It was a sad chapter in the 100-year history of Banaras Hindu University (BHU) when policemen chased female students, pinned them down and thrashed them with lathis about a fortnight ago. This was to control the spiralling protests against inaction in a sexual harassment case in Asia’s largest residential university. The late-night crackdown sparked widespread condemnation, further agitations, besides a wave of enquiries and indictment.
But the September 21 molestation was only the latest in a string of cases reported on the 1,300-acre campus in the last two years, pointing to a systemic suppression — a malice that runs much deeper. There have been complaints of sexual harassment against faculty members. Many cases have gone unregistered. Eve-teasing has been so rampant that incidents have often gone unnoticed at the BHU, which was founded by the nationalist leader Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya with cooperation from personalities like Dr Annie Besant, who viewed it as the University of India.
Located on the southern edge of the holy city of Varanasi, near the banks of the Ganga, the university has, in recent times, betrayed a deep-rooted gender bias. The Supreme Court (SC) is set to hear petitions filed by some of BHU’s female students who have been reportedly facing restrictions on food, clothes, cellphones, use of Internet, and discrimination in hostel timings — all of this not applicable to their male counterparts. When the campus erupted in unprecedented protests on September 23, all these factors were also at play.
The Varanasi Commissioner in his report last month blamed the university for not dealing with the molestation victim’s complaint with seriousness and sensitivity, and also for its failure to prevent and handle the violence. On Friday, the National Commission for Women (NCW) also faulted BHU on both charges. In between, Vice-Chancellor (V-C) Girish Chandra Tripathi, at the centre of the entire controversy, “proceeded” on leave.
BHU has a history
A Mass Communication professor accused a teacher from her own department of molesting her in 2015. However, she did not get much support from her colleagues. One professor who stood with her was allegedly harassed by other faculty members, and he had to finally send in his resignation. The professor, on condition of anonymity told DNA, “I knew, whatever was happening was not right, hence I offered my resignation. There are so many wrongs happening on this campus, but people get no justice. We have two options — fight or quit. I chose the second.”
A PhD scholar in the Chemistry department, last year, said that her professor harassed her. A Hindi scholar made similar allegations, but nothing happened. In August last year, a male student was allegedly gang-raped by a group of men, including a BHU staffer, on the campus. The police responded late and the university tried to hush up the case, which did not generate much outrage because, as the victim’s friends said, “people do not like to talk about issues they are not comfortable with.” As recent as Thursday, a woman was molested and thrashed by male students, on a day when the NCW Chairperson was on campus.
Ordeals women face
Built on a land donated by the Kashi Naresh, the hereditary ruler of Banaras, the semicircle campus played a stellar role in the independence movement, and has developed into a fine centre of learning in India. It has produced many great freedom fighters, scholars, artistes and scientists. The reputation changed gradually over the years.
Women now complain that they feel more unsafe inside the campus than outside it. “There are many roads on the campus which are completely secluded. When we walk down these stretches, we have to be cautious of our safety all the time. Even if someone does something to us we will not be able to get help,” says Ananya, a Social Science student.
This reporter walked around the campus and found that it becomes secluded as the sun sets. Even during the day, most men take a good look at women passing by. They sing, whistle and make vulgar comments. According to the female students, all of it is “normal” for them. There was a time when the BHU was known by its students. Some of those who have made the BHU proud are — Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Bhupen Hazarika and Manick Sorcar.
The BHU is an open campus with 15,000 students, 1,700 teachers, and nearly 8,000 non-teaching staff. It has six institutes and 14 faculties, about 140 departments and over 75 hostels. Many of these hostels lie on one of the outer arc roads, facing large playgrounds. The university’s engineering institute is designated as an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). There is also a temple, a hospital and an airstrip inside, apart from residences of faculty members, and academic buildings which are fine examples of Indo-Gothic architecture.
The administration says it cannot restrict entry of outsiders. “Forget outsiders, most problems that we face are because of the boys from inside the university. The boys from two particular hostels — Broacha and Birla — are especially notorious because they have all the support from the V-C. They are, in a way, the V-C’s men who can get away with anything. Even during the latest protests, they were shouting slogans in his support, and abused us,” says another student who did not wish to be identified.
During the protest, Tripathi kept saying that everything in the university is “normal”. So much has happened since. The university PRO Rajesh Singh still says that the BHU is not just a university — it is like a temple of knowledge where students from different backgrounds come and study almost for free. “They respect their teachers a lot, there is nothing wrong with the university.” It’s worth mentioning here that among BHU’s top administrators was Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who went on to become the President of India. Other famous administrators include Sir Sunder Lal, KL Shrimali and Moti Lal Dhar.
The recent protests allowed dissenting voices to emerge. “Girls now feel that the situation might change because such protests never happened on the campus in the past. They have built a kind of mass momentum in and beyond BHU. We need to now keep this momentum going,” says a student of the Women’s College in BHU.
“We think that now whenever there is such an issue, students will talk about it, especially the girls who have been silent for the longest time now. Rules in BHU are so discriminatory for girls but no one dared to raise their voice until recently when all the anger and frustration just burst out,” says another student.
As a rule, BHU does not allow student unions affiliated to any political party. There is none on the campus. Even teachers do not have a union. Following a large-scale violence on the campus, the students’ union was dissolved in 1997. A decade later, a students’ council was formed. But the demand for restoration of the students’ union has never been shriller.
Female students say they will form a group which can take up their problems. “We know that once we form a group, we will be targeted by faculty members. They would label us as protesters. But we think it is high time that we made efforts in a more organised way, otherwise all this will go down the drain,” says Shivangi Choubey, another student of BHU’s Women’s College.
The BHU is a Central university under the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD), and is listed as an institute of national importance. The BHU was the venue where HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar held his first meeting with all the V-Cs of Central university after taking charge last year.
After the recent violence, female guards have been deployed on the campus and more CCTV cameras are being installed. New Chief Proctor Royana Singh, who took charge amid the ruckus, says she is determined about making the campus safer for women. “I will make sure that no student is discriminated on the basis of gender,” says Singh, BHU’s first female Proctor.