In light of the recent condemnable events surrounding IPCW college, DU Beat’s print editor, Anwesh Banerjee, spoke to Dr. Maya John, a professor of Jesus and Mary College and an alma mater of Delhi University about the need for women to reclaim spaces within college campuses and the collective efforts necessary to shape university spaces into more safe, equitable and democratic ones.
Anwesh: We have with us Dr. Maya John, assistant professor of history at Jesus and Mary College. She was also the first female president of St. Stephens College student union during her tenure there as a student from 2003-2006. We are here to discuss the issues that have been transpiring lately at the IPCW campus, but before we jump into that, we know that you have played a seminal role in the history of fighting for spaces for women. It’s been almost twenty years since you fought that fight, stood on your claims, and twenty years later, as a professor in the same university space, how do you react to the current situation?
Dr. John: Thank you for giving me an opportunity to share my insights and also sum up the disappointment that stems from the experiences that are repeating themselves in a space like Delhi University. In response to your question, I would say that, of course, the Delhi University campuses have proven to be very unsafe spaces for women students, karamcharis and teachers. The reality is that, it’s not just an unsafe space in terms sexual harassment being a pervasive problem, but it’s also a space that is highly unequal, therefore it’s a very contentious space. One’s own experience, as you trace it back to my student days – twenty years back, this was precisely the nature of the university. It was this prestigious space that was admitting women students, researchers, and teachers; but remained a space wherein structural inequality was embedded. Premier colleges like Stephens, Hindu, etc. in the early 2000s did not have adequate residential facilities for women students. Most who came from outside Delhi struggled in off-campus accommodations, and the women out-station students were often victims of sexual harassment at the hands of landlords, experienced rampant street harassment when commuting, etc. Women students were pushed out of campuses after 4 or 5 in the evening, leading to restricted involvement of women in co-curriculars and other contributions.
We fought this battle for equality in the university space, equality in something so fundamental as residential accommodations. So back in the 2000s we launched a campaign for more women’s hostels and safe neighborhoods. In present times it has taken newer forms, because it still remains an unaddressed issue. Even though the University of Delhi and colleges within have opened up hostels over the last decade, there aren’t enough, plus they are too expensive, especially the new hostels. It is worrying to see how their admin functions in a very ‘disciplinarian’ undemocratic way, instituting rules that don’t reflect the times, the demands and needs of the students. Thirdly, to demonstrate the existence of a systemic gender bias, everytime we have festivals like Holi being celebrated on campus, it’s always women staying in hostels that are held hostage – women can’t step out, are locked in, while men staying in hostels, especially post graduate ones take out these filthy rallies outside women’s hostels for hours. Most of the time these practices are within the knowledge of the proctor’s office of DU, yet no actions are taken to stop these activities. When I was staying in a post-grad women’s hostel, we were writing representations one week before Holi regarding not wanting to be held hostage and we demanded a stoppage on the rallies by male students – to no effect. The university authorities brushed it aside claiming it to be a tradition and saying they would be accompanied by police. That was even more ridiculous, to have police accompany a rally of men who are drunk and are taking over the street and making public movement difficult. This is the kind of tradition one has seen. I would also connect a lot of what we are seeing in IP college – the incident on 28th March and the subsequent crackdown on students who are asking for accountability, raising a question for why did such a security lapse happen, and I just want to explain this event in terms of a longer history of a lot of institutional apathy, tolerance for sexual harassment, and complicity of institutions in this culture of sexual harassment.
Interestingly, IP College, around 2008 was besieged by a similar incident of women students of the college being attacked by groups of men, being groped and molested. This incident was at the hands of men who had come to appear in neighboring government schools for the Delhi Police constabulary exam. Not only were the IP women a large number of victims that day. Since men had appeared for the exam across different areas, there must have been in different parts of the city similar horrible experiences for women who were molested by mobs of men who couldn’t of course be easily identified. IP college of course saw a huge protest. The then vice chancellor was questioned in terms of why his team did not know that an exam of this sort would be happening in many areas in the campus, why was there no increase in security, why the DU admin was not registering a formal complaint, etc. Questions were also asked of the police and higher authorities as to why was the police not willing to cancel the exam? These men were to become policemen themselves and how could the authorities let them get away. It was very important to send out a public message by cancelling the exam because of the way the candidates behaved. Look at the extent of institutional apathy, there was a crackdown by the principal back then asking students not to protest and the Delhi police never agreed to cancel the exam. The issue went right up to the home ministry of the Government of India. That’s the level to which sexual harassment in these institutions is brushed under the carpet and normalized. It becomes the mainstream narrative that – victims are exaggerating it, it wasn’t that bad. Even right now in IP, the college administration is asking for a proof and is denying that mass sexual harassment actually happened, whereas students actually have so much to share on what exactly went down that night. Because of this larger institutional apathy that goes right up to the top brass, it’s not surprising that the university and the local police stations continue to turn a blind eye to these experiences, and make them seem as if they are never that big in scale, and that incidents are actually being exaggerated by women who have lost their minds.
