#HNLUkiAzaadi: A Student Freedom Movement

Kevin James & Oitihjya Sen

On 27th August, 2018, a division bench of the Chhattisgarh High Court quashed and set aside the order of extension of tenure of the Vice Chancellor (VC) of Hidayatullah National Law University (HNLU), Raipur, Dr. Sukh Pal Singh. Since that day, there have been massive and widespread student protests at the University.

HNLU is a National Law University (NLU) in the State of Chhattisgarh. Chhattisgarh, despite being the 10th largest State in India in terms of area, is easily and unfortunately, one of the most ignored states in the national discourse. There are a number of reasons why this is so, including – the State being relatively ‘new’, as it was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000;a large tribal population which is again largely uncovered and ignored by the mainstream media and make it to the news only in the context of Naxalism; the lack of a readily recognisable Chhattisgarhi culture with no nationally popular languages, festivals, and cuisines of their own, apart from the indigenous tribal culture which is lost in the Naxal narrative. Add to all this, the State does not have the good fortune of being home to anyone of comparable national stature to a certain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, as did Jharkhand, another State created in 2000.

As one of the several attempts to put this State on the map, as it were, an NLU was established in 2003 to attract young talent from all over India. This makes HNLU one of the older NLUs in the country – it is 6th in the chronological list. HNLU as it then existed was housed in a small government building in Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. There was an understandable clamour for a new, bigger campus with better infrastructure. This led to massive student protests at the time, including hunger strikes, arrests, etc., and ultimately required interventions from judges of the Chhattisgarh High Court and the Chief Justice of India as well. Ultimately, the University moved to a ‘world class’ campus worth Rs. 60 crores, supposedly comparable with the best NLUs, and allegedly even better.

But there were several catches to this, and the full repercussions of the same are felt to this day. It was located in “Naya Raipur”, a little under an hour outside the main city. Although ambitious development plans were earmarked for Naya Raipur with a view of creating a state-of-the-art planned city, in reality it was a far cry from being a city at all. The new campus was spread over several acres, with only bare-bones infrastructure, and with neither walls nor asphalt roads. Moreover, surrounding this campus were vast expanses of empty fields and broad roads, dotted only by a few small villages. Also, in the many years of uncertainty and chaotic protests, several faculty members including 12 to 15 senior professors left the university along with the VC. Their replacements were generally not of the same stature, and were relatively inexperienced. The University failed to attract the best academics to what was essentially a life in rural Chhattisgarh.

Eventually, a Dr. Sukh Pal Singh from Banaras Hindu University was appointed as the VC. He had a considerable task on his hands, as the University now under his charge needed urgent improvements on several fronts. Dr. Singh first initiated several construction projects within campus – roads, streetlights, a new cafeteria, tree planting, building a permanent wall, some sports facilities, etc. By themselves, these can be considered commendable, and were certainly necessary. But it is fair to say that any incoming VC would have certain misgivings regarding HNLU, in view of its recent tumultuous history. In any case, there was a general impression among the students that the VC took several direct and indirect measures in order to cement his position in the University in the long run. Notable in this regard is the significant consolidation of powers in the hands of the VC, with very little delegation.  Even when power was delegated, the faculty members so empowered were widely viewed as sycophants. Whether true or not, there seemed to emerge a distinct contingent of such persons, who were regularly seen with the VC and were routinely favoured and rewarded for their different grades of sycophancy. There were also rumours regarding influential friendships being forged between the head of the institution and several high-ranking officers of the State secretariat and High Court.

The HNLU Act, which established the University, provided for various authorities such as the Executive and the Academic Council, and these councils were expected to conduct meetings periodically. Since the minutes of these meetings were not published, the rumours became stronger that with each meeting, the VC was only further leveraging his position. These suspicions seemed only to get confirmed, when at the end of Dr. Singh’s term in 2014, it emerged that his term had been extended to 2019. This was done through an amendment in the Act itself, on the basis of an Executive Council recommendation, which increased the retirement age to 70 years.

