Is it really so difficult to understand that education requires creativity, freedom, a willingness to flout rules and think out of the box? And that stifling ‘discipline,’ punishing nonconformity and diversity and publicly shaming students who don’t toe the line is dangerous and devastating not only to the pursuit of knowledge but can be life-threatening? Why on earth are so many Indian campuses living hell for their students?
We know ragging can kill. Why can’t we recognize that ragging by school, college and hostel authorities is even worse to the self-esteem of the students? When students are publicly shamed for wearing jeans, humiliated for talking to students of the other sex or for being gay or lesbian, and forced to obey whimsical and authoritarian ‘little Hitlers’ on campus, is it not an extreme form of ragging?
Recently, students of Sri Sairam Engineering College, Chennai, shared a circular issued by the college on social media. The Circular had a series of ridiculous rules for women students, including a ban on jeans, a detailed dress code requiring dupattas to have “both sides pinned up”, prohibiting women students from interacting with male students, using social media or celebrating birthdays! After the circular went viral, the College claimed the circular was fake. But ex-students and current students of the College confirmed that in fact, the regulations are a “100% true” and many compared the College to a prison.
The College’s own website lists many of these rules including the ban on jeans and T-shirts. Students on social media have said that you can get punished in college for talking to a student of the other sex, petting a dog or using a mobile phone! Students are forced to open their Facebook accounts to allow teachers to check whether or not they have photographs with members of the other sex. While the rules for male students are bizarre and dictatorial enough, those for women students are even worse. Sairam students shared another circular banning non-vegetarian food on the campus on the absurd pretext that it would encourage mosquitoes and monkeys.
In a debate on television about these absurd rules, a representative of Sairam College and another supporter cited the ethos of ‘corporate world’ and ‘Army’ to justify the codes of conduct. But colleges and Universities ought not to be modeled on corporations and the military!
It is said that ‘Well-behaved women seldom make history’ – and the same could be said of people of any gender. Can knowledge only be produced in grim confines by people burdened by repressive codes of dress and conduct?
The arbitrary codes of conduct at Sri Sairam and other Chennai based engineering colleges have been met with incredulous laughter, derision and outrage in media and social media. What should worry us though is that instead of acting to curb these arbitrary and authoritarian regulations, the UGC is in fact proposing to impose similar draconian rules on all campuses in the country, under pretext of ‘campus safety.’
Ostensibly on the pretext of preventing tragedies like the drowning of students during UGC has issued ‘Guidelines on Safety of Students on and off Campuses of Higher Educational Institutions’ on April 16th 2015 which seek to stifle and suffocate freedom of mobility and expression in higher education institutions (HEIs).
These Guidelines include:
1. Universities/colleges and hostels to be surrounded by a “boundary wall of such height that it cannot be scaled over easily” with a “fence of spiraling barbed wires,” with armed security guards, CCTV cameras, metal detectors and physical security check of every visitor.
2. “Biometric way of marking student attendance, both in HEI as well as hostels…digital mechanism (to) enable HEIs to keep an eye on a student’s movement and whereabouts in failsafe manner.”
3. Compulsory wearing of identity cards by students and staff
4. A “university police station within the premises of the HEIs,” with police personnel or “Community Service Officers” formed from among students conducting “night patrols,” “escort services to students as they walk down to hostel or nearest taxi or bus-stand.”
5. “Teacher counselors, trained to act as the guardians of students at the college level” to “convey their growth report and feedback on attendance, examination results etc to their parents at regular interval of time.” In other words, teacher counselors and hostel wardens must spy on students and “exchange personal details of students, academic record and behavior patterns for prompt pre-emptive or corrective action.”
6. Quarterly parents-teachers meet (PTM)
7. In the name of self-defence against rape, students to be taught strategies of “awareness, risk reduction and risk avoidance.”
8. “An exhaustive Code of Conduct for students enrolled in departments or affiliated colleges and display it on institutional websites for compliance.”
9. “Mandatory for institutions to elicit consent letters from the parents/guardians of the students who are embarking on tour.”
