Banaras Hindu University students protest over the molestation of a student inside the campus. Image Credit- HT
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”, said Nelson Mandela. If education is a weapon to change the world then universities where education is imparted should also be places where one expects to see the change that education seeks to bring. But this premise is rudely shaken when one examines the happenings at the prestigious Benaras Hindu University (BHU). A couple of weeks back, a girl student was molested by three men right outside the gate of BHU. The motorcycle borne men got away with molesting the student when the guards were a couple of hundred meters away.
When the survivor went to the authorities of her Hostel at BHU, instead of initiating action to bring the culprits to justice, they indulged in victim shaming by blaming the survivor of returning back to the hostel late which they suggested invited the act of molestation. Late by the standards of the authorities of the hostel and the University it seems is 6pm! It doesn’t stop there, when the students came to know of the incident they wanted to meet the Vice Chancellor to complain about the incident and ensure justice to the survivor. The VC refused to meet the students. The students who then started protesting against the insensitive administration were beaten up by police which opened lathi charge on them. Some of the women protestors were pulled by their hair. This uncalled for lathi charge, callous and indifferent attitude of the administration and especially the VC and the overall violent attempt to curb the protest speaks volumes about the state of democracy in India. Similarly it also is a strong reminder of the position of BJP and Hindutva activists on rights of women and gender equality.
It would be interesting to note that this protest in BHU though triggered by this incident of molestation is also a reflection of the festering discontent amongst the students due to similar incidents taking place regularly on the campus even in the past. In 2016, a research scholar was repeatedly raped by her senior. A male student was also gang raped in 2016 and the case hushed up. Not only students but also women professors are feeling that the Campus is unsafe for women (The Huffpost, 2017). The University has become a hotbed of conflicts and brutal crushing of protests after the appointment of Girish Chandra Tripathi. This trend resonates the oppression of the voices of students across campuses in India and terming dissenting students as ‘anti-national’. Any voice for freedom and constitutional rights in educational institutions is muzzled under the pretext of culture and nationalism. This authoritarian politics has already claimed the life of Rohith Vemula. In order to make this oppression institutionalized, Vice Chancellors and other administrative authorities are appointed by the State having Hindutva background and very little academic credentials. BHU is a similar case.
Perhaps what is the most appalling in this incident is the attitude of the VC. “If we listen to every girl, we can’t run the university,” the VC responded when asked about inadequate action taken by him to address the demand for justice for the survivor (Hafeez, 2017). It is no surprise given the background of the VC. Girish Tripathi enjoys support of the RSS and swears by its ideology. He had openly admitted in the past that he is indeed an RSS man (Pandey, 2014). In fact he regularly organizes lectures of RSS leaders like Indresh Kumar on BHU campus. As BHU Vice Chancellor, Tripathi started Bharat Adhyayan Kendra for the study of ancient sciences — “soul of Indian culture” (Hindustan Times, 2017). Staff and scholars who don’t toe the ideology of RSS are arbitrarily expelled from the University. A case in point was the expulsion of Sandeep Pandey, winner of the Ramon Magsaysay award and renowned social activist. In open violation of rules, it is alleged that the VC was at present at an election rally with the Prime Minister. Under central government employee rules, a government servant is barred from showing any allegiance to a political party. Tripathi has also gone so far as to unashamedly say, “When the Indian government itself is of the RSS, there is nothing wrong in establishing an RSS shakha in BHU” (Jena, 2016). This increasing saffronization of educational institutions is achieved by the ruling party by hen picking administrative heads who silence voices of dissent, equality and freedom of speech.
To further understand the extent of saffronization of educational institutions and also the impact it is has on gender rights, let us look at some of the blatantly outrageous and misogynist rules that are imposed in BHU (Yadav, 2017). The VC is in favor of sex segregation in the common campus spaces and doesn’t allow girl and boy students to sit together. Earlier this year, the university distributed a circular among students notifying them that if anyone was found celebrating Valentine’s Day, they would be subjected to “category-A punishment,” which is just a nicer way of saying they would be suspended. Further there are two set of rules for boy and girl students. Girl students cannot use mobile phones at 10pm! Girl students are not allowed to be outside their hostels at night. Tripathi believes that “girls who study in the night are immoral.”A direct result of this belief is that women students cannot access the university’s 24×7 library at night. Nor can they avail the bus facility provided to all students at night. While the men’s hostel is allowed to serve residents meat, women students are forced to follow vegetarianism. Tripathi also believes that “consumption of non-vegetarian food makes women impure according to the Malviya values“. Women have to abide by a strict 8 pm curfew in the name of safety, while men can roam around freely in the campus at all hours.
This incident at BHU is not an isolated example of the patriarchy and misogyny promoted by the BJP and RSS duo. Their ideology of Hindutva has shaped their approaches towards women. One is to reinforce patriarchal norms and status quo. Other is to mobilize women for the politics of hatred. Thus the anti Romeo squads in Uttar Pradesh deny women the freedom of choice in terms of their marriages and mobility. Under the pretext of protection of the Hindu women from the ‘evil’ Muslim men, the BJP is robbing women of their agency. Uttar Pradesh is not alone in this and ‘love jihad’ not the only campaign to deny women their constitutional rights. Their attempts violate women’s rights have to be understood in a coherent framework. This framework can be located in their idea of nation.
