Police confront protesters at Banaras Hindu University. Photo: NDTV

An attempt by cane-wielding male police officers to silence female students holding a peaceful midnight protest against rampant sexual harassment at India’s prestigious Banaras Hindu University over the weekend has sparked outrage across the country.

Nearly a dozen students and a few journalists were injured in the late-night police action.

Video footage of police using excessive force at the central government-controlled university located in Varanasi,  Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, has further fueled campus unrest.

“The police force present outside the [vice chancellor’s] house resorted to lathi-charge just to disperse the students. When some girls marched towards hostel, they followed them there and continued canning them inside. It happened so fast that we all were shocked,”  said Kritika (name changed), an undergrad BHU hostel resident.

The police claimed they were provoked by stone- and gasoline bomb-throwing “students” seeking an audience with the vice chancellor, Girish Chandra Tripathi, outside his residence. The students demanded that security measures be taken to protect them from predatory male behavior. He has so far not met with them to hear their concerns.

Students insist that the miscreants responsible for “provoking” the police were acting at the behest of top university officials, who sought to disperse the agitators at any cost in order to distract attention from their own incompetence and callousness, which was attracting national media attention.

The male police personnel, allegedly directed by the university administration,  entered the women’s hostel late at night and cane-charged the occupants mercilessly to deter them from protesting against sexual harassment.

Nearly 1,500 police personnel, including contingents from the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), were deployed to restore law and order on the campus. However, the situation was not being brought under control, prompting the BHU administration to shut down the campus for a week and issue an order to vacate the hostels. Two other universities and several other educational institutions in Varanasi have also been closed in an effort to silence the rapidly growing campaign of dissent.

Established 100 years ago, BHU, which is spread over 1,300 acres and has over 35,000 students from more than 30 countries, is the largest residential university in Asia.

Its alumni include Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, who went on to become president, musician Bhupen Hazarika, scientist Jayant Narlikar, artist Manick Sorcar, and writers Robert M Prising and Koenraad Elst.

University professors, local residents, and even opposition parties expressed support for the protesters and condemned the police on Saturday, the eve of Daughter’s Day, which is observed during Navratri, a nine-day Hindu festival celebrating the power of women.

After two days of mysterious silence over the entire fiasco, Adityanath Yogi’s state government has ordered a probe into the incident without stipulating a deadline. Instead of apologizing for the botched operation, which has damaged the university’s image, Vice Chancellor GC Tripathy has blamed “outsiders” for the “politically motivated” protest culminating in violence. Nearly 1,200 students have been booked by the police and two local police officers have been shunted.

Incidentally, Prime Minister Modi was in the city on Friday when the women launched their massive protest at the university following the molestation of a female student on the campus by three bike-riding men. To avoid embarrassing Modi, the city administration changed the route of his motorcade, bypassing the campus.  Modi visited temples, attended a few events, launched some initiatives for animals and then left the city on Saturday evening, a few hours before the women were brutally attacked by the police.

A social media campaign alleging that the protesters are “anti-nationals” who are “targeting” the prime minister was soon launched.

“We were heartbroken as neither Vice Chancellor Dr GC Tripathy nor anyone from the prime minister’s team paid heed to our plight. Instead, we were punished for demanding our rightful. PM has the time for cows and Gods but not for humans,” Deepika (name changed), a protester studying fine arts, told Asia Times.

Women on campus are unhappy that Modi, who is otherwise social media-savvy, didn’t tweet a word about them, nor did he mention the issue in his “mann ki baat” radio show broadcast on Sunday.

“This is shocking as he had raised slogans of women safety in the run-up to the 2014 elections and still campaigns for “Beti Padhao Beti bachao.” How can he be so immune to the girls’ safety issue in the BHU, which falls in his own constituency?” asked Akanksha, another student.

Female students say sexual harassment is rampant on the campus and that the BHU administration has failed to address the issue. Ragini (name changed), an undergrad student, said, “We are under constant threat and stress due to goons and perverts who frequent the campus. Many of us have faced sexual harassment inside the campus and have escalated the matter to the proctor [security], but no action was taken to restrict outsiders from the campus. They either resort to victim shaming or advise us to remain in the hostel after sunset, which is practically impossible.”

Students say they need to work in the laboratories and library or have to go outside for personal reasons in the evening.

“Teasing and molestation cases are very common on the campus. Perverts often use dirty gestures and even masturbate to harass us. That we are unsafe inside the campus is the most horrible feeling. But enough is enough. We are not ready to tolerate anymore,” one female student told Asia Times.

Dr Vijaya Nath Mishra, a neurologist at BHU, said, “While boundaries are porous, roads are poorly lit, giving safe passage to goons. Even the helipad where PM lands every time is quite deserted with easy passage from all sides. It is unsafe even for PM’s security point of view.”

The BHU issued a statement saying that the “dharna” by the students just a day before Modi’s visit was a “politically motivated” action intended to damage the image of the university. The university also said security guards were regularly patrolling the campus and assistance from the police had been sought to maintain peace on the campus. However, female students Asia Times spoke to insisted that nothing has been done so far.

How it all started: 

A female arts student was allegedly molested by three motorcycle-riding men on the campus last week while she was returning from the university to her hostel around 6:30 pm.

“Boys put hands in her top and tried to slip hands in her jeans. She raised alarm but security guards did nothing to nab the perverts. When she approached the proctor office for help, she was questioned why she was out so late,” a classmate of the student said.

The student then reached the hostel and told her hostelmates what happened. Outraged, they decided to launch a protest and demanded to see the vice-chancellor, who refused to meet with them.

On the second day of the intensifying protest, university officials acted to restore order. The hostel at Mahila Mahavidyalay had been at the forefront of the protest since Friday, and students from other hostels decided to join them on Saturday.

Sensing that trouble was brewing, wardens at three hostels  – Triveni, Ganga and Yamuna –  locked the doors from the inside on Saturday night. A Triveni hostel resident said. “We were told by the warden not to venture out and refrain from joining the “political” protest. When few girls ignored the suggestions and joined hands with the protesters, locks were put up to curb further movement.”

Students blamed vice-chancellor Tripathy for the violence. The controversial official comes from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ruling Bhartiya Jnata Party’s parent organization, and he is due to retire in November. An IIT student said, “VC must be sacked immediately for ordering or allowing cops to attack the girls inside the hostel. He called in armed forces instead of talking to us. This incident shows his arrogance, insensitivity and incompetency.”

While student branches of opposition parties leapt into action on Sunday, expressing support for the BHU students, the Akhil Bhartiya Vidrathi Parishad, an RSS-affiliated student outfit, also announced its support for the protesters. The ABVP’s leaders have also demanded that Tripathy be sacked. The move is regarded as a face-saving exercise for the BJP-ruled state and the central government.