Public universities in India seem to have become the new battlefield of clashing ideologies with the latest spurt of violence taking place at the century-old Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in the political hotbed of Uttar Pradesh.

Violence erupted on September 23 in BHU when some women students faced assault from the right-wing student organization Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). The women were performing a street play to mark the anniversary of their protests against sexual harassment on campus and to highlight the university’s inability to curb it.

A day after the incident fresh clashes broke out at several hostels in the already tense campus and the hospital attached to the university, the latter allegedly caused by a patient being denied treatment.

Clashes between students continued for three days in a row at the university in Varanasi, which is one of the largest residential campuses in Asia. This resulted in the university being shut down until Sept 28 and students being asked to vacate their hostels. Doctors at the affiliated hospital have continued to boycott work in protest at the clash between them and the hostel boarders.

Battlefield BHU

Students say the physical and verbal assault on female students at the campus in broad daylight exposed their vulnerability despite tall promises about a safe campus last year.

However, Vice-Chancellor Rakesh Bhatnagar termed the incident as a “fight between two ideologies”.

BHU, located in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled state, has seen unrest and violence many times over the last couple of years. “In most cases, Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) members are found to be involved in violence, directly or otherwise,” Dhananjay Kumar, a member of the Samajwadi Party’s students’ wing, claimed. ABVP is affiliated with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right-wing Hindu nationalist parent organization of the party which runs the federal government.

Herendra Shukla, a senior journalist from Varanasi, said: “The BHU including academia and administration has been extremely politicized since BJP has come to the power in 2014. Ministers and RSS ideologues hold events in the campus. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself addressed a public meeting in the campus last week, where he presented his report card. In such an environment, students’ issues such as women’s safety get sidelined.”

Varanasi, a famous pilgrimage site on the Ganga (Ganges) which is regarded as the spiritual capital of the country, is also Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency.

Universities going political

BHU is not the only campus in Uttar Pradesh facing unrest due to core institutional issues and the ideological conflict. Over the past month students at Lucknow University have also been protesting against insect-laden poor-quality food served at their central mess.

At the beginning of the academic session in July, Lucknow University denied admission to two dozen “unruly” students, allegedly affiliated with political parties, enrolled in postgraduate courses because they had waved black flags at chief minister Ajay Singh Bisht’s convoy last year. Eleven students were jailed for 26 days for “breaching the Chief Minister’s security” when Bisht, also known as Yogi Adityanath, came to attend an event at the campus.

“Black flags were raised to oppose the RSS event being held at the campus at the expense of varsity funds. Denying admission on this ground only proves that the university officials are going an extra mile to appease the BJP government,” claimed Pooja Shukla, one of the affected students, who became a face of students’ anger in UP.

Pooja and others will lose a year while a court judgment is awaited because the admission process for other universities is over.

Naveen Srivastava, a BJP spokesperson, said: “Those who talk about democratic rights, must also understand their duties and limitations. Breaching the Chief Minister’s security is a grave offense and the accused deserve the ban imposed by the university. The students who had earlier got admission in universities by fraudulent means or by previous government’s blessings are now involved in protests.”

The chief minister’s approach to the student unrest hasn’t been very constructive either. Speaking at an event in Agra’s Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar University last Tuesday, Bisht said: “Students are being distracted by an anti-national agenda being pursued by certain forces on varsity campuses.”

The opposition Congress disagreed. “The ABVP and RSS serve as an important trigger for the protests at few campuses. Institutions organize events at the behest of these outfits. At the same time, RSS is meddling with education,” Congress legislator Deepak Singh said.

Srivastava denied allegations that BJP doesn’t address students’ problems. “Genuine demands of students are being looked into. Those who break the law would face the heat irrespective of political affiliation. This is evident from the FIR [First Information Report] against the ABVP activists for Sunday’s incident at BHU.”

A multitude of issues

Students in Uttar Pradesh are discontent due to a plethora of issues such as political appointments at top posts, lack of facilities, teachers’ vacancies, arbitrary decisions and corruption in university and so on.

Allahabad University students are currently agitating for the removal of Vice-Chancellor RL Hangloo over his alleged “obscene chat” with a woman jobseeker that went viral. And students of Dr Abdul Kalam Technical University in Lucknow have been pressing for Vice Chancellor Vinay Pathak to be removed on charges of corruption and plagiarism.

The University of Gorakhpur, on Bisht’s home turf, is also on boil because elections for a new students’ council have been postponed, allegedly due to fear that ABVP members might lose. And the Vice Chancellor of Agra University faces charges of pursuing a BJP agenda by installing a statue of a BJP ideologue, plus allowing BJP lawmaker Ramshanker Katheria to stay at the campus and run political activities.

Ramesh Dixit, a former professor of Lucknow University, said: “People with a particular ideology have been appointed as heads of most universities to curtail academic freedom while funding and scholarships are cut down.”

“Those [students] who protest are often dealt with by cane-charge, suspension, expulsion, police cases and even jail term,” says Amit Singh, a leader of National Students Union of India (NSUI), the Congress-affiliated outfit.

Avnish Yadav, president of the Allahabad University students’ union (AUSU), spent 37 days in jail along with 10 other students in June for opposing the order to vacate hostels during summer break. Richa Singh, a former AUSU President, was also arrested in June for staging a protest along with other Uttar Pradesh Public Service Commission hopefuls over the leaking of a question paper.

Even blind students at Dr Shakuntala Mishra National Rehabilitation University in Lucknow were cane-charged last year when they refused to end their agitation demanding braille books while a Union minister was scheduled to visit the campus, student leader Sharad Yadav said.

The simmering anger in campuses and beyond also signifies the disillusion now felt by many youths, observers say. In 2014, Narendra Modi was successful in cashing in on the disappointments of an aspirational population, promising jobs and development.

“Most of his tall promises, especially the one to create two crore jobs every year, remain unfulfilled, leading to anger among students. That is why the BJP is so vociferous in initiating criminal prosecution against the youngsters for peaceful protests,” Deepak Singh alleged.

Students and job seekers make up most first-time voters (18-21 years), who constitute nearly 19% of the electorate. Their anger may cost BJP dearly in 2019, observers say.