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.