Protests have again erupted at Benares Hindu University. On the watch of an administration accused of policing women instead of taking concrete steps for their safety, a student was molested on the way to her hostel on Thursday.

It was about 6 pm and still light outside when two men on a motorcycle approached the first-year fine arts student. She was close to Bharat Kala Bhawan, a museum on the campus, and has alleged that security guards posted at its gate were close enough to hear her scream but did not intervene.

When the young woman complained, fellow students alleged, she was asked why she had not been in her hostel, Triveni, already. She was allegedly also asked by an official if “they only touched her”, implying she had overreacted. The chief proctor, ON Singh, confirmed he had received a complaint of molestation and will involve the police, but denied all other allegations. “The guards said they did not hear anything and no one asked [the student] what she was doing outdoors,” he said.

The incident and the officials’ alleged insensitivity has angered the students, who have been accusing the university’s authorities of gender discrimination. On Friday morning, over 200 students, male and female, protested against the administration for allegedly failing to ensure the safety of women students and instead punishing them through stringent regulations. The protest continued well into the evening.

“Some officials have threatened to advance the late-entry time to 6 pm,” said Smriti Mishra, a final year MA student of library science who stays in Triveni hostel. Currently, the hostel’s residents have a 7.45 pm curfew although “late entry” is permitted till 8 pm. Residents entering late often risk being expelled, Mishra said. For men, in contrast, entry is officially permitted until 10 pm, but recently graduated Roshan Pandey said the rule is not enforced strictly. On Friday, both Mishra and Pandey alleged that the university authorities kept many women from leaving their hostels to join the protest.

Singh denied this. “It could be because the prime minister [Narendra Modi] will be in town today and will travel past BHU,” he said. “There are many policemen here too.”

More than 200 students protested Friday morning. Photo credit: Roshan Pandey

Common practice

Last year, Benaras Hindu University students joined the campaign for equal rights for women in student residences and university spaces initiated by Pinjra Tod, or break the cage. Pinjra Tod was started by a group of women students mainly from Delhi University in 2015. Since then, students in Delhi, Mumbai, Patiala, Lucknow, Aligarh, Roorkee and elsewhere have demanded their institutions abolish the practice of fixing different curfew timings for men and women, which, in turn, means unequal access to library and other facilities. Libraries typically remain open long after classes end but a hostel curfew restricts access for women. Pinjra Tod has fought the imposition of dress codes, high hostel fees and, most significantly, the “infantalisation of women adults” by paternalistic institutions, of which Benaras Hindu University is considered a prime example.

In this university, students and administration have been in conflict since May 2016. It started with the students’ demand that their cyber library be turned back into the 24-hour establishment it was until November 2014. That would have meant little for women students corralled in their rooms by late evening. The administration doubled down instead, calling the police, suspending students and banning protests.

In March-April this year, protests erupted against the curfew and moral policing on the campus. On April 26, eight students, some of whom have now graduated, moved the Supreme Court. “We sought gender justice and freedom of speech on campus,” said Roshan Pandey, one of the petitioners. The next hearing is in November.

No security

“The university cites safety as an excuse to keep women locked up in their hostels but clearly it cannot assure safety any time of the day,” said Pandey.

“The real problem is that no one is bothered about safety at all,” Mishra added. “No one thought of taking down the registration number of the motorcycle and it was a student of performing arts who helped the woman and informed others.”

Mishra and Singh both said the woman had agreed to file a First Information Report but the process could not be completed at night because she had forgotten to sign her complaint letter and put in her address.

“We were told about this during the hostel checking yesterday and held a meeting about this,” Singh said. “The students also submitted a set of demands. We were going to look into them but today students are protesting.”