MADHU Garg, Malti Devi, Seema Rana (state president, general secretary and joint secretary of AIDWA Uttar Pradesh committee) and I visited Varanasi on October 4-5. After the tremendous agitation launched by the women students against the apathy of the Banaras Hindu University administration towards rampant sexual harassment on the campus and the brutal attack on them by the police on the night of September 23, the university had been abruptly shut. It re-opened on the 2nd and we went to meet students and faculty members.
The UP government and the district administration continue to view anyone visiting the city in connection with the BHU events with great suspicion and hostility. While we were meeting with a few student activists in a park, a police officer interrupted us to ask “Are you holding a meeting and where have you come from?” He then sat down on a bench with a few policemen and kept staring at us and passing peculiar comments.
The students we were speaking to, however, were quite unperturbed. They seem to have become immune to this kind of boorish behaviour and display no fear of police intimidation. They told us about the atmosphere on the BHU campus where no debates, discussions, workshops or talks with progressive academics and activists are allowed. Student union elections have not been held since 1996 and the teachers and employees are also denied union rights. RSS shakhas are held regularly on the campus and the VC, Tripathi, makes no bones about the fact that he is a proud RSS member.
Tripathi has little to recommend him for the post he holds (he has reportedly proceeded on leave but has neither resigned his post nor has he been removed). He is a professor of economics from Allahabad University who has not published even a single paper on his subject. He has, however, published two books ‘Punarjanm ka rahasya’ (The Mystery of Rebirth) and ‘Shankar ke kitne roop’ (The many aspects of Shankar). He feels that non-vegetarian food is a cause of immorality and that girls studying at night are also performing an immoral deed. As a result, the girl students’ mess does not serve non-vegetarian food, an 8 pm curfew is imposed on them and the library in their own Womens’s College closes at 6.00 pm. Male students are not subjected to any of this.
After meeting with these students, we went to meet Dr Pratima Gond, professor of sociology in the Women’s College and warden of one of the girls’ hostels. She is an extremely unassuming and soft-spoken woman but firm and unshakable in the courage of her convictions. She told us that harassment, obscene comments were part of everyday life for the women on the campus. What happened on September 21, was not unusual. A girl student was molested by three men on a bike at about 6.00 pm. Two university guards were present but did not intervene. When she asked them to do something, they replied that by wandering around at night (!) she was asking for trouble. When she reached her hostel, she complained to her warden who echoed the guards’ statements.
What followed was most unusual. The girls in all the hostels were infuriated by what had happened and at 6 am the next day, more than a thousand of them filed out of various hostels and marched to the main gate and started a dharna. Their only demand was that the VC should meet them and guarantee their safety on the campus. By the end of the day, it became apparent that he had no intention of doing so and the girls then said that the PM who was visiting his constituency and who was expected to drive past the BHU gate on his way to the Ghat should stop and speak to them. The PM, however, changed his route.
The girls continued their dharna. The complete callousness of those from whom they expected a patient and sympathetic hearing infuriated them. Their slogans expressed their anger and many male students also joined their protest.
On the 23rd night, after the PM left the city, the police attacked the protesting students with lathis. There was utter chaos and in the melee, some stone throwing occurred. The police then chased the girl students into the campus and continued to abuse and beat them even inside the gate of the Women’s College.
Dr Pratima Gond said that she and other women staff members were present. They tried to intervene but the police were not ready to listen to them. She then saw that a student was being dragged out of the hostel gate by the police and she rushed to help her. While she was pulling her in, she was hit on the head by a police lathi and, when she put her hand on her head, she was hit again and her hand was broken. She did, however, manage to drag the girl inside. After this the police locked the gate from the outside and the injured girl could be taken to the hospital only after much time and effort.
Dr Pratima took us to the girls’ hostel in her charge and we met all the girls staying there. It was a most inspiring encounter. The girls had lost whatever fear the administration and police had instilled in them earlier. They were determined to continue their struggle for a safe campus and said that their parents supported them completely. They told us that their parents had been shocked by the scenes of police violence against young women that they had seen on the television. Not only their parents but their neighbours and relatives were outraged by these scenes and blamed not only the VC but both the CM and the PM who were present in Varanasi at the time.
On the 5th, the National Commission for Women visited the BHU and spoke to many students and teachers. The acting chairperson, Rekha Sharma, said that the VC was responsible for all that happened and it was he who had asked the police to enter the campus.
The VC must be dismissed and then proceeded against for his actions which amount to criminal offences of omission and commission. At the very moment when sexual harassment on the campus was a burning issue for the whole country, he was regularising the appointment of Dr Upadhyaya, convicted of sexual harassment in Fiji, as medical superintendent of the Medical College Hospital, BHU.
The courage of the girl students and teachers like Dr Pratima Gond of BHU will ensure that the campus will never again be the graveyard of democratic rights and aspirations it had been reduced to. The ripples of their protest movement will be felt not only in the campus but in many parts of eastern UP and Bihar.