Young women protest against campus sexual harassment at Banaras Hindu University. Photo: Firstpost
Young women protest against campus sexual harassment at Banaras Hindu University. Photo: Firstpost

India’s prestigious higher education institution — Banaras Hindu University — at the world’s ‘oldest inhabited city’ Varanasi is attracting all media glares off late; albeit for non-academic reasons.

The administration of the 101-year-old University — regarded as Asia’s largest residential campus — currently battles with charges of ignoring and skirting sexual assault cases, and restricting women’s movement and freedom instead of taking stern action against offenders.

Anger has been simmering among students over poor security measures at the campus and the callous attitude of administration towards such cases.

“That Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself represents Varanasi in Parliament, and the University is governed by the Centre, pains the students more,” says Dr Vijay Nath Mishra, a neurologist associated with BHU hospital.

Ever since the appointment of Dr Girish Chanda Tripathi as the university’s Vice Chancellor in 2014, BHU has been a hotbed for protests over gender-based discrimination and violence. 2016 was among the most turbulent years in the BHU history, professors insist.

It was in the last week of September this year, though, when the women at BHU united and finally raised their voices. It was the first day of the Navratri festival — when goddess Durga is personified as women power, and worshipped for nine days throughout India. BHU was also getting ready for celebrations. A Fine Arts student, on her way back to the hostel at the dusk, was molested by three-bike borne men on campus.

The harried girl approached the authorities, who resorted to victim-shaming instead of taking prompt action to get the alleged molesters arrested. The frustrated students at BHU decided not to tolerate the sexism anymore. BHU’s female students launched a massive protest seeking a safe and secure campus, and were joined by male students.

“This was not a case of molestation. This was a simple case of eve teasing that was deliberately staged a day before the Prime Minister’s visit,” said Vice Chancellor Tripathi on national television following the demands of a sexual harassment free campus.

“If we start listening to every girl, we can’t run the institution,” he added. Tripathi’s response to the protest was neither a communication nor an assurance to ensure the women’s safety in the campus. Instead, he accused his students of fabricating the entire event and ‘politicising’ the “simple” eve-teasing. In fact, it was barely short of saying “it’s a routine incident” and hence such “simple” things need to be ignored for larger objectives of running an institution.

The bizarre statements made by the head of an institution which has produced alumni like former President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, musician Bhupen Hazarika, scientist Jayant Narlikar, artist Manick Sorcar, and writers like Robert M Prising and Koenraad Elst, were damaging to both the reputation of his chair and BHU considerably. Over 40,000 students including those from three dozen countries were dismayed.

Women students were appalled with their VC’s insinuation that the molestation case was ‘staged’ by “outsiders” to embarrass PM Modi, and blamed Tripathi for “staging” the violence to derail their peaceful protests.

This adamant and patriarchal approach and Tripathi’s eventual decision to invite security forces in the campus and curb protests, led to a law-and-order situation, wherein the police — while violating norms itself — lathicharged the girls at midnight inside their hostels.

On the very day that students were subjected to merciless police brutality, Modi was barely a few kilometres away, inaugurating a scheme for cows.

September opened a can of worms for BHU. Inadvertently, the university was exposed to wider scrutiny and people outside Varanasi came to know for the first time how rampant sexual violence had become in the campus.

Last January, a research scholar was raped repeatedly by her senior. In August 2016, a male undergrad student was allegedly gangraped by five men in a moving car with the university logo. According to a student, “patrolling vehicle and security staff both didn’t stop the car as it drove around the campus that night.”

The University administration allegedly even sought to suppress the case to “avoid embarrassment,” as one of the accused was a staffer. He was arrested after 18 days, following pressure from local media.

In January this year, a drunken cop allegedly harassed two female students of IIT-BHU. Even teachers have complained of being sexually harassed in the classroom, while driving or just moving about in the campus, but to no avail.

Instead of curbing such incidents, several regressive rules were implemented during Tripathi’s stint. Students were barred from celebrating Valentine’s Day and threatened with suspension for non-compliance. Internet-enabled library was denied on the grounds that it would be used by the students to watch pornography.

Female students weren’t allowed to use mobile phones after 10 pm because Tripathi believed “girls who study in the night are immoral.” They cannot even access the university’s 24×7 library at night, nor can they avail the bus facility provided to male students at night, for the same reason.

Women students have also been made to sign affidavits stating they would not indulge in protests or agitations — which is every citizen’s constitutional right.

The discrimination is expanded to food as well. While the men’s hostel serves non-veg food, women students are forced to follow vegetarianism as administration for “purity”. Women have to abide by a strict 8 pm curfew in the name of safety, while men can roam around freely in the campus at all hours.

Women wardens are equally conservative and unsympathetic. “When we complained that perverts masturbate outside our windows, they advised us to shut hostel windows. When rued about molestation, it was ignored and we were advised to dress up properly and return to hostel in time,” girls allege.

The system has been so broken for years that legitimate concerns of students were ignored simply because the administrators lacked sensitivity. “Key officials lack skills to even recognise the patriarchy and the sexism that exists in the system,” said student Deepika Sharma.

Students alleged there were hardly any efforts to address earlier incidents even in the past. To make matters worse, arbitrary restrictions came into place in last few years, especially for women. As a “prophylactic” measure, a ban on short clothes was put in place inside the women’s hostel. Girls protested, but the administration continued to pursue such bizarre, sexist policies.

But just like good things, bad things also come to an end.

Tripathi was, after latest backlash, sent on forced leave. He was not axed mainly because of his proximity with the political quarters — Tripathi takes immense pride in his 40-year-long association with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization of the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) at the Centre and state (Uttar Pradesh). “The BHU guest house is often frequented by RSS leaders since Tripathi became Vice Chancellor,” claim insiders.

Official lines meanwhile say he was due to retire in a month anyway. The proctor was replaced. New proctor Royona Singh restricted entry of outsiders into the campus, installed CCTV cameras, lit up roads, and hired more security guards, including women, in an attempt to make the campus safe. Restrictions on women were also lifted.

But, just as things were settling down, another case of molestation stunned the campus. This time, however, the administration’s response was quick and satisfactory, much to the relief of many students. “We immediately approached the cops and got the accused arrested. He was suspended the same day,” says Royona.

Meanwhile, students of different organisations are now joining hands under the banner of Joint Action Committee in Varanasi on Wednesday, to take the fight to its logical conclusion.

Authorities need to really work hard to eliminate abusers from the campus, and to make the campus safe for students. It may take even longer to change the sexist mindset at all levels. Perhaps regular workshops for gender sensitivity could offer a part of solution. More women in the key roles could also be one such measure, feel academicians.

It is time for BHU to aim for a makeover for itself — an educational institution of this repute should be seen as an example before youngsters and the society, and not as a mismanaged hotbed of sexual violence and discrimination.