The second thing I wanted to bring in today in terms of experiences under institutional apathy which breeds a lot of sexism and unhealthy culture through inequality of access. Let us turn to how Delhi University treats scores of women students who are so vulnerable; i.e., the women students who come for a few handful classes on Sundays and gazetted holidays under the School of Open Learning (SOL) of Delhi University. The way these women are treated is ridiculous. Everyone from officials to guards at SOL treat these women as if they shouldn’t be there on campus, treat them like dirt. It’s also about how university spaces are considered as somebody’s “Raj”, some people treat it as if it’s their private property and not a public space that needs to be shared, that needs to be safe, and that needs to be egalitarian. The way these women of SOL are treated like cattle, shoved into classrooms – 200/300 of them in one class, then shoved out of campuses after their few annual classes. This is supported by high-handed measures like notices being put up in SOL centres about how women shouldn’t comb their hair, and take selfies in corridors on campus. These institutional actions perpetuate the ideas of the patriarchal gaze, and can actually translate so easily int someone misbehaving with these women, especially because they are treated as if they don’t belong here in DU.
DU very often has not made itself a safe space, egalitarian space for so many people, including women. The problem is going to keep coming up, there is always going to be an effort to deny it, brush it under the carpet. That is why students, women’s activists have to protest. It is ridiculous to see the way Delhi police is being mobilized to crush democratic students’ protests so easily. But where are they, and why are they not mobilized as a preemptive measure to situations like these in college fests. So obviously, this is a very selective use of policing and it reflects more on the insensitivity of institutions and administrators. Therefore it’s something we need to keep fighting.
Anwesh: I am so glad you brought up the 2008 incident, that’s a part of the research I have been reading up on, because this was not an isolated event. Just last year we had the horrific incident at Miranda house, and that wasn’t a lesson enough. You were talking about the police force and there was this picture a photojournalist from our team took at arts faculty the day the protest was. It felt as if we were in some sort of a riot looking at the amount of security personnel deployed in the arts faculty. People could not move, there was a traffic jam. This also brings me to the idea of institutional apathy that was so beautifully elaborated upon.
Right now, Shambhavi who is a student from IPCW is under a show cause notice, since they were one of the most vocal students when it came to asking for accountability. That also brings to light this history that exists in this public university which is supposed to stand for the liberal arts and everything that’s democratic and egalitarian. Whenever you ask for this accountability there’s a certain kind of repression and suppression that happens as far as your voice is concerned. There are two students that have currently been suspended from giving examinations because of their attempt to screen the BBC documentary, Shambhavi is under a show cause notice. It’s also very interesting that this event happened 5 years ago as well, after the 2017 incident at Ramjas where the lives of so many students and professors went into danger because of their attempt to claim their academic space and the right to have an academic discussion. From what I know, you were also denied admission in a Masters programme at St Stephens, which is why you had to go to Miranda House to pursue your degree. As someone who has also undergone this fight, how do you deal with this even after so many years and how do students make sense of asking for their basic rights, or seek accountability and also for students around them who come from faraway places to this university to fight for their basic rights? They don’t find it in themselves to ask these questions because this is the kind of repression you are met with when you ask these questions. So how do you reconcile this entire situation with this kind of fear?
Dr. John: See, being an activist right from my student days, I have learnt it the hard way. One way is that you tackle people’s hesitation and you also tackle the concrete victimization through of course being very strategic in the way you plan the next level of your agitation. It is crucial to take as many students and participants along so you don’t get isolated. Next, it also means tapping networks, preparing the struggle in a way in which you are also putting pressure on the authorities from multiple dimensions. If the students of one particular institution are pitched against their administration, that’s not enough. The college admin needs to be made to feel pressurized from other areas. It would be interesting in this case to see how other groups – student groups, women’s organisations, women’s activists, alumni – how they get galvanized and put pressure on not just the concerned college administration in the centre of the storm, but generally even on everyone else who is accountable for an untoward incident. Everyone from DU’s big wigs, to the college principal, to the Delhi Commission for Women, to the Delhi Police needs to be held accountable and asked as to why was this incident allowed to happen. Putting pressure from different forces and dimensions becomes important.
