“It happened two years ago; my friend wanted to leave the hostel at night, and she was beaten up by the warden for it,” says Apoorv Gupta, an alumnus of Delhi University, as he recalls the injustice faced by one of his female friends. “I have been a part of this movement for a couple of years, and I have seen such things happening to many students,” he adds.
Like Apoorv’s friend, many students, especially women, all across the country face uncountable unreasonable restrictions by patriarchal college administrations, that limits their movement after a certain hour called curfew — a particular fixed time, after which the student is not allowed to leave or enter the hostel premises; these timings are earlier than what’s fixed for male students (even on paper), and are more strictly executed, for the female students than the male students.
Students – men, women, queer and alumni from all across Delhi assembled at 4 pm on October 8, 2018, outside the Delhi University Arts Faculty, to fight against this injustice in a peaceful protest, organised by a women’s collective, Pinjra Tod. Chanting the slogan ‘Ittihaas ki dhaara modenge, saare pinjro ko todenge’ (We will turn the course of history and break-out of all prisons), they demanded the removal of curfew timings from all women’s hostels and the abolition of the system of local guardians being in charge of the wards, among many others. Along with these, they also demanded the construction of women’s hostel for PwD (People with Disabilities) students, availability of secure and non-discriminatory accommodation for all women students, setting up and proper execution of ICCs against sexual harassment in all colleges and institutions by elected, representative bodies, etc.
The protest started at 4 pm on Monday, on October 8, outside the Delhi University Arts Faculty, from where it proceeded to Mall Road of Vishwavidyalaya at around 5:30 pm when the Delhi university Proctor refused to meet and address the issue. At the Mall road, the protesters managed to block the streets and hold off the traffic (chakka jaam) for almost three hours, all peacefully, despite the rigorous traffic, with zero incidents of violence.
The students showed a united front when they formed a human chain to block the roads; but, they also allowed the emergency vehicles —such as ambulances —to pass, without compromising the protest.
“We are not insensitive. Violence will kill the purpose of the whole movement, and we do not want that to happen,” said a supporter, as she tried to mobilise the crowd to make way for a car which had a small child who was getting restless because of the traffic.
At around 10 pm, the march proceeded towards the proctor’s residence, outside the gates. They continued with the chants of Azaadi (freedom), and people gave speeches and shared their stories as they waited for the proctor to show up.
“Closing the doors will not help; we all know what happens behind them. Make the public space safer for us, instead,” said Nandita Narayan from Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA), who had come to support the cause. Although the support from the teaching staff was minimal, “it cannot be expected as most of them are non-permanent staff and are themselves on precarious ground,” reasoned Avantika Tewari, a JNU student, who has been a supporter of Pinjra Tod for the last couple of years.
When questioned about how she felt about the lack of support from the political bodies, such as NSUI and ABVP, Avantika said: “these political bodies do not align with us in terms of political imagination. ABVP has been a cause of destruction in many colleges, and their politics is extremely masculinist; the same goes for NSUI. We did not expect any support from them. The ABVP men were trying to disrupt the protest by inflicting hostilities among the people during the chakka jaam.”
However, the campaign saw representatives from SFI (Student’s Federation of India), WDC (Women’s Development cell), Democratic Teachers Front, All India Democratic Women’s Association and DUTA (Delhi University Teacher’s Association), who had arrived at the venue to show their solidarity towards the cause.
The protest happened because of a lot of reasons.
Reclaiming The Public Space: All the Delhi University hostels and women’s accommodations have strict time restrictions on women, which is unreasonable, discriminatory and arbitrary, as it’s only the female students, and not the male students, who suffer this fate in the name of safety. By putting curfew, the administration is implying that women are not allowed to have access to public spaces at night.
“The library at the Arts faculty is open 24/7, but only for men. Why? Because women are not given access to it as we are shut in our hostels,” said a former DU student as she addressed the gathering.
“It is not about rules and locks; it is about equality and justice, and equal rights among men and women. The more you keep women inside, the more men will not get used to seeing them around during the evenings,” said Laura Montanari, an Anthropology student from Italy, who is researching queer and feminist movements in India.
Lack of Proper Accommodation: Many co-educational DU colleges do not have hostels for women, sometimes this list also includes popular educational units like Hansraj College. The colleges that do have hostels for women have minimal seats, which are given on the basis of merit, and not even a bit of the allotment is based on need. Even in these hostels, the condition and maintenance is deplorable – water and WiFi are constant sources of trouble. The wardens are uncooperative, and the restrictions are arbitrary and sexist. Getting a leave is tedious, and to top it all, there is no procedure for acquiring leaves in an emergency situation.
“There was a fire, and we wanted to get out, but the guards at the gate did not allow us and told us to get written permission,” shared a student of St. Stephens College as she recalled the horrors of her stay at the hostel.
