Lathicharged while protesting sexual harassment on BHU campus on September 23, these girls had become a symbol of anger among women in the college. Indian Express meets five of the faces in the photo
Shivangi Choubey, Third year, English Honours
Shivangi Choubey says she learnt to be independent in her teens, the result of growing up and studying in Varanasi, away from home in Bihar’s Buxar. She had moved out at the age of 11, living first with relatives and then with a brother in Varanasi. “School was much freer. It was co-educational and we could sit with anyone we wanted; there was no gender segregation. Our uniforms included skirts. And the rules applied to both girls and boys uniformly, not like in BHU,” Choubey says.
Her parents, father Satendra, a construction contractor in Buxar, and mother, Nilima, a homemaker, were jubilant when she made it to BHU. “It was my father’s dream. He grew up in Jaunpur and saw small-town life closely. He wanted my brother and I to move out of Bihar. BHU was that way out,” she says. They also believed, she says, that BHU was a “sanskari (cultured)” place, unlike colleges in Delhi.
At BHU, however, the disillusionment set in early. “Only Sanskrit, Hindi and Bengali were offered as languages to students of the women’s college while the men at the Faculty of Arts could choose between German, Spanish and Polish,” she says, adding that her anger was further fuelled by the 10 pm curfew on speaking on mobile phones and the 8 pm curfew on hostel entry timings.
All of this tipped her over into student activism, says the 20-year-old, who aspires to be a journalist or an activist. “I am not affiliated to any organisation, I fight for myself. In my first year, I complained to the administration about stray dogs on the MMV (women’s college) campus and lack of water purifiers in the hostels. I also fought for WiFi in women’s hostels, a facility available in all boys’ hostels,” she adds.
As for the night of the alleged molestation of a second-year student on campus, she says a male friend called her up at 10 pm on September 21, informing her about the incident and about a protest scheduled for 6 the next morning. She had an internal exam the next day, so she refused to participate initially, but then decided to give the exam a miss. “We were just protesting, but when police began beating us back into our hostels, we burst into a rage as well as tears. That is when we went back out to the main gate and confronted them. That is the photo,” she says.
While her parents have supported her, Choubey says, nothing has changed on campus, except for the new women guards becoming more strict with women students.
Shubhi Mishra, Third year, English Honours
Hailing from an “extremely conservative” background, Shubhi, 20, hoped BHU would provide the freedom she craved for. “I was never allowed to go out with friends (at home). I only went to school and back. But despite being conservative, my parents were always supportive of my education. So I was excited to go to BHU,” she says, over the phone from her home in Saharsa town in Bihar, from where she is yet to return.
When she finally landed up at the university, she says, she was shocked at the “regressive mentality” of the wardens. “How can one live such a claustrophobic life day after day?” says the 20-year-old, who wants to take the civil service exams after her Masters.
While her frustration had been building, Shubhi says she had shied away from protests earlier as teachers threatened to subtract marks in examinations. “One of my professors was on the proctorial board and she was set to become the warden of the hostel I was to be shifted to. I was scared. I could have lost marks and the allotment of a seat in a hostel, besides being reported to the university’s proctorial board, which is in-charge of security on campus,” she says.
All that changed after her friend, a second-year student, narrated to her how the victim of the September 21 molestation incident had been “wailing and screaming” before the guards, she says. “This time, I lost all fear. I did not care. I was so fed up,” she says, adding that she and her room-mates went around the MMV hostel, urging third-years to join the protest. “That is how MMV got involved with the girls from the other hostels,” she recounts.
(Name withheld on request), Third year, Sociology
At her home in Ambikapur town of Chhattisgarh, this third-year student was never policed over the clothes she wore nor stopped from freely using her mobile phone. Her mother, a former schoolteacher, even knew about her male friends, including one she was really close to, she says. Her parents also stood by her when her small town began to taunt her for the subject she had chosen to graduate in — sociology.
At BHU, it was the “religious restrictions” on food that first made her uneasy. “I’m a non-vegetarian. We are not only not served non-veg, the mess does not serve eggs on Tuesdays and other Hindu festivals either,” she says.
