Intelligence officers from a special wing or Crime Branch of the Crime Investigation Department are not an unusual sight on university campuses in New Delhi. Students belonging to diverse political groups of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) have shared with this correspondent numerous instances of their encounters with the sleuths. Numbers are exchanged, and fishing for information on students or campus politics invariably forms a major part of the conversation.
Students brush aside such encounters as they have nothing to hide. But the recent University Grants Commission (UGC) circular institutionalising a police presence through brick-and-mortar stations on campuses came as a shock to them. On what grounds does the UGC believe that the campus population of scholars, teachers, students and others anywhere in the country will feel secure about a police presence on campus? students ask. Despite the issues campuses face, they are still trouble-free zones. The few problems they have can be dealt with by finding solutions locally.
The new guidelines, “University Grants Commission Guidelines on Safety of Students On and Off Campuses of Higher Educational Institutions”, issued in April, have come in for severe flak, and not without reason. The first protests took place in the University of Hyderabad where all student and cultural bodies with the exception of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the BJP’s student wing, came together and held a general body meeting on September 8 to discuss the hostel code of conduct and the Human Resource Development Ministry’s circular setting up a police station on campus. A parallel protest rocked the campus when security personnel raided the living quarters of Gracious Temsen, an Associate Professor, and took photographs. They had acted on the basis of a verbal complaint. The teachers held a relay hunger strike in protest and relented only after the Vice-Chancellor tendered an apology.
Teachers and students protested against the heavy police presence on campus, night patrols and an induction programme by the Cyberabad police and the university where pamphlets were distributed among students asking them not to make comments against the interests of the nation. The pamphlets also warned students that they could “get expelled, suspended or punished for a social media hate post”.
This was followed by protests over the suspension of five students of the Ambedkar Students’ Association on an allegedly false complaint filed by an ABVP activist, which stands revoked. These instances have sparked countrywide protests against the UGC guidelines that aim to introduce “impregnable standards of safety” on campuses, or rather turn them into prisons. “Standard Operating Procedure” seems to be the favourite phrase of the government at the Centre. The guidelines state that higher education institutions should amend their rules to build high boundary walls, and fortify them with barbed wires around hostels; install CCTV cameras and metal detectors; mark attendance via biometrics to keep an eye on students’ movements; deploy night patrols; provide police escorts to students at night; and ensure greater involvement of parents in their wards’ lives on and off campus.
Taking their cue from the University of Hyderabad, students across New Delhi organised protests. The All India Students’ Association in JNU launched a national signature campaign demanding the withdrawal of the guidelines and observed a protest against “saffron surveillance”.
Students of JNU, Delhi University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Ambedkar University Delhi, teachers and citizens came together to protest against the guidelines outside the UGC headquarters in Delhi. An independent students’ initiative, Collective and Feminist Faculty Collective, organised a panel discussion on how the “safety and surveillance” discourse was getting normalised across campuses and the ways to resist them.
A change.org petition initiated by Uma Chakravarti, Mary John, Pratiksha Baxi, Kavita Krishnan, Ayesha Kidwai and Janaki Abraham and signed by hundreds of people stated that the objective of these guidelines was to create docility, discipline and fear rather than productivity, creativity and freedom of academic expression.
It further stated: “It interferes with the right to privacy of students and puts them at risk of targeted harassment on the basis of their gender, or caste, regional or religious affiliation, or sexual orientation. If the UGC is in any way interested in creating real conditions for the safety of women students on campus, it would do better to implement its own earlier excellent recommendations for ensuring the safety of women and programmes for gender sensitisation on campuses. All of these measures assume that adult students have no right to privacy and right to choice and that parents, wardens and teachers do not abuse their power. These guidelines create a system that can push students who may face discrimination or violence in the family into danger. This is extremely detrimental, for example, to women students who are forced to give up their studies because their parents want to push them into forced marriages. Or to students who exercise their right to choice, be this sexual orientation or the right not to marry.”