An incident of alleged molestation of a women student of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) has triggered a set of events which show the central university, particularly its vice-chancellor, the police and administration, in poor light. Images of male policemen charging female students have gone viral on social media, further fuelling anger over inaction of the authorities against the original complaint. The VC has sought to underplay the complaint as a case of “eve-teasing” and not molestation. He has accused the students who protested the incident as “those who are not committed to the nation” and has alleged that the molestation itself was a conspiracy to trigger a controversy ahead of the prime minister’s visit. Such blind and bigoted view of a students’ protest is unlikely to help the university understand why the campus has become restive. The university seems to think that it can address the student unrest by somehow clamping down on legitimate demands for dialogue. It reeks of a mindset predisposed to fixed ideas about how adult female students should behave and a clear attempt to refuse them agency in matters concerning their life on the campus.
BHU was founded in 1916 as a place to debate and explore ideas. Some of the finest political minds of India have graduated from this sprawling university, which has all these years remained a great, vibrant centre of learning. Though home to nearly 10,000 girl students, BHU has rarely seen protests by them. So for the girls to have come together and confront lathi-wielding cops is a wake-up call that all’s not well within the campus. Well, how could the situation be normal when the institution limits Wi-Fi for girls, insists on strict policing of curfew hours and imposes restrictions on the hostel menu? There is a reluctance in the establishment to accept the social churn that is redefining the place of women in the society. Girls today are stepping in to universities for higher education without necessarily having faced gender discrimination at home. Access to gadgets like the mobile phone and personal transport like two-wheelers and the information explosion have expanded their idea of freedom and a sense that progress also means women are free to make their choices about their lives. A rattled establishment has refused to accommodate or engage with them, but has sought to equate all talk against conservative social mores as treason.
Considering the historical, geographical, political and social context, these young women in Banaras are challenging the patriarchal idea in its stronghold. This incident serves as a warning for the establishment that expects women or students to remain subservient to age-old social mores. Young women asserting their rights in India is a welcome, irreversible force. Everyone else has to grow up.