The founder of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Madan Mohan Malaviya, has been adopted by the Sangh parivar as a ‘Hindu’ icon and it is being claimed that the kind of changes being made to the academic and social life of the university are the kind that he would have wished for.
The complexities of Malaviya’s personality, however, belie their claims. He was extremely conservative as far as his personal life, observance of rituals and eating habits were concerned, but his public outlook was often that of a visionary. His dreams for the university that he founded are at complete variance with what the Sangh parivar is trying to reduce not only BHU but also other educational institutions to.
It is instructive to go through BHU convocation addresses delivered during his lifetime. Their tenor is best expressed in what the then chancellor, the maharaja of Baroda, said in 1924: “Earnestly I trust that this university will take care to avoid that most terrible of errors, the narrowness of thought which in the end stifles, thought and individuality…”
In the course of his own convocation address in 1929 when he retired from the university, Maliviya said, “You must always be prepared to do the duty that your country may demand of you. Love your countrymen and promote unity among them. A large spirit of toleration and forbearance, and a larger spirit of loving service is demanded of you.”
On the entrance to one of the women’s hostels in BHU is inscribed this quotation from its founder: “India belongs to the Hindus, the Mohammedans, the Sikhs, the Parsis and others. No single community can rub over the rest. Your hand has five fingers. If you put off the thumb, the power of your hand will be reduced to one-tenth of its original power. Act in such a way that all may unite… Let there be mutual trust. We will have to make such a law and such a constitution that nobody may be afraid of anyone else in the country in whatever circumstances he be placed.”
In her inimitable fashion, Sarojini Naidu described Malaviya as the last of the ‘orthodox-progressive Hindu leaders’. Unfortunately, the Sangh parivar has chosen to pay heed only to ‘orthodox’ part of his personality to implement its own peculiar agenda and has turned a blind eye to the ‘progressive’ aspect.
There is no denying that the rot in the BHU set in decades before the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014. Earlier governments charged with the task of making and implementing education policy have been guilty of encouraging politicking, casteism, criminality and corruption on campuses like BHU. Appointments of vice chancellors and faculty members have been made on the basis of political affiliation, caste and monetary considerations. Despite this, however, some space for academic intellectual debate and discussion has been allowed to exist. These have now been almost completely snuffed out of existence.
The appointment of the present vice chancellor on November 28, 2014 (who has now gone on indefinite leave) is a symbol of what this proud university has been reduced to. Girish Chandra Tripathi wears his RSS affiliation with pride. As well he should, since he was also appointed chairperson of the IIT-BHU. It would seem that academic qualifications were not the main criteria for either of these appointments. While Tripathi certainly has no qualifications as far as engineering and other such fields are concerned, his record as a professor of economics has also been mediocre. There are no publications on this subject attributed to him, not even an article in any prestigious journal. He has, however, authored two books in Hindi – Punarjanm ka Rahasy (The Secret of Rebirth) and Shiv Tere Kitne Roop (The Many Aspects of Shiva).
Tripathi has very strong ideas about eating habits and morality. He not only advocates vegetarianism, but has actually ensured that the girl students are not served non-vegetarian meals in their mess while the male students are. He also curtailed the use of the library by all students on the plea that male students used it to watch pornography late at night. Girl students were prevented from using the library inside the Women’s College after 6 pm and a curfew on their movements even between the girls’ hostels was imposed after 8 pm. The vice chancellor, it seems, believes that girls studying at night is immoral.
Tripathi has been active in promoting RSS shakhas and related activities on campus. He says that there is nothing wrong with this since RSS is now running the country. At the same time, all other forms of student activity have been prohibited. Student Union elections have not been held in BHU since 1996 after an incident of bloody violence in which two students were allegedly shot dead by a faculty member. The teachers and staff are also not allowed to form unions or organise elections. This is strange because Tripathi himself was a leader of the Federation of Central University Teachers’ Association. earlier. Debates, workshops, seminars dealing with issues related to democracy, dissent and progressive thought are no longer held on the campus.
