March 30, 2020
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Crossing The Ravana Rekha

Women students clashing with ­authorities in north India signal that while patriarchy hasn’t changed, the ground under its feet is shifting

Crossing The Ravana Rekha
Benaras Barricade Bhu
Protestors faceoff with the police
Photograph by PTI
Crossing The Ravana Rekha

Post-Protest BHU

  • VC G.C. Tripathi was sent on leave
  • Royana Singh replaces chief ­proctor O.N. Singh, becoming first woman to hold that post
  • Twenty-eight female security guards to be on the university campus; seven ­appointed so far, with male guards on stand-by
  • First all-woman “squad” for ­campus monitoring set up
  • A judicial probe will be done into arson during the protest
  • The university’s annual security budget is Rs 14 crore. It has 83 hostels, 22 for women.


Any talk of the State’s benign paternalism vis-à-vis India’s daughters comes up, first of all, against raw reality. A most revealing snapshot of this came recently from the Banaras Hindu University (BHU). Even as the country was moving into annual Durga Puja festivities, to mark a divinised form of woman power, angry girl students hogged television screenspace for days on end with a most unexpected outburst of protests. And rampant sexual harassment was only the starting-point of their complaints.

But then, the BHU is no exception. Not only would the typical university in the northern Indian plains not do anything to help check predatory male behaviour, they put the burden of security back on the girls: they have hostel curfews, strict dress codes, no WiFi (to ‘save’ them from porn). They have to stay indoors on Holi to be safe from wanton boys. And the university administration is emblema­tic of this attitude­—of stifling, all-consuming patriarchal control. Worse, high calibre young women with dreams of a life of intellectual pursuit or an upwardly mobile lifestyle drop out of their chosen courses fearing harrassment and worse.

When Asha Kumari graduated from her university in Haryana with a gold medal, she promised herself she would get a doctorate. Her parents, who never went to college, had toiled to pay for her studies. The first in her family to get a Master’s, Asha had big dreams. She sought for herself a place among India’s top scientists and researchers. Accordingly, in 2009 she applied for a PhD at Kurukshetra University. It was not to be. “My professor took me to his campus residence and tried to rape me,” she says. Asha screamed, pushed the man away and rushed out of his home. But for a year afterwards, she could do no research despite being enr­olled for a PhD. The professor incessantly called and sent her messages. He repeatedly told her he had been watching her for long, that he had thought she would be “very good in bed”. “I realised the only way I would get my PhD is if I surrender,” she says. This she would not do.

Asha discussed her predicament with other women res­earchers she knew. “I found there is much exploitation of women students by professors, but nobody dares speak out. Those who don’t submit end up like me,” she says. She yearns for a PhD, but her faith in universities is irretrievably shaken. “Some universities suit my schedule, such as Meerut’s Chaudhary Charan Singh University. But, from what I hear, women don’t consider it a safe place.”

There’s a surge of women joining higher education institutions in the badlands of UP-Haryana, despite the high tolerance for harassment.

Asha’s is perhaps an extreme case of being victimised by the very source of guidance students and their families place trust in. Even so, the context speaks of a new mob­ility: a greater field of collision between old and new. For, there’s a surge of women joining higher education institutions, even in the Uttar Pradesh-Haryana badlands, where the threshold of tolerance for harassment is notoriously high.

The numbers bear this out. According to the HRD ministry’s 2015-16 survey, UP and Haryana reflect the broader national trend in higher education with more women enrolling for PG courses and their ratio increasing very fast. Overall, at the under-graduate level in UP, there are 3,149,002 males and 2,854,074 female students. At the PG level, the trend reverses: male enrolments were 2,13,038; females, 2,89,187. Even in Haryana, in 2015-16, only 16,776 males enrolled for post-graduate courses, while 35,080 fem­ales did—almost double.

“Teachers only ask girls to ‘be careful’ as boys, of course, have no izzat. Only we shoulder that burden,” says Reena, a student in Gurgaon.

