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Sekar Viswanathan, the dynastic Vice President of VIT Univesity, has among his ‘Core Values’, as posted on the university’s website, “No discrimination based on race, language, caste or creed”. Interestingly, he missed gender- an omission that becomes more and more glaring when one tries to contextualise the recent happenings at the university.

The self-proclaimed #1 private university in India is probably not too far from the number one spot with respect to gender based discrimination. With a moral code as complicated and illogical as a religious text, the university administration makes no apologies about blatantly using ‘Indian Values’ and ‘the Institution’s Reputation’ as an excuse to prevent girls (and sometimes boys) from living an enriching university life, or at the very least, exercising the basic rights guaranteed to every citizen of this country.

sexism

Recently, two girls from the university have been asked to go home. Why? Because they dared to dissent. As per sources from VIT, on being denied permission to extend their hostel in-time so as to be able to effectively work with an NGO they were volunteering with, one of the girls, irked by the ugly double standards and stereotyping, started an online survey about misogyny in the university and complemented that with a facebook post. This brazen act of free speech was too hot for the university to handle. Allegedly, calling the survey ‘a loaded gun’ to the head of the administration, they asked the two girls to go home, but didn’t officially declare them suspended, for fear of discontentment and a possible uprising within the student body (it goes without saying though, that peaceful protests are banned within many university campuses in India, especially if said protest is against the university administration).
(http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/two-vit-students-sent-home-for-dissent/article5223751.ece)

Not only does this act of unbridled authoritarian tyranny offend my sensibilities as a feminist, but it also enrages me as an Indian, and as someone who values doubt, enquiry, and above all, the freedom to think and to speak.

VIT university is the custodian of the academic and professional future of about 17,000 students, and supposedly has no qualms about using this as leverage against anyone who chooses to be disobedient.

Most of the people I spoke to within the student body of the university did not want to be named for fear of intimidation by the university administration. It was, after all, a facebook status that got the girl into trouble. One of the people who wrote to me said:

“I wish the report was all there was to the story of discrimination at VIT. The rules for men and women are starkly different, with no logical explanation behind them, at all. What is more, following the report in the newspaper, all professors have taken to teaching Moral code 101 to their students. Statements like, “You should consider yourself lucky that your parents let you attend college”, “Indian culture decrees that men and women not be equal” and “If you came back late in the night, every night, no one would marry you” were heard in classrooms all over the University today. Teachers, the supposed harbingers of knowledge, justified sexist and misogynist ideas and practices under the blanket of the Indian culture. In the classrooms of a professional institute, women were dissuaded from competing against men, and challenging the so-called superior Indian culture. They were dissuaded from seeking jobs which required them to work late hours, told to give up professional ambition and take up light or no jobs because the “Indian Culture” decrees women cook, clean and care for their families. It seemed as if the University authorities were using teachers as their instruments. If so, it just goes on to show what they would do for their reputation. Even more worryingly, if the teachers were speaking their own mind, education in India would just be another source of misogynist, sexist ideas. People who hide behind 2000 year old, misinterpreted, badly written, unjustified social norms should not be allowed to teach the next generation. These lectures should be punished, by law, for spreading of ideas that are discriminatory in nature. They definitely cause more harm than the “defamation” of the institution that spreads them.”

Even though our rights aren’t absolute, university campuses are our last bastions of free speech. They are the places where people are most amicable to imbibing new ideas and most malleable in their application. These are the years where people can conceive and augment their principled convictions before they test them in the big bad world outside.

