On Sunday evening, as students of the Banaras Hindu University gathered to mark the anniversary of last year’s campus protests, they were set upon by workers of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student organisation affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. After disrupting a street play put on by the students, a large group of ABVP men barged into the venue for an open mic programme, beating up students, including women, and screaming abuses. They also manhandled Avinash Giri, an independent journalist from Delhi, grabbing him by his collar and pushing him around.

Some of the event’s organisers managed to free Giri, and he immediately ran to a policeman standing across the road from the campus. He was escorted to a nearby police station where he stayed for the next few hours for safety.

“Before the attack, an ABVP man came and asked who I was,” Giri said. “I said I was a journalist. He passed a comment saying I had come from Delhi to smear the name of Madan Mohan Malviya, founder of the BHU. But I carried on with my work.”

Soon after, they assaulted him. “I could see blood in their eyes,” Giri said. “They appeared ready to lynch me.”

The ABVP did not deny attacking Giri, but claimed they “did not know he was a journalist”. “Our activists thought he was someone from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi trying to portray a bad image of the BHU,” said Shashank Singh, an ABVP leader at the university. “Here, we should be given the benefit of the doubt.”

ABVP workers disrupted the street play put on by the students. Photo credit: Siddhant Mohan

As they went around disrupting the commemorations and attacking students, the ABVP workers yelled, “Azaadi mangne waalon ko, joote maro saalon ko” (Kick those who demand freedom) and “BHU me rehna hai to Vande Mataram kehna hai” (If you want to be at BHU, you better sing Vande Mataram).

Singh claimed it was not the ABVP that started the violence. “The event’s organisers abused us first and girls used their nails to injure us,” he alleged. “We are always at the forefront to defend women in our society. Having said that, we can’t allow anti-national ideologies to prosper on the BHU campus.”

The university’s security staff did nothing to protect the students from the attacks. Instead, they pushed all female students into the Women’s College grounds, and closed the gate.

A few students have reported minor injuries and lodged a formal complaint against several ABVP workers at the Lanka police station in Varanasi.

“Women were trying to commemorate their last year’s protest but a group of men did not want the celebration to take place,” said Bharat Bhushan Tiwari, head of the Lanka police station. “The women have accused the men of violence and abuse. We have registered an FIR and will act accordingly.”

As for Giri, the police official said the journalist was “mildly attacked”. “We have received an application from him and we will file a case based on it,” he added.

Students at an event marking the anniversary of last year's campus protests. Photo credit: Siddhant Mohan

Campus is still unsafe’

On September 21, 2017, a visual arts student at the Banaras Hindu University was sexually harassed. She complained to the university’s security staff but they asked her to keep quiet because Prime Minister Narendra Modi was visiting Varanasi the next day. This triggered protests by female students, demanding justice for the victim and suspension of the security staff. The administration did not pay heed to their demands, and the protest grew over the next 40 hours, drawing attention from the national media, until the police used a lathicharge and teargas to break it up.

Avantika Tiwari, an undergraduate at the Women’s College, said the students, especially women, thought that they had “achieved many things” through last year’s protests. “But seeing this behaviour of ABVP men, I can say we were wrong,” she rued. “The campus is still unsafe for women.”