Secondly, you have to fight, because if you don’t fight, you don’t get anything. If you stand up, you keep the collective mobilization going, you’d be able to challenge the apathy and change the general ambience that people in the administration work with, i.e., the yeh toh chalta hai approach. So, as long as you fight back and you keep that going, and you connect and build the next phase of the movement in a strategic way, you do push for accountability. Whoever’s in powerful offices feels the pressure. Am sure the principal is currently having her own share of sleepless nights. My point is, we have to remember that it’s the continuous efforts that end in important change. If you don’t fight, nothing will change. If you fight, bring people together, then of course it is one important step in democratizing the way universities function. Because remember it is still a university space, it cannot get as hostile as a workplace or the world outside. So if you can bring them to their knees, which is a relatively more cushioned space – the university, then it’s an important battle the women students are winning.
Anwesh: Absolutely. There were two final questions I wanted to conclude the discussion with. The first being, because you are also a professor of history I wanted to ask, whenever these debates about university spaces come in there is also a lot of literature and writing that is produced in terms of how DU, especially the north campus is constructed as a space. It’s not a closed campus, like you have in private universities. There are students literally staying in very residential parts of Vijay Nagar or Kamala Nagar. Then in the centre of these spaces, you have these spread out college campuses. Almost 80% students don’t have access to the hostel spaces, only the top scorers can avail these. Others have to resort to taking flats or pgs in nearby areas, which has turned the entire accommodation business into such a thriving one, who exploit these students. I myself have so many female friends and gender minority friends who have been sexually harassed and assaulted by landlords, and have been in very vulnerable positions. They are staying far away from their families, who they can’t even inform about these situations. Do you think this sort of architectural structuring of the university space also plays into this narrative for the space not being safe enough for the university students? If yes, then is there any solution to finding a way around this?
Dr. John: One major change that is needed is for the university to create more of its own accommodation. When I say the university needs to provide for as many needy and outstation students, it also has to be an affordable accommodation. As I had mentioned a few minutes back, even the hostels made over last 10-12 years are very expensive and the facilities provided are very questionable. I believe all of us know about the Rajiv Gandhi undergraduate women’s hostel and all problems there which triggered protests by the women residents. So, it’s an important struggle that pushes the university to provide for safe and affordable accommodation with proper facilities. I feel that making Delhi University a closed campus is something we will not be able to immediately achieve, and even if it became a closed campus, it doesn’t guarantee that within DU classrooms, within college buildings, lawns, etc. sexual harassment won’t happen and that the incidents will not be continuously brushed under the carpet. Let’s face it, a closed campus is not such an important solution. What is important is that we equalize the space. It means we provide residential accommodation, more of it, so that students, especially women are not left in these vulnerable conditions and paying through their nose just to be able to come and study here.
Anwesh: Ya, the beauty of the university is that it is such an open campus. That is why when I read such arguments it really annoys me so much because that is the beauty of this campus. Okay, just the last question before we end this interview. Like you said, there are so many authorities and institutions, whenever such incidents happen, women and gender minorities are asked to prove and this entire culture of “yeh toh chalta hai” and probably “aap toh zaada bol rahe ho”, it’s something not to be worried about. This entire culture has placed women and other minorities at this position wherein they have to prove their oppression. Yesterday, I was out a little late in the night and I was coming back, I saw the North Campus claim the night march – something that has been going on for a while now and so what do you think is the role of these groups like Dastak, which are coming together, motivating women to go out and spend entire night reading, talking to each other, walking the campus and claiming the night. What other ways are there to show that these stories are real stories and the institutions need to believe us when we say this has happened to us, this violence is real, which we face on a daily basis?
Dr. John: These are interesting and important initiatives, these marches etc. But as I said, a lot of bad experiences of sexual harassment and being denied democratic access to university spaces don’t happen necessarily only in the night. Our fighting for safer, more democratic spaces in DU requires us to build many other kinds of struggles, movements and initiatives. I would suggest addressing one important cause such as the state of lakhs of women students languishing like second class citizens in DU SOL. Fighting that battle, getting them more classes and access to the university facilities, and basically getting so many more women on campus would make a big difference to the nature of the campus. I definitely think there are many structural things that need to change which will make the university space truly more inclusive and truly more sensitive. Of course, while night marches and awareness building are important, it’s also about how democratized is the space in the morning hours, how many more women have quality access to the university and thirdly the way our hostel facilities function – their in-timing and out-timing need to be rationalized. The culture of locking up women at 9 is really not the solution because again having lonely roads outside campus after 9 is not something that helps or makes the space necessarily safe. So even the way in which existing university rules function, when a woman can enter or leave hostel are all initiatives that we need to fight for.
Anwesh: Thank you so much ma’am. Thank you so much for raising the issue of the SOL as well, because that is something we don’t really talk a lot about in the mainstream as much as we do about other issues, and it’s not as burning an issue as claiming spaces and seeking visibility is. Thank you for agreeing to do this interview on such a short notice. We genuinely hope that people do realize that the IPCW struggle is not an isolated struggle; it’s a part of a larger history of fighting for and reclaiming spaces in this University.