Jhilmil Breckenridge of Mad in Asia Pacific speaks to Sadam Hanjabam of Ya_All about queer rights, Manipur, mental health and why these intersections matter.

Sadam Hanjabam is the founder of the first registered youth and queer led-focused organization called Ya_All: The Youth Network in the North-Eastern region of India. He was born and brought up in Imphal, Manipur. Besides his work, he is presently pursuing his PhD from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai in Development Studies.

Jhilmil Breckenridge: Could you tell us about how you came to start Ya_All?

Sadam Hanjabam: While I was in Mumbai, doing a PhD at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), I felt very lonely. I felt that I did not have a community or any support as a gay man. I became a drug user and was dependent on substances to cope with my depression. One time, when I overdosed, I was flown back to Manipur, put on psychiatric medications without my consent and was provided no counselling. I stayed in bed for six months, and did not even realise how quickly the year flew by while I was just at home, ‘recovering’. I set up Ya_All soon after that.

‘Ya_All’ translates to ‘revolution’ in Manipuri. It started simply as a support system, with just three or four people sharing our stories, ideas and concerns on a WhatsApp group. We would discuss how to bring the issues we face into the public sphere and to our communities. The overdose, being hospitalised, followed by a long period of being at home made me realise how important it was to create safe spaces. It started off as something I needed for myself, to have a visible support system, queer affirmative counsellors, and the means to be able to open up about our sexuality, diverse identities and the issues related to them. These were the reasons I started Ya_All.

Breckenridge: Why do you think queer people need support in your region? 

Hanjabam: Although in Manipur, transwomen have been granted a separate identity and are fairly visible, other diversities are not recognised or talked about in public. The terms typically used are linked to sex, rather than one’s identity. These are the reasons a lot of queer people feel marginalised and may develop mental health issues, for which there is very little information available. In addition, mental health is stigmatised in its own way, and if you are also a queer person in addition to that, it becomes even more difficult for young people to get support. Even though Section 377 is no longer valid, it’s just a piece of paper and does not translate into practices on the ground.

Breckenridge: Tell us a little bit about your team and projects at Ya_All.

Hanjabam: Our team reflects our mission. We are led by young people, working with the youth. The core team comprises of four individuals, all from the queer community. We are all under 35 years of age and between us, we have some resources and training in queer affirmation and counselling. We are still very new, as Ya_All was registered only in June 2019, and we tend to work as a collective with very limited funding. In addition to us four board members, we have 10 youth fellows in the North-Eastern region that we support through a small grant. We also have some people with administrative duties and interns. 

Our work is growing slowly and steadily, from grant to grant. For instance, one of our projects funded from the Netherlands, called Project Seven Sisters, aimed to connect young queer people in the North East. Through this three-month project, we went to almost every State in the North East to conduct workshops and helped young people create safe spaces in their own communities, similar to what we did with Ya_All. Through Mariwala Health Initiative (MHI), we have support for an annual project to create peer support spaces in our own region. Here in Manipur, we don’t understand the importance or need for counselling for queer people. Counselling is seen as mainly for people with HIV. Under the MHI project, we are training peer leaders to reach out to young queer individuals who may not have come out yet, and who contact us through our social media handles. We also have a helpline number which is available at all times. There is definitely a need for it because we got 104 calls in just the first month!

Currently, Ya_All is working on scaling up the resources required to effectively manage the helpline. Initially, I was handling it alone and I burnt out. We have additionally been lucky to have multiple experts from various organisations lend their time to us for training workshops, which has helped us learn and build our own capacity.

Breckenridge: You started Meitram in Manipur last year, a co-working space run by queer youth. Tell us a little bit about Meitram? How did it start, and how has it been received?

Hanjabam: We started Meitram in May 2019. Given that our state regularly indulges in moral policing, there is no safe space for queer people to gather or conduct events. The people in Manipur are often violent to queer people and queer people are considered a nuisance. We are often beaten and treated as though we are disturbed persons. So if queer people want to hold events, they have to rent spaces in hotels which they may not be able to afford. At Meitram, we give them a space free of cost to hold events or work on their projects without fearing judgement. We also offer them this space for co-working or if they want to work on a start-up – Meitram is their space. For instance, last month, we did a Trans Queen event with approximately thirty trans women. There was a fashion show, followed by workshops and capacity building sessions that we conducted for them. We also talked to them about their rights. By the end of 2019, we have reached almost a thousand people through Meitram. 

Breckenridge: You spoke about your own struggles with substance abuse. Do you think this is a big issue in your region?

Hanjabam: Because of its geographical location, Manipur is quite vulnerable to cheap and easily accessible drugs through its border with Myanmar, which has been a nice, silent neighbour, unlike Pakistan and China, so the government does not perceive any threat. The Asian Highway passes through Manipur and we are very close to Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, which is considered the golden triangle for drugs – Chinese products and other substances – and Manipur is where they enter India.

Although it’s not just the queer community, most young people have easy access to drugs. I also think that due to a lack of career opportunities and professional growth, it is common for young people to stay at home, be unemployed, and eventually fall into substance abuse. The literacy rate in Manipur is very high and young people study and want jobs but there are no opportunities here. A lot of them want to leave the state for higher education but the family may not be able to support that, or there may be other barriers to leaving. So they stay in the state, and there are no jobs, so what will they do?

There are many young people who continue to use substances, and they are not keen to go to a practitioner because they fear that they will be kept in rehab for up to three months. Most people tend to steer away from seeking medical services unless absolutely necessary, as the approach is typically abstinence-based, and there is no therapy or counselling provided. There is so much work that needs to be done, and so much that needs to change.

Breckenridge: Do you think the economic and social situations are something to be concerned about in Manipur?

