A group of 20 students and alumni of the Indian Institutes of Technology have filed a petition in the Supreme Court against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises homosexuality and any form of “unnatural” sex.

The petitioners are all members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community, and represent Pravriti – an informal network of more than 350 LGBT alumni, students and faculty from across India’s 12 IITs. Their writ petition, accepted for hearing in the Supreme Court on Monday morning, seeks the repeal of Section 377 on the grounds that it violates their constitutional rights to life, equality, personal liberty and freedom from discrimination.

The first hearing of the petition is likely to be scheduled before the Court breaks for the summer at the end of the week.

This is the latest in a series of similar petitions filed by various social organisations and individuals after 2013, when the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of Section 377. One of the previous writ petitions, for instance, was filed by five prominent homosexual people, including Bharat Natyam dancer Navtej Singh Johar, in 2016. LGBT rights activists Ashok Row Kavi, Akkai Padmashali and others have also filed their own petitions, which are likely to be collectively heard after the Supreme Court returns from its summer break in July.

The petitioners from IIT acknowledge these previous petitions and hope to strengthen their collective effort by adding their own voices and personal stories as LGBT individuals.

“The IITs have a strong brand and we represent ordinary people from all over India and from different backgrounds,” said Balachandran Ramaiah, an alumnus of IIT-Delhi who now works as a marketing strategist, entrepreneur, academic and LGBT rights activist in Mumbai.

‘LGBT people forced to be in hiding’

Of the 20 petitioners, five are current students of various IITs while the rest are alumni. Two of the petitioners are homosexual women, while one is a transgender person. The youngest petitioner is a 19-year-old student from IIT-Delhi. While all the petitioners are academically accomplished, they claim to represent diverse socio-economic and caste backgrounds. Some of the petitioners hail from small towns such as Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh and Korba in Chhattisgarh.

“Everyone knows the reputation of IIT students, so we want to use this tag to help LGBT people in the whole country,” said Krishna M, an electrical engineering student from IIT-Bombay who is one of the petitioners in the case. Krishna joined Pravriti two years ago, when he was just beginning to grapple with his homosexuality.

“Most LGBT people are forced to be in hiding,” said Krishna. “They are not able to say who they are because we face discrimination from the law and from society’s phobias. So when Pravriti decided to file this petition, I wanted to be a part of it.”

In their petition, the IIT alumni and students have highlighted the negative consequences of living as LGBT individuals in a country where Section 377 criminalises their sexual identities. Their personal testimonies describe how petitioners have had to grapple with loss of self-worth, depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and attempts and other mental health problems. As professionals, many petitioners have also had to let go of better paid employment opportunities in the public and private sectors in order to take up jobs in environments more accepting of their LGBT identities. According to Ramaiah, many petitioners have also felt compelled to leave India because of the discrimination legitimised by Section 377.

‘We are very hopeful’

Legal attempts to decriminalise homosexuality in India began in 2009, when the Delhi High Court admitted a plea by the non-profit Naz Foundation. In a landmark judgement that year, the High Court deemed Section 377 to be unconstitutional and violative of the rights of consenting adults from the LGBT community.

“After this judgement, the student LGBT community across India became very bold and many young people came out and started building campus groups and networks,” said Ramaiah. Pravriti was formed in 2012, as a Facebook support group for LGBT alumni, students and staff from IITs across India.

In 2013, however, the Supreme Court struck down the Delhi High Court judgement of 2009 and effectively re-criminalised homosexuality by upholding Section 377. Since then, members of the LGBT community have risked prosecution by stepping forward to file fresh petitions to fight for their rights.

In August 2017, the Supreme Court’s judgement in a case on the right to privacy offered some hope: in its order, the Court stated that “sexual orientation is an essential attribute of privacy” and that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is “offensive to the dignity and self-worth of the individual”.

The new petitioners from the IITs are now confident that their case – along with those of the other petitioners – is likely to lead to a positive outcome. “We are very hopeful because there is no moral validation for Section 377 to exist anymore,” said Ramaiah.