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Above: Girl students of BHU confront the police force following an incident of molestation on the campus. Photo: Getty Images

How did one of India’s premier universities descend so quickly into chaos and violence? A comprehensive analysis of what went wrong and who is responsible for the mess  

~By Puneet Nicholas Yadav

There are many ironies about the events that unfolded in Banaras Hindu University (BHU) over the past week. That the police companies—largely comprising male personnel —stormed into the BHU campus and its girls’ hostels to mercilessly beat up students and at least two lady wardens a day after the PM’s aborted attempt of visiting the varsity campus from where he and his party began their victory march at the hustings, is only one such irony. That the incident happened in the Lok Sabha constituency of a PM who never tires of hammering the nation’s electorate with his Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao slogan is another.

The police brutality against the girl students of BHU isn’t just about the ironies. It is indicative of a much larger problem—turning institutions of learning into personal fiefdoms for the spread of regressive ideologies. At the core of the crisis lies the suppression of individual and collective freedoms that are the hallmarks of any modern university.

THE GENESIS

On the face of it, the recent goings-on in BHU seem like a simple case of administrative failure. A girl is allegedly molested and files a complaint. Several other girl students claim that there are frequent incidents of sexual harassments on the varsity campus. The girls raise obvious demands—the vice-chancellor should listen to their grievance, more CCTV cameras and better street lighting should be installed in the campus. The vice-chancellor, Girish Chandra Tripathi in this case, doesn’t bother listening to the complaints and when the girls persist with their protests, the might of the police is unleashed on them.

In the meanwhile, reports of institutionalised gender-discrimination, questionable appointments to key posts in the varsity—including that of a rape convict being made the varsity hospital’s medical superintendent, etc. begin to tumble out. The V-C decides to dig in his heels claiming he has done no wrong, dismisses a case of molestation as “simple eve teasing”, terms the protest as the handiwork of “outside, anti-social elements”, and suggests that he “can’t listen to every girl on the campus”.

Tripathi told APN, a sister concern of India Legal: “I have always listened to the grievances of the girl students but it is not possible to listen to what every girl says. We have close to 40,000 students living inside the BHU campus but there are also nearly one lakh outsiders who come to the campus or stay in and around it. The campus is spread across 1,300 acres. I have spoken to the girl who had filed the molestation complaint and to others who have reported about incidents of eve-teasing and even these girls do not agree with the kind of protest that is being witnessed in the university campus.”

Nonetheless, his lack of any action regarding the molestation case on his campus could make him complicit in this crime.

The situation has continued to worsen. The varsity’s chief proctor, Onkar Nath Singh, was made to take moral responsibility and resign. The first-ever woman chief proctor—Royana Singh— was appointed a day later. The Union human resource development ministry began leaking reports that the V-C will retire as scheduled, on November 27, but may be asked to “go on a long leave” until then.

This pretty much sums up the events of the past week at BHU. But dig just a little deeper to find out how things were allowed to reach such a pass and the real story begins to unravel.

Congress and Swaraj Abhiyan activists assemble at Jantar Mantar in Delhi to condemn the lathicharge at BHU. Photo: UNI
Congress and Swaraj Abhiyan activists assemble at Jantar Mantar in Delhi to condemn the lathicharge at BHU. Photo: UNI

DEGENERATION OVER TIME

Professor Dipak Malik, former director of BHU’s Gandhian Institute of Studies, believes that the events that unfolded at the central university last week were “the result of a natural progression of the degeneration that had begin to set in decades ago”.

While Malik says that “the immediate problems that one sees in BHU are largely the result of the manner in which the current V-C, who closely subscribes to the regressive and patriarchal ideology of the Sangh Parivar, has been running the varsity’s affairs”, he also insists that “the rot had set in much earlier”.

“Unlike institutions like the Jawaharlal Nehru University or the Delhi University, BHU has seen all its democratic bodies systematically demolished over the past few decades. There is no students’ union, no teachers association to maintain checks and balances. The writ of the vice-chancellor and his/her political masters sitting in Delhi (the BHU V-C is appointed by the centre through the HRD ministry) runs large,” says Prof Malik, whose association with BHU dates back to nearly five decades.