The extremely grave charge of appointing a sexual offender as medical superintendent of the Sir Sunderlal Hospital within has also been levelled against Tripathi. O.P. Upadhyay was functioning as medical superintendent for the last couple of years. During the recent turmoil on campus, the vice chancellor found the time to regularise his appointment, riding roughshod over the objections raised by some of his Executive Council members. Upadhyay was convicted after being found guilty of “indecent assault” in an incident that took place on August 25, 2012 when he was serving as advisor to the vice-chancellor of the Fiji National University in Fiji. He returned to India after serving his jail term and was handed the charge of medical superintendent in April 2016. He was granted additional access since he was the most senior chief medical officer in the university.
In his defence, Upadhyay has said “The university had taken legal opinion in my matter and it was decided that the decision of a court abroad does not hold good in our country.”
Under Upadhyay’s watch (as acting medical superintendent) and of course that of the vice chancellor, between June 6 and June 8 this year, more than 14 surgery patients died at the hospital. The Allahabad high court ordered a probe. The July 18 probe report of the UP Food Safety and Drug Administration stated: “It has been found that nitrous oxide of non-pharmacopoeial grade was being used at this hospital. This gas doesn’t come under the category of allowed drugs.” Officials stated that whether the use of the gas – supplied by an Allahabad-based private firm Parerhat Industrial Enterprises – had caused the deaths is still under investigation.
Ashok Bajpai, the firm’s director, has been an elected representative of both the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Today, his son is a BJP MLA. Bajpai, while admitting to non-possession of a licence to produce medical nitrogen oxide, dismissed charges that the gas was the cause of deaths at the BHU hospital. “The same gas is being supplied to hospitals at King George’s Medical University in Lucknow and Motilal Nehru Medical College in Allahabad,” he said.
The vice chancellor had not a word of regret as far as the deaths were concerned. Concern for lives of patients and for the security of women on the campus, for which he bears responsibility, do not seem to weigh heavily on his conscience. This lack of concern was the trigger for the turmoil that over took the campus in the third week of September.
What happened on September 21 was not unusual, but what followed certainly was. A woman student was reportedly subjected to molestation by three men on a bike. Two university guards who were present did nothing and, when she asked them for help, they said that what happened to her was natural considering she was out at night. The incident occurred between 6 and 6:30 pm.
When the girl reached her hostel (Triveni), she complained to her warden, whose response was similar to the guards’. This is a culpable offence under the Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Act, which includes a provision that any person who learns of such an incident must report it to the committee which must be in place. Unfortunately, in BHU both the students and many of the staff members do not even know that such a committee exists on the campus and are ignorant of its functions and authority.
What the girl had endured and the response that she received from those responsible for her safety elicited an angry response from the girls in various hostels. Inappropriate behaviour, obscene remarks, sexist taunts are part of everyday life for them, but what happened that day tipped the scales of their endurance.
At 6 am the following morning, a large number of students trooped out of their hostels and started a dharna in front of the main gate of the BHU. Their only demand was that the vice chancellor should meet them and assure them that their security would be ensured. He refused to do so.
Here again, Malaviya’s approach should be remembered. V.V. Narlikar, a distinguished student, remembers him with these words: “He was to the university more of a guardian angel than a mere vice chancellor. He was accessible to all and he inspired in all those who studied and taught or served on the campus the faith that he was the well-wisher of every one of them.”
The dharna by the girl students lasted 48 hours. When the vice chancellor refused to meet them, they made a public request to the prime minister, who was on a visit to the city, to meet them. He was to have passed the BHU gate on his way to one of his appointments in the city but instead of acceding to the girls’ request, he reportedly changed his route.
What happened after the prime minister left Varanasi on September 23 has brought nothing but shame and dishonour to the BHU and its administration. The police, in large numbers, chased the students sitting on dharna and used force to remove them. They chased girl students into the compound of the women’s college and reportedly used their lathis mercilessly. No women police personnel were present.
I visited the BHU campus on October 4 after it reopened – it had been closed a few days before the Dussehra holiday by the administration. Both the vice chancellor and the chief minister of UP had made statements blaming ‘outsiders’ and ‘anti-nationals’ for whatever had happened and even said that the agitation was a ‘conspiracy’ against the prime minister. It was important to meet at least some of the students and teachers to try and understand what had happened.
I was very fortunate to be able to meet Pratima Gond, a teacher of sociology and warden of a girls’ hostel. She is an extremely honest and courageous person, and she spoke with quiet conviction of what she herself had witnessed and undergone. She said that as a warden, she was extremely concerned about the issues that the girls were raising because she knew that the atmosphere on the campus was very insecure and women-unfriendly. When the agitation started, she did whatever she could to influence the administration to pay heed to the girls’ requests. She was extremely disappointed by the attitude displayed by those in positions of responsibility and, when the vice chancellor made extremely derisive and humiliating remarks about her, she was both incensed and unhappy.
