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BHU struggles to retain safe campus tag after sexual harassment incidents

While the BHU authorities have stepped up security after incidents of sexual harassment over the last few years, women students say this will only lead to a loss of freedom.

india Updated: Dec 04, 2017 11:07 IST
Sudhir Kumar
Sudhir Kumar
Hindustan Times, Varanasi
BHU,banaras hindu university,BHU sexual harassment case
BHU students protest against the molestation of a student inside the campus in Varanasi.(PTI File Photo)

More than two months after an unprecedented students’ protest against sexual violence shook the century-old Banaras Hindu University (BHU), a security overdrive meant to ensure the safety of female students is instead making them feel claustrophobic.

Founded in 1916, BHU was considered to be one of the safest campuses for girls. That seems to be history now.

Old-timers say harassment of girls on campus was unheard of.

“BHU was completely safe for girls till 2000. Even after that, incidents of boys passing comments at girls occurred once or twice in a year,” said Sudama Tiwari, a former BHU student and a poet who has been watching BHU closely since the early 1960s.

Tiwari, who is in his late 70s, couldn’t recall any incident of sexual harassment or violence before 2000.

“The situation has recently gone from bad to worse. I think the cultural transformation has led to these unsavoury incidents,” he said.

Prof Chandrakala Tripathi, who studied at BHU in the early 1970s and joined the Hindi department as a professor in 1978, said she never felt unsafe during her student days.

Steps taken after incidents of assault
2 cases of sexual harassment, another incident of assault on a girl in the past one year
26 Women’s grievance cell (WGC), BHU, received 26 complaints over the last year
70 CCTV cameras installed across the BHU campus
THREE QUICK response teams also formed

“I was a student in the ’70s and joined BHU as a faculty in 1978. As a student, I often used to go to the library. I never felt the lack of security and safety on campus,” she said. “The incidents that have occurred in the recent past were beyond imagination in those days. Whatever happened in the recent past was a result of a clash of ideologies.”

But she insists the university is still a safe place for women. “So far as girls’ security is concerned, BHU is a safe place. The picture is not as bleak as painted by a section of media,” she said.

Sukhdev Prasad Mishra, a violinist who studied at BHU till 2004, said even before 2000, there were sufficient numbers of girls at the university but they never had security concerns.

“Deterioration started in 2000 and the situation completely changed after 2005. Incidents of clashes between student groups were reported on the campus,” Mishra said.

The September Assault

The assault in September by two motorcycle-borne on a girl returning to her hostel sparked off a protest demanding action against the accused.

The protesters, mostly girls, were caned by male police personnel on September 23, which sparked nationwide outrage and put the spotlight on the lack of security for women at BHU.

The two men are yet to be arrested.

“Investigation is on and we are trying to identify the accused. They will be arrested soon,” said station officer, Lanka, Sanjiv Mishra.

The slow pace of the investigation has earned the police the girls’ derision. “The accused should have been behind bars by now. It has been two months and they have not been identified yet. This exposes the sluggish pace of investigation,” Shivani Chaubey, a student, said.

Two incidents of sexual harassment and an assault on a girl by a male student have taken place in the span of a year. While the accused in the assault case were arrested, the perpetrators of sexual harassment are still at large.

On October 5, a student of public administration, Sheetala Sharan Gond, allegedly dragged a woman student by her hair, slapped her and smashed her mobile phone after she refused to talk to him. He was arrested within a few hours of the incident and was suspended by university authorities.

On October 25, a girl alleged that a third-year student of Bachelor in Ayurvedic Medicines and Surgery (BAMS), Kali Charan, indulged in obscene discussions and activities with her when she went to the outdoor patient unit of the Ayurveda department at Sir Sundar Lal Hospital, BHU.

She lodged a complaint with chief proctor, Professor Royna Singh, who immediately referred the matter to police who arrested the accused.

Enhanced security or stifling rules?

Following the condemnation of the police crackdown on protesters, the BHU administration decided to bolster campus security.

The administration installed 70 surveillance cameras, halogen lamps at 15 locations on roads leading to the girls’ hostels, and constituted an all-woman security squad.

In a first, the university also appointed Prof Royana Singh as the first woman chief proctor of BHU.

But the girls are not impressed. They claim the university is imposing stifling rules and restrictions on them in the name of security.

“What is being portrayed outside and what is actually done are two different things. The desired relaxation in ‘curfew timings’ (the duration when girls are not allowed to venture out of hostels) is yet to be enforced. We demanded relaxation till 10pm but the university administration extended it till 9pm. The deadline is 10pm only for the inmates of Triveni Hostel,” a student said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Girls have been pitching for the constitution of a gender sensitisation committee against sexual harassment (GS-CASH). A group of girls, led by student Mineshi Mishra, recently submitted a memorandum signed by 400 students to the chief proctor to press for the constitution of GS-CASH.

“After the September 23 incident, the university authorities have become very strict with girls. They are imposing new restrictions on us in the name of security,” Mishra said.

“They don’t allow relatives, male students and acquaintances to sit even for a while in the visiting area of hostels. Will the university administration decide whom should we meet?” she asked.

No ‘curfew’

Prof Singh rubbished the girls’ allegations of ‘curfew’ as baseless and insisted that the university’s gates were closed at 10pm for security reasons and to keep external elements away from the campus during the night.

“There is no ‘curfew’ but all girls are supposed to return to their hostels by 8pm. In case any girl wants to go out after 8pm, she needs to seek permission from the hostel warden and give a reason. Permission is immediately granted if the reason is genuine,” Prof Singh said, adding that the timings had been relaxed by an hour to 9pm.

The university has found some support on security steps from a former employee.

“This is a matter of great concern. These external elements should be dealt with sternly,” said Vishwanath Pandey, former public relations officer of BHU. Prof Singh added she would speak to BHU registrar Neeraj Tripathi (who holds the additional charge of vice-chancellor) to ensure formation of university-level GS-CASH.

Campus secure, says BHU

The chief proctor says the security has been tightened to ensure the girls’ safety.

“Three quick response teams (QRTs) have been formed and patrolling has been intensified, which is monitored round-the-clock through a central monitoring system,” she said.

QRTs promptly respond to the incident and reach the spot within five minutes. Surprise checking is carried out during the night and strict action is taken if any outsider is caught on the campus.

In the last year, the women’s grievance cell (WGC), BHU, received about 26 complaints related to lewd remarks, taunting, humiliating comments and intentional targeting between November 2016 and November 2017, a well-placed source told HT.

“As soon as a complaint is lodged, we ensure the probe is completed within four days. The complainant and the accused are summoned and the matter is heard. Appropriate action is taken after the probe,” said Prof Singh, who also heads the WGC.

“We do not hesitate in referring a matter to police if the situation warrants. Action was taken on all 26 complaints,” she said.

First Published: Dec 04, 2017 07:55 IST