The first woman to be elected president of Panjab University (PU) Campus Student Council, Kanupriya’s first test came just three days after her election.
The 22-year-old, who gave the Left-leaning Students For Society (SFS) its first victory in PU polls, had to deal with a notice by the warden of Mata Gujri Girls’ Hostel-1, asking girl students to be “properly dressed while going to the common room, dining hall or hostel office/functions”.
If girls failed to follow the dress code, the notice warned, “it will be considered an offence and a fine may be imposed”.
On Sunday, Kanupriya addressed a meeting with hostel residents. They decided to send a demand to the warden and the Dean of Student Welfare (Women) to withdraw the notice, or the students would remove it themselves. The notice was withdrawn.
“Dress code, hostel timings and moral policing represent a derogatory and patriarchal mindset of authorities. This should have no place in Panjab University,” Kanupriya told The Indian Express. “Like 18-year-old boys are considered mature enough, 18-year-old girls who study here are equally mature.”
Her victory is being seen as a dent in the male-dominated, ‘kakashahi’ brand of campus politics in PU. “I don’t have a moustache to twirl, but I believe I have broken a few myths over the last few days,” said Kanupriya, sitting in a friend’s hostel room that has a poster of Che Guevara that says, ‘I am not a liberator. Liberators do not exist. The people liberate themselves’.
The SFS, founded in 2010 and which claims not to be aligned to any of the national Left parties, is working through “analysis”, Kanupriya said. “Both women’s empowerment and our involvement in politics are moving hand in hand.”
Her friend Satwinder, the former general-secretary of SFS, said, “The only question they are asking (on campus) is, ‘kudi kivein jitt gayi’ (how did a girl win the election)?”
And Kanupriya indicated that she wants to leave her stamp on the brand of politics done on PU campus. Admitting that rival student outfits had branded SFS as a bunch of “stone-pelters” last year and that had instilled a sense of apprehension among students to be “seen at our events”, Kanupriya said, “This time, the students knew who to vote for, and they voted for the organisation that will work for their welfare.”
But she also wants students to be aware of wider national issues. “There are students who shy away from words such as fascism and are reluctant to talk about it openly. Some do not even know the meaning of mob lynching.”
In her first statement after victory, Kanupriya had asked the vice-chancellor and the RSS to not interfere with the student council’s work. “Students have decided that the RSS-BJP can rule other universities, not PU,” she had said.
So should her victory be read as a sign of the mood among young voters in this region months before the Lok Sabha? Civil society activists and political leaders stand on the opposite end on that.
Lawyer Arjun Sheoran, an office-bearer of the People Union for Civil Liberties, said the result shows that those who were not ready to place their bets on methods such as protests or other forms of struggle are now ready to take the plunge. “It also reflects the general mood of students, who can see educational institutions crumbling across India. The protest vote has won the SFS this year’s election…it shows that regional parties together can defeat money and muscle power,” he said.
But Chandigarh Lok Sabha MP Kirron Kher and her predecessor, Pawan Kumar Bansal of the Congress, both said too much should not be read off it. Kher told The Indian Express that students do not vote on political lines but on issues on the campus. “Students have voted for the girl, not SFS — maybe she touched a chord…”
For Kanupriya, who is doing a five-year integrated course in Zoology Honours at PU, meanwhile, the battle-lines have only just been etched. “If the ABVP won, a letter would have gone out, saying ‘Jai jai Modi’. But we have stopped those letters ,” she said.