Students on SRM University’s Chennai campus were already on edge about rescheduled exam dates when they heard that a male janitor had masturbated at a second year woman when they were both in the girls hostel’s elevator together.
The incident occurred at 3pm and the woman in question tried reporting it immediately – but the wardens were the opposite of helpful. At first, students alleged, the delayed the woman’s access to CCTV footage, making it difficult for her to identify the perpetrator. Then, when she demanded a meeting with the vice chancellor to lodge a formal complaint, they told her to dress more appropriately, adding that the incident had happened because she was north Indian and that girls in the hostel were known to drink and smoke.
By 7:30pm a large crowd of students was demanding justice and proper redressal for the woman. Videos showed security barricades being toppled, police being brought onto campus. Although students maintain that they were peaceful the entire time and the violence came from drunk goons who took advantage of the chaos to enter campus.
At first the university’s administration maintained an apathetic stance, dragging its feet on filing an FIR and some members even implied that the student protest was a “ploy” to postpone exams.
It took about a day of unrelenting pressure from the students and the glaring eye of regional and national media for the university to finally identify the perpetrator and then file an FIR against him.
While some students believe the administration’s incompetence, not malice, caused the delay; others detail a long history of bias and apathy from the university towards its students.
The wardens’ alleged victim blaming of north Indians was unsurprising to those who spend time on the campus. A student who wished to remain anonymous said such biases are common, not just amongst the staff but professors too. Fluency in Tamil is rewarded with warmth and attention by professors, he said, whereas a north Indian last name or appearance immediately puts a student in the dismissed category.
Manisha, who graduated from SRM in 2015, told NDTV that men masturbating at SRM’s female students is not a new thing, “Even in the past male workers did masturbate in front of girls both on campus and off campus, on the way to the railway station, and our complaints were not taken seriously. Then too officials blamed it on our dressing.”
A current student, who wished to remain unnamed added that male staff members have been known to peep into girls’ hostel rooms as well.
Another student, from SRM’s Modinagar campus, recounted a visit to the Chennai campus, “We went for placements to Chennai campus and stayed in that campus for two months. My female friends said that the male workers in the hostel would come and go anytime in their rooms. Secondly there was an incident in our campus where a girl claimed that few boys tried to peep and make a video of her when she was in bathroom but she saw them at right moment and closed the window immediately. When she went to the warden, she said that boys usually act like this whenever there are girls from the north/Delhi etc.”
A quick glance through SRM’s rule book reveals the kind of policing its students, especially women, are subjected to. Women’s curfew timing is 7:30pm, men get an additional two hours with a curfew of 9:30pm. Additionally, it says that strict silence must be observed after 7:30pm.
The book also says that “modesty in dress is expected from students.” And adds a blanket warning against dissent or opinionating of any kind, with the statement, “No one shall indulge in politics, violence, rioting or instigate communal feelings or have dealings with outside elements. Such activities may lead to expulsion of the student from the hostel and college.”
Since college students are 18 years old and above, they are legal adults and policies like these seek to police and restrict their rights, the way one does a child’s. College women across the country have been protesting against gendered curfew timings and the culture of victim blaming that’s pervasive across college institutions. This week, SRM University’s students won a crucial battle in the fight for gender justice.
Featured image credit: PTI