And even though we can’t expect every university campus to serve as a Miranda House or LSR-type hub of an indigenous feminist movement, any university that discriminates on the basis of gender is deplorable and ought to be stripped of any laurels that grace the ‘reputation’ of the university and along with that, UGC recognition. And this isn’t just a trivial matter of hostel in-times and out-times. It’s a lot bigger than that- our best-educated boys cannot grow up in an atmosphere of male privilege, while being provided constant reminders that ‘culture’ and ‘reputation’ are to be taken more seriously than the right of their sisters or their daughters to do what they want. Our best educated girls cannot grow up in an atmosphere where the cost of speaking up is so high, where they have to surrender a lot of their legitimate career aspirations to meet society’s expectations. Universities are meant to liberate people from patriarchal traps, but these policies attempt to, and to some extent, succeed in internalizing the misogyny into a new generation of bright young students.

And of course, this isn’t true only of the Vellore Institute of Technology. Universities all over the country are guilty of jettisoning the student lives of their girls simply because it’s the more expedient option- like a man forcing his wife to stay at home because the world could be a strange and scary place for a woman to be roaming about. Of course, different universities have their own specimens of authoritarian regulations that are inexplicably archaic and laughable- like a certain hostel warden in VIT supposedly prohibiting girls from bathing or washing clothes late at night, or like IIT Bombay, which apparently requires hostel room doors to be open 45 degrees when people of opposite genders are in the room. But the general thread running through most of the sexist narrative is the same.

                          “We are doing this for your own good

This is the notion that misogynistic environments justify misogynistic policies. Very few things are as reprehensible as using examples of recent gory crime against women in the country to legitimise discriminating further. Women can have either security or liberty, but not both. A recent report on sexism in VIT, compiled through anecdotes from students, made the simple demand that the campus be better lit, and has security vehicles patrolling, to ensure safer movement. This seems like a reasonable demand; but what strikes me as appalling is that the university pretends its locking you up for your own good, when the alternative solutions for making the campus safer are quite basic and ought to be provided by any university, private or public. (IIT Bombay does a wonderful job in this regard). It is the obligation of any university to ensure safety of their students, which of course cannot be absolutely guaranteed, in which case the students’ capacity to take risks should be respected.

Apparently no one cares if the male students of the University get raped, mugged, or murdered, the women are supposed to be magically protected by letting them out only once a week. Because all rapists take a break on Saturday, so if women go out to buy medical supplies, take classes or work for an NGO or do whatever else they may please to, and if they get attacked, the University can do a happy dance and say, “I told you so”. Because they went out more than once a week, they are entitled to be raped, and then be ridiculed because they were. When an educational institution with more than fifteen thousand students on its campus sends out the message that women who want to work outside or have fun outside deserve to be raped because they should ideally be locked up doing nothing but cooking and sewing, that is the message that the youth gets. The possibility of domestic violence/rape is a myth, here, because women only get raped when they step outside, after dark, on all days except for the third or the fifteenth of every month. And if those days happen to be not a Saturday, then the rape is completely the woman’s fault. Even on Saturdays, shouldn’t they be cooking?


“Thou shalt not question”

Change takes place when the status quo is questioned, problems identified and solutions sought. When an educational institution curbs your right to think, question and express opinion, and sends you back home, declaring you insane because your ideas don’t match the ancient rotting ideology they follow, you know that the society is stuck in the past. The fear that the voice of reason may break down the concentration camp that they have been running makes them send those away that question. Reason is kept locked outside the boundary wall of the institute. Those who question are made an example of, never mind their academic careers, to silence all others who may hear them and dare to speak. And the institution proceeds to violate all other fundamental human rights, because the Right to Freedom of Expression is effectively taken away, and all dissent is curbed.

                                

                        “We let you go to class. We don’t discriminate”

Providing equal access to classrooms, labs and other facilities to all fee-paying students is hardly a defense against allegations of discrimination. Even if the institution did grant equal access to all opportunities within campus, the question of who bears the cost of all extra-curricular, employment and educational opportunities lost outside of campus. Treating men and women differently is discrimination, even if it is done on only a few grounds. Different curfew times for male and female students, different rules regarding how often and for what reasons they can leave campus, and the procedure to be followed for the same is discrimination. Asking only women to choose between a shopping trip and an MBA coaching class is discrimination. Subjecting only women to humiliation and terror every time they want to teach the poor children or participate in a cleaning drive or take part in a college fest is discrimination. Sending female students home on indefinite suspension because they wanted to work as much as their male counterparts could is discrimination.

