- It all started with ‘Hostel Nights’, during which male and female residents are allowed to bring guests to their hostel rooms
- Students raised a ruckus over rules such as keeping doors open and not having more than 2 guests
- This escalated into a war over safety rules for women, some of which were seen as excessive, and some as downright silly
- Male escorts were to be provided; women were to carry whistles
- Leaked e-mails from faculties containing sexist and homophobic comments added to the fire
Students call it moral policing. Teachers say it’s only about maintaining decency and decorum. A new roster of do’s and don’ts for students imposed last month has roiled the campus at one of the country’s premier educational institutions, the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-Madras). It all began with an annual campus ritual called ‘Hostel Nights’, during which guests of the opposite sex are allowed into residents’ rooms at the segregated hostels, instead of being restricted as usual to the visitors’ lounge. This year, however, the authorities strapped down the gaiety with a few more rules, such as asking residents to keep doors wide open when guests were in. An open forum followed, where students discussed these rules and some more that the administration is mulling for the safety of women on the campus, such as providing male escorts to women moving about the campus after 11 pm, carrying pepper spray and a whistle for protection and calling for help if molested, additional CCTVs—already there are some 2,000—and requiring a “meaningful purposes” letter from department heads for going out. This only heightened the feeling among women students that their freedom was being curbed.
One teacher maintains that “the charge of moral policing is a load of nonsense”. The dean of students, Prof L.S. Ganesh, says, “A vocal set of students has contributed to this distortion.” And the institute’s director, Bhaskar Ramamurthi, an alumnus from the late 1970s, says the whole issue “is going viral without any basis”. Equally set in their view that such rules and safety guidelines amount to moral policing are the 7,000 students on campus, among them some 1,000 women. On Youth Ki Awaaz, an online forum, a post on the IIT-Madras ruction is headlined ‘The Ayatollahs of IIT-Madras Mull Safety Measures for Female Students: Moral Policing?’
Students and the authorities agree that there have been cases of molestation on campus, in which the perpetrators have been both insiders and outsiders. Among the latter are labourers working on the many new buildings coming up on the 620-acre campus. Ramamurthi says the cases are “not alarming”. What bothers students is the lack of information and clarity about these cases; what riles them is not being consulted when the measures meant to keep them safe were being framed. There are some cast-iron rules, of course—no cigarettes, no alcohol, no drugs on campus, for example—but the director concedes that rules governing social life on the campus could be worked out mutually. A few years back, for instance, internet access was restricted after long hours of browsing through the night was reflected in the attendance registers. Students agree that safety is paramount, but find suggestions like carrying a whistle laughable. “My primary objection, though,” says Swetha Sridhar, “is that we were not consulted.” Kaavya Srinivasan says, “They treat us like adults in some matters, like children in others.”
She is referring to the ‘Hostel Nights’, when seniors are given a farewell and hostels (there are 17, of which two are for women) are showcased. Since this is one day when men and women can mingle and visit each other, there was outrage when a circular asked students to restrict guests to two, wind up meetings by 10.30 pm and keep the door open. At an open forum of students and faculty in late March, there was a strange question from a teacher: “What do you want to do in that private space?” Prof Ganesh says new, stiffer penalties on violating the “no smoking, drinking, drugs or unauthorised guests” were imposed because these were “observed to be nuisances”.
After the forum, there was an exchange of e-mails in the faculty that got leaked. This agitated the students further. One teacher felt “parents do not have enough education to recognise moral values”. Another wrote: “The hostel is the place for you to sleep. The bathroom/toilet is where you get your privacy.” Although the administration hastened to say these were individual opinions, the damage was done with some tasteless, sexist and homophobic comments.
Some insist the students had it coming; some say it’s only a section of students who are creating a ruckus. “Those in the BTech courses are focused on studies, it’s the humanities and social sciences students who are making a noise,” says an insider. Almost 60 per cent of IITians are doing PhDs and tend to be more mature than undergrads, for whom rebelling is a rite of passage, says another insider.
There are those who trace the tight control regime to an incident a few years ago in which a hospital found drugs in the system of a brilliant student brought in complaining of breathlessness. That led to several random raids in the last couple of years, yielding ganja and cocaine. “They are using substance abuse as a pretext for measures that are apparently aimed at our security,” says Kaavya. Adds Swetha, “It would have been better to form a safety committee as an interface between students and faculty.”
Nitish Garg, speaker, Students Affairs Council, thinks the problem is “minor”, but what students feel strongly about is being asked to sign a declaration that they are aware of the risks involved in wandering outside safe zones alone at night; they fear this document may be used against them, as a means of shirking responsibility. “It will make my mom paranoid,” says a student.
The usually quiet campus, which celebrated its golden jubilee four years back, has clearly changed since the times Ramamurthi was a student. As he puts it, among the many changes is the large contingent of women students. Students say the attitudes of the faculty have not changed, however, hence the “talibanisation” of IITs and other institutions by those uncomfortable with the mingling of the sexes. But Ramamurthi defends himself, saying the IITs are situated in an “Indian milieu”, where parents still play a role and expect the institution to share responsibility in bringing up children. “In that sense, we are not liberal.”