It’s 6 pm, and on the steps leading to the foyer of Hidayatullah National Law University (HNLU) in Raipur are a smattering of students. They are calm, but there is a sense of urgency. One student records the events on a video camera. Another speaks to a mediaperson on the phone. Most discuss the modalities of the eighth day of protest. For in four and a half hours, the smattering will become a crowd, carrying posters, banners, waving the lights on their phone. Asking for their version of freedom. They will do it at 10.30 pm, for that is when, in their words, they are “imprisoned”.
On August 27, a two-member bench of the Chhattisgarh High Court quashed the extension of former Vice-Chancellor of HNLU, Dr Sukh Pal Singh, maintaining that a recommendation for the extension that was granted was based on a statute that had not come into effect. It was that evening that the students of HNLU began the protest. “After the order, we realised we had to speak. The V-C had refused to listen to our demands. Now there was a chance that things could change,” said a fourth-year law student.
There was a plethora of demands. But one that united the students was the curfew timings for both hostels and the library. “The library shuts at 10.30 pm. If anyone wants to study late, or access to research or books, it is unavailable. At other reputable law universities like NLS Bengaluru, or NALSAR Hyderabad, these rules don’t apply. Law is a research-intensive subject,” said Snehal Ranjan Shukla, president of the Student Bar Association.
It’s not just the library that shuts at 10.30 pm, students say. Every student is expected back in their hostel blocks by that time. And while most argue that the restrictions within the campus, the gates of which shut at 6.30 pm, are arbitrary, the application of these rules are “selective and sexist”.
“The men flout these rules, but nobody says anything. For the women students, it is different. If someone doesn’t enter the hostel by 10.30 pm, their parents are called, or a showcause is given. By 11 pm, you are not only expected to be in your hostel but in your room,” a student said.
Students allege that representatives of the administration often resort to moral policing. Women students wearing shorts are commented on, “an agarbatti in a room is treated as a lighter for a cigarette, questions have been asked on why a poster is in a room”. After the protests, the students allege, at least six teachers “loyal to the former V-C” did not take classes.
Over the past eight days, even as support has poured in from other universities, activists and even politicians, the protests have grown to include other issues. A 14-point charter of demands framed by the Student Bar Association and given to the university administration included institution of a search committee for a new V-C, removal of all campus curfews, setting up of a Review Commission, wardens not to be academic representatives, regular feedback mechanisms, fiscal accountability, and representation in the Academic and Executive Councils.
R S Sharma, acting V-C of the university and Principal Secretary in the Chhattisgarh government, told The Indian Express, “We are amenable to most of the demands. Since I have come, three meetings have been held. I have already said that some issues such as removal of timings will have logistical issues and can’t be resolved in a day, and have said that it can be extended till 11 pm. But we are sincerely talking and things will be resolved.”
Through the week, students collect at 11 am and 5 pm every day to talk, plan protests and ponder on the state of the university, even cases of alleged sexual and mental harassment have been raised. They have also formed a committee to collect the burgeoning accounts of alleged harassment. “We will present these grave charges to the university administration,” a woman student said.
Snehal Ranjan Shukla said the institution of an inquiry committee into allegations of harassment was one of their primary demands. “While these are being investigated in a fair manner, the accused should be suspended. As far as the extension of time till 11 pm is concerned, that half-hour will make no difference,” he said.
The next meeting of students and university administration is on Wednesday. Until then, and unless solutions emerge, even beyond, 10.30 pm will bring inhabitants of the halls of HNLU out onto the streets.