How should a university respond to sexual harassment of its students?
On Saturday, Uttar Pradesh Police lathicharged students of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) who were protesting increasing incidents of eve-teasing and an alleged incident of sexual harassment.
Afterwards, the police filed FIRs against 1,200 university students.
The students were as much protesting the discrimination against women as they were the university's inability to protect them. The students demanded better lighting on the campus, CCTV cameras and wanted to ensure that measures taken ostensibly to "protect women" did not affect their right to access education.
However, on Tuesday, Girish Chandra Tripathi, the Vice-Chancellor of the BHU, claimed that what had occurred was an act of 'simple eve-teasing' that was deliberately staged to coincide with the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Varanasi. Setting conspiracy theories aside, we would all do well to examine and reflect on the BHU's policies and the impact that they have on the lives of students.
BHU is not an ordinary university. It is a State-run institution which means all its actions are subject to constitutional scrutiny. But some of its policies may prima facie fall foul of its constitutional mandate to respect Fundamental Rights.
Each of the 18 hostels run for women at the university has a separate curfew. Some hostels close at 6:00 pm, others which are more lax stay, open till 8 pm. Visitors staying late are required to fill in paperwork and students who stay out late have to deal with authorities ringing up their parents.
However, male students have a 10 pm curfew. Interestingly, the curfew for women is not relaxed even if they want to study at the library even though the library is open 24x7. Which defeats the purpose of a 24x7 library.
Male students also are provided non-vegetarian food at the mess while the women are restricted to vegetarian food. Further, unlike their male counterparts, women who stay at the hostels are required to go home during the university break.
In some hostels, women students are not allowed to use their cellphones after 10 pm. If they are 'caught' doing so, they are forced to put their phone on speaker mode, which is an atrocious invasion of privacy of an adult.
These measures are ostensibly in place to ensure that women are safe on campus. But safety measures cannot take away their right to access education on the same footing as men. After all, a university's aim is to educate. Restricting the movement of an entire gender on account of their sex is something the university simply cannot do under the Constitution.
Article 14 of the Constitution is clear: Everyone shall enjoy equality under the law as well as equal protection. This would require university regulations to not discriminate on the basis of sex. While Article 15(3) does permit discrimination on the basis of gender it does so only if the discrimination to is to the benefit of women.
When women students are raising concerns about their safety, the State is obligated to address their concerns and not in a paternal manner which restricts their movements and access to education. In fact, it is the duty of the State to ensure that all safety measures implemented to not impinge on students' rights. Women students at BHU are on par with males. They pay the same fees. And yet they are prohibited access to the same education.
It is also important to look at All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and University Grants Commission (UGC) rules on preventing sexual harassment, which are binding on the university.
Rule 3.2(12) of the AICTE regulations state:
"Concern for the safety of women students must not be cited to impose discriminatory rules for women in the hostels as compared to male students. Campus safety policies should not result in securitisation, such as over monitoring or policing or curtailing the freedom of movement, especially for women employees and students. "
The rule is also reproduced in verbatim in rule 3.2(13) of the UGC. As per UGC and AICTE regulations, a university cannot cite "protective measures" as grounds for discrimination against women. The university hostel rules thus run foul of UGC mandate.
Clearly, women on the BHU campus are facing sexual harassment. This isn't even the first time the university has taken fire for this. The BHU must take measures to protect students. But these measures cannot be biased towards either gender in their formulation or application.
Both the AICTE and UGC have outlined gender neutral measures in their rules for the prevention of sexual harassment: Having police stations on campus, adequate lighting, counselling, gender sensitisation campaigns, public transport on campus and ensuring that students can work well into the night at libraries and facilities to drop them home safe. All of these measures can greatly increase the safety of students and ensure that there is no discrimination.
The BHU's hostel policies are being challenged before the Supreme Court. But the university would do better to act on its own accord and remove these discriminatory policies immediately. These policies are not just outdated, they are contradictory to the spirit of the BHU, which was established by Indian nationalists to provide quality education for all its students, including women students.
After all, one of the key people who helped found this institution was Annie Besant with her Central Hindu School. The foundational spirit behind institutions of national and in this case nationalist import require these rules be revised urgently.
Updated Date: Sep 27, 2017 11:29 AM