10. On trips, “students should be allowed to carry personal communication devices such as mobile phones and should be instructed to remain in constant touch with their parents/guardians.”
It should be noted that most of these ‘guidelines’ are already in place in private teaching-shops like Sri Sairam Engineering College. The rules listed on the website of the Sri Sai Ram Engineering College, apart from the dress code and a ban on “loitering about” in the verandah or corridor, have a requirement to display one’s identity card at all times; and stern punishment for any “disobedience to the order of a faculty” member. These rules also include a “Ward System and Counselling” according to which a faculty members is assigned to “monitor” every student for “progress in studies, regularity in attendance, conduct and health,” maintain a “personnel file” and “constantly keep in touch with parents / guardians of the students regarding their progress.” The Sri Sairam College also has CCTV surveillance, that students claim is used to monitor the interactions between male and female students.
These are exactly what the UGC Guidelines also propose. The UGC is trying to turn every campus in the country into a jail like Sri Sairam Engineering College!
Do Such Rules Keep Students Safe?
It is absurd to treat adult students as though they are children and ‘wards’ of parents. But the favourite excuse to justify draconian campus rules is that ‘parents want it in the interests of their son’s/daughter’s safety.’
Does it make students safe to allow teachers and administrative authorities to spy on their lives and report to parents? Does police presence on campuses and CCTV surveillance and compulsory display of identity cards make students safe?
The harsh reality is that such draconian rules and surveillance make students extremely unsafe, can make them more vulnerable to sexual harassment, and can pose a threat to their mental health, and even their lives. Let us look more closely at some instances that illustrate this.
Much of the sexual harassment on campuses is faced at the hands of those in power and authority – teachers, supervisors, and administrators. Curbing such power and creating spaces (such as students’ unions, feminist organizations, and sexual harassment complaints’ committees) for students to speak and act freely without fear of those having power makes students safer.
Instead various colleges and now the UGC give untrammeled power to teachers, allowing them to spy on students, report to parents, and punish students for ‘disobedience.’ Such unchecked powers over students will inevitably breed victimization of all sorts including sexual harassment. In our experience, many complainants of sexual harassment come forward only when they are assured that their parents will not be informed: this is because they know that their parents, hearing of such harassment, might curtail the daughter’s education in the name of her ‘safety.’ The fear of their confidentiality being violated and parents informed will enforce silence on most women students who face sexual harassment.
What about students who face sexual harassment or sexual violence from other students, especially in social situations (in a friend’s room, at a party, and so on)? If the woman student has to fear that the teachers, administrators, or counselors will chastise or punish her for having male friends or attending parties, and moreover report it to her parents who may also disapprove, is she likely to complain?
Dress codes and moral codes are closely linked to victim blaming, i.e blaming women’s behavior for sexual violence. Colleges that have the most draconian codes of conduct are often those that indulge in victim blaming and try to coerce and discourage sexual harassment complainants. A recent instance is that of Patna Women’s College, where a woman student complained against sexual molestation by a male teacher. The College, instead of acting against the teacher, rusticated the complainant! The Principal launched a full-fledged campaign of intimidation, victim blaming and character assassination. The complainant, as well as all those who chose to support her, were vilified and openly threatened by the Principal, who said: "If you wear such clothes and wear your dupattas in such a style, [men's] attention will obviously go there. It is not their fault at all, it is all your fault. If I want, I can remove all of you in one moment, and not one person will know. I can completely ruin your reputations, just you watch." Women students on this occasion erupted in protest and anger, and supported by AISA and AIPWA, forced the College Administration to back down. (See Box for a detailed report)
In St. Stephen’s College too, we recently saw how the Principal and the college administration tried to pressurize a woman research scholar to withdraw her complaint of prolonged sexual harassment by her teacher. Power over a student is a source of lack of safety – not a panacea for safety.
