Third-year student Shivangi Chaubey was hoarse from having chanted slogans at the Banaras Hindu University since Friday, but when she finally reached home in Bihar’s Buxar district on Monday, she could not give her voice rest. She had a lot of explaining to do. Her parents had spotted her on television and in photographs published in the newspapers, and had been making frantic calls. “They were insisting I come home and my mother even threatened to send my father to collect me,” said the English Honours student.

As it turns out, the university administration forced Chaubey and the other protestors off campus by advancing the start of Dussehra holidays by three days to September 25 and closing the hostels.

Once Chaubey reached Buxar, she sat down with her parents and recounted the events on the campus that had put hundreds of women students, including her, in the news. The trouble began on Thursday evening, when a student returning to the hostel was sexually harassed by three men on motorcycles. Instead of supporting the student, the university administration asked her why she was returning late. This prompted women students to begin a protest at 6 am on Friday.

As the protest continued late into the night and on Saturday they faced several rounds of lathicharge by the police. On Monday, the police filed a First Information Report against 1,000 students. Chaubey told her parents she was “almost sure” she would feature on any list of protesting students that the university or the police draws up.

Her parents, a businessman and a homemaker, reacted the way families of dozens of protesting students did – they supported the demand for safety measures but urged their daughter to be cautious and advised her against “being at the forefront”.

Students protest against the Banaras Hindu University’s handling of a sexual harassment complaint. Photo credit: PTI.

Banaras Hindu University’s students come from across North India, with a large section from small towns and even villages of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan. Once news of the police action spread, dozens of students were summoned home.

Smriti Mishra, who is studying for a masters degree in library science, was told by her mother to stop the “netagiri” (behaving like a leader). Her family lives in Varanasi. Her father is a cashier in a transport company and her mother is a homemaker. “We sent our daughter to the hostel so she can focus on her studies, not so she can create a ruckus,” said Suman Mishra, Smriti’s mother. But she was sympathetic to the cause of the young women: safety on the campus. “Students did the right thing by speaking up,” she said.

Smriti Mishra was told by her mother not to create a ruckus. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury.

Historic protests, conflicted families

While the university has seen protests by women students in the past, the scale and intensity of the recent protest was historic, said Chaubey. Families that may have otherwise hesitated to endorse marathon protests by young women were swayed by the molestation and lathicharge. They agreed their daughters’ cause for protest was just.

“This was the first time I protested in BHU and my parents are proud that I did,” said Himanshi Singh, who is studying for a master’s degree in mass communication at Banaras Hindu University. Her father is a retired bank employee and her mother is a homemaker. Singh was unable to get back home to Aligarh after the university was shut. She stayed back with a friend, Shweta Gehlot in Varanasi. The daughter of a farmer and an anganwadi worker, Gehlot said she had the “full support” of her parents.

But, she added: “They did tell me to be careful.”

Students of ABVP protest against violence at BHU on Monday. Photo credit: Sonu Mehta/HT Photo.

Shyam Mishra, a taxi driver, has ferried dozens of students from the university campus to the station, airport and other parts of the district since the beginning of the lafra, or trouble. With two young women from his extended family starting college at Banaras Hindu University this year, he best expressed the conflicting impulses that most families were experiencing: “Parents sending their daughters are concerned about their safety and want the university to be held accountable for what happened. But girls should not hold constant protests either. If they enter their hostels on time, everything will be fine.”

Girls who stay out late

This wasn’t the first time in recent months that the university’s women students had demonstrated for their rights. In March and April, students from the five hostels in Banaras Hindu University’s Mahila Maha Vidyalaya, the college for women, had protested against alleged gender discrimination by the authorities, especially the early curfew timings in women’s hostels. The protesters had argued that girls should be allowed free movement like the male students.

At home, however, the young women did not talk about this demand. “My parents would not agree to that,” admitted Chaubey.

BHU Vice Chancellor Girish Chandra Tripathi talks to the media after a meeting in New Delhi on Tuesday. Photo credit: Shirish Shete/PTI.

It wasn’t just some older people who are wary of the protests. There has been criticism even from a small section of students within the university, said Smriti Mishra. “They said we were girls who stayed out late, suggesting we are bad and they are good,” alleged Mishra. When she used the hostel’s public announcement system to call boarders to the protest, she was accused of “wanting publicity and to boss others”.

When the protest spilled out of the university campus, onto the road in the Lanka area of Varanasi, some men whom the students did not recognise shouted at them and asked them to go back into their hostels, she added.

Priyesh Pandey, a student who overheard the discussions among the men, said the “conservative type” among the local residents argued that girls “dressing like that” were responsible for the molestation.

Said Mishra: “That is also why, [law student] Ekta Singh, who led us, said we should come out wearing whatever we wanted to because attire has nothing to do with harassment. The student who was attacked was in kurta and leggings.”

Security beefed up outside the Banaras Hindu University after police lathicharged the students while they were agitating against the molestation of a student inside the campus. Photo credit: IANS.

Unsafe campus

A key demand of the students was better lighting in public spaces. The main road from Lanka into the Banaras Hindu University campus, through Lanka Gate, is used as a thoroughfare by local residents. On Tuesday evening, it was busy and crawling with police, despite many students having left for home. But the roads branching out from this artery were empty.

The Faculty Road was lit up but only because it has a Durga puja pandal on it. The road in front of the Bharat Kala Bhawan, where the fine arts student was molested last Thursday, had street lights only on one side. The parks on the campus are so dark that Pandey and a group of protesters hid in Madhuban Lawn on Faculty Road for hours after Friday’s lathicharge.

So far, no one has been to identify the three men who attacked the student – no one knows whether they were students or outsiders. There is no internal complaints committee – beyond the proctorial board – dedicated to investigating cases of sexual harassment on campus and no student union to represent students before the authorities.

Parents of many undergraduates, said a second-year Hindi Honours student from Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, have cancelled the tickets for their return to the university, waiting for “things to calm down first”.

The road in front of Bharat Kala Bhawan at 6 pm on Tuesday. This is where the molestation happened. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury.