A 52-hour demonstration by women students of Banaras Hindu University that started on Friday against the molestation of a fellow student on campus has invariably invited comparisons with last year’s high-profile student movements at the Hyderabad Central University and New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. But when it comes to the role of teachers at the Varanasi institute, the comparison doesn’t hold.

When Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and other student leaders of Jawaharlal Nehru University were arrested in February 2016 on sedition charges, after organising a programme that allegedly honoured Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru, the teachers’ association had stood by their students to protest the police action. The same month, Delhi University teachers marched alongside students protesting the withdrawal of a seminar invitation to Khalid by the authorities at Ramjas College, allegedly under pressure from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The month before that, in January 2016, some teachers of Hyderabad Central University had been arrested along with students for agitating against the suicide of Dalit researcher Rohith Vemula. Vemula had killed himself after a chain of events that began with him allegedly being assaulted by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Before his death, he had spoken out about facing discrimination at the university because of his caste.

By contrast, the teachers of Banaras Hindu University have been resolutely silent, even after the police lathi-charged the protesting students on Saturday – an action that has been widely condemned.

So when retired Hindi professor Baliraj Pandey and Binda Paranjape, who teaches history, left the Vishwanath temple on campus on Wednesday after attending a television programme about the protests, students thanked them profusely. “No teacher was willing to speak for us,” said Preeti Kumari, a researcher in the Hindi department.

Paranjape was the only serving faculty member Scroll.in spoke with who allowed her name to be published, even though many teachers were deeply critical of what they called the university’s restrictive environment and autocratic administration. They attributed the silence of their colleagues to the absence of a union, rules forbidding collective action and a fear of retributive action, such as the denial of promotions, by the administration. Paranjape said that on Tuesday, around 15 teachers from various social science departments met to draft a letter to President Ram Nath Kovind, who is the Visitor of the university, “asking for democratic space” – unions for teachers and students.

But some said that the teachers had given up showing any resistance to the administration long before GC Tripathi took charge as vice-chancellor in 2015.

History professor Binda Paranjape and Baliraj Pandey, who retired from the Hindi department in 2015, at the Vishwanath temple on the Banaras Hindu University campus on Wednesday. (Credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury)

No unions to fight their wars

The Banaras Hindu University has not had a students’ union since theirs was banned in 1997 following violence during elections that left two dead.

The Banaras Hindu University Teachers’ Association, too, has been defunct since around 2002, apparently after its last president turned against the teachers after being passed up for a promotion. “When one of their own betrayed them, the teachers’ movement broke down completely,” said Pandey.

An attempt to revive it some six years ago failed to take off. The teachers had gone too long without a union and were indifferent, while there was no support from the administration. “According to BHUTA’s [Banaras Hindu University Teachers’ Association] constitution, the V-C [vice-chancellor] is supposed to be the patron but [DP Singh, who held the post then] refused,” said Paranjape, who was an active member of the Mumbai University College Teachers’ Union before joining the Varanasi institute. “Without a union, there is no forum for dialogue. The administration will talk only to the teachers or students it likes.”

The university’s two statutory bodies, the academic and executive councils – which make all major decisions related to appointments, courses and fees, among others – have no elected representatives from among the teachers. Practically all the institute’s committees and bodies, including that for grievance redressal, have nominated members.

This has convinced the majority of teachers that they are not allowed to organise because they are governed by “central civil services rules” – the same code that applies to officers of the Indian Administrative Service.

A teacher in the department of philosophy and religion said, “We are not allowed to hold press conferences, cannot criticise the government or the university administration or make joint representations to the vice-chancellor.”

Paranjape, however, said that while the university regulations unequivocally say the central civil service rules are applicable to non-teaching staff, they are ambiguous when it comes to teaching staff. This had prompted her to seek legal advice on the matter.

Pandey, who headed the Hindi department, added that newly recruited teachers are made to sign undertakings that essentially mandate their silence and say that “disciplinary action” may be taken against them if they do not comply.

The BHU ethos

Paranjape admitted that real punitive action is rare. However, the administration’s strategy is to wear down its critics, she added. She claimed she had once been overlooked for a promotion to the position of head of department. Another teacher from the history department said that disapproval was showing by withholding grants or rejecting requests for venues to be used for seminars.

Teachers also spoke of a restrictive campus environment. Paranjape said she “suffered a culture shock” when she arrived in Banaras Hindu University from Mumbai in 2004. She said male colleagues openly commented about her living alone on campus – her husband and son were in Bhubaneswar at the time.

The philosophy teacher said, “Our department has 19 teachers and only one of them is a woman.”

Another faculty member from the history department said only about 20% of teachers in the social sciences are women – and that this was an improvement from when he joined the university in the late 1990s. “A political science teacher, recognised on campus as a feminist, thinks Manusmriti is greater than the Constitution,” he remarked, referring to an ancient Hindu legal text criticised by many for its regressive views about women.

The philosophy teacher also said teachers from marginalised castes and classes “feel suffocated” in the university. “The BHU ethos is Brahminical, dominated by the upper castes, and excludes the others,” the faculty member, who is a Dalit, said. “Most here are casteist, misogynistic and against Muslims.”

The teacher added that reservations for Scheduled Castes, Tribes and Other Backward Classes in admissions and recruitment have helped but the 200-odd teachers employed under this category are constantly reminded of this. They get the bulk of early morning classes and invigilation duty, he alleged. “Even those who profess to be progressive in their politics are deeply conservative in their private and social lives,” he added.

A senior teacher said that in the absence of open activism through groups publicly holding diverse views, the teachers push their demands by forming cliques. This method of manipulating the administrative machinery through carefully cultivated friendships among heads of department, deans and other officials has made solidarity among teachers almost impossible. “You cannot get anything done without joining some group,” said the teacher. This person added that that these groups are often formed along caste lines.

A candle light vigil condemning the police lathicharge at Banaras Hindu University in New Delhi on Tuesday. The actions of the police and the university administration have been widely criticised. (Credit: PTI)

Unilateral and hierarchical

The signal comes from the top, the teacher said, adding that the university suffers from a “semi-feudal, semi-colonial hangover”.

He said, “Everyone here is obsessed with power and hierarchies are sacrosanct. Decisions are often taken unilaterally and from the top.”

Paranjape said she could attest to this – two of her department council’s decisions had been overturned by the university’s executive council.

The environment has left teachers feeling pessimistic, and not quite sure that reviving the union will solve the university’s problems.

The senior teacher said, “The last union president saw himself as the teachers’ boss and not their elected representative. He continued to use the union’s letter-head long after the union itself had ceased to exist.”

He added that a change would only come about if Banaras Hindu University got “a V-C [vice-chancellor] with a spine and who is himself democratic”.