Universities in India Are Criminalizing Student Protests
Last month, the campus and area outside the Banaras Hindu University erupted again, in what has now become a pattern of a repressive Modi-led regime. Such universities, governed by central government statute, have been at the receiving end of unprofessional appointments and a retrogressive education policy that is cutting back on affirmative action and scholarships for students from deprived backgrounds. There has been sharp condemnation all around, and protests in many cities.
But the most vibrant and vocal were the protests in Banaras itself, the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He was in the city to visit on September 21-22, but changed his route to avoid the messy business of having a dialogue with protesting students.
The high-handed behavior of the state police at BHU against women students (and some women professors), who are demanding a sexual violence-free campus and urging criminal action against BHU’s vice chancellor, has been rightly condemned. (BHU is located in the populous northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which is now governed by the same political party Modi belongs to.)
Why Were the Students Agitating?
Protesters are seeking a university space with equal rights for women and freedom from sexual harassment and violence. Longstanding and legitimate demands of the students were not being addressed, and survivors of sexual harassment were repeatedly being shamed by the male proctors, even as the identified perpetrators were being allowed to go free. This compelled the students to embark on a peaceful mass protest, in the wake of relentless incidents of sexual harassment on the campus.
Students have been also protesting BHU’s actions including the limiting of library hours, early closure of college gates, curbs on late-evening usage of mobile phones by women students, and embargo on serving of non-vegetarian food. BHU also coerced students to sign affidavits not to participate in political activity. These ultimately hurt the objective of higher education, which is the promotion of scientific and secular temper, succinctly laid out in the Indian Constitution. In the first week of September 2017, a differently abled student was traumatized and suspended after being labeled "homosexual" by the university authorities.
Instead of engaging in a dialogue with the students and resolving their basic and genuine grievances, the university authorities, led by the vice chancellor (VC), chose to allow them to be physically brutalized late into the night and again on the next day, by unlawfully unleashing a male police force on women students. Credible sources also say the VC and proctors have allowed a group of ‘private security’ inside the campus. These men were reportedly the first to unleash violence on the students, before the police struck.
The government in power at India’s center prides itself on flashy slogans like "Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao" (Save the Girl Child, Educate the Girl Child). Universities, especially central universities like BHU—under direct central government jurisdiction by statute—are instead seeing not just curtailment of the most fundamental freedoms of girls and women, but also the promotion of an all-pervasive culture of moral policing, lack of equal and basic amenities, control rather than free movement, and worst of all, the non-resolution of grievances.
It is exactly this reality that the "brave betis"—brave daughters—of BHU tried to expose through their peaceful protest and demanded, among other things, a campus where they could take an atmosphere of safety and security from misogynist oppression for granted and where violence against girls would not be the norm. Such an atmosphere within campuses can only emerge out of a culture of engagement, accountability and transparency.
Institutional mechanisms (demanded by women students) include having effective mechanisms like the Gender Sensitization Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) in place. Grievances and complaints related to sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination and violence need to follow these guidelines as laid down in the Vishakha Guidelines of the Supreme Court and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. The resistance to have such mechanisms active and functioning has marked this government’s three-year-plus existence. Instead, as before, reports suggest that there are 1,000 First Information Reports (FIRs) against protesting students, criminalizing in one stroke their democratic right to peacefully protest.
These recent incidents at BHU bring forth two very basic issues: one, the manner of appointments of the vice chancellors; and two, the lack of effective mechanisms for redressal of complaints, be it gender discrimination or as in the case of Rohith Vemula at the Hyderabad Central University caste-driven cruelties and exclusions. To ensure effective redressal, vice chancellors must be competent, independent and persons of high integrity in academic and social life, committed to constitutional values.
What we are instead witnessing is a clear trend of appointment of VCs, such as that of BHU, and earlier in Hyderabad Central University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, who are committed to an unconstitutional worldview and even have charges of corruption and cases pending in the courts.
The BHU episode, after the repressions at JNU, HCU and Allahabad Central University, is yet another stark reminder of the larger challenge of "majoritarianism" within India’s universities, being imposed through the choice of candidates for vice-chancellors, wedded to such a narrow worldview, who have clearly been handpicked to serve the ideological and political agendas of the ruling dispensation. These VCs have imposed—in all these central universities—some of the most arbitrary and draconian restrictions, especially on female and politically active students.
From the National Alliance of People’s Movements:
“It would be naive to assume that the Prime Minister, in whose constituency the university is situated, was neither aware of the student’s protest when he was in town, nor of the ruthless lathi-charge which took place, soon after he left Banaras! His regular route was in fact changed, to avoid his interface with the protestors at BHU!
“The university authorities have not only failed in discharging their duties of ensuring a safe campus for the girl students and considering their complaints promptly and seriously; they have in fact been imposing illogical restrictions and playing a blame game of naming ‘outsiders’ and shaming insiders, instead of dealing sternly with those who violate the rights of girl students. They are also clearly responsible for letting the police inside the campus, facilitating the repression and registering en masse 1,000 FIRs on the students!”
Some world-renowned alumni (Magsaysay Award-winner Sandeep Pandey, among others) have petitioned the president of India, Ram Nath Kovind, who is also under Indian statute, the Visitor of the institution. In this memorandum they have said:
Media reports tell us that there was nothing unusual about the response of these officials, in fact, gender discrimination has been rather normalised in this august institution. Restrictions have been put on the 24 hours cyber library started on campus by earlier VC (Vice Chancellor) predecessor, as the present VC believes that students use the facility to watch pornography. Girls' hostel gates are shut at 6 pm, they are not to use mobile phones after 8 pm, are not served non-vegetarian food in the mess and are required to sign a statement declaring that they'll not participate in any protest against the university. According the VC such steps are necessary to make them 'cultured.' All this has allowed breeding of a culture on campus, which has become oppressive for the girls and on the other hand indulging in misdemeanour by truant men is ignored or incidents are covered up.
The memorandum also demands:
- that either the present VC either leaves the university immediately taking moral responsibility for mishandling this episode or is sacked with immediate effect. And since the proctorial board has proved itself inept in handling the situation, it be sacked immediately.
- that all cases lodged against students be immediately withdrawn.
- immediate lightening all roads, installation of CC TV cameras and formalising a proper security infrastructure which can provide security at various points in the campus.
- that the University forms a committee in light of directives of the Supreme Court and High Court in Vishakha case for solving problems of girl students and hostel inmates and which should have proper representation of girl students as well as other women associated with the university at various levels.
It is shocking in the 21st century, in a renowned institute from the Parliamentary Constituency that Indian prime minister Narendra Modi represents, to require this level of interventions for a conducive atmosphere for women students.
There are demands that a criminal complaint FIR be filed against Girish Chandra Tripathi, the vice-chancellor of BHU, for all the omissions and commissions in this episode. Should not Tripathi, who is singularly responsible on behalf of the university to allow the situation to deteriorate, be removed with immediate effect, both on ethical and legal grounds?
VC Girish Tripathi’s outrageous remarks in an interview to the Indian Express where he said there was no compulsion of any person in any administrative position of authority to listen to the complaints of one or a single girl student show utter and complete contempt for both transparency and accountability. A day later, he is reported to have pushed through the appointment of a man himself found guilty of sexual harassment by a court in Fiji.
Should not Tripathi, who is singularly responsible on behalf of the university to allow the situation to deteriorate be removed, both on ethical and legal grounds?
Is This Likely to Happen?
The thick hide of India’s government utterly disregarded the nationwide anger and protests after the ‘institutional murder’ of Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad Central University and has adamantly refused consistent and vibrant demands for the removal of VC Appa Rao Podile, who was at first only sent on a three-month suspension leave when outrage was at its height. But Appa Rao was back in the saddle and violence used against professors and students (March 18, 2016). An obdurate central government had its way. The same goes for VC Jagadesh Kumar, who is tearing down institutional safeguards built by the academic council, teachers’ association and students’ union, at the Jawaharlal Central University bit by bit.
Today, thanks to the central government’s University Grants Committee’s short-sighted policies, an approximate 20,000 scholarships (every year) for students from representative, rural and lower social strata backgrounds are just not available in institutions of higher learning anymore. In several undemocratic fell sweeps, the Indian government has dismantled decades of institution building—toward transparency and accountability—critical to any real democracy.
Yet again, the Uttar Pradesh state police and city administration are responsible for one-sided actions for which students and the young have borne the brunt. The only signs of the university administration and the central government buckling under widespread criticism was the BHU chief proctor being removed and, for the first time, a woman proctor being appointed in his place. Royona Singh, the first woman to be appointed the chief proctor at the restive Banaras Hindu University, is even on record saying there will be no ban on dress or alcohol for the women students.
Senior activists and academics have now demanded, in a collective voice, that the FIRs against all students must be dropped unconditionally. Instead, criminal complaints must be filed against senior police and administrative officials for directing a lathi (baton) charge on the students. As a result of the undemocratic moves of the central government, assisted by a pliant state police in all these cases, protesting students of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune; HCU; and JNU bear the brunt of criminal cases in courts while unrepentant officials and politicians have continued, unchecked and unaccountable.
I was forcibly surrounded and detained by the Banaras police when I arrived in Banaras on Monday, September 25. SDMs, inspectors and impressive numbers of the city police were deployed to persuade me not to go to BHU, though I was there for another youth program arranged a month ago.
The unnecessary drama continued for the whole day. By 8pm, I was told that if I proceeded to Jaunpur that night (my two-day program was in the neighboring Jaunpur district) I would be “released” with just a preventive detention notice. My program continued as planned until October 1. The administration has been given my schedule in writing. This is much like a Rule by Surveillance, but I have complied.
Some students of BHU trying to reach Prime Minister Modi in Delhi were detained and prevented from presenting a memorandum to him on September 28. Eight men and a woman were detained at the Chanakyapuri police station, reported the Deccan Herald. The female student, Mineshi Mishra, alleged that during the detention period her friends were threatened by police and some of them were “deported out of Delhi.” “We are not going to encounter (a word for extrajudicial killings by the police) you. We will just drop you off Delhi, just like Teesta Setalvad,” she said, quoting the police in a complaint to the DCP Chanakyapuri Police Station.
It is a national shame, and the actions of a faltering government that has been shown up for criminalizing democratic protests by questioning minds in institutions of higher learning, after unleashing brute violence on students and even professors. Officials have used surveillance against citizens, shamelessly. Such a government, elected by the power of the people, appears unconvinced that only continued and persistent questioning by the people, and mechanisms of transparency and accountability, will actually make a democracy work.