Gond spoke of the long hours that she and other teachers and wardens spent in the hostels in their charge. She recalled the incidents of September 23 night with much anger and said that they could hear the girls screaming when the police removed them forcibly from the gate and started chasing them inside the campus. She said that she herself stood near the gate of the women’s college and saw policemen beating the girls with their lathis while showering them with obscene abuse. Then some of them caught hold of one of the female students and tried to stop her from entering the college gate. Gond came to her rescue and tried to pull her in. The student was being beaten by the policemen and, when Gond tried to protect her by holding her close, she herself was beaten on the head. When she put her hand up to protect her head from further blows, a lathi hit it hard and her finger was broken.
Gond succeeded in dragging the student inside the college campus. Then the policemen shut the gate from the outside with chains. Later on, the student fainted and the gate could not be opened to take her to the hospital. It was only after phone calls were made that an ambulance arrived with several men who sawed the chains and opened the gate. She was taken to the hospital in time for much-needed treatment.
Gond asked me to accompany her to the hostel. Meeting the girls, including the one she had mentioned, was unforgettable and inspiring. So young, so brave, so confident. They told me that without any exceptions, their parents had supported what they did and were horrified by the response of the vice chancellor and the brutality of the police. They said that their experience of administrative apathy, callousness and violence had made them fearless. They would never be afraid of speaking out and fighting back. There is no doubt that the fearlessness that the girls exhibited during and after the agitation, and the brutality to which they were subjected, has created ripples in town, kasbas and villages in eastern UP and Bihar.
The next day, the National Commission for Women visited the campus and met with teachers, students and others. Acting chairperson Rekha Sharma said after the meetings ended on the first day of their visit: “I spoke to many students on the campus and in hostels during my six-hour inquiry. I found that the protest last month was triggered because of resentment simmering for years among female students…We will submit our report in a week, in which we have made recommendations to the university to do away with gender discriminatory practices like different curfew times for women and men staying on the campus. Curfew timings will soon be made uniform…. I have discussed this with the university… Every female student I spoke to said she feels insecure and there is rampant eve-teasing on the campus. I have spoken to the police and the BHU for increasing security personnel and CCTV cameras”. Sharma has recommended that the women students should be served the same food as the men and that the library should be open for 24 hours every day. She used strong language to criticise the actions of the vice chancellor, saying that he was responsible for mishandling the situation. She added, “He repeatedly called police during the two days of protests. I know who called the police to the campus but I do not know who ordered the lathicharge. That is for the police to decide… and also what kind of pressure they were facing when they acted on the spur of the moment.”
The commissioner and DIG, Varanasi have also been asked to submit a report on the BHU happenings. It is learnt that their report also places the responsibility and blame squarely on the vice chancellor.
Despite all this, 1,200 FIRs have been lodged against ‘unknown’ BHU students for rioting, arson and violence. Fourteen named FIRs have also been lodged against male students. Eleven of them contain very serious charges like attempt to murder and possession of arms, along with the earlier-mentioned crimes. Four of them (one student is named in both) concern cyber crime. On the face of it, vindictiveness seems to be the inspiration behind these actions. The vice chancellor and the police have both been held responsible for crimes of omission and commission, but punishment is sought to be meted out to those protesting against sexual molestation and administrative insensitivity. This grave injustice cannot be tolerated.
Meanwhile, the vice chancellor has announced his decision to go on leave. He is now comfortably ensconced in the BHU Guest House and it is believed that he was making appointments almost until his last moments in the Viceregal Lodge.
The peace of the graveyard, however, will never be restored in BHU. The women students, long suppressed and long silent, have discovered the strength of solidarity and united struggle. In a symbolic gesture, two of them shaved their heads during the protest, a ritual that is performed in Hindu society when the head of the family dies and a new head prepares to take his place as master of the home. The brave women students of BHU seem to be telling us that those who forfeited their rights of guardianship by betraying their charge are being replaced in an astonishing and inspiring fashion. Perhaps Malaviya would have approved of this adaptation of ancient ritual.
Subhashini Ali is a former member of parliament from Kanpur and politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).