VIT authorities have not reacted to the report in the Hindu yet, mostly because of their belief that anyone who talks of gender equality is a lunatic and must be sent home. But the non-reaction is also because of the fear of their beloved “reputation” getting maligned further. Reputation, here, is everything. The University locks up women inside, so they don’t get raped, tarnishing their reputation. It hushes all students down, and should they dare speak, sends them back home, jeopardizing their careers so that not one finger points towards them. And when it does, they declare the finger in question “brain-washed”.

I hate to speculate in this manner, but it seems strange that in a university of 17,000 people, pervasive gender discrimination and a purported paranoia about the safety of its women, not even one case of sexual assault as come to light.

The solution is simple- we need to ensure that the uncorrected misogyny of Sekar Viswanathan and his likes tarnishes their reputation more than one or two incidents of belligerent girls behaving badly and speaking their minds. Supposedly, many people have written to sekar@vit.ac.in to educate him about equality and dignity and this could possibly be of some help. It would be wonderful if someone were to emulate the ’Pink Knickers’ campaign that was executed against the Sri Ram Sene where pink underpants were mailed to the group to protest against its actions at a Mangalore nightclub.

But in general, students in all universities ought to show a non-negotiable commitment to gender neutrality. The cost of speaking up is extremely high if it is just one or two people, because such institutions often thrive on exemplary punishment- disproportionate and unfair. But if a critical mass of students were to get behind a particular cause, there’s really nothing a university can do such that its reputation remains preserved and that it can’t budge on its policies.

If these temples of higher learning are meant to equip us to transform the country and the world, we ought to transform our universities first, because these are the years we’ll look back at- as the ones that made us who we are.

***SIGN THE PETITION TO MAKE VIT UNIVERSITY LESS SEXIST***

http://www.change.org/en-IN/petitions/g-viswanathan-vit-university-give-women-equal-rights-and-stop-suppressing-free-speech?share_id=QvggNqgwze&utm_campaign=friend_inviter_chat&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=share_petition&utm_term=permissions_dialog_true

Disclaimer: My sources for most of the facts about VIT’s policies are students of VIT who spoke to me under the condition of anonymity (for fear of facing repercussions) and a report on Gender Discrimination by the VIT Gender Equality Task Force.

Appeal: If you want to express your story of gender discrimination at the hands of VIT or any university administration, please write to ritvikchauhan10@gmail.com, your identity will be protected and anonymity will be maintained.

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19 thoughts on “Dare to Dissent: Here’s your Loaded Gun

  1. Indian culture & tradition? WTF?!!! Please tell the guy about Kajuraho, Kamasutra, etc. which very much a part of Indian culture. Indian culture celebrates womanhood like no other culture can.
    Rape is probably the only crime in which the victim is questioned & some lunatics go on to defend the perp who was apparently “provoked” by the girl!
    “Cook, clean,….” yeah, that’s important too. But why can’t there be a division of labour here? Why does only the lady have to give up her professional ambitions??? Can’t there be a just compromise?
    Thank you Ritvik for this excellent article!

  2. I really feel bad that still girls are not aware of their own strength. When they are much bold enough, Why should they stay in hostel? Why are they still answerable to guards and management? Let the girls who feel, they are bold enough to face the society and change the society, let take room or house for rent outside the campus and I support them they can do the best. Why still getting permission letter from management for outing and fighting for extending of in-time? You are they to make in-time limit? You are answerable only still you stay in hostel. So move out! Rock the society from the way out. Good Luck Girls..!