Think of the sociological meaning those figures contain: the new-found independence for young women across mofussil north India, places where once they hardly ventured out alone. Match it with the stats where, in 2015, UP beat all other states in crimes against women (stalking, assault, voyeurism, dowry deaths et al) while Haryana claimed the fifth slot, as a just-released National Crime Records Bureau report reveals. On the ground, this translates into a sort of perpetual gender war. “If you are a woman, you can either keep your self-respect or you can study,” says Reena, a 24-year-old MCA student in Gurgaon. While she was in college in Rohtak, Reena saw it up close—taunts, lewd messages, men following her to college or back, men driving past women, with uncouth music (and misogynist lyrics) blaring on their car stereos. “If girls want to study they will face harassment. Teachers only ask girls to ‘be careful’ because boys, of course, have no izzat (honour). Only women shoulder that burden,” she says.

Some of them give it back. Two years ago, a video of Reena and her sister “went viral”. They were seen thrashing a young man, who they say harassed them on a bus. At first the sisters were applauded, promised bravery awards and cash rewards. Then Haryana’s powerful Jats—the community of the man they beat up—orchestrated a backlash. Fake videos purporting to be of the sisters thrashing other men were circula­ted. They were denounced and their rewards revoked. And a Rohtak court dismissed their case without having heard them once. ­(Reena has filed a case afresh.)

“The dominant thinking in Haryana is against us. After that video, everybody questioned us for raising our voice and hand. Nobody wanted to know what happened on that bus. We bec­ame ‘characterless’—two girls who put up a fight,’” she says.

This is a pattern: harassment followed by victim-shaming. The arrival of fresh batches of women on a campus—from Allahabad to Varanasi, Meerut to Baghpat, Patna to Ballia—invites hordes of ogling men sniffing for opportunities. “There is a lot of goonda-gardi in our city,” says Mamta Verma, who studied fashion design in Muzaffarnagar, UP. They were the first batch of a new private university and their coursework included fashion shows that were widely publicised through leaflets and ads. “Some girls faced problems once their pictures were published… girls knowledge mein pad gayi—they appeared on the radar of would-be harassers,” she says.

Men would chase them, cat-call or offer ‘friendship’, a euphemism for dating. The women—Mamta included—never argued with the ‘boys’. Nor did they inform their families, due to the ever-present fear of ­being asked to get married instead of ­taking “risks”. Instead, they would “stay home for a few days”, while the men moved on to other targets.

Public Stand

Out of the cloister, women students claim public space, something discouraged traditionally

Photograph by PTI

For long discouraged from public spaces, a university lets women out of the cloister. That’s when they are forced to confront the power bloc of administrators, professors, male colleagues, not to mention young men high on entitlement. The aspirations of women are pitted against prevailing regressive norms: it’s inherently conflictual.

Originally from Baraut in western UP, Megha Tewatia studied economics at Meerut’s Raghunath Girls College—her parents wanted better for her than the rampant absenteeism and harassment of girls by even classmates that characterised college in their home town. But Meerut turned out to be as unpleasant an experience, even though she loved her college. Men would gather outside the campus gates and wait for women to emerge. “It’s very common. There’s a police vehicle there, but nobody does anything about the boys.” Yet she’s unw­illing to blame ‘boys’. “Girls ask boys to meet them outside college. If they didn’t call them, they wouldn’t be there.”

Also, in perhaps a classic case of gender stereotyping, the post-graduate economics class in her college is not taught econometrics—because it involves math. “Meerut girls are said to have math phobia,” she says. Megha, now preparing for competitive exams in Delhi, has started from scratch. “In Delhi, people study econometrics in their MA—there is no talk of phobias.”

The sexism often rears its head the minute women hit an upward trajectory. Richa Chaudhary, only the second woman to contest in Gorakhpur University’s union elections, bec­ame general secretary last year. After she claimed victory, defeating 19 male candidates, she faced raucous opposition. “The SSP warned me to stay home for three-four days,” she says. Advice she did not ignore.