Hanjabam: Manipur is called a dry state; alcohol cannot be sold openly here. But all the tribal communities brew alcohol and people go there and consume liquor. When you add easy access to substances to this, it’s a recipe for disaster. All this, plus as I mentioned earlier, the lack of productive employment coupled by issues like CAA and other conflicts in the North East all contribute to psychosocial disabilities.

The source of income for young people is generally from their parents. Even if they go out of state, get educated, and come back, there are no work opportunities. Their parents often have jobs or have rental income from properties. People sometimes sell land to survive. There are now some microfinance companies where people keep their money and get monthly interest; though there are no formal structures regulating this. Yet, somehow, we are surviving.

Breckenridge: Tell us, from your own experience as well as your work in this space, how sensitive are medical professionals?

Hanjabam: I think it is important to mention that we must start working towards changing the way hospitals are currently run, specifically the insensitivity of hospital staff. For example, when I was hospitalised in Mumbai, the doctors were very dismissive, stating that I was ‘just another drug addict case,’ and they were very callous during treatment. They must be educated on the intersections of drug use and mental health, as the patient could be in a very fragile and vulnerable space, and that could be a possible reason for using drugs. I am privileged enough to be studying in TISS and through my social work background, I am aware of the statistics of people with mental health using drugs, etc., and so I thought that hospitals and medical professionals should have had the same information and been more sensitive, but I was shocked and saddened to find through my own experience and from what others have shared, that they are far from that. 

So many mindsets need to change. Last month, I had to get medicine for my panic attacks in a private hospital in Delhi. When I arrived there, the first thing I was asked is ‘Are you sure that you are gay?’! I just wanted a prescription but instead, I had to do a sensitization session for her!

Breckenridge: How supportive are families?

Hanjabam: In my case, my brother came to pick me up from the hospital in Mumbai and brought me back home to Manipur. I told my family about the WhatsApp group I had formed, and they were supportive about the courage that the group had given me. Slowly, I came out to them as well. In fact, even now, every time I conduct a workshop or hold an event, at least one of my family members attends. In my case, my family saw that the WhatsApp group and the advocacy work I was involved in was helping me. This made them support me even more and try these methods as a tool to recovery rather than OST (Oral Substance Therapy) or sending me to rehab. I am grateful and lucky they let me take my time to heal and recover in this way.

But unfortunately, other families in Manipur are not as supportive. Many of them die by suicide. Mostly young queer or trans people are thrown out of home, or some run away from home and live with their partners. In fact, we have started a home-stay project for people who have no space to live, a lot of trans people connected with us on social media, because they feel we are one of them. However, the home-stay is still not being used by people as we had planned; maybe because of the fear associated with revealing their identities in Manipur. 

Breckenridge: Is the situation at schools and offices any different?

Hanjabam: When we visit offices and schools, no one clearly or openly indicates that they are from the queer community. You can sometimes find some transmen who are open. Again, there is an issue where men and women are treated differently. Transmen are looked upon as stronger. Transwomen are perceived as weaker, they don’t get government jobs or anything similar, but a lot of them often get work at beauty parlours.

Breckenridge: Are there other, traditional methods of treatment or healing? I know in your own case, you used advocacy as a tool for recovery. Can you think of other examples?

Hanjabam: Yes, we still have the traditional and indigenous forms of healing. I was just talking to a friend yesterday who was discussing his insomnia. But even now, there is so much stigma around accessing mental health services, because people who go to psychiatrists are called ‘psychos, paagal, crazy,’ and so on. Many young people, if their case is not too severe, resist going to doctors and practitioners to seek services and instead they try and manage it themselves. However, if their family realises, they take them to doctors or sometimes to faith healers or ‘Babas’. These godmen or god women then do ‘yagyas‘ to treat the ‘bhoot’ out of them.

For substance misuse, the only treatment is rehab which is OST, Oral Substitution Therapy. The approach is abstinence—there is no therapy, no counselling, no information on harm reduction. The only approach is “Say No to Drugs” just like the government’s tagline. But what about choice? What about those people who want to use some substances moderately and safely? In Manipur, they are not being taught other ways; there is no conversation on risks or harm reduction. The whole focus is on criminalising drug use. If you are caught with even 1 gram, you will be charged by the police. This is why there is a need to have other conversations, and we at Ya_All have started working in the space of harm reduction and peer counselling to help people understand what the root issues are, and why they use drugs.

Breckenridge: Queer voices are getting louder and more visible. Tell us about what you are doing to join and amplify the movement.  

Hanjabam: At Ya_All, we try to be as vocal, resistant and visible as possible. We are fortunate to have worked with good partners and have been supported by different organisations. Our projects may be short-term but they have been consistent, which has helped with our visibility. We have always said yes, even to small projects, regardless of who is funding us. I even have one of my talks on VICE, which helped with our visibility. All this has helped us grow. One area which is missing, however, is the lack of coverage of events from the North East in mainstream media. If we don’t pay, they won’t publish our news. So we are currently networking and trying to enhance the diversity of representation in media through our work. However, I feel that I am often used as a tokenism measure, to show a partner from the North East.

Breckenridge: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

Hanjabam: Manipur still does not provide a conducive environment for queer individuals, nor will they include us in the larger human rights movements. Manipur in itself has so many issues; it is a conflict zone and we always have to have a Plan-B. Every day is a struggle for us, and there are still workshops and events that we are not able to hold. Ya_All is a space for all young people and we now call it a ‘Youth Network’ in the hope to reach more people through it. We want to try and mainstream the issues that affect our youth as much as possible, while also speaking about queer rights in a positive manner. Although we started with the needs of queer people, we have now started mainstreaming the issues to include more young people who may need support on health, mental health, sexual health, substance misuse and other topics which are not typically discussed in schools or at home.