Students Explain How St. Stephen’s Stifles Protests on Campus

October 10 was a historical day, Pinjra Tod (a women students collective) organised a protest march to demand the scrapping of gendered curfew timings across Delhi University. They started marching from the Arts Faculty building and covered several north campus colleges, including St. Stephen’s.

The march was part of our ongoing protest against curfew timings and the moral policing that women hostellers are subjected to. That night we marched for freedom from such arbitrary restrictions and also to demand affordable and accessible accommodation for all, including hostels for students with disabilities. We marched to demand access to clean water – a fight that began in 2015.

These aren’t issues specific to a single DU college, and students – mostly women – from across DU joined in that night. To symbolise our struggles, we decided to break the locks that click into place on hostel gates to keep women contained until the following morning. On October 10, hundreds of students broke the locks and forced their way into Stephen’s, Hindu, Ramjas, Daulat Ram, Miranda House and SGTB Khalsa.

Dozens, if not more, police officers and even the paramilitary forces followed us. Water cannons weren’t that far away. We had already faced the police two days earlier when we were manhandled by cops while staging a chakka jam on Mall Road.

This wasn’t what scared us the most. It was the fear of the Stephen’s administration and the repression that has historically followed every protest in our college. Out of all the colleges we marched to, St. Stephens was the only one where multiple guards and administrative staff recorded us on their phones. They started recording as soon as we stopped outside the college gate; every slogan, every speech that was made inside the college’s premises was taped. Some of our friends went to the café outside the college where they were again confronted by cameras.

This sort of blatant documentation demonstrates the administration’s fear and intolerance of any dissent. It is an open challenge to the students and a warning that you will be identified and there will be consequences. It is a scare tactic that Stephens students are well-versed with.

St. Stephen’s is infamous for its elitism, a fact that unfortunately is a source of pride for some students. The curfew timing in Stephen’s is 10pm for women, post which they are locked inside their hostels until the next morning. Men, as in other DU college, have no curfew. The march, where hundreds of students broke the college’s lock and barged into the college was also a symbolic victory. It was a gesture towards assuring that the college doesn’t remain a space where people of only a certain caste, class, gender and religion are made to feel at home.

However, the very next day we were reminded of the starkly different reality we live in when during the morning assembly, our principal threatened, “education is a privilege, not a right.” Such veiled threats are not uncommon. In Stephen’s, the residence (hostel) is given based on “merit” and not need. This makes students who do actually need that accommodation especially susceptible to menacing reminders that their residence can be easily taken away.

The college’s policing has already started. Students suspected of being involved in the protest are being stopped by the guards and the administrative staff and being asked their name and course.

However, it’s important to note that it wasn’t just the students who were scared of being targeted by the administration that night, but also the guards who were afraid of losing their jobs for not doing enough against the students that night. This is not the only instance where members of the non-teaching staff have been at the receiving end of such arbitrary administrative action. In the recent years, as a consequence of increasing contractualisation of labour, job security for these people who’ve worked at the college for years still seems like a farfetched dream.

Stephen’s is infamous for how strictly it cracks down on dissent. We have heard many stories of what happens when you speak against the administration. In 2013, the college saw a ‘house arrest’ movement where students demanded open access to the campus at all hours and demanded the scrapping of curfews and regulated night-outs. A large number of students who were involved in this were thrown out of the residence in the next semester.

After the massive anti-autonomy protests in 2017, students who publicly called the college’s decision to apply for autonomy arbitrary, exclusionary and undemocratic also found themselves targeted by the principal and the administration. While interviewing for a residence spot, several students were grilled about their stance on the protest. Questions like “Are you for or against autonomy?” were asked by the panelists, including the principal. Not surprisingly, a large number of men and women hostellers who were involved in the protest didn’t get the residence. Those who really needed college accommodation had to bring their parents and submit a written document promising that they wouldn’t indulge in protests anymore.

The memorandum of demands that Pinjra Tod has written also includes the removal of this “interview system” and the reallocation of hostel spots every year. These rules are clearly being used by the college to threaten students and deny housing to those who openly raise their voice.

The parents of protesting students have also been called up numerous times in the past. Additionally, students known to have protested are denied residence, scholarships and other so-called “privileges”. And this is how the administration tries to ensure that no one else dares to question its exclusionary and discriminatory rules.

Stephen’s administration is clearly scared of the culture of protest. They were especially scared on October 10 when women entered the college in large numbers, articulating their frustrations and reclaiming their space as university students.

In the chaos of that night, there was one moment that sums up the administration’s relationship with its students. As hundreds of students were shouting slogans outside the cafe, the principal stood a few feet away, surrounded by a crowd of police officers. At least five members of the administration were recording everything, trying to capture the face of every student standing there.

It is almost funny how scared they are of college students protesting for their basic rights.

To be completely honest, those of us at Stephen’s who were there on October 10 have been scared since the protest. Scared of what will happen when we return to college. Scared of how we’ll be greeted by the peers who didn’t join us. Scared of what repercussions some of us might have to face. This is the sad reality of St. Stephen’s  college, the “number one educational institution” of this country.

However, the college’s administration should know that we might be tired and even scared today. But never again will they be able to coerce us into silence. The locks will break this time.

The authors, who are all currently students at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi University, have chosen to stay anonymous to avoid retaliation from the administration. 

Featured image credit: PTI