She touched my hand to thank me. I could not sleep for two nights,’ says Prem Kumar (name changed on request). ‘She just held your hand to thank you, it wasn’t sexual. So what was the discomfort?’ We argued. You don’t understand, he says, ‘ I have never spoken to a girl in my life who is not a relative. I have never had friends who are girls.’ Explanations tumble out of Prem Kumar, third semester masters student from School of International Studies (SIS). He had joined Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) last year for his masters course, and as new session opened up brining in new students to campus, he had joined a political party he supports to help in admission assistance.
The incident in question happened when he helped a girl get her paperwork done a tad bit earlier than the other students battling out the last-day rush. Prem comes from Khagaria in Bihar, he has studied outside his hometown all his life but as he puts it, JNU was a ‘shocker’ for him. He tells us how he could not look at a girl in shorts who came to visit his room-mate, he was so uncomfortable that he could not sit at his table.
The more we debate the odds, the more he expresses vehemently that we ‘big towners’ would not understand what he’s saying. Women in shorts, skirts, sleeveless clothes, out of their rooms at 4 am, chatting candidly with men, in the men’s hostel at all hours, having sex, holding hands - this JNU was an alien world to him. He tries not to express it, he is trying to cope and learn - but women still make him very uncomfortable.
This isn’t just Prem’s story. Every other ‘big towner’ JNUite will have come across fellow students who are these square pegs in round holes. The premier university has always stood apart from its Capital counterpart, was it in cutting across demographics to welcome students from across the country, providing a chance for some world-quality education alongside some ‘broadening of horizons’, some ‘gender equality’ amidst some healthy political debates. The core reason that JNU became the place to be was that you could study and breathe and the twain was never mutually exclusive. Girls are allowed to enter boy’s hostels, common mess halls allow ample free-mingling and more than that, the relaxed hostel rules allow all JNUites to be out of their rooms all day and all night, explore the campus, chat, enjoy, study together and then some more. Relationships bloom, wither and bloom again. No one raises an eyebrow at two lovers taking a long walk along the dark ring road or sitting in seclusion at PSR nooks.
This ethos of JNU is not text bound; there are no written rules that allow such freedom. This is a universe that the students have created over years and have been mature enough to handle the implications and the responsibilities. By rule, however, every JNUite is expected to be liberal, intellectual, politically aware, ever-debate-ready and most importantly - not a misogynist.
The last clause is perhaps more vital now as JNU deals with the aftermath of a bloody attack, a death, a student in the ICU and gets hit again a few days later by a student physically assaulting another female student. The free haven of intellectual minds got clouded over by implications that brought into question the ‘liberal’ atmosphere and women’s safety on campus. JNU campus had never been unsafe for women. But the odds were stacked against it.
For years, Delhi University (DU) campus has reported way more cases of sexual and physical assault than JNU’s current stint of scandals. Since DU is not a closed campus, chances of crime were expected to be more. But something went wrong with JNU. The question is - what did? How does the student community explain the unnatural assault?
A student counselor from the School of Languages (where the incident happened) says that the reason is political. Explaining his stand, another student, currently pursuing his M.Phil in English says, ‘The gender discourse on campus was maintained through the politics of JNU, if this happened in DU you would not be surprised...or say Benaras Hindu University (BHU). Four years of no elections also means four years of no GSCASH (Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment). Today very few people would approach GSCASH, most don’t even know what it is or how to go about lodging a complaint. If you get groped on campus today the chances are you keep quiet, if someone proposes to you and you don’t like it or is pursuing you after the first no then you can hardly do much.’ Do you think that people from smaller towns get befuddled when they come into JNU’s liberal atmosphere? ‘That would mean that earlier people from smaller towns did not come to JNU, which is obviously wrong, the proportion of urban students has gone up over the last 5 years,’ he adds. So is there a solution? JNUSU ex-president Sucheta De says, ‘Nobody has a magic pill, things won’t solve out overnight.’ She says that an orientation program is needed on campus, but this is not those day-one-orientation programs that DU is known for. A gender orientation program should be put in place alongside a module that must be made a compulsory part of the academic curriculum. This, as she says, has been a demand made by the JNUSU last year, coming back in power after a four-year hiatus. The module has been made and the administration passed it, says De, but it is yet to be made a part of the curriculum.
The problem exists and it stems from the patriarchal manifestations in our society and gender hierarchy that such a mindset has normalised. The small town students don’t face a culture shock per say, she says. Most students are habituated to a life where the fairer sex lives by rules created by men. The shock they face is seeing that normalcy break away on the campus. Women are free to dress as they please, be outside their rooms at 4 am if they want to and mingle freely with the male students - these are not the normal patriarchal rules. Suppression has been normalised and the problem lies there. The dichotomy is not a rural-urban one, it is a male-female one. ‘A woman in JNU is allowed to go out of her room at 4 am, but she is not allowed to say no to a man,’ says De. There obviously is a problem.
The orientation that JNUSU wants is one where students should be made aware of the female agency, the fact that a woman is allowed certain liberties on campus should not come as a shocker to any man. It isn’t just the woman getting her freedom on campus, the men get it too; they get to meet their girlfriends and chat with their female classmates without the danger of being ostracised, argues the JNUSU president. It is wrong that a man takes it for granted and the woman can’t. The female agency should be recognised, it is high time that men learn to accept that she can say ‘no’ as much as she can say a ‘yes’.
However, she points out, this orientation cannot happen inside a classroom. Free, candid and open discussions should be encouraged, between seniors and juniors and also between teachers and students. Equality is not a lesson from the pages of any syllabus - it comes from the society that surrounds us. Students should be encouraged to discuss their problems and every one should be forthcoming enough to be open to conversations, suggestions and life lessons, she feels. ‘Students play the most vital role, but more should be done by the faculty as well,’ says De.
Maybe it is time to take the discourse outside the classrooms, out of the dhabas and the mess halls and into a domain where a liberal dose of ‘all-sexes-are-equal’ lesson can be dished out. The attack stemmed from the fact that the guy thought that he had the right to try and kill a girl because she spurned his advances, from the fact that he felt at some level that she was his to be destroyed. A freak incident yes, but the roots of this destructive thought run deep. So now, what next JNU?