BHU alumnus Shatrudra Prakash, who is also a Member of the Legislative Council (MLC) from the Samajwadi Party, blames the entire episode on vice-chancellor Tripathi and the “patronage he receives from the BJP and RSS”. He says: “Ever since Tripathi took over as V-C, he has handed over the running of the university to a coterie of Brahmins and people from Allahabad (Tripathi’s native place) who also subscribe to his narrow-minded ideology which he has imbibed from the Sangh Parivar. The proctoral board is full of people handpicked by the V-C on the basis of their caste, affiliation with the RSS and BJP or those who belong to Allahabad. As many as 400 posts in the varsity have been outsourced to non-BHU staff by Tripathi”.

Prakash says that while the V-C had blamed “BHU outsiders” for last week’s violence, “it is actually Tripathi who gave free access to non-BHU faculty and students to enter the university campus”. The senior SP leader alleged that in the past two years, incidents of eve-teasing, molestation and harassment had shot up within BHU and that “those involved in these activities are mostly outsiders who continue to come to the campus as and when they wish”.

Prakash’s allegation is backed by at least five girl students that India Legal spoke to. “There have been at least 20 cases of eve-teasing on the campus over the past two months and our repeated efforts to get the V-C to act on these complaints have been futile. Instead, restrictions are imposed on us. Girls aren’t allowed to stay out of their hostel beyond 8 pm (6 pm in case of some hostels). While boys are allowed to have non-vegetarian food in their hostels, girls have to stick to vegetarian food. We can’t use our mobile phones after 10 pm and, if caught doing so, then we are made to put our phones on speaker mode,” says Pratyusha (name changed), a resident of the Triveni hostel complex.

Girls at the varsity also claim that if members of the BHU proctoral board do agree to listen to complaints of sexual harassment or eve-teasing, the grievance-redressal forum often turns into a platform for shaming victims. “The only job of the proctors—who have an annual budget of Rs 16 crore—now is to carry out moral policing and to catch couples who move together. Girls have had to even give in writing that they are guilty of moving with their friends and will never do so in the future,” says Mineshi Mishra, a final-year Psychology (Hons) student at the university.

Betrayal of History

The ancient city associated with religious fervour has also witnessed regressive trends

Established in 1916 by Hindu Mahasabha leader Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, Banaras Hindu University (BHU) is among the world’s largest residential campuses with nearly 40,000 students staying inside a sprawling 1,300-acre area.

A central university, BHU attracts students from across the country and serves as one of the main educational institutions in Purvanchal. It has a Rs 760-crore annual budget and boasts of 14 faculties, 140 departments and six institutes, including an Indian Institute of Technology.

However, instead of adopting the celebrated ethos of Banaras—one of the world’s oldest cities to have been continuously inhabited—the varsity has been criticised for promoting gender discrimination, casteism and regionalism. This, even as the University can boast of reflecting the same diversity as the city which gives the institution its name. In BHU, one sees students from nearly all regions, castes and linguistic groups. Yet, in recent years, the varsity has attracted criticism which it did during the early years it was founded—allegations of pandering to a patriarchal mindset, promoting Brahmins and Thakurs over students of other castes and favouring people from UP—especially Allahabad—in appointments.

The University, which had RSS founding member MS Golwalkar as its student and later also a faculty member, has in recent years had senior staff members—including current vice-chancellor GC Tripathi—openly flouting their RSS links.

The BHU V-C seems to have repeatedly endorsed the institution’s discriminatory practices that prevent girls from seeking equal opportunities as boys. Tripathi seems unwilling to acknowledge incidents of sexual harassment—including molestation of a girl. He dismissed these as “simple eve-teasing”, something that under the Indian law, post the Nirbhaya guidelines against sexual harassment and violence, can be construed as complicity in hushing up a crime against a woman.

