1,200 women students charged over harassment protest

An eerie silence has descended on the large campus of the national Banaras Hindu University or BHU after several days of intense clashes between the students – the majority of them female – and police over sexual harassment on campus and in the town of Banaras, also known as Varanasi, an event that has turned intensely political.

The centrally-funded university in the parliamentary constituency of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is one of India’s top institutions and one of the largest residential universities in Asia with almost 40,000 students. It will remain closed for vacations until 4 October as authorities sort out the demands of female students for better security on campus.

This follows the latest instance of molestation of a female student by motorcycle-riding assailants on 20 September, which sparked several days of protest that began on 22 September. It became the focus of national outrage as women students were beaten by police in what is known in the country as a ‘lathi charge’, after the metal-clad bamboo batons or lathis routinely carried by the police.

Varanasi police last week filed charges of arson and other ‘crimes’ against some 1,200 BHU students, mainly women. The male perpetrators of the 20 September groping of the female student have so far not been punished.

The unnamed victim of the attack has shaved her head in protest. “Girl students in BHU face molestation and physical assault but instead of taking action against erring male students, girls are being silenced,” she said.

Some university officials had claimed protesting students attempted to enter the residence of the vice-chancellor and when police tried to stop them students became violent and were beaten back by the police.

Safety concerns

But women students have accused BHU Vice-Chancellor Girish Chandra Tripathi and the university’s Proctor ON Singh of refusing to take their campus safety concerns seriously and for blatant discrimination against them. For example, women’s hostels at BHU have earlier curfew timings and more restrictions than university accommodation for men.

The 21-acre campus with its tree-lined roads is used as a public transport thoroughfare during the day and night. Most roads are dimly lit in the evening and there have been past incidents of crime, including molestation of students within the campus.

Female students say lack of security on campus affects their academic studies as they cannot stay late at libraries or take up assignments that expect them to return to campus late evening.

But Tripathi’s refusal to even acknowledge a problem of sexual harassment on campus has turned the BHU debacle into a national level debate on the government’s attitudes to women and safety on campuses.

Tripathi has been criticised for insisting that the police did not beat students, despite video evidence to the contrary, belittling their claims of sexual harassment on campus and for saying “the incident was deliberately staged”, as Modi was about to visit Varanasi.

“Boys will be boys,” Tripathi was quoted by the Telegraph newspaper as saying. “Forget about what happened. Why don’t you stop stepping out after 6pm if you dislike such things?”

Causing particular outrage at BHU, the Indian Express newspaper quoted Tripathi as saying: “Security for boys and girls can never be at par. If we are going to listen to every demand of every girl we won’t be able to run the university. All these rules are for their safety, all in favour of the girl students.”

The vice-chancellor’s comments showed how deep-rooted the problems for women on campus are, BHU women said, also noting deep divisions on the BHU campus with many male students not backing the women’s demands.

"The years of insensitivity about security of girl students and for that matter any woman on the campus showed an un-university like mindset in the BHU top brass and that has ultimately led to this stand-off,” said Dipak Malik, a former BHU professor.

Wider problems

Students note that the government seemed to have taken a step backwards after attempts to improve women’s campus safety in the wake of a horrific gang rape in New Delhi in 2012.

On 18 September, Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi disbanded its Gender Sensitisation Committee against Sexual Harassment set up after the 2012 crime, and replaced it with an Internal Complaints Committee, a move widely criticised by students and teachers.

The populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh reported a 33% rise in sexual harassment cases from 2014 to 2015, according to statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau, which also revealed that three-quarters of the perpetrators in the reported cases went unpunished. It is among the country’s worst three states for crimes against women.

Yogi Adityanath, Uttar Pradesh’s controversial chief minister, fanned the flames by blaming the clashes on a “conspiracy by anti-social elements” and accused opposition parties of trying to impair the academic atmosphere at BHU.

Yogi Adityanath has been criticised in the past for writing that “women cannot be left independent or free” and needed the protection of male members of the family. He has consistently argued against quotas for women on local political bodies, saying it would affect their primary role as mothers and wives.

High-level concern

Nonetheless, as the BNU debacle became the focus of national attention, there is evidence of high-level concern as the clashes have highlighted the government’s deteriorating record on gender issues. The state government has ordered a judicial probe into the campus violence.

Yogi Adityanath and union Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar said they were constantly in touch with the university to control the situation. According to some reports, Tripathi has been asked by the Human Resource Development Ministry to keep a low profile.

Belatedly, there have been some attempts to respond to women students’ concerns. “I am doing my best, the university is doing its best to ensure women’s safety on the campus. We are arranging for streetlights and deploying more guards,” Tripathi has said.

After the resignation by BHU’s chief proctor, ON Singh, “to take moral responsibility” for the 22 September clashes, a woman chief proctor, Royona Singh, who is also chair of the women’s grievance cell on campus, was appointed at BHU on 28 September.

A sprinkling of policemen now guard the entrance of Mahila Maha Vidhyalaya, the BHU women’s college established in 1929, and the Katsurba Women’s hostel – the main site of the violence a week before, when a large contingent of rifle-armed policemen and a few policewomen lined the entrance to the university.

The semblance of calm masks an underlying tension, students note. Women students are simply “marking time” until there are favourable results on female student security, said Deepa Sharma, a third-year student at the university.