Another university has been overwhelmed by student protests against hostel curfews and restrictive library timings. Students of Hidayatullah National Law University in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, have been protesting since the night of August 27.

Their protest follows in the footsteps of a campaign for equal rights for women in university residences and other campus spaces initiated by the students’ collective Pinjra Tod, or break the cage, in Delhi in 2015. Such campaigns have since made appearances in various campuses across India. At the law school in Raipur, students first raised demands to lift hostel and library curfews in March 2017.

“We are demanding a library that remains open 24 hours,” said Swati Bhargava, a fourth-year student and vice-president of the Student Bar Association. “Our library closes at 10 pm on weekdays, 5 pm on weekends and does not open at all on holidays. The information technology laboratory follows the same schedule. This makes things difficult for us.”

The hostel curfew is 10.30 pm, for both men and women. The law school is fully residential with about 1,000 students on campus. It was set up by the Chhattisgarh government and receives Central assistance under the University Grants Commission Act.

With their petitions to the university administration having gone unheard, students said they “checked out” of their hostels at 10.15 pm on August 27, 15 minutes before curfew, and began a sit-in protest at the main gate. No classes were held till August 29. The students returned to the classrooms on August 30 but the protests have continued simultaneously. They plan to go on hunger strike from Wednesday if their demands are not met.

Although access to hostels and the library at all hours remains their primary demand, the students have a long list of grievances. They have accused some teachers of sexual harassment, hostel wardens of harassment and the university administration of mismanaging state grants meant to fund student participation in moot court competitions.

Fourth-year student Akansh Jain said student anger had been simmering for long but erupted on August 27 when the Chhattisgarh High Court quashed the extension of tenure by which Vice-Chancellor Sukhpal Singh had been holding office. “We thought that since the High Court itself has removed him, we have every right to protest,” Jain said.

Following the court’s decision, Singh was removed and an interim vice-chancellor – RS Sharma, who is the state’s principal secretary, law – appointed on August 29. Students have had two meetings with him without any breakthrough and are set to meet him again on Wednesday evening.

The protests seem to have caught the university administration unawares. Acting registrar Ayan Hazra said “everything was going smoothly and classes were held even till the afternoon [of August 27]”.

Hazra’s account of what led to the protests is different from that of the students. He said the administration received “just a verbal communication” from students last year regarding library timings and that “nobody followed it up”. He also said the university has a sexual harassment committee and that “since 2003, not a single complaint has been filed”.

‘Please don’t harass us’

However, students say they are routinely harassed by wardens, teachers and administration officials and the university’s response to complaints has dissuaded them from speaking out so far. “Earlier, if a student protested, a proctorial notice would be issued by evening and by night, the student could be suspended,” said Jain. “Nobody had the guts to say anything.”

Bhargava agreed, summing up the students’ main demands as: “Please don’t harass us and let us use the library.”

Countering Hazra’s statement on sexual harassment cases, Jain alleged teachers often made off-colour, sexist comments and that committees tasked with hearing complaints included the accused or their friends. He also said viva-voce interviews with women students lasted longer than those with male students.

On August 28, the Student Bar Association circulated 180 blank pages among protesting students, asking them to write down their experiences. “We received 78 complaints – 22 of them from students who gave their names,” said Jain.

He also said that in July, a second-year student had submitted a written complaint to the vice-chancellor accusing a teacher of asking her to dance in his cabin and promising to mark her present for five classes in exchange. No action was taken on her complaint, Jain said.

The students accuse teachers and wardens of using attendance as a tool against them. “If we return to our hostel even a minute late, our parents are called,” said Bhargava. “Then, one week before the protests, the warden asked us to sign blank sheets of paper so that our signatures in the hostel attendance registers could be verified against them. She threatened that we would be marked absent, that notices will be issued.”

Students who are marked absent for three consecutive days are fined. Those who have been served show-cause notices and have had proctorial inquiries instituted against them are not eligible for gold medals. Since faculty members also serve as hostel wardens, students allege that disagreements in the hostel are carried into the classroom and students are deliberately graded low. A final-year student said the university has changed attendance rules without formally notifying the changes. Students are now required to obtain prior approval of leave even on medical grounds, she said.

But Hazra, the registrar, dismissed the allegations as “hearsay”. He said, “I have asked them to give me the exact complaint that we could inquire into but the students have not so far. Verbal complaints will not stand up.”

There are also grievances regarding grants and funds. A final-year student, who was part of the previous Student Bar Association, said the university issued a notice in August 2017 saying funds will no longer be available for students to attend moot court competitions. But when members of the current association checked with the principal secretary, law, in January, they were told the state had “already disbursed Rs 60 lakh”.

Hazra explained that the notification was issued because the funds had been delayed.

The student, who did not want to be identified, also accused the administration of dissolving the previous association just seven months after it had been elected to office. “This happened because our demands had increased – this is the way they deal with us,” the student said. “The administration has not even ratified our constitution.”

Students say the protests will continue till their demands are met (Credit: Akansh Jain)

Organised protest

Protests aside, the students are compiling accounts of harassment and studying the rules of the insitution to make their case stronger.

They have shared three Google sheets online where students can put in complaints of harassment and sexual harassment against faculty members and hostel wardens. “Every night, we work on proper drafts,” said Bhargava.

The students have also organised themselves into various teams to study the rules and regulations governing their university as well as the University Grants Commission guidelines, Bar Council of India rules and other legal provisions.

Another set of students is tasked with speaking to the press, yet another handles appointments with state authorities, and a third deals with the support pouring in from politicians, student organisations and law campuses across the country. National law universities in Bengaluru, Kolkata, Jodhpur and Hyderabad, for instance, have expressed solidarity with the protests at Hidayatullah National Law University.

Speaking for the administration, Hazra said, “There should be a proper forum to discuss these things.” He added, “The [High Court] order quashed the extension [of the previous vice-chancellor’s term] and all of a sudden the protests began. The university is sensitive to all these matters.”

On the main demand of lifting the hostel curfew, he said: “Let the parents decide.” He added, “They [parents] have given us responsibility for five years so they should write to us and we will change. If 90% parents are okay with it, we will do it.”