The recent lathi-charge by the Uttar Pradesh police at women students – protesting against inaction by the university administration in an alleged incident of sexual harassment in Banaras Hindu University (BHU) – has shocked the country. Parents, teachers and students all over India are surprised at the sudden eruption of violence in a campus which was viewed as peaceful. There is little doubt that the university administration and teaching community has failed to deal with the incident promptly and without the use of force. The lathi-charge needs to be condemned in the strongest terms. In BHU, unlike Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) or Hyderabad University, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have a strong presence and therefore, ideological issues cannot be invoked to explain the protests. Majority of agitating students spoke of a host of academic and infrastructural requirements not fulfilled within the university. BHU’s vice chancellor (VC) Girish Chandra Tripathi held that it was “outsiders” who were involved in the alleged incident, but the scale of the protests points to the dissatisfaction within the student community.
The government is now trying to deal with the incident by ordering inquiries and has requested the VC to proceed on leave to defuse the situation on campus. However, these steps taken by the government are not the solution; such incidents require greater analysis as they are a reflection of a deeper malaise inflicting our universities. There has been a spate of student versus administration incidents in recent times, leading to confrontation and at times, violence, which was witnessed in the case of JNU, Hyderabad University, Allahabad University and now, BHU. The problem lies in the breakdown of the student-teacher and student-administration relationship of mutual trust and understanding, essential for the successful running of an institution of higher learning. While this is perhaps true of universities in many parts of the country, it seems to be particularly so in the case of those in the Hindi heartland, where social change has been rapidly throwing up a new generation of students in recent years.
A number of students in universities in the Hindi heartland and in Delhi enter through reservations. A large number of them are first-generation college students. These students face academic and social problems in the university and require understanding and often, empathy, by the teaching community and the administration. While such students are intelligent, hardworking and determined to gain a university degree, they often suffer from poor writing and analytical skills due to the poor condition of schools in their regions. Many are unable to cope and as a result, they lack the self-confidence that students from elite backgrounds display. Such students require greater attention of teachers and administrators, which is rarely possible due to the rising number of students. Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, due to increase in reservation, the number of students entering universities has grown at a very rapid rate. This has changed the character of the universities. In the early 1980s, the number of students in a post-graduate classroom in JNU was about 20-25; today, it is well over 100. The number of faculty positions has not grown at the same rate. The result is that teachers, despite much effort, do not get to know their students and are often unable to give the attention required to those who need it.
In fact, the idea of a campus with hostels and faculty residences next to each other was meant to foster a close academic relationship, leading to student participatory research. In JNU, students often approach faculty members with not only their academic problems, but also social ones, including relations with the opposite sex, parental pressure to take up a job or in the case of girls, the pressure to get married. Infrastructural facilities like libraries, fellowships and hostel seats have not kept up with the increasing number of students. The funds required to create world-class libraries and science labs for research have been inadequate in most universities. This has created unhappiness and dissatisfaction among students, who are aware of international standards of education. This dissatisfaction vents itself in antagonism whenever any issue creates confrontation with teachers or the administration. Much of the explosive anger vented in BHU was a result of the lack of academic facilities such as good libraries and WiFi in its social sciences department. The administration and teachers, unable to understand the reasons underlying the strong agitation, were caught by surprise.
One of the reasons for the large number of girls in the protests is the differential treatment meted out to them in terms of hostel timings, libraries, access to WiFi and even food. According to a report in the Indian Express, the number of girl students on the BHU campus has increased by 131% in the last ten years, while that of boys has increased by 78%. A reason for the increase in girl students is due to a large number of them entering higher education in recent years with hopes of entering the job market and becoming independent. University administrators need to understand that today, young women who enter the university expect the same treatment and facilities given to their male counterparts. This differential treatment of girls seems to be a part of the larger narrow mindset regarding women in the Hindi heartland, which views them as unequal, accords them little social freedom and expects them to behave and dress according to traditional norms. Many students – both boys and girls – often hail from small towns where relations with the opposite sex are restricted and monitored. They look at universities as free spaces to get to know each other and attempts by the administration to restrict this freedom often cause problems. Many girls in BHU will be the first graduates in their family and are worried that following the protests, their parents will withdraw them from the university. At the same time, the security of women on campus has become an issue which needs to be taken seriously with good private security, CCTV cameras etc.
How does one deal with such an explosive situation building up in campuses housing the youth of our country? Much of the anger displayed by students in various campuses on the issues discussed above is largely because teachers and administrators often do not talk to students and prefer to use swift proctorial punishment or, as in BHU, police force. What is required is that teachers and top administrators – including the VC – learn to listen and understand the needs, desires and aspirations of the younger generation. Keeping lines of communication open, talking to students, negotiating rules on academic matters and life on campus through building of consensus, rather than laying them down by fiat, would go a long way in defusing the tension.
In JNU, students have long been members of academic and administrative committees, where they understand the complexities of governing a large institution, which often faces challenges to its autonomy from the University Grants Commission (UGC) and lack of funding from the government. It makes students realise that while some of their demands can be granted, others, perhaps, given the existing situation, cannot always be met. Students participation in such committees makes maintaining discipline and harmony easier. History shows that whenever this balanced and participative approach has not been used and instead, rules have been imposed forcefully, there has been turmoil on campus.
For all this to happen, the government should select VCs and other top administrators who are academically respected by students and are prepared to work in an atmosphere of firmness, mutual respect and understanding of the needs of both these groups. This is not an easy task, but it would go a long way in creating peace on university campuses across the country. At the same time, much higher levels of funding of higher education is required so that our universities become world-class institutes of higher learning.
Sudha Pai, a former Professor of JNU, was the Rector (Pro-Vice Chancellor) from 2011 to 2015.