Symbols of a deeper stirring: on the protests at BHU

The protests at Banaras Hindu University point to a new kind of gender assertion on access and rights

The old and historically important university at Varanasi is passing through a significant moment. Educational institutions seldom serve as precise mirrors of historical change because pedagogic and administrative rituals keep their inner life tightly under control. Banaras Hindu University (BHU) is no exception. Rather, like Visva-Bharati, established by Rabindranath Tagore, BHU has maintained a veneer of normalcy governed by sacred customs and rituals that have nicely preserved an empty shell of a special inherited identity. The architecture too conveys a sense of permanent normalcy, like that of a temple. The decline in its institutional pride and standards had begun in the 1960s. Barring brief episodes of precarious recovery, descent into the shared hollow of higher education in the Hindi belt has been consistent.

The recent sequence of events at BHU has an element of surprise because it points towards a new kind of assertion and attempt to claim institutional rights. The administration seems unprepared for this turn of events. Its reflexes constitute the time-tested moves to minimise, pacify and press forward. It does not seem to realise, and may not accept if it does, that it is faced with an unfamiliar kind of protester who refuses to be seen as a client. The young women who paid the price of mass protest by getting brutally assaulted and injured have already become symbols of a deeper stirring than the officials of BHU have the wherewithal and imagination to gauge.

Different visions

BHU was the second university to be set up in the Hindi heartland, the first being Allahabad. The two institutions were quite different from the start. Allahabad University was created by the colonial government, initially as an examining institution like the other three set up in the mid-19th century. Only later did it acquire a unitary character. Once known as the Oxford of the East, the university’s architecture and courses conveyed the British dream of creating a knowledge society after its own image in India. BHU, on the contrary, was intended to symbolise India’s pride in its heritage of knowledge. Its financial independence from the colonial state and its residential character signified an assertion and a search. The colonial model of affiliating universities was essentially that of a bureaucratic mechanism to examine, certify and thereby maintain legitimacy of the distribution of eligibility for government jobs.


Above all, BHU represented a vision — one of many competing visions in early 20th century — of what India’s freedom might mean in the sphere of education. The monumental effort mooted and sustained by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya to set it up was part of an intellectual struggle that did not last long after Independence: the struggle to engage with colonial subjugation through education. The engagement covered basic issues and choices in language, knowledge, and the pedagogic ethos.

Allahabad signified no such exploration — although it was located in a city with pioneers in academic publishing and a literati that radically changed the dominant idiom of Hindi literature. BHU, on the other hand, provided an academic base where Hindi’s development as a modern language would benefit from archival and analytical research.

Although student activism has an older history, its eruptions intensified in the mid-1960s, disturbing the annual routine of life in many universities. The issues that triggered street processions and sit-ins were often localised, even trivial, but the restive spirit was real.

Many national and provincial leaders felt that campus disturbances indicated that the idealism of the freedom movement had waned. Some of them viewed youth discontent as a sign of deeper idealism. They were right in this estimation. To the generation born after Independence, just about everything had begun to look wrong. One of the first things to cause dismay was the calibre of people who became vice-chancellors. Those recruited to teach were the next major source of disillusionment and cynicism among the young.

Growth of access

Layers of disillusionment have sedimented. For the BHU Vice-Chancellor to attribute the recent turmoil to ‘an incident of eve-teasing’ is an insult to students. They belong to a new provincial ethos, subtly transformed by radical increase in access to school education over the last 25 years. It has changed the social composition of the campus population, imparting it far greater plurality than what prevails in the teaching faculty. Recruitment of teachers now provides reservation for the lower and middle castes, but the dominance of upper castes and competition among them continues to shape the campus ethos.

In this matter, BHU and Allahabad, despite their very different origins, have become identical. The same applies to male-centric ethos and policies. Young women are tired of homilies by university officials and political leaders who talk like grandparents. Equally tiring to the current generation of female students is the supervised freedom offered to them as a favour.

Their public fight is currently directed against gender discrimination. There is plenty of it to fuel their struggle. It is there in hostels, in admission procedures, in classrooms and laboratories, and in life outside the campus. But their anger is also about the role of caste in the selection of faculty and positions carrying public responsibility. Both Allahabad and BHU are festering pools of caste politics. The colonial roots of the former have proved just as weak to withstand caste pressures in everyday functioning as the idealistic roots of BHU have.


As new arrivals in the arena of higher learning, BHU girls are noticing a stench that boys do not, accustomed as they are to the many advantages that upbringing in a patriarchal ethos offers. The city itself is steeped in caste-centric rituals; even the language of daily use, including its abusive variety, carries caste messages. The young women of BHU have studied courses on gender and its association with caste. Some of them cannot resist applying this knowledge to their personal lives and their supervised campus lives. Having been sent back home after facing a lathi charge, they will no doubt receive sobering counsel from their elders, many of whom may not have been to college. When they return after the semester break, they will notice how many more CCTVs have been installed to make them feel safer.

Krishna Kumar is a former director of NCERT. His latest book is an edited ‘Handbook of Education in India’

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 10:34:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/symbols-of-a-deeper-stirring-on-the-protests-at-bhu/article19814386.ece

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