BHU crackdown: Even Indian educational institutions aren't safe anymore

V-C GC Tripathi calling in police to beat up women students protesting against sexual harassment on campus is a new low for the politicised universities.

 |  Angiography  |   Long-form |   25-09-2017
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Founded in 1916 by Madan Mohan Malaviya, Banaras Hindu University has had an illustrious if somewhat communally tinged past, being one of the oldest educational institutions in India. However, the recent display of grisly violence against women students for protesting against sexual harassment, molestation and other forms of abuse on campus has shown the festering rot in Indian universities, in which the administrations, eager to please the government of the day, are increasingly turning anti-student, anti-women and anti-pluralism, unleashing mayhem on the scholars.

In a widely shared video, a woman student is seen being beaten up with sticks by cops during a protest on Saturday at BHU, which is located in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home constituency, Varanasi. In fact, the violence on women took place on the same day as the PM was in the state, highlighting animal welfare and cow shelters opened in UP, under the aegis of chief minister Yogi Adityanath. The cellphone video of the violence has gone viral on social media, garnering widespread condemnation for the state and central governments, as also the vice-chancellor of BHU, who called in the cops to "control" the protests.

Not only the students, but also some journalists covering the protests have been injured in the "lathi-charge", pictures and videos of which are doing the rounds on social media. Because women have been complaining of ritual sexual harassment, increasing curbs on their freedom of movement and accessing the university premises freely, the latest episode of molestation of a female student was literally the spark that blew up the tinderbox of oppressed women students in the BHU campus.

Latest reports say that FIRs have been lodged against 1000s of BHU students in Lanka police station for arson and other charges, in what is reminiscent of the high-handed approach to the student protests at Hyderabad Central University and Jawaharlal Nehru University last year, when the campuses were turned into cantonments and students were under lockdown.

In fact, the crackdown on students follows the now established pattern of ignoring the student grievances, whether it's discrimination on the basis of caste, religion or gender, or completely overlooking and actively criminalising the ambience in the universities, with the RSS-affiliated ABVP unleashing rampant goondaism on the various university campuses of the country. Even last year, BHU was on the boil with women facing severe restrictions on their freedoms to come and go, access university library, and the general climate of rampant, Hindutva-laced misogyny. Student protests have been rocking the campuses, whether it's HCU, JNU, FTII, NIT Srinagar, or even Delhi University, and now BHU too has been embroiled in popular protests against an extremely inept administration and its inability to ensure that the women students have minimum institutional security and safety on campus.

BHU is a historic educational institution of India that houses almost 40,000 students, making it one of the biggest residential campuses in Asia. It is absolutely essential, therefore, that the women students, whether day scholars or hostelers, are given every form of security and protection so as to pursue their studies without any fear of harassment. Yet, BHU vice-chancellor Girish Chandra Tripathi, much like his counterparts in HCU, Apparao, and JNU, M Jagadesh Kumar, instead of listening to the women students complaining repeatedly, decided to call in the police to beat the protesters up. Reports of Tripathi's "dictatorial mode of functioning" have been doing the rounds since last year, and his appointment by the Modi government in 2014 has already seen Ramon Magsaysay award winner Sandeep Pandey being sacked from the institution for "not toeing the RSS line". In fact, V-C Tripathi has proudly declared last year: "When the Indian government itself is of the RSS, there is nothing wrong in establishing an RSS shakha in BHU."

However, the RSS' sexist ideology is beginning to show up as an administration brutalises its women students, and continuing with the set pattern of BJP-RSS-laced authorities coming down heavily on innocent and unarmed students for demanding justice. We must remember Rohith Vemula, the HCU scholar, who was driven to suicide by the HBU administration's open discrimination and thwarting of dreams, and how JNUSU leader Kanhaiya Kumar as well as Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were jailed for questioning the central government and mainstreaming the word "azadi" in the political discourse.

BHU, however, is a case of classic gender divide precipitated by ideological obscurantism encouraging lumpen harassment and abuse on campus, and imposing constant diktats on women that are unfit for the 21st century. In fact, last year, BHU women students had to sign affidavits that would not indulge in any protest or agitation, even as they were barred from accessing the 24X7 campus library after 10 pm. Women weren't served meat in hostels, while men were allowed to have. Moreover, V-C Tripathi had said that "boys and girls hanging out together is against Indian values", and the BHU administration even said that any celebration of Valentine's Day would attract "category A punishment".

Little wonder then that women talking about and openly protesting sexual harassment and the gender apartheid on campus has put the BHU administration in a spot, after it became the national headline. It is also significant that this has been happening in the PM's own constituency, even though PM Modi keeps harping on "Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao", introducing one scheme too many aimed at "women's development". There's also talk in the political circles that the government might consider passing the Women's Reservation Bill, first introduced in 1996 by Deve Gowda's United Front regime. We need to ask PM Modi how's it that on the one hand, his regime talks of being sensitive to women's grievances - PM Modi put his weight behind garnering popular sentiment against the triple talaq issue, while on the other, women are beaten up by cops in his own home turf, on a day when he's present in the state? What would Women's Reservation Bill achieve if women are not guaranteed safe spaces in the universities themselves, the place where their mind is shaped and honed, and their spirit to question and probe is emboldened, so as to be ready for all key challenges in the future?

In fact, women's safety have been compromised not only in BHU, but also in JNU, where, on September 18, the university's executive council "arbitrarily dissolved" the elected Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment. While the Delhi high court came down heavily against the JNU admin decision, the parallels in BHU, where lack of gender parity has reached violently perverse proportions, leading to an all-out and unsightly war between women students and the cop-crazy administration, are seriously unsettling. In this context, it's important to note that universities have been registering their grievances in the students union elections, whether they are at JNU, HCU, DU, Gowahati University, Punjab University and other places. The routing of the RSS-affiliated ABVP in all of these student elections point towards how the narrative is shifting from under Modi-Yogi's control, even as the JNU V-C insists on putting a tank in the middle of the campus to instill nationalism among the students. Evidently, the students think otherwise, and mercifully so.

Reports say Uttar Pradesh CM Adityanath has sought a report from authorities on the BHU violence. Yet, we also know that those 1000s of FIRs against students are administrative and authorial overreaction, which perhaps have covert nod from the CM, who has previously asked local administrations in his state to lodge complaints against protesters and agitators along the National Security Act, to discourage any anti-government sentiment from taking shape. Noted civil rights activist Harsh Mander's "Karwan-e-Mohabbat" has met people in Shamli and Shibbirpur of western UP, where exactly this was discussed by terribly disenchanted and aggrieved Dalits and Muslims of the regions.

Now that UP's women too have joined the ranks of the oppressed and that too in the PM's home constituency, it's time to ask some very hard questions to the Modi regime. Why is it that the Union minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj flaunts the very institutions at global platforms such as the United Nations General Assembly, which her government is hell bent on eviscerating? The institutional atrophy and the collapse of every possible sector - whether it's economy, higher education, agriculture, gender divide, as well as sociocultural fabric of the nation - point towards very ominous times not only within the universities but also in electoral politics outside of them.

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Angshukanta Chakraborty Angshukanta Chakraborty @angshukanta

Opinionator at DailyO. Because criticism is the opium of the classes.

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