“While taking our attendance, women housekeepers taunt us for wearing shorts or spaghetti straps inside the hostel building,” says the 20-year-old, who wants to teach at a university. “And after all this, we are taught feminism in sociology classes. What is believed and practised here is regressive puritanical rules imposed on women in the name of Malviya mulya (the values of BHU founder Madan Mohan Malaviya) and sabhyata (culture),” she adds.
According to the student, violence, especially among male students, is the norm on campus, and that proctors and guards stand watching even when brawls turn bloody. “Teachers are aware of the problems, but don’t have the courage to speak up,” she says. That is why, she asserts, students stood up this time. She and her friends, who were at the market on the BHU-Lanka roundabout when the student was allegedly molested on campus, woke up the next morning to Facebook live videos and posts about a protest brewing at the main gate. She joined in after finishing classes at 5 pm the next day. “Our wardens tricked a large group of students, including me, by asking us to have dinner and promising to let us rejoin the sit-in after 8 pm. But then they locked the hostel gates. We gheraoed them, and the boys, who had joined the protests, also demanded that we be let out. They eventually relented,” she says.
(Name withheld on request), Third year, Political Science
The talk at BHU, says the 21-year-old, is that the campus atmosphere at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Delhi University is disturbing. But her brother, who studies in JNU, tells her otherwise. “My brother finds the rules of BHU backward and the level of intellectual discourse not up to the mark. He wants me to come to JNU,” she says. While her mother is liberal and her father conservative, the student adds, they always tell her, “Jo karna hai, limit mein rehke karo (Whatever you do, do it within limits).”
“In my city, I ride my scooty to places such as Darbhanga, 30 km from my home, with friends. The only thing my parents tell me is to avoid riding around the countryside after dark,” says the third-year student from the Central Bihar district of Samastipur. And for someone who “wears skirts at home”, the moral policing and entry timings are stifling. “Guards at BHU are old, underpaid, and hardly there for the security of women students. They harass and chase away couples, while groups of rowdy male students are allowed to do anything,” says the young woman, who aspires to be a journalist.
She also says that every time women students seek just a 30-minute relaxation to the 8 pm hostel curfew, they are scoffed at by wardens. “I had to forego UPSC coaching classes held in the city because they ended at 8.30 pm and the warden could not make an exception for me,” says the student, who later settled for Staff Selection Commission (SSC) coaching classes, which end at 8 pm.
“We get angry, but who do we air our grievances to? No one ever stands by us. So this time when women went out protesting, I thought I should support them,” she says. “The anger in the photo is at the injustice and violence meted out to us. We saw a lean little first year being mercilessly hit by lathis and our warden, who was trying to protect her, was also not spared. That is why we got so angry, at the sheer brutality of these men,” she says, recounting the night of the lathicharge.
Name withheld on request, Second year, Hindi honours
Even in school, says this 19-year-old from Saharsa in Bihar, she fought for rights, including taking part in protests by government staffers demanding higher wages. Her co-ed Bihar state board school, she says, had a very different “mahaul (atmosphere)” to the one in BHU. “Here there are women-only and men-only colleges, which was new to me. In school, we had healthy friendships with the opposite sex and were never teased or made uncomfortable. In BHU, male students constantly catcall and tease us,” she says.
In her first year, she was shocked and scared but decided she needed to change to “survive in BHU” and has, for instance, started resorting to expletives. “Once a group of boys began playing a derogatory Honey Singh song on a cellphone just as my friend and I were passing by. We stopped and forced them to turn the volume down. They stopped playing the song but we could hear them commenting on us behind our backs,” she says.
She and a friend joined the protests at around 10 pm on September 22 and stayed at the main gate for 40 hours. “We were only demanding basic rights such as a street lamp and security on campus. We wanted the vice-chancellor to come and listen to us. Instead, the police hit us. That is why we are so angry and enraged in that photo,” she says.
Her family, predominantly BJP supporters, agrees that the protest was for genuine reasons. “My family believes that it was wrong on the part of the Prime Minister not to meet us. It is his constituency and his responsibility. But they do not want me to appear in the media or be noticed by my professors and they have told me to be careful,” says the 19-year-old, only the second woman in her family to study outside Bihar, after a cousin, who graduated from DU.