for the inclusion of a trans person in the committee, but far from doing that, they removed the chairperson of my department from the committee since she was supporting me by citing laws and policies," Yashika said. The 2014 NALSA vs Union of India judgment declared transgender people the 'third gender' and gave everyone the right to self determine their gender, which would be legally recognised regardless of whether they have undergone any medical procedure.
Following the judgment, the University Grants Commission (UGC) directed universities to provide facilities on campus for transgender students, including bathrooms. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 also prohibits denial, discontinuation of, or unfair treatment in educational institutes against a transgender person. However, none of these helped Yashika.
Struggle for Accommodation
Though the university opened for physical classes on March 1, the 27-year-old was yet to get a hostel room. She decided to travel to Chandigarh even though there was no place to stay. "I met the university officials, but they again said they were working on it. Their whole approach was so transphobic as they kept pointing out that I was a man," she told Newsclick.
The same day, she decided to sit for a night-long protest in front of the vice chancellor's office. Several other students and members of students' organisations also joined her. A senator accommodated Yashika at a guest house on the campus, but she was made to leave the room the very next day. She again staged a protest and was later allotted a room in the faculty guesthouse of Panjab University, away from other students. "Though it's a good and safe room, I feel isolated. The only positive thing is that I am not on the road, but this is not the best solution," she said.
When asked about the issue, the Dean (Students Welfare, Women) of Panjab University, Dr Meena Sharma, said, "It's a new issue for us, and we are also evolving with time, which is why the allotment of the room took so long. We have done the best possible thing that could be done. It's essential for us to take all the students along."
When asked whether there were objections from other students to the allotment of a room to Yashika in the women's hostel, she refused to comment. However, members of Panjab Feminist Union of Students claim a few officials commented that other hostelers' parents would object to Yashika staying in the women's hostel. "But the point is parents were even objecting to the extension of entry hours for the girls' hostels. They wanted to rein in their daughters. If the university keeps listening to parents, it will keep marginalising the already marginalised," said Harpuneet Kaur, a member of the union.
Yashika has now filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, seeking directions for a gender-neutral hostel. "Not every trans student will be able to fight the university administration for their rights. They need to have a policy in place, make gender-neutral hostel for trans, non-binary and other queer students, and have a committee on the same with the representation of trans persons," she said.
Recently, a similar petition was filed in the Karnataka High Court. The petitioner, Dr Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju, was denied a room in the women's hostel of the Kasturba Medical College, Manipal, while she was studying there four years ago.
Gummaraju has sought orders directing all higher education institutions in the state to include in their admission and hostel forms the option for including gender identity as 'transgender', and that transgender students in higher education should be accommodated according to their self-determined gender identity and be provided with separate hostel facilities for transgender students. "Denial for allotting hostel rooms according to their gender identity often forces trans students to drop out of higher education because of the harassment faced by them as they are placed in opposite gender hostels, as many do not have the privilege to pay for a safe private accommodation outside university," the petition said. The Karnataka High Court has now issued notices to the state government, UGC and Medical Council of India in this regard.
Inclusive living facility for trans students has been a critical issue all over India. Grace Banu, the first trans person to get an engineering degree in Tamil Nadu, recalls how she had to travel 120 km every day to attend college back in 2017. "Though my college was very welcoming, it had no hostel room for me and there was no policy or law I could cite at that time. People need to understand that trans persons are more vulnerable as we deal with high mental stress, financial constraints and no family support," she said. "Whenever we protest for our rights, cis-gendered people in authority throw some crumbs at us instead of giving us what our right is. We need safe space for all genders."
Off-campus accommodation is usually costlier, unsafe, and not readily available to trans persons because of their identity. A report published by the International Commission of Jurists in 2019 provides testimonials by transgender persons who have faced discrimination and harassment at rental housing. Amongst the many concerns were the fear of sexual violence, higher rent rates, lack of secure tenure, unreasonable demands and intrusion into personal space by the landlords.
"It is difficult to get a room on rent because most of the landlords are cis, upper caste people who are mostly transphobic. We need scholarships and stipends to be able to afford room rents or hostel fee. Only that can help us attain education," Banu said. Data shows that most trans students prefer to opt for distance learning instead of enrolling in regular classes.
In reply to a question in the Lok Sabha in 2019, the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development said that no transgender student had been enrolled in central universities since 2014 except at the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) had 814 transgender students. There was also no transgender teaching and non-teaching staff member in these universities.
"Lack of family support and social discrimination forces many of us to remain off-campus. I also feel there might be many more trans students in the universities, but they might not want to disclose their identity fearing discrimination," said Yashika. "Having a friendly environment and infrastructure for the community will encourage us to be more confident," she added.
Small Campuses lead
The Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai was the first educational institute to have a gender-neutral hostel in 2018. After a long struggle by the Queer Collective, an informal students' body, the institute earmarked the ground floor of a women's hostel for gender non-conforming students. The Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Patiala, and the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR) in Hyderabad have also introduced gender-neutral hostels.
"We have around 80 queer students and have been demanding a gender-neutral hostel for the last two years. One floor of the girls' hostel has now been designated gender-neutral. We are now working on a trans policy for the inclusion of gender and sexual minorities," said Shivam Sharma, a member of the queer collective at NALSAR. "I think it's easier in a law university to make the administration understand our points because there is a landmark judgement and now a law by our side. A few faculty members were also supportive."
The West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences already has a policy for rights of the transgender and gender diverse persons. It says that the university will ensure that hostel is allotted as per individuals' preference and gender-neutral clusters, blocks and floors are set up in existing hostels.
However, these are tiny islands of hope in the vast ocean of discrimination trans persons have to wade through. In 2017, the Panjab University syndicate also passed a proposal to construct a hostel for trans persons but no progress has been made on that front.
Dhananjay Chauhan, a trans student alumnus of the university in 2016-18, recalls how a lot of initiatives were taken during that time, including free education for trans students and the construction of a toilet for the third gender but the hostel remained a non-starter.
"There were three more trans students besides me in the university. Though I was a local city resident, the rest were from other states and needed accommodation. Lack of action on the part of the authorities forced two students to drop out while another one lived in a dera of hijras and used to go for ceremonial dance and greetings on weekends," Chauhan said. "Most trans people are disowned by their families. Affordable and safe hostel accommodation will go a long way in helping us study," Chauhan added.
Manu Moudgil is an independent journalist based in Chandigarh. He tweets at @manumoudgil .
Get the latest reports & analysis with people's perspective on Protests, movements & deep analytical videos, discussions of the current affairs in your Telegram app. Subscribe to NewsClick's Telegram channel & get Real-Time updates on stories, as they get published on our website.