The report of the UGC Task Force on Issues of Safety for Women and Youth on Indian Campuses (SAKSHAM report) recommended that an urgent and vital safety measures would be to dismantle existing discriminatory hostel rules and moral/dress codes on women students and all students, and monitoring to ensure that all campuses ensure freedom and equality, especially equal access to facilities like libraries and laboratories, to all women students. Why is the UGC issuing Guidelines in the name of safety, that are the polar opposite of what their own Task Force recommended?
‘Honour’ crimes are rampant even in metropolitan campuses, with parents or ‘guardians’ resorting to coercion and violence against women students who love or marry someone outside the prescribed caste or community. From my experience as a student and women’s rights activist in Delhi, I can cite many instances where teachers and activists have had to battle to safeguard women students whose lives are under threat from parents. Even more common than ‘honour’ killings are the instances of parents withdrawing daughters from educational institutions when they learn of consensual relationships, sexual harassment, or even political activism.
In such a backdrop, surveillance, spying by teachers and reporting to parents about the ‘conduct’ of students is not only a violation of civil liberties and Constitutional rights – it constitutes a threat to the safety and continued education of students.
Campuses in India have witnessed many suicides by students. Ragging has been identified as one of the causes. But parental pressure to excel academically, public shaming of women students for sexual/romantic relationships, outing of gay, lesbian or trans students, casteist harassment and victimization of SC/ST/OBC students by faculty members are some of the triggers for campus suicides.
A 2013 study found that in five years, 19 SC/ST students had committed suicide in India’s higher education institutions. Why does the UGC not recognize caste discrimination – as well as other forms of gender, ethnic, or communal discrimination – as a threat to students’ safety?
Even setting aside the caste and gender factors, a recent study of a Ten Member Committee in JNU documented a phenomenon of victimization and harassment of students by supervisors. If this is the case in a campus like JNU which has a strong democratic ethos and a strong student movement, can we imagine what the scene is like in other campuses?
As it is, teachers and administrators use their power to victimize, harass, and sexually harass students. SC/ST students and women are especially vulnerable. Such victimization creates conditions of stress, and can push students into severe depression.
If the UGC gives them even more arbitrary power to violate the privacy of students, it is bound to make students, especially SC/ST students and women, even more vulnerable. Further, the UGC’s proposal to force students to display identity cards at all times will make students from Dalit and adivasi backgrounds, religious minorities, and oppressed nationalities vulnerable to profiling and targeted violence.
When Universities enjoy the power to enforce draconian and arbitrary ‘Codes of Conduct,’ it also promotes and nurtures homophobia. Recently, the Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD) has reportedly changed its rules for hostels to prohibit “homosexual conduct.” A student from Chennai shared with me the experience of women students in the Stella Maris hostel who were ‘outed’ as lesbian and publicly shamed. The UGC Guidelines if implemented will reinforce such homophobia that is already rampant on campuses, and will thereby endanger students.
It is laughable to imagine that police stations on campuses and police escorts will keep students safe. As students from Delhi University, Jamia Millia Islamia, JNU, Puducherry, Jadavpur or FTII will tell you, police specialize in brutalizing and terrorizing students and have even molested women students during protests. Police are notoriously sexist and anti-women – how can such ‘police escorts’ keep women safe?
As for ‘Community Service Officers’ – these will be the campus equivalent of the Chhattisgarh SPOs, the local shakha of the Sangh Parivar moral policing Senas and Dals. ‘Escorts’ will be Big Brothers who will keep women from exercising their choice of clothes, company and social life.
How can the UGC even think that it can demand “mandatory consent letters from parents” for trips/tours? If parents have the power to deny adult offspring, especially daughters, the right to go on tours and trips, it will obviously curtail women’s education.
A couple of years ago, VIT University Bangalore dismissed two women students for conducting an online survey about gender discrimination in hostel rules and women’s safety on the campus.
Students from campuses all over India are desperately seeking help challenging draconian and sexist rules and regulations on their campuses. As a rule, in most of these institutions, students are afraid to raise their voices openly because if they do they are likely to share the fate of the two VIT students.