  3. just a thought …. it would be very interesting to read articles that treat the problem you describe in VIT from a pragmatic perspective rather than a moral one …. so instead of focusing on why what VIT did is ‘wrong’ or ‘violation of rights’, etc. I think it would be better to talk about how something like this is just a drain of resources personal and social …
    students go to a university to build careers .. that’s why they pay the fees … if any university is in any way not helping or actively hindering it then it is not providing what the students are paying for … essentially speaking its a bad university to go to…

    why i say a pragmatic approach is better … because talk of ‘rights’ and ‘freedom to do whatever you want’, etc always gets lost in questions of westernization vs Indian culture and security vs freedom … and the debate becomes moot…. two anti-thetical groups which refuse to engage with one other.

  4. A pragmatic approach would also be one which could convince the administration. I doubt they care much about the ideals.

    This is not to say that we mustn’t talk about ideals, just that practicalities must make their way into discussion too, perhaps.

    • Here are some possible solutions:

      1. Starting a change.org petition. This is an online petition that can be signed and the petition reaches the person after a predetermined number of signatories. The petitioner has to decide whom to petition. It would normally make sense to petition the university authorities in case of specific universities. But in case the authorities of a specific university have a history of unresponsiveness, then one can petition the University Grants Commission (UGC) asking them to force all universities affiliated/associated/related/deemed/etc to adhere to gender-neutral policies. If not the UGC, then maybe the Minister for Human Resource Development, although I’m not entirely sure what the HRD Min. can do in case of private colleges.

      2. Create widespread embarrassment for those who formulate and enact sexist policies. Nobody wants to be known as a sexist. This was the intention of this particular article. Sharing articles like this or printing posters with their faces and ‘Sexist’ on them is sure to make university authorities and/or hostel wardens regret their actions and at least start a dialogue on change, if not completely concede.

      3. Take to the streets. Inside and outside whichever university campus is in question. Peaceful protest is everyone’s right. As long as you’re not stopping traffic, or hurting anyone, or damaging property, and remaining generally peaceful, you are in the right and should never be scared to stand up.

      4. Passive resistance. Boycotting examinations, or any occasions/functions that are important for the reputation of the university administration (like convocation/graduation). I’m sure most universities have all sorts of student office-bearers. These people can all resign in protest, thereby stalling the work that they were all doing that might have been essential to university.

      5. Writing to the university authorities. Basically they’ll come around after all the spam. Apparently such a campaign already exists in VIT where students are emailing sekar@vit.ac.in

      Please note that points 2, 3, 4, 5 obviously require a critical mass of people involved. The number of people protesting should be large enough such that the university cannot conceivably suspend or rusticate everyone. These methods work best when no one opts out of protesting, but even if people do opt out, as long as they’re in the minority, that’s probably fine.

      And remember, the Fire Breathing Feminist will always support any legitimate effort towards gender equality.

  5. We could be a part of the campaign by informing ourselves, our friends, sharing articles like this and in general do anything we can to make people aware of this particular issue and bring the authorities to shame and force them to see whats right.

  6. Hey.
    Nice initiative.
    I’m a proud alumni of VIT. But in all truth, i’ve faced this problem time and again.

    Gender inequality, is a huge part of the VIT administration. But, it also ENCOURAGES RACE based inequality.

    Now, when i say race based inequality, it doesn’t just include North vs South Indians, (ask any North/South Indian), yes it exists..

    But VIT also ensures Racism exists far beyond that.
    For example, Chinese (and other minority foreigner) Students are allowed to wear cloths of their choosing – Jeans/ Shorts/Skirts etc to classes as well as Library, whereas Girls can’t even wear sleeveless tops! Guys can not wear 3/4th and shorts to Library… Indians can not bring in water bottle to Library. Chinese girls can hang around Chinese boys and enjoy campus life they want to, but Indians shouldn’t dare to sit in a mixed group.

