Banaras Hindu University row: Why the #BHUshame brigade are wrong and need to be 'forgiven'

Of the countless intriguing stories that emerge out of Varanasi (Banaras), an eternal centre of the Hindu universe, one of the more fascinating tales involves Maharaja Chait Singh and the first governor general of British India, Warren Hastings.

In 1781, Hastings visited Varanasi to collect more taxes from Chait, but instead of overpowering the Raja, he met with stern resistance and was forced to run for his life. Varanasi, as the tale suggests, does not easily bow down or accept authority, be it god or a king.

The Banaras Hindu University (BHU) serves as a microcosm of Varanasi’s spirit. Much before other universities experienced it, students of BHU were known for challenging authority. Though it is not something to be proud, there have been instances when the vice-chancellor (VC) of the university was garlanded with shoes.

Faculty of Arts Building, Banaras Hindu University. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Faculty of arts building, Banaras Hindu University. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A more violent example of the students' attack on authority came when a group threw petrol bombs at the VC’s lodge, leading to the closure of the university sine die. It was the first time that this author had heard the words “sine die”, as a student of BHU in 1981, and understood its meaning.

But students of the university have always felt liberated on campus. Back then, women were respected in unparalleled terms. One could easily spot respected music teacher N Rajam buying vegetables at Lanka, the BHU gate market, with her daughter. Similarly, just before election time, Veena Pandey, of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), could be seen interacting with boys in the hostel and shaking their hands.

Many left liberals were bowled over by Pandey’s charm and voted for her in the student union election in complete contrast to their ideological position. “To hell with ideology, she is very charming,” they used to murmur.

There are similar stories about the charming and feisty Anjana Prakash, challenging the state authority at the peak of the Emergency and there after. The manner in which she challenged Indira Gandhi's authority was the stuff of legends. Prakash comes from an illustrious political family, that is deeply rooted in Lohiaite socialism.

The culture of female students taking an active part in politics and running shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts was certainly extraordinary. In the seventies and the eighties, girls in the university could be seen riding cycles and scooters, a sight that could be the envy of many other university campuses across the country. Just like in the past, BHU still attracts many students from all across India and abroad.

Perhaps those who saw merit in circulating #BHUshame on social media are blissfully oblivious to the institution’s unique resilient characteristics, its history and cultural heritage. At BHU, it is unthinkable to intimidate girls and threaten them with physical harm. Only those who don't have an iota of understanding of the society in Varanasi would read the aberration as a rule and generalise the issue.

Recently, media reports had argued that BHU had become an RSS fortress because of rampant gender divide and moral policing on campus.

However, there is no denying that BHU has been witness to many illegal activities. Hostels were used in the past as safe havens by gangsters, who often fought on campus, much to the chagrin of other students. But it would be next to impossible to imagine, in BHU’s cultural context, that a female student received threats of physical harm for expressing her opinion on the lack of facilities on the campus.

Needless to say, certain tweets with #BHUshame are looking at the university through an 'Oxford university prism'.

Of course BHU lacks many facilities and needs improvement in its infrastructure. But, the campus is still one of the safest ones for female students. And the debate about serving vegetarianism vs non-vegetarianism food on campus is as old as the campus itself.

The sprawling campus houses almost all branches of science, ranging from engineering, medical science and Ayurveda, along with every disciple of social science. It is a unique ground for inter-discipline interaction and is unparalleled in stature in the country.

In an interaction with former BHU student union president and Union minister for communication, Manoj Sinha, said that, “the time I spent in BHU were the best six years of my life. ” As an ex-student of the institute, this author concurs with that viewpoint.

Those who still continue to promote the #BHUshame campaign can perhaps seek redemption in the words of Christ, who said, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”.

Updated Date: Mar 04, 2017 15:02 PM

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