Posted by Rukma Prince
On November 10, 2017, students of the University of Hyderabad gathered to protest the suspension of 10 students of the University on November 8th on grounds of misconduct during a ‘raid’ in one of the men’s hostels.
Gathered next to the bust of Rohith Vemula whose suicide in January 2016 had sparked a much-needed dialogue about discriminative practices on Indian campuses and the unchecked powers of university officials, the students raised slogans demanding that the suspension order be revoked.
The campus lies in the gloom of an Orwellian notice issued by the Registrar authorizing the Chief Security Officer on campus to “Take photographs of the activities, videographing of events, …, questioning suspected activity, inspection of hostel rooms/play grounds/open areas of campus on suspicious grounds..” The protest adds to the conversation about instances of moral policing in campuses across the country and the tactics of intimidation that university administrations resort to to ensure compliance with arbitrary codes of conduct.
A Timeline of Events
27th October: Show-cause notice issued to Pratyush Nirjher by the Warden of Men’s Hostel J & K, asking him to explain why “[w]e found one lady in your room” the previous day.
2nd November: Pratyush submits a letter of explanation as demanded by the Warden, also raising some important questions about the validity of the hostel rule book and the Warden’s enquiry. The letter has not been responded to by the Warden till date.
3rd November: ‘Surprise raid’ is conducted by a group of 12 people consisting of professors, wardens and security personnel at around 11:40 pm on Pratyush’s room. Pratyush and Athira Unni, the female student whose presence is the reason for their discomfort, are demanded to turn in their ID cards. Sexist remarks are directed at Athira by an allegedly inebriated member of the raid team (a warden and professor) when the duo challenge the late-night ‘official visit’. They are soon joined by other students who voice their displeasure at the raid by sloganeering. This internal matter of the university is blown out of proportion when the raid team calls the Hyderabad police to the scene.
4th November: Notice issued by the Controller of Examinations requesting a list of 12 students to present themselves before an enquiry committee to provide their depositions against charges of ‘misbehaviour and manhandling of Wardens’.
5th November: 11 students are called to depose once again.
8th November: Order issued by the Registrar suspending 3 students for two years and 7 students for six months from their academic programmes on charges of verbal assault, physical intimidation and preventing officials for delivering their duties. All 10 students are suspended from the hostels for life. Among the suspended is a student representative of the UoH GSCASH (Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment) who complained against the sexist nature of the investigation.
10th November: UoH Students’ Union leads protest against the undemocratic suspension of 10 students.
The ‘raid’ took place in the night of November 3rd, and the university displayed uncharacteristic speed in constituting an enquiry committee, conducting the enquiry and issuing the sentence by November 8th (after working overtime on a weekend). The importance attached to this ‘misconduct’ is clearly paramount, trumping all other issues that the Offices of the Vice-Chancellor, Chief Warden and Deputy Chief Warden have to deal with. The most common excuse that any student of this university is meted out when something needs fixing is that the “Paperwork is being processed” – The Ladies’ Hostel 9, housing research scholars, has not had proper internet connectivity for the past three and a half months and its remedy, even after repeated enquiry, is still on paper.
The priority given to the non-issue at MH-J over pertinent issues that all of the student body has to battle every day, the university has made it clear that it has complete disregard for the academic and personal growth of the student community. Thus, the what-we-do-is-for-your-own-good argument that such patronising patriarchal forces continue to use falls on its face. The motives for punishing the ten students over the incident at MH-J is simply an instance of policing their actions and bodies to ensure that they do not go against the moral code of conduct established by the Sangh-patriarchal nexus.
By suspending the students who dared to voice dissent against the arbitrary enforcement of this moral code, the administration sends out a message as clear as George W. Bush’s proclamation of “You’re either with us, or against us” in the days following the 9/11 attacks. The students are being treated as criminals, and those who fight for their rights to a fair trial are personally attacked. Athira Unni, final year MA student in the Department of Sociology and one of the students facing suspension for two years had this to say:
“This is nothing but the individual targeting and witch-hunting of the dissenting voices by the administration. It is first time in the history of HCU that a female student gets this severe a punishment. Women challenging the admin’s attempts to preserve and reproduce the patriarchal-brahmanical rules infuriate them and this has led to the targeted witch-hunting of opposition, especially women. The suspension of Tinanjali (GSCASH representative) is a direct attack on an institution that stands for gender equality and its agency. This is not an isolated incident, and similar instances of repressions are happening all over the country, from the struggle in JNU against ICC [Internal Complaints Committee] and dismantling of GSCASH, the BHU protests, and the protests in SRFTI.”
In such situations, what lies waiting to be read between the lines is as important as the obvious facts. What are the implications of a woman being ‘found’ in a men’s hostel, like one finds a pebble in one’s shoe? Ben Johnson famously said, “Language reveals the man. Speak that I may see“, and the language used by the administration clearly reveals the ugly face of misogyny. Try replacing the word “woman” with alcohol or drugs, and the sentence would make perfect sense.
The woman is referred to in a way that conveys that she is an object as inanimate and voiceless as the pebble in your shoe, to be taken out and flung aside without consequence. By ‘finding’ her, it is implied that she was lost to begin with, and requires help getting back on track. By treating her as a mere piece of evidence to prove a ‘crime’, the university administration erases the question of why she was there, and how it is an action deserving the punishment meted out to her.
Reading into this situation some more, why does the hostel rulebook categorise a human being, who might be a friend, a lover or a study-buddy, alongside banned substances? What necessitates these night-time visits by intimidating parental figures into the private living quarters of adults? Why are scholars being obstructed in their pursuit of knowledge simply because they were at a certain place at a certain time? What exactly is it about the mingling of the genders that seem to get the overlords of the university administration to charge ahead like a bull at the sight of red? These are some questions which the students of UoH ask, and the administration does not seem inclined to explain themselves except by pointing a weak finger at an archaic book of rules.
Rukma Prince is a Ph.D. scholar in English Literature at University of Hyderabad. She is a book collector, occasional reader and persistent photographer of the mundane. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
All images courtesy Vyshakh Thaliyil