    My point is, differences and inequality is rampant at VIT.
    Alumni should speak of it. VIT Admin to not have any ‘leverage; over us. What can they possibly do? They’ve given Certificates, Mess Refunds, Convocation is done with etc.
    I’m ready to speak up freely. Contact me – contact.nishantpatel AT gmail . com

    I am proud of my College life, but definitely not due to VIT Admin. We’ve had our share of difficulties starting with paid internet, no night canteens, food with insects in ISO certified mess. Not to mention the ‘hush-hush’ story of a Mr Govindan, a warden at Men’s Hostel who got drunk and beat students.
    THE 2 GUYS CAMPAIGNING AGAINST HIM AND THOSE WHO BROUGHT THIS TO LIGHT, WERE ASKED TO LEAVE HOSTEL FOR SPEAKING UP!!!
    Frankly speaking, as stupid as other ‘justified reason’ taht VIT has, How does curtailing internet post mid-night help? When trying to compete ‘internationally’ people need access and higher bandwidth of Internet. Volsbb rarely lives up to the mark.

    I loved and have developed a lasting relation with Dhobi + Annas + Akkas + (very few) Profs. There’s no single soul from VIT Admin whom i can recollect to have had ‘good’ dealings with. I strongly conclude that stewards appointed by VIT were far better than the Administration who hired them.

    Few disgusting, paradoxical first hand experiences/examples –

    1. From a new recruit to the team of wardens – “You North Indians go out with your boyfriends and behave ‘inappropriately’ (with shrewd eyes). We do not allow you to go out for ‘thaaaat’ reason”

    2. Library Desk Person – “Chinese have never wearing full pants. It not their culture. They can wearing skirts and shorts. They allow. We(Indians) not allow”.
    Dear god, teach (atleast the) librarians english first!

    3. Girls Warden – “You can not go home since your train arrives Vellore Station at night 11pm. Find another train”

    [As if she knows how ‘easily’ we get IRCTC tickets
    As if she thinks there’s a daily train to any part of the country
    As if she thinks there’s a direct train to all the places
    ]
    Frightened student – “Ma’m, there’s only 1 direct train/week to my place. I can’t take any other; additionally since i am travelling alone, i can’t take any other route”

    Warden – “Sorry, ask your parents (from Assam) to come and pick you up”

    Student (next day) – requests permission to leave at 5pm. Granted.

    PS – For that warden’s intelligence, the girl had to wait at railway station for 6 hours. Alone. I hope that was ‘safe’ for the girl student and better judgement call. Warden, you will go miles ahead in your career.

    4. Boys drink and get caught. They have to sleep at Health Centre. But girls drink and they get caught. They have to pay 10000 fine, fear rustication, ask parents to beg over and over to VIT Admin.

    5. VIT is famous for covering up its >>>. No suicides, Govindan incident, misc scandals ever get reported. All Hail you!

  7. They have violated one of the most important of fundamental rights- Right to freedom, speech and right against illegal confinement. There was a case when one of my batchmate’s mother was critically ill and one PROFESSOR commented-” You going home cannot cure her illness..you stay here for your test and then Gravitas, following which you can go”. Sadly, she passed away and the girl literally ran away from VIT!!!

  8. This is a major crock of horse shit…This is a whole lot of bull shit..I study there and no such thing as this Ever happening..

    • Well sir, its your word against that of all the people who have emailed me and commented on this thread about real experiences with sexism in the university. Unfortunately for you, I must believe them because their descriptions are substantive, whilst your’s just consisted of the word ‘shit’ prefixed with the common nouns for farm animals.

      I’d be happy to have you elaborate, though.

  9. Dear Jack,
    Are u getting a commission from the administration or ur getting privileges from someone…..:-) or may be ur just one of the admin huggers in cognito …….nwy, truth doesn’t change….but u can…..stop this nonsense in ur institute before newspapers n magazines stop even taking advertisements from u….

  10. U r doing a great job man. The broad minded student community will support u for this initiative. I will try to make sure that your reasoning reaches the right ears.

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