What can be done to help? Perhaps Courts that have stepped up to prevent ragging, ought to act to issue strictures against ragging by Administration and faculty. Can they be trusted to do so? Or will they respond with measures like the disastrous Lyngdoh recommendations that have failed to prevent brazen display of money and muscle in DUSU elections or ensure regular elections in most public and private campuses, but have attacked the best functioning model of Students’ Union elections in JNU?
These campus-turned-prisons are stunting and stifling our students’ lives – and urgent action is needed to force them to change, and to prevent UGC from turning all the campuses into prisons.
But we should also ask, why are private teaching shops like Sairam run like prisons? Why is the UGC under the Modi Government trying to transform all campuses on the Sairam model?
Private teaching shops abhor the very idea of a University – a place that is open to the Universe of free ideas and debates. They want to turn out cogs for the corporate world – and prevent students from forming Unions, falling in love, critiquing industry or Government, in fact, thinking at all. And they are perfectly compatible with the feudal family structure that imprison women, and with communal-fascist notions of culture.
Now, the Modi Government is capitulating to the WTO demand to make education into a tradable commodity. Governments in globalised times want all Universities to become profit-making machines that churn out homogenized, docile, pliant cogs for global capital.
Add to this the RSS vision of saffronized educational institutions with the Sangh’s communal, casteist and patriarchal notions of ‘culture’ imposed on all – and you get the UGC Guidelines.
It would be a mistake to imagine that these draconian codes of conduct (whether the ones in Sairam-type colleges or UGC’s proposals) are merely instances of ‘backward culture,’ at odds with global capitalism. Remember, the regime of barbed wire, CCTV surveillance, ban on mobiles or on conversations with men, ban on loitering, and public shaming for violating these gendered codes, is already in place in many Tamil Nadu garment factories that produce for global brands. (See Flawed Fabrics: The abuse of girls and women workers in the South Indian textile industry, October 2014, prepared by SOMO - Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, and ICN - India Committee of the Netherlands). In those factories, too, the management justifies these draconian rules in the name of ‘our Tamil Nadu culture’ and ‘parents’ wishes.’ Similar gendered norms of ‘Chinese culture’ and Chinese patriarchy are invoked by MNCs in China to discipline women workers. (Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism, Melissa W. Wright, Routledge 2006)
Our factories are already draconian, menacing prisons, especially for women. Many of our privatised campuses too are prisons. And now, the UGC too is attempting to turn such prisons into the template for all our Universities and educational institutions. We need to fight the UGC Guidelines with all our might. But we also need to demand change and winds of freedom in all the other colleges and factories that are already prisons.
Let’s take hope from a spirited Pinjratod campaign by students of various Universities in Delhi against draconian and sexist hostel rules – they are calling to ‘Break the Hostel Locks,’ ‘Break the Prisons.’ The ABVP has, predictably issued menacing threats to the women organizing this campaign. But they remain undeterred. Their slogan inspires – “No warden as protector/No brother who is tough/My feminist sisters are enough!”
On 18th September, a massive protest was held at the PWC against the college administration that had punished the complainant and protected the accused teacher. The protesting girls blocked the Bailey Road for two hours.
Yet, the Principal refused to meet the protesters, and various faculty members try their level best to break the protest and intimidate the protesters. Later, an AIPWA/AISA delegation led by AIPWA General Secretary Meena Tiwari met the Principal as well as representatives of the PWC. The delegation articulated the demands of the ongoing protests, and argued that democracy and women's freedom should be defended by the college administration.
The following demands were made: an impartial enquiry should be instituted against the accused faculty member; a democratic atmosphere must be ensured in the college campus so that women feel free to express their grievances; a committee against sexual harassment should be instituted consisting of faculty members as well as students from all academic streams in the college; the rustication of the complainant should be immediately revoked and the campaign of intimidation and victim blaming against her should be immediately stopped; the accused faculty member should be suspended pending enquiry, and the notice of the same should be made public within the college. The college administration assured the delegation that these demands would be accepted. There were also protests in Darbhanga, Ara and other districts in solidarity with the students of the PWC.