A PROTEST by sections of students at the Punjabi University in Patiala for 24 hour girls’ hostels and improvements in living conditions and food entered its 19th day on Saturday, though a hunger strike that began on October 1 was called off.
The strike, which began on September 18 spearheaded by the left-leaning Democratic Students’ Organisation, now involves five other Left student bodies, including Punjab Students’ Union (PSU), PSU Lalkaar, All India Students Federation (AISF), Students Federation of India (SFI) and Punjab Radical Students Union (PRSU).
The demand for 24-hour hostels dates back to 2014. Then, girl students had resisted the protest as they were convinced that “DSO boys” wanted to have girl students outside hostels in order to “eve tease” them.
“Come 2018, it’s a complete turnaround. We hardly had two woman activists in the party, so women were not too confident when we raised the issue then,” says Ajaib, a senior leader of DSO. Ajaib is sitting with other protesters, both girls and boys, in front of the vice chancellor’s office at Guru Tegh Bahadur Hall. Mattresses, blankets and pillows are laid out on two sides of the entry path to the building, but V-C Prof BS Ghuman has not visited his office for the past two days now.
The university has agreed to put off hostel closing time to 9 pm from 8 pm. It used to be 6:30 pm until 2016.
The V-C, Prof Ghuman, did not respond to phone calls or texts. The protesting students said they will not budge till the authorities started an “agreeable dialogue”.
“There are too many restrictions at girls’ hostels; at least 16 official offences for which we can be penalised,” said Gurvinder, a student of MA English. She adds that 70 per cent of the student population on the campus comprises girls. “We talk about gender equality all the time, but do we practise it in real life?” she further stated.
But the students are not just demanding 24-hour hostels. They also want new hostels and better food for girls. Protesters say girls get poor quality food in hostels and many of them were falling sick. They want other improvements. In a room for one or two, three girls sleep on two beds, share a single cupboard and study table.
Peeling walls and dilapidated washrooms just add to the misery.
“On top of this, we are made to stay inside after 8 pm. If we want to study, we cannot go outside to the reading room. If we want to eat better food, we cannot go to the canteens. We are threatened with disciplinary and legal action if we put one toe out of line,” says Mamta, one of the five students who sat on a hunger strike.
Kanupriya, President, Panjab University Campus Student Council, and N Sai Balaji, President, JNU Students Union, visited the campus over the past fortnight to support the students. Sarveer, an ex-hosteller and research scholar, says the environment in hostels is “hostile and one of fear”.
A hostel warden, Sukhwinder Kaur of Ambedkar Hall, says the wardens “follow what the authorities say and I can’t comment on a personal note. If this is allowed, then good for them. Our duties won’t change.”
Samriti Sharma, a hostel prefect supporting the cause, says the demands are genuine. “If I want 24-hour hostels, it doesn’t mean we’ll be out all the time. The authorities should understand that. For example, if you keep a poet caged inside four walls, her poetry will die. But if you let her out, her craft will flourish,” she adds.
On Thursday night, hostellers broke out of Amrita Shergill hostel, raising slogans against student bodies opposing their demand such as Students Association of Punjab (SAP), National Students Union of India (NSUI) and Students Organisation of India (SOI).
The girls alleged that the boys sat outside the hostel, raising slogans stating that they will not let them come out after 7 pm and verbally abused them when they raised slogans of ‘Naari mukti, sabki mukti’ in response.
Denying the allegations, Lovepreet Singh Sandhu, a SAP leader, said, “Students come from small towns and villages, not just Patiala. When their parents see that they don’t get hostel accommodation, many of them don’t even send their girls to study. We’re still not at a stage in society where we can have 24-hour hostels. Who will ensure safety and security of women?”
Dr Surjit Singh from the Department of Punjabi, who has supported the movement from the beginning, says there were two contexts to the protests: rising consciousness in women about their freedom and breaking away from restricted hostel space.
“Historically a consciousness has surfaced in women in Punjab and across India. Women are pinpointing discrimination against them. Hostels are restricted and uncomfortable. Three girls stay in a room meant for one. How can students study in such an atmosphere? Reading rooms don’t have enough study tables and they cannot get access to the reading room in the central library. So where will they go?” he adds.
The students say if they are not heard, they will next start boycotting attendance rules in hostels and enter the library’s reading room after curfew hours.