The tyranny of older males—teachers, administrators—follows its own methods. At Dr Ram Manohar Lohia National Law University, Lucknow, women students recently deposed in a sexual harassment charge against a senior university official and charges of moral policing against another. One of them allegedly used his official powers—for example, over attendance, which fetches marks—to threaten a student. Anita, the complainant, says, “He has powers to change marks in every subject. When women go to his office, he checks them out top to bottom in a way that makes them uncomfortable.”

The official, currently on leave, says attendance, once marked by teachers, can change only by established process. “The instant it changes, students get mobile alerts. I installed this transparent system—why would I undo it?” he asks. He claims victimisation by those opposing his pro-transparency drive. But Anita says the official showed her exam results a week before they were officially declared. “I had low marks in one subject. He threatened me, asking why I had not gone home for winter break. He threatened to call my parents and complain about ‘what all’ I am doing here,” Anita says.

The official says the university does consider students adult, but hurls the allegation that nothing happens here but “sex and drugs”. “Not one girl can prove I changed their attendance. They also have no proof I stared at anyone inappropriately.” He adds that in March, university authorities found “15 alcohol bottles in rooms of 11 hostel girls, 250 cigarette butts, condoms….”

A hundred women wrote to the UP CM about two officials at a law university in Lucknow. One had allegedly taken pictures of students secretly.

In short, tyranny deploys more formal levers, but victim-­shaming is the same. In September, 100 women wrote to UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath about this official and another, who they say surreptitiously took pictures of some students. “Anyone can ask people to stop smoking on a public road,” the official says, implying this is what the students were doing when they were photographed. The students complain of the duo’s overt orthodoxy and moral policing, for “judging women for their dress, walk and talk, how they lecture male-female students seen together”.

The students also feel a university with Rs 27 lakh budget for facilities, inc­luding CCTV cameras, should ensure women’s on-campus safety at night. The official counters that some lights are turned off by night to keep electricity bills low.  But the real conflict is over women’s freedom to just be. “We don’t tell parents about 90 per cent of what happens here,” the official says, denying his threats to call parents infantilises students. “Students should understand everything cannot be done in public—my colleague tried to explain this to them. They call it moral policing.”


An ‘anti-Romeo’ squad in action, in a Lucknow street

Photograph by PTI

Change, a woman professor at BHU says, has to be wrought on the minds of men. “We are used to families that discriminate between sons and daughters but this generation demands equality,” she says. The professor talks about visible changes she has noticed. Every class of freshers is still completely segregated, boys seated on one side, girls on the other. By the second semester, they mix a little. In the third, each boy sits next to a girl. “It takes them a while to break the ice. Boys, in particular, need special training.”

The teacher herself has faced hoots and catcalls from men at the university. The males still don’t get that “a woman is not just a female body”, she says. She hears of sexual exploitation too, but the girls are “not ready to open their mouths”. During the recent protests, they faced dire threats like “Vemula-­Lankesh bana denge” (we’ll turn you into corpses, like Vemula and Lankesh), which generate more silence.

Tripti, a PhD scholar at BHU, says: “When girls speak of harassment, they say, ‘what happens in a family should stay in the family’.” This ties in with other on-campus behaviour she has noted: students washing teacher’s utensils. Equally shockingly, she has seen Northeast students eat rice with hot water and nothing else. They could not adjust to the vegetarian meals—yet nobody in the university, which invites applicants from the world over, cared to cater to meals for all regions within the country.

Tripti is an outsider to Banaras. Raised in Allahabad, she worked mostly in Delhi. Initially,  she found BHU’s “feudal” norms unbearable. She retreated into herself, seething inwardly. During the protests, when she was verbally harassed, even she did not press charges. She told herself: “I just want to complete my PhD.” Bouts of exhaustion are natural: women are systematically worn down by the system. But it’s the visions of the opposite tende­ncy—the arrant defiance they are putting up in countless contexts—that gives notice to something changing in the heart of India.

(Some names have been changed.)

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