We need campuses ‘where the mind is without fear’. But if the fear of the unfreedom is overtly played to downsize the legitimacy of freedom, a detached dissection of politics is warranted
Varanasi is not New Delhi. Also, Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) are unlike in character. They inhabit disparate worlds of thought. Consequently we need to understand that the trumpets of azadi and pinjra tod which reverberates in Delhi campuses may not have a similar ringing in campuses around the country. The discourses of freedom, empowerment, and safety have their local variations and disparity.
With this crucial qualification it must be stated at the outset that recent incidents in BHU are disconcerting and quite unsettling for those who admire the great institution of learning. Initially the University administration failed to gauge the seriousness of the problem and to respond promptly. However, the incident in the campus is far more complex than it seems and entering into it through the past may aid in unraveling it.
Past is not dead
Having been a student at the BHU for three years, I have been witness to many student movements, which significantly remain sporadic outburst. There is a reason to call the movement an outburst. It is essentially because an ideology of responsibility in such movements is always missing and they can be easily high jacked by the local political interests for their agendas. There is a quick involvement of outside campus forces such as local politicians and now national too, hooligans, and it is facilitated by administration’s shaky and unconfident dealings with the
The history of student agitations in BHU has been characterised by violent outburst. Following the death of two students in 1997 due to police firing, the Students' Union was banned for an indefinite period. Violence had erupted in the campus due to cancellation of nomination papers of a candidate “Manoj Singh”. An inquiry committee indicted the University and district administration for the death of the two students.
After that there have been persistent efforts to reinstate the Students’ Union through various ways. BHU being at the heartland of Poorvanchal and a reservoir of immense youth energy has always been on the target for reasons not unknown.
Similarly, protests of female students over their safety and security are also something not new to the campus. University saw a glaring agitation in 2013-14 when a female student was harassed by Birla hostel inmates while she was walking back to her hostel in Triveni complex. Renowned Biologist Lalji Singh was Vice-Chancellor then and like the
present VC he also didn’t come out to resolve the building crisis soon.
What makes BHU so vulnerable?
The continuity of the past tends us to interrogate the fact that what really makes BHU as a campus so vulnerable and fragile when it comes to women’ safety and students’ agitations. BHU in any case cannot be an island like JNU. Reason is simple. Despite being a walled campus, BHU cannot stop the arrival of thousands of outsider in its premise every day. The campus itself is a major tourist destination in Varanasi because of its historical and architectural attraction, Vishwanath Temple and Bharat Kala Bhawan. Moreover, the campus also houses Sir Sundarlal Hospital which caters the health requirements of thousands everyday from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in particular. Thus unlike JNU, BHU cannot issue an entry ticket to everyone who enters the campus nor can restrict entry of visitors, tourists and those thousands of locals who use the campus as short-cut routes for travelling to the other side of the city.
Consequently, campuses like BHU, Allahabad University, Delhi University and many others that are either not walled or cannot restrict entries become more vulnerable than others like JNU. This base is suggestive in itself that the yardstick of freedom of movement and preferences which are functional in JNU may not apply elsewhere. However, the crisis builds up when JNU for its entire provision becomes the torch bearer of standards of student amenities and free culture. There are obvious constraints for a campus located in a societal
culture which may function in a particular way. To ask why we cannot live in BHU as people live in JNU is a mistaken case of social behaviour.
Question of Women Safety
The question of women safety inside BHU is as lively and as significant as inside any campus or out on the road or inside homes around the country. Eve-teasing is an everyday phenomenon. Both outsiders and insiders are involved. Ironically the news headlines are depicting the campus as unique when it comes to women being unsafe there. We must remind ourselves that New Delhi which is the home for three Central Universities and institutions of national importance such as IIT and AIIMS has been called the ‘rape capital’ in the past.
Such unfortunate incidents as the one in question in BHU must push us towards the urgency of addressing them with more concern and sensitivity. Rather we end up on one of the sides of politics. Lathi charge and the involvement of police could have been avoided. However, seemingly feeble response of the administration is the result of constraints it works under and not of choice. The glare of politics which invites hooliganism in campuses like BHU always has to be cared about.
The continuous claims of women being denuded of their freedom and personal space inside campus are again misplaced and are half-truths. An apprehensive administration which is overreaching to ensure the protection and security of every student may fail in the colossal task sometimes but never gives up. A significant share of the
university’s budget is spent on maintaining the vigil of proctorial board. There may be incidents of insensitive dealings but the modus operandi of the proctorial board ought not to be not so uniform when they deal with thirty
thousand enrolled students every day. Administration also crosses the boundaries of institutional norms to encroach the personal space of students by imposing timing regulations on hostel entry and exit, internet censors, mess food, etc. However, the intension cannot be misread as authoritarian and tyrannical, but must be seen as apprehensions of security concerns.
This Incident, That Response
It has been underlined without any value-judgment that eve-teasing in campuses like BHU is an everyday phenomenon and women feel insecure about their safety. However, the way in which dominant sections of media are labeling BHU news as some red alert demonstrates their unfailing efforts to tarnish its image.
Renowned Hindi Journalist Urmilesh in Wire Hindi associated the recent incident in BHU to its historical narrow-mindedness which he attributed to the founder of the university-Madan Mohan Malviya. Urmilesh went ahead to establish an analogy between Nehruvian institutions such as IITs, IIMs, and JNU on the one hand for being progressive and liberal while BHU likes were discredited as regressive and conservative.
Unsurprisingly this action plan is inherent in Left politics DNA to discredit every institution and process which falls outside the secularist consensus. The ‘Hindu’ in the Banaras Hindu University has troubled the Left for long and after the 2014 Modi wave, the attacks have become more scathing and frequent. No wonder that some female students even tried to blacken the statue of Mahamana at the BHU main gate during the course of this incident; a fact which remained highly under reported.
We really need campuses ‘where the mind is without fear’. But if the fear of the unfreedom is overtly played to downsize the legitimacy of the freedom and its responsibilities, a detached dissection of politics is warranted. What happened in BHU this time was not new. It was unfortunate and must be addressed institutionally. The way in which it was depicted was also not new and has been repeating itself after 2014 persistently.
(The writer is a former student of Banaras Hindu University and is a scholar of