Gender Issues

A new beginning

Print edition : October 27, 2017

An injured student writhing in pain after being beaten by the police during a clash at BHU on September 23. Photo: PTI

G.C. Tripathi, Vice Chancellor of BHU, speaks to the media in New Delhi on September 26. Photo: PTI

In March, residents of the Mahila Maha Vidyalaya girls' hostel at BHU air their grievances to the hostel coordinator, Neelam Atri. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

The BHU students’ protests have helped consolidate a progressive sensibility that is challenging the feudal system dominating the university.

ON the morning of October 3, a day after Gandhi Jayanthi and extended Dasara holidays, classes resumed at the Benares Hindu University (BHU). The university, credited as Asia’s largest residential university, is 101 years old and has witnessed hundreds of holiday recesses and reopenings. Yet, this year, for the trickle of students and its teaching and non-teaching staff, the reopening was special and signified a new beginning.

There were many outward signs of change, such as the clutch of new closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras and LED streetlights across the campus and the sizable contingent of women security personnel specially deployed from the district administration’s team of home guards. Palpable changes were evident at the administrative level too. During the holidays, BHU appointed Royana Singh as Chief Proctor, the first time a woman has been appointed to the position in the university’s history. Royana Singh announced that she was committed to enhancing dialogue with students and promised that every complaint would be handled properly and addressed promptly. She also promised to visit all the hostels and meet students to understand their problems. She further indicated that the university would remove the feudal restrictions on the movement of girl students and what they can wear.

The grapevine on the campus on that day was that the controversial and retiring vice chancellor, G.C. Tripathi, might be replaced by a woman. All of these came up in an emerging new context at BHU: a context that marked an unprecedented expression of student power and struggle for gender and human rights.

Summing up the context in an article that has gone viral on social media and has evoked significant resonances in other public platforms, including conventional media, the post-graduate science student Neha Yadav said that the students’ ferment was a culmination of decades of festering resentment over a number of administrative issues as well as intense social, cultural and value-oriented concerns. This contention has widespread acceptance in the BHU community comprising not just current students and teachers but former students, academic faculty and associate staff.

An excerpt from an English translation of Neha Yadav’s article published in Indian Express reads as follows: “The disproportionate response by the university authorities also shows why the outrage on the BHU campus goes much beyond the purported incident of sexual harassment. The authorities recognise that students are out on the streets to undo decades of attempts to stifle new, different, modern ideas. The energy on the streets bears witness to how long these ideas have been held captive at BHU, through intimidation and coercion. Students have been reminded to maintain order and discipline in times of interviews and threatened with summary expulsion.... Discriminatory practices on gendered lines are routine in BHU. Women students are not allowed to eat non-vegetarian food in their mess. They are not allowed to use mobile phones after 10 p.m. Access to the Internet in hostels has been strictly prohibited. They are told short dresses are against university customs. But do such customs apply to the male students on the campus? Of course not. There are curfews on the main campus which apply only to female students. Women students are told that the campus is unsafe for them after 10 p.m. —are these looming threats on campus uninterested in male students?”

There are also pointers to larger social and political issues: “The aakrosh (anger) goes wider. Only days before the incident, news began to trickle in that officials were exercising their discretion—a short-hand for their caste prejudices—in making appointments to the new vacancies that had come up on campus. No due diligence was followed in making such appointments, and when students belonging to the depressed classes decided to voice their anguish at such practices, they were slapped with threats of expulsion. Students remained undeterred by such intimidation and continued their protests for two months and not only questioned the unconstitutional methods deployed for campus appointments but also []demanded] longer opening hours for the university library..... Governments came and went in the past, but the dominant ideology of ‘manuvaad’ was never challenged on a campus where free thought and women’s rights were trampled upon. It was anger against this continued culture of suppression that was transformed into a massive march on the streets of Varanasi..... Students’ unions on campuses are supposed to voice our concerns, be our representatives to ensure an environment of mutual cooperation. But what is to be expected from a VC who is more concerned with being noticed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi than with the students whose lives he has been entrusted with? A VC who has no time for a vibrant students’ union for fear of inviting the ire of the powers that be.”

This resentment found an opening on the night of September 23-24 when a peaceful students’ agitation that had been going on for three days was attacked mercilessly by the police. The agitation began when a girl student of the Arts Faculty alleged that she was molested by three men on motorbikes inside the campus as she was returning to her hostel. The three men reportedly abused the student and fled when she resisted their attempt. The student also said that security guards who were just 100 metres from where the incident happened did nothing to stop the attackers. When she reached her hostel, the warden, instead of trying to understand what had happened, rebuked her for returning late.