Through more than 4,000 years of its documented history, Banaras has always been hailed as a microcosm of civilisation. Its relevance in Hindu mythology as the city founded by Lord Shiva, the land of Raja Harishchandra’s sacrifice or its connection with the sacred River Ganges, are often talked about. The fact that it is here that Gautam Buddha is said to have delivered some of his earliest sermons or that Guru Nanak came here during his quest for founding Sikhism are all well-documented. Yet, all this seems to be lost on the BHU of today.

UP accounts for sending the largest number of prime ministers to parliament, but this is the first time that one has been elected from Varanasi. As the University descended into anarchy last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi—who had kickstarted his election campaign in April 2014 from the Lanka Gate of BHU—was prevented from visiting the Durgakund temple in the campus. His route was diverted when he arrived in the city a day before lathis rained on the varsity’s girl students. This speaks volumes about the chaos that BHU has found itself mired in.

—Puneet Nicholas Yadav

NOT NEW TO BHU

Denial of equal rights to girl students isn’t a recent development at the university. In fact, it is something that can be traced back to the days when the institution was founded by Hindu Mahasabha leader Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya. Malaviya’s reservations against women seeking gender parity are well-documented, as are his views that endorse the supremacy of Brahmins in India’s caste system. It was this ideology that in the formative years of BHU saw renowned poet and writer Mahadevi Verma being denied admission to the MA, Sanskrit course, ostensibly on account of her being a woman and a non-Brahmin.

In later years, while BHU administrators like Dr S Radhakrishnan, Acharya Narendra Deva and Triguna Sen tried to introduce some reforms aimed at introducing greater gender parity and eliminating discrimination on the basis of caste, regional and linguistic differences of BHU students, many of these measures didn’t always reach their intended conclusion. These divisions have clearly resurfaced in recent years.

Celebrated writer and former professor of Hindi Literature at BHU, Kashinath Singh, points out: “This is the first time in the 100-year history of BHU that girls have risen up in protest against injustice meted out to them. The administration and the V-C in particular simply don’t care about the students anymore. They want girls to stay locked up in their hostels while lumpen elements are allowed to run riot in the campus.”

Professor Singh adds: “The V-C is petty minded, has no vision for the institution and is known for pandering to the whims of the RSS. He has been building his personal fiefdom, appointing people to key posts not on their merit but because they are Brahmins or hail from his native town of Allahabad or have connections with senior BJP leaders.”

Endorsing the claim made by BHU students who called the resignation of chief proctor ON Singh a “farce”, Professor Singh says: “The moral responsibility for the incident rests with the V-C and he should have resigned. Instead, he has chosen to shamelessly carry on. This spoils the reputation of the university which only last year completed 100 years of its establishment.”

The entrance to BHU campus, which had an illustrious past but now courts controversies. Photo: wikimedia/ Kuber Patel
The entrance to BHU campus, which had an illustrious past but now courts controversies. Photo: wikimedia/ Kuber Patel

VIOLATION OF LAW

Not allowing girls to step out of their hostel after 6 pm or 8 pm or denying them other facilities which are available to their male counterparts is not just oppressive but also a blatant violation of their constitutional rights and several other legal provisions laid down by the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).

Article 14 of the constitution clearly prohibits any discrimination on the basis of sex. Similarly, AICTE and UGC rules expressly state: “Concern for the safety of women students must not be cited to impose discriminatory rules for women in the hostels as compared to male students. Campus safety policies should not result in securitisation, such as over monitoring or policing or curtailing the freedom of movement, especially for women employees and students.”

However, the BHU administration seems inclined towards pressing ahead with a patriarchal agenda that places unreasonable restrictions on girls.

Prof Malik believes that the “systemic failure” and “betrayal of the trust that girl students and their parents have placed in the university” are a direct fallout of BHU turning into a “laboratory where the likes of Tripathi want to create ideologically narrow-minded individuals like themselves instead of students of academic brilliance”.

Predicting worse times to come, Prof Malik says: “Fascism has taken roots in our institutions of learning and BHU is a prime example.” That may be a bit of an exaggeration but the hard lesson from the BHU fiasco is that it takes just one man in a position of power to des-troy the reputation of one of India’s most prestigious universities.

—With inputs from Lilly Paul

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