The RSS and BJP are mobilizing women to as a tool to create a Hindu Rashtra or nation building- their idea of nation which is not inclusive and based on hierarchies. In this process of nation building, men and women have their prescribed specific roles. These are based on the idea of masculinity and femininity. It is important to point out that nation itself is a gendered entity. It is built largely on the narrative of violence and primarily its site of construction is the notion of the nation in the image of a motherland which has to be protected from defilement and invasions from the outsiders. The motherland is given all feminine attributes and its protectors, masculine attributes. Violence is considered masculine and valorized. Women engaged in encouraging/ inciting violence are valorized since the impression created is that women are breaking traditional gender barriers to come out in public spaces and defend the glory of the nation. For instance Sadhavi Saraswati at a Hindu Conclave in Goa on beef-eating said, “Jo vyakti apne ma (gau mata) ka maas khaane ko apna status symbol maanta hai, aisi vyaktiyon ko Bharat sarkar se nivedan karti hoon, phaansi pe latkana chahiye. beech chaurahey pe latkana chahiye… tab logon ko pata chalega ki gau mata ki rakhsa karna hamara kartavya hai (People who take it as status symbol to eat beef… I request the Centre to hang them in public. People will then understand that cow protection is our responsibility)” (Nair, 2017). In the past too Sadhvi Ritambara and Uma Bharti have given speeches that incited violence in the most vulgar language.
While this shift to militant nationalism amongst women is touted as a step towards gender equality and emancipation, in reality the women are expected to be docile and submissive at homes. The gender roles are unchanged and since the women are repeatedly told about the glorious past and womanhood is constructed primarily around motherhood, it becomes an ideal for women and family their legitimate location. Women can negotiate in the public spaces by consenting to be a part of the political agenda of nation building but on the terms of men within the patriarchal boundaries and prescribed roles. Patriarchy is reinforced by perpetuating the male female binary in nation building- women are reproducers and men as protectors. Women are expected to reproduce culture, values and population. Men are to protect the nation by whatever ways necessary. In order to be able to protect and do their roles better, the men need freedom and aggressive and in order to be better reproducers of culture women have to be confined to private spaces and stick to gender roles. This naturalizes hierarchies. To link it to the BHU happenings, men students have rules (or the lack of it) which gives them freedom while women students are strictly confined to the Hostels at night, not allowed to use phones and follow a dress code. It’s not surprising then that the RSS call upon women to give birth to four children each for building of the nation. Also recently the RSS announced starting a family counseling programme called Kutumb Probodan and issuing a guide to the families in order to ‘instill values and ethics’ (Maitra, 2017). Its anyone’s guess that this guide which insists that women wear sarees will only sharpen patriarchal norms.
Women are used in the making of the “Hindu” identity by making them a part of public demonstrations and by having strict control over them in private and public spaces. Thus when at BHU discriminatory rules are enforced with an iron hand, it is with a political move to reinforce a Hindu identity through women. In this process of identity making women’s rights suffers a serious setback. The BJP or RSS never champion the rights of women which matter or challenge the entrenched patriarchy in the society. The RSS opposed the Hindu Code bill which was a tiny step towards gender equality in Hindu personal laws tooth and nail. While the BJP showed unprecedented interest in the abolition of Triple talaq for the Muslim women by locating the centre of their oppression in this practice, the BJP is not keen to reform the Hindu laws which are discriminatory towards Hindu women. Their selective voicing against triple talaq was with the agenda of vilifying the Muslim community.
We never hear Sadhvis speak for land rights for women, equal livelihood, equal opportunities for education or freedom of women to eat or wear or marry whom they wish to. The rights of women are conveniently sidelined and even curbed in insidious ways. And what makes it worse is that the State supports this discrimination and oppression of women in complete violation of the Constitution. This is breeding a culture of silence and violence against women. BJP leaders deem stalking of women natural as seen in the case of the son of Haryana Minister and another BJP minister even justifying it. This marginalization of women and appropriating/ cooption of their agency are a big challenge confronting the women’s movement. The Prime Minister has maintained a silence on all these issues in spite of being so social media savvy. BHU ironically falls in Varanasi which is his constituency and he was there when the protests were taking place.
BHU incident is merely not about a case of molestation and safety of women. It is part of a larger political agenda of the BJP and RSS. At the heart of this political agenda is to end the democratic culture of the country. Freedom of expression and dissent is the essence of democracy. The BHU incident comes right after the brutal murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh who wrote against Hindutva. BHU protests and protests in other educational institutions are a comment on the policies of the present government and their ideology. And thus these voices are not tolerated and silenced. The protests notwithstanding the oppression must continue for it will keep democracy alive and ensure justice to the marginalized.
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