The agitation was essentially about what happened to the girl and how she was treated by the security guards and the warden. It was in the form of a dharna before the Vice Chancellor’s office. The police action of September 23-24 started initially as an effort to dismantle the dharna, but the students refused to give in and gathered in large numbers on the campus, raising their demands.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Governor Ram Naik, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and several Central and State Ministers were visiting Varanasi at the time and the district administration had to change the route of the Prime Minister’s entourage away from the BHU crossing owing to the huge number of protesting students. By all indications, this is what pressured the police authorities and led them to unleash brutality. In a matter of hours, a conglomeration of personnel from 18 nearby police stationsstarted a joint operation that began with a lathicharge and progressed to lobbing of tear-gas shells. Many students alleged that the police fired when the students retaliated with brickbats.

In the mindless police action, scores of girl students were thrashed and dragged by the hair by policemen. Journalists covering the happenings and even teachers were not spared despite them telling the police that they were from the faculty. The ordeal suffered by Pratima Gond, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Mahila Maha Vidyalaya, was highlighted as a striking case in point. Literally invalidating the police contention that teachers were not harmed during the action, Pratima Gond appeared before the media with manifest injuries and explained how she was assaulted even as she was trying to save a girl from the police brutality.

“A girl student fell to the ground while police were lathicharging students. I also got trapped in the police gauntlet when I went to help the girl. I pleaded them not to beat me, shouting aloud that I am a teacher at the university, but they didn’t listen and kept beating,” she said.

G.C. Tripathi, known to be close to the top brass of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP), added his own inconsiderate indiscretions to the police assault when he ordered students to vacate their hostels by 5 p.m. on September 24 or face action.

“It was a heartless administrative order completely out of sync with the traumatic phase that the students and teachers were going through and one that grossly violated the honoured and time-tested tenets of character that a teacher is to follow when his or her wards are facing extreme challenges. A teacher is supposed to be considerate and express kindness and affection in times like this. Unfortunately, what this action marked was a total absence of these noble characteristics,” said a senior faculty member who did not wish to be named.

Tripathi went on to describe the incidents of September 23-24 as a result of a political conspiracy and decided to advance the Dasara holidays. Amidst all this, the students continued their struggle with the girl students leading from the front through peaceful and massive demonstrations. Students and academic faculty across the country, including their unions and associations, rallied for the BHU students. Several social and political organisations, including prominent parties such as the Congress, the Samajwadi Party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, and the Bahujan Samaj Party, also joined in solidarity.

A number of students told Frontline that the struggle and the solidarity it evoked from a large number of teachers, current and former, helped in concretising and consolidating the new progressive sensibility that took on not only administrative high-handedness but also the feudal cultural, social and political systems that dominated the university.

One of the developments that facilitated this, apart from Pratima Gond’s public appearance exposing the police assault, was the resignation of Professor O.N. Singh as Chief Proctor. These developments made the position of Tripathi increasingly untenable and he was asked to go on leave by the Union Human Resources Development Ministry. The students who attended classes on October 3 seemed happy with this development.

“There is no doubt we are satisfied with the VC being asked to go on leave. The very act of women students getting lathicharged would have led to the ouster of any other VC in any other university. But this VC was to remit office in two months in any case. That is why he has been asked to go on leave. In practical terms it is a small but a significant victory for the student community: significant because this marks a validation of a new participatory value system, which has underscored that our voice also needs to be heard and given due weightage,” a student told Frontline.

The emphasis on the qualitative aspects of this victory, small but significant, is something that was repeated in informal discourses at BHU in early October. However, the sensibility reflected in the students’ struggle and in the developments relating to it continued to have further expression. Barely two days after classes resumed there was another attempt to molest a girl student by a fellow student, but this time the authorities, including security forces, acted promptly to curb it.

Paraphrased versions of Neha Yadav’'s warning and observation in the article are also part of the refrain: “Let us not hope unduly that the malpractices in BHU would come to an end with just this small yet significant gain. At the same time, let us also not underestimate the force of the rage that it takes for students to come out and protest in the face of such repression.”

Evidently, whether the tangible gains sustain or not, a new and progressive sensibility is gaining strength among the students of the century-old institution.