Punjabi University, Patiala has a culture of dialogue, protest and sensitization that has not only proven to be consistent in the past few days but also intelligent and innovative. Freedom of mobility, so integral and yet unavailable to women across universities in India, is symptomatic of institutional sexism, normalised and reinforced in such places that are often construed as strongholds of ideas of liberty and equality.
Students of Punjabi University launched a protest on September 18, 2018, with 13 demands, most significantly that curfew on campus be removed, hostels be open 24×7, along with more lighting on campus, improvement in infrastructure, food quality, transparency in hostel allocations and a host of other demands, a report released by DSO stated. However, it was during a night march on the same day that the protesting students of Democratic Students’ Organisation (DSO), majority of whom were girls, were allegedly harassed and beaten by members of the Students Association of Punjab (SAP) outside the vice-chancellor’s office. Five of the students and a female security guard got minor injuries. SAP activist Ravinderpreet Kaur alleged similar attacks by DSO students. Both sides filed complaints with the police, however, 13 students from the DSO have been booked on criminal charges so far.
On the flip side, DSO secretary Gagandeep Kaur said, “They [SAP members] were at least 50-60 in number and had come in four SUVs. We suspect that the assault was mooted in connivance with the university authorities. How else could they enter the university premises on SUVs despite a ban on the entry of four-wheelers here.” Consequent to the clash between the parties, the administration shut down the university for two days until Friday, September 21.
A student affiliated to DSO, Akash, told YKA that students from the university also began a chain hunger strike on October 1, where five students, three women and two men, sat on strike at a time for 24 hours. However, due to deteriorating health of students, it was called off on October 6, even though the usual protests have remained fierce and consistent. Hostel gates were broken during Thursday (October 4) night’s incident in which the girl students barged out of the Amrita Shergill hostel by breaking the main gate and hostel timings have been boycotted in fashion, with students refusing to let the gates of the hostels close in the past few days.
On October 9, as many as ten students, including four girls, were injured and hospitalised when clashes broke out between members of DSO and students of physical education. According to a report, the students of physical education attacked the protesters to “avenge” Dr Nishan Singh who was attacked by a mob on Sunday night (October 7) during a gherao in which protesters held the authorities, including the Vice-Chancellor, inside the university guesthouse till 2 am. The students held a sit-in after the university authorities called the parents of girl students, informing them that “they were roaming the campus with boys late into the night”. They had demanded an apology from V-C Prof BS Ghuman, who has refused to give in.
The University administration sees the demands related to poor facilities in hostels and delay in declaring examination results as reasonable but has shown disfavour and malignancy to the demand for round the clock entry to girls’ hostels. “We take girl students’ security seriously, and thus cannot allow round the clock entry to them into hostels. There are several other factors including social, law and order and administrative involved in the matter,” a university spokesperson said. The university has agreed to extend the hostel entry for girl students from 8 pm to 9 pm, but students are adamant over round-the-clock entry demand. The university has also suggested holding a dialogue between the student unions, officials and parents over the demand. However, the protestors have refused to include parents in the varsity affairs.
While the movement was spearheaded by the left-leaning Democratic Students’ Organisation (DSO), it now involves five other Left student bodies, including Punjab Students’ Union (PSU), PSU Lalkaar, All India Students Federation (AISF), Students Federation of India (SFI) and Punjab Radical Students Union (PRSU). Alongside, more than 17 teaching staff, non-teaching staff, farmers, advocates and democratic rights organisations have come forward to support the cause. Women from Pinjra Tod as well as the JNUSU President, N Sai Balaji also registered their support. On the other hand, the demand to relax hostel entry timings have been vigorously opposed by organisations such as the SAF (Students’ Association of Punjab), SYFI (Secular Youth Federation of India) and NSUI (National Students’ Union of India) and SOI (Students’ Organisation of India). It is perhaps this extreme polarization that has lent the Patiala students’ movement its dynamism.
Many archaic ‘rituals’ on campus have been quashed and introductions made to cultivate sensitivity, awareness and gender equality through the active involvement and mobilisation of students. demand for the implementation of guideline pertaining to GSCASH (Gender Sensitive Committee Against Sexual Harassment) in 2013, ban on four-wheelers on campus in 2015, extension of girls’ hostel timings from 6.30 pm to 8 pm in summers and 7.30 pm in winters in 2016 and Girls’ Hostel gates no longer remain closed on Holi.
As of October 10, 2018, the students of the university have already been on protest for 23 days. While it remains to be seen whether the demands of the students will be met, the student consciousness is a cause of celebration in itself.