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I’m made to feel like a ‘woman’

Richa Singh on campus. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Richa Singh on campus. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

The Allahabad University is the barometer of Uttar Pradesh politics. In November 2015, the political temperature at the ever-volatile central varsity soared when its newly elected students union (AUSU) invited Yogi Adityanath, the hard line Hindutva BJP MP, to preside over its opening ceremony. It was a prestigious affair and Adityanath’s lack of academic credentials, let alone his staunch anti-Muslim polemic, made him undeserving of the honour in the eyes of some students. 

Four of the five members elected to the students union, except the president (who was an independent), were affiliated to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarti Parishad (ABVP), the BJP student wing. It was at their invitation that Adityanath was to come to AU.

The president, however, was opposed to Adityanath’s programme. Tension soon spread on the campus as student groups and progressive scholars strongly protested the entry of the leader. Amid much drama, eventually, the university had to cancel the programme.

The episode not only brought forth the ideological tussles within the varsity but launched into spotlight a young woman, who aggressively led the charge against Adityanath and even sat on a hunger strike denouncing the leader as “communal and controversial.” Richa Singh’s fresh aggression and dynamism brought a new perspective to the student politics in AUSU, a traditionally male-dominated space, but also stiff opposition and conflict.

In what was apparent payback for her role in blocking Adityanath from the campus, the university had to cancel a programme organised by her after the ABVP protested the entry of senior journalist Siddharth Varadarajan, calling him a “Maoist” sympathiser and anti-national. Things turned ugly and police had to be called in even as an unyielding Singh shifted the programme to another location.

“There is no space for a neutral woman in politics. Either she has to be yielding like Smriti Irani or be autocratic like Mayawati or Mamta Banerjee,” Singh says. “The message to me in the first few months is clear: as a woman you can come out of your home, you can even go to work, but you are definitely not allowed to claim power.”

It has been a roller-coaster start for Singh, the first female president of the AUSU since Independence. From making history to being lauded as a heroine against saffronisation to facing derision and threats, her foray into student politics has shown us many hard truths.

In the patriarchal pastures of the Hindi-belt, student netagiri follows the trajectory of mainstream politics: submerged in money power, caste equations and muscle-flexing; candidates openly flaunt party colours with little regard for norms. A culture of kattas (country-made pistol) and crude bombs, and incidents of attacking rivals and teachers, with the invocation of the Gangster Act is a common phenomenon.

Against this backdrop, to finally find a woman leading one of UP’s most prestigious students union, historically a nursery for both State and national politics, is indeed refreshing. Singh’s journey becomes all the more remarkable as she has no political background. Her father is a retired government teacher and she is the youngest of six siblings.

An M.Phil. gold medallist, Singh has been involved in activism since 2008 when she founded the Stri Mukti Sangathan for women’s welfare. In 2012, she founded the Students Friends Union, a portal to help students find accommodation and books, in a city where students, especially outstation scholars, jostle for living space. In 2015, she decided to contest the student union elections independently. “It was more of an experiment,” she says.

But soon after she filed the nominations, she came under intense pressure to back out. The anti-Yadav lobby wanted to defeat the Samajwadi Chhatra Sabha (SCS) candidate and ensure that a savarna (upper caste) face won the election. One Thakur boy was chosen to represent that cause and, to avoid any cutting of votes, Singh, also a Thakur, claims she was asked to opt out like others. She stayed on.

Luck shone on her when nomination papers of SCS candidates were rejected due to errors. To ensure that the opposing factions did not take the coveted post, the SCS extended support to Richa, who scraped through as winner. “I was reluctant to take the support of any panel, but finally agreed to their support without any condition... We want to present a new type of politics where student welfare is factored in, so I agreed to the equation,” she says.

Amid all the glory and celebration, however, the road has had a steep learning curve. She says she is often subjected to personal and sexist remarks. “I am made to feel like a ‘woman,’ something I did not feel in the 27 years of my life.”

Usually student leaders become inaccessible as they go on to pursue their political dreams — Allahabad University is home to some of the tallest leaders in Indian politics — Chandra Shekhar, V.P. Singh, N.D. Tiwari, Shankar Dayal Sharma, Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna, Madan Lal Khurana, Janeshwar Mishra, G.B. Pant are part of that illustrious brigade.

“We are ordinary students. Toh waise hi hamara load kam hi lete hai (The babus don’t give much weight to our voice since we don’t bear any political affiliation),” Singh says.

Singh has shot off at least two letters to the Ministry of Human Resources Development following threats from the members of the ABVP. 


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Printable version | May 15, 2022 1:02:12 am | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/Omar-Rashid-talks-to-Richa-Singh-the-first-woman-president-of-the-Allahabad-University-Students%E2%80%99-Union/article59820542.ece