9 October 2017

The Securing of Freedom

My Mirror column:

Young women on campuses are waging a war against inequality, most recently seen in the events at BHU. Bina Paul’s documentary tracks the battle in Kerala.

A still from Bina Paul's The Sound of Silence, which confirms the findings of the Samaagati Report on the gender injustices in Kerala's campuses
As with most events in India these days, what you think of last week’s protests at the 100-year-old Banaras Hindu University (BHU) might vary widely based on your age, location and gender, not to mention what sources you get your news from. But I shall quickly summarise the events as I understand them to have unfolded: on 21 September, a student of BHU’s Arts faculty was allegedly harassed by three motorcycle-borne men inside the BHU campus when she was returning to the Triveni Hostel. The student alleged that when she reported the incident to the hostel warden, instead of raising the matter with university authorities, the warden wanted to know why she was out ‘so late’. The incident of molestation and the response of the authorities —callous about the security concerns of its women students while marshalling the force of moral judgement against them — triggered a massive protest three days later.

The women students were calling for better security and better lighting while also protesting the unequal treatment long being meted out to them — from much earlier curfews and lack of WiFi, to the denial of non-vegetarian food in women’s hostels. But the Vice-Chancellor, Girish Chandra Tripathi, instead of recognizing the grievances as legitimate, called in the police to violently disperse the protest, hinted at the involvement of ‘anti-national’ elements and cut off water and power supply to hostels last Sunday. The university was then shut down three days in advance of the scheduled Dussehra vacation.

Some damage-control measures have since kicked in, with a woman being appointed as the university’s first female Proctor, and the possibility being floated that the Vice-Chancellor, who is due to retire in end-November, might be asked to go on leave. An Additional City Magistrate and two of the police officials who led the lathi-charge have been suspended. But an FIR has also been filed against hundreds of unidentified students of BHU.

Meanwhile, the V-C has been recorded asking students why they brought “dishonour to the university” by protesting, and whether they thought it right to “have taken a girl’s honour and gone into the market with it” [“Ek ladki ki izzat bazaar mein leke nikle tum log. Yeh sahi hai?].

It is not surprising to learn that Tripathi is a proud sympathiser of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a man who when asked by a Youth ki Awaz journalist last year what the university meant by instructing female students to wear ‘appropriate clothing’, responded, “Don’t think like a journalist, think like a father. Think of what ‘appropriate clothes’ would mean to a father.” It does not seem a coincidence, either, that these events are unfolding in Uttar Pradesh, a state in which the discourse of women’s safety has such enormous valence that practically the first measure adopted by Adityanath’s government was to institute ‘anti-Romeo squads’ to ‘save’ women from sexual harassment in public places.

But just a week before things at BHU came to a head, I happened to watch a thoughtful documentary about female students in a state usually perceived to be as different from UP as is possible: Kerala. Directed by Bina Paul, wellknown film editor and long-time curator of the International Film Festival of Kerala, The Sound of Silence is centred on the findings of 2015’s Samaagati Report, on the state of gender issues on college campuses in Kerala. Speaking after a screening in Delhi, Paul said, “My starting point was... how does a place with such high indices... on women’s education... stay so gender-unjust?”

Patriarchy clearly unites left and right, with establishments across the political spectrum using fear and ‘honour’ to police women’s freedoms. In Paul’s film, we meet women students from a variety of Kerala colleges and universities, and again and again we hear of how they are silenced with statements that VC Tripathi would no doubt approve. If a female student wants to go out to buy something at 6pm, she is told “Don’t you know it’s dangerous? Why are you inviting danger?” Boys can roam around their campus until 6 or 8 or even 10pm, but girls will be told to go back into their rooms even at 4.30pm. So why do female students accept unequal status on mixed campuses? Why do they not protest the prison-like conditions of most all-women campuses? Paul interviews a psychologist who offers this depressing insight: “For the girls, since they are used to confined spaces, whether in the family or in public, with little freedom, they don’t find it surprising or different when it happens within the campus. They’re used to it.”

Like our families and communities, the Indian university has long been telling women that they alone must be responsible for their own security: ‘boys will be boys’, so it is girls who must be careful.

As is standard in patriarchal discourse, freedom here is pitted against security: if you want one, the message goes, you better give up on the other.

But of course, as both Paul’s film and BHU women’s experience shows, the curtailment of liberties is no guarantor to safety. As more and more young women realize that they have a right to both, the era of that supposed trade-off might well be coming to a close.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 2 Oct 2017.

No comments: