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HNLU And Its Silent Protest Against Patriarchy

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Hidayatullah National Law University is not your typical University. It is neither cheap nor exorbitant. It is neither famous nor old. It is neither politically active nor inactive. With the total strength of the University barely crossing the 1000 mark, getting anything done requiring large numbers is a tall task. One is too used to seeing half-filled classrooms and half-filled auditoriums. What HNLU is generous, as it is called in short, is in its expanse. It spans for 100 acres and more. When the university shifted to this campus, there was an indefinite strike by the students against the administration in general and the VC in particular. Their demands were finally met, or at least it appeared to be so. The VC resigned, and they got a campus of the scale that other fellow NLUs were proud to boast of. But as in the legal briefs that the students would go on to deal in, the devil lied in the details. In the midst of nowhere, called “Naya Raipur”, a round poorly conceived replica of the Parliament stood and two identical square boxes of three stories called “Halls of Residence”. That was all there was to the so-called ‘world class’ National Law University.

After a few forgettable and small stints by some interim Vice-Chancellors, the present VC Prof Sukh Pal Singh took charge. Despite being an academician of great repute (at least on paper), his greatest contribution to this place was to rebuild it. Literally. From making roads to planting trees to building a new academic hall, he kept building things. But even when the campus had all the essentials as per the master plan, the scale of buildings did not stop. Some would say it only got higher. He sanctioned the building of a new hostel each for the boys and the girls, even as rooms lied vacant in the existing hostels. When the modest auditorium would struggle to fill up on most occasions, a twenty-plus crore auditorium was sanctioned to be built. Smaller installations were also added, such as stone plaques in the middle of a garden mentioning his name, his wife’s name and some members of the judiciary from Chhattisgarh. There was a steel railing built which ran across the road that accompanied the academic block; this steel railing was an ornamental addition to the already existing fence made of concrete.

His tenure was slated to end on 2014. He was ineligible for a renewal of his term by virtue of the HNLU Act. But, having established some close friends and acquaintances in the secretariat and the High Court he managed an amendment of the Act which made him eligible for a renewal of tenure. And just like that, he was appointed to be the VC till 2019. Students who were in their first year when he was slated to retire would pass out of college, but he would remain there. He was, in many ways omnipresent. His tenure never seemed like to end. Teachers would use several titles out of reverence/sycophancy before referring to him, and they would award him with all the laurels for the achievements of the students. The faculties would do a ‘sashtung pranam’ before him, even in the presence of students. The faculties would need his permission for presenting a paper, for using the name of the University in any academic work. He would be consulted before deciding what the bus timings would be. But in the midst of all this, there was one senior assistant professor who dared to challenge his re-appointment. Dr Avinash Samal filed a writ petition before the Chhattisgarh High Court claiming that Dr Singh’s tenure was renewed even before the amendment of the HNLU Act was passed and therefore he was not entitled to be the VC. His petition was quashed for lack of locus standi, a legal term for not being an interested party in a dispute (an interesting reason for disposing off a “Public” Interest Litigation). He had to face a lot of humiliation, insults and injuries for having taken a stance. His wife was removed from service as a fellow colleague. He was stripped off all responsibilities. Hopelessly fearless, the man who would gleefully claim while teaching political science of having burnt a bus and locked the College principal as a student political activist, Dr Samal filed an appeal. All of this, despite knowing that the VC had personal relations with the Chief Justice of the High Court.

It took several years. And no one gave any heed to this self-proclaimed ‘maverick’. But the division bench of the Chhattisgarh High Court, on August 27, 2018, did the impossible, and that too with ‘immediate effect’. It proclaimed that Dr Singh couldn’t have been re-appointed when it was illegal to do so, just as the middle-aged Assistant Professor of Political Science had been saying all along.

Alumni, students, teachers, parents of students, ex-teachers: everyone was excited. The students and alumni took to the social media. They started using the hashtag #VCStories to narrate personal incidents of frustration concerning the “Hon’ble Prof Sukh Pal Singh”.

One could call it a great day and gotten back to whatever one was doing. But the Student Bar Association (SBA) had other plans. Apart from giving a standing ovation to the Dr Samal, the SBA decided that it was the best day to enforce their fundamental rights: the right to equality and the right to move freely. The students decided tonight was the night when they’d break all the locks.

As the clock struck 10.30, hundreds of students gathered around the girls’ hostel, but unlike every other day, they refused to enter the hostel. Despite the guards’ misogynistic whistles. Despite the threats of parents being called. Despite knowing this can earn them a ‘Show Cause’ notice making them ineligible for any University honours. Despite everything, they gathered.

Soon enough, the faculties and the registrar appeared in the scene and were seen pleading with the students as the entire episode was being telecast live on Instagram. For the first time in a long time, the Controller of Examination was asked to keep quiet and listen to the students.

A day of many firsts. But everyone who is from Hidayatullah National Law University knew that the time had come. To break the shackles.

But the night did not end with a ‘happily ever after’. Not that anyone expected so, anyway. The Controller of Examination, who has more say in how things work around the University, tried to appease the students by sweet talking. The Registrar exclaimed that he did not have enough power to answer to the demands of the students. The Corporate Hons teacher notorious for sexually harassing students (but getting away with it because he never harassed the VC) tried to tell the students that for concerns of adequate sleep, the locks on the girl’s hostel were locked sharply at 10.30 pm.

The students refused to be talked down: a first in the history of the University since it got relocated. They shouted back, but without losing the touch of lip-service, which had become second nature to them, of referring the teachers as ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’. The faculties dared the students. They left. The students didn’t. They decided to watch the dawn arm-in-arm, singing songs, putting posts on social media, discussing politics. Singing Bohemian Rhapsody. Shouting “HNLU ki Azaadi”.

As the night gave way to the next day, the group of youngsters gathered in front of the Registrar’s office. Silently, patiently waiting. In the meantime, the list of demands had increased. The struggle was no longer about no in-timings within the campus. They sought the resignation of the warden for having interfered with the personal lives of the female students and using intimate knowledge about their personal lives as a way to get back at them. They questioned the arbitrary rules of promotion and the UGC guidelines regarding transparency in the administration of a University.

The struggle continues. Inside Uperwara, located beside a gigantic yet deserted state highway, the few hundred students have decided to take the matters into their own hands. They decided enough is enough. They claim their university back, as the administration, now headless, continues to be non-committal, except on their views that locking students up is for their own safety.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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