High Prices: The cherry on the top is, that the costs of the women’s hostels and accommodations are more than that of the men’s and that too, by a considerable margin.
The colleges claim that the higher prices are because they have outsourced these hostels to private enterprises. However, the students wanted to know, why were the women’s hostels only outsourced, and why was there a need for outsourcing in the first place, when the UGC provides grants to these colleges for infrastructure?
Problems in Private Accommodations: All the issues mentioned above force the students to seek private accommodations, which are relatively expensive and often follow discriminatory practices when it comes to providing the facility to students of diverse ethnicities. “They often call me ‘chinki’, and gossip behind my back because I do not look Indian enough for them,” said a student of Hansraj College, who is from Manipur, as she talked about her experience at her PG.
Another supporter, Dhiren, a former DU staff member, rightly said, “Lets not narrowly read the issue as an issue of women asking to get out of their hostels at night. Because, it is a much larger question; a question of how patriarchy constructs each and every space, and how it tries to determine who will have access to these spaces. As a queer person, I think it is equally relevant to me because this is a question of how our desires and movements are constrained by all these oppressive systems, such as patriarchy, classism, casteism and many more. When we consider all these factors, we would be able to see that all of these movements are connected in the long run. Which is why, it is not simply my fight, or your fight, or women’s fight, but it is everybody’s fight.”
After an hour of waiting tirelessly outside gate Number 4, Professor Neeta Sehgal (Delhi University Proctor) came to address the issue from behind her closed gates, at around 11 pm. She claimed that the demands have already been sent to the concerned authorities and that they would need time to review and deliberate on it. When the students demanded to know who are these “authorities” for the sake of transparency, but there was no proper reply from Professor Sehgal. She also denied having received any “Charter of Demand” when the students asked why their demands were not reviewed already when the Charter was sent to her a week before the protest. She also did not give any deadline when the students demanded a proper expected date on which they would hear from the administration on the issue.
The students sang “Abhi naa jao chhod kar, ke dil abhi bhara nahi” (the famous song from the movie Hum Dono), as Professor Sehgal left, without giving them any solid answer and reassurance.
But this did not break the spirit of the movement as, instead of leaving, everybody stayed behind for a movie screening, right outside the gate of the Delhi University Arts Faculty, which continued till 5 am in the wee hours of October 9.
The students decided to gather at the same venue again, on the afternoon of October 10 at 1 pm.“They are just trying to placate the crowd and demobilise the protest by making hollow promises,” said Avantika Tewari (JNU Student) after she announced the decision to meet again on Wednesday (October 10).
As decided, the protest was in full swing at 1pm on the bright Wednesday afternoon outside the Delhi University Arts Faculty, where students chanted “Lekar rahenge azaadi” (We shall seize freedom) and deliberated on the issue till 2:30 pm, after which they marched all around the north campus, visiting college after college to spread the word.
They visited St. Stephens College, Hindu College, Ramjas College, Daulat Ram College (in chronological order), followed by Miranda House and Khalsa college. The colleges locked their gates to prohibit the entry of the protesters into the college (the irony of it), but they simply broke the locks and entered the college premises.
Resident students of these colleges came out of their hostels to join into the protest. They shared their stories and experiences, sang and danced along with the crowd, adding a few moments of joy in this struggle against the oppressing system. It was a heartfelt moment of solidarity when the women students of Khalsa college raised their flashlights from their balconies when they were not permitted to leave their hostel to join the protest.
On reaching Miranda House, however, Principal Pratibha Jolly offered to have a dialogue, where they sat and discussed their problems as many students opened up about their misery. The principal listened patiently and said that she would deliberate over the issue of curfew, at least in Miranda House.
However, the entire proceedings of the day were not peaceful, as the police barricaded the path on Mall road, fearing another ‘chakka jaam’, and refused to remove the barricades even when the students tried to reassure them that they just wanted to visit Khalsa College, and had no intention of blocking the roads. When they were still denied access to the streets, the students tried to remove the barricades themselves, or climb over it. Police, in their attempt to restrain the crowd, became violent and resorted to threats of arrest and detention, before giving the students a free pass after forty-five minutes of a relentless struggle.
The protest concluded with the campaigners giving the deadline of October 30 to the DU proctor and other DU boards, insisting that they would go on another strike if the administration did not take any action to fulfil their demands.
“We have been struggling for three years, and still the administration has done nothing but skirt around the issue and defer matters for later,” said Avantika, referring to the time when this issue took a coherent structure for the first time, two years ago. “But we are hopeful, as bringing so many people together in a struggle against injustice is a victory in itself. It just goes on to show that the women are angry, and they will not back down until their demands are met.”