Another point worth noting around this time is the state of student politics. In the infamous campus protests around 2009, the students had taken a leading role. But this time around, there were simply no Student Body elections for several years, as permission for conducting the same was repeatedly denied over several grounds. This had the effect of tangibly reducing any bargaining power that the students may otherwise have had, which could have been used to assert and articulate their perceived grievances at the state of affairs. As a result, the student protests of the past had long disappeared from the collective consciousness, except as a vague memory. The Registrar was replaced, and this was viewed as another instance of the general policy of rewarding sycophancy. Attrition of talented teachers could not be stopped and alleged instances of nepotism and favouritism were often quoted by outgoing faculties as the reason for their resignation. All of this was reflected in a simmering but muted sense of resignation among the students, and the general perception was that the University environment, completely cutoff as it was from any national exposure, was now also ruled with an iron fist.

To add to all this, there were concerns regarding the manner in which University funds were being spent. Many new constructions on campus were genuinely puzzling, including for instance incomplete railings over drains which were already covered and a ‘utility centre’ which was completed but remained unused for more than a year. The University was generally generous with funding students for international moot court competitions and conferences, and this was a rare redeeming factor in the eyes of many students. However, over time these disbursements became increasingly erratic, leading to creeping fears of favouritism and bias. There was a notification which indefinitely suspended all disbursements for such purposes, but which was unceremoniously revoked several months later, without any reasons being mentioned. Additionally, there was an almost universal belief across the student fraternity that the University’s relations with its mess contractor involved corruption. Despite several protests and repeated petitions by the students at the appalling quality of food being served, including evidence of rats and insects in the food and several instances of students falling sick during exams, the same mess contractor was awarded the contract year after year. Moreover, the same contractor operated the mess, the canteen as well as the cafeteria, and thereby had a virtual monopoly on the food served on the campus. This was especially disappointing for the students given the dire lack of any alternative food joints anywhere near campus coupled with the fact that mess fees were mandatorily payable in lump sum, regardless of whether a student had food from the mess or not.

All in all, the system in place was perceived as completely opaque, self-serving and probably corrupt. And despite all this, which is only a small representative cross section of the various brewing issues in the University, the people running the University seemingly suffered no repercussions whatsoever for the poor state of affairs. Due to the extension in his term, no batch in the University could remember a time where Dr. Singh was not the VC. “It became accepted wisdom among the students that the VC had, by systematically crushing dissent, fostering a top-down culture of sycophancy and maintaining influential friendships, ensured that he could operate above accountability or transparency. That the University was in an abandoned corner of an abandoned State certainly did not help”, explains a student from the University, requesting to remain anonymous.

It is in this context that the 27th August judgement in Avinash Samal v. State of Chhattisgarh and its aftermath must be placed. Dr. Samal was a Political Science teacher, and was a member of the Executive Council at the time when the term of the VC was extended. Citing irregularities in the manner in which Dr. Singh’s appointment was extended, he filed a case against the authorities involved. Subsequently, despite being heavily involved in several administrative matters of the University including successfully organising the Common Law Admission test of 2013, he was stripped off all his responsibilities and his ostracization was seen as a direct consequence of his ‘uncharitable’ actions. Despite early legal setbacks, with the case being initially dismissed for a lack of locus standi, Dr. Samal eventually got a decision in his favour, as a division bench of the Chhattisgarh High Court set aside the extension granted to the VC with immediate effect. Despite having almost completed his extended tenure, the VC now had to leave immediately. As this news reached the campus, Dr. Samal, who describes himself on social media as a ‘maverick’, became an instant sensation, and was cheered by students and greeted with standing ovations throughout the day.

Soon after the judgement being passed, the student body swung into quick action. It sensed a rare window of opportunity for asserting several long-suppressed demands, and sought to act accordingly. Some of these demands included: abolition of hostel curfew timings, setting up a review commission to look into the affairs of the University as provided for under the Act, publishing all rules and circulars on the official website, securing student representation in Executive and Academic Council meetings, setting up an independent mechanism to address complaints of sexual harassment against teachers, setting up a feedback mechanism for students regarding quality of teaching, students’ services and institutional infrastructure. There were also widespread calls demanding the resignation of one of the girls’ hostel wardens, and of the controller of examination.

Stronger the issues, the more powerful the catharsis.

On the night of the judgement itself, it was decided that at least one of these demands can and should be tackled head-on– the curfew timings. This emerged as one of the major prongs of the ensuing protests, but was by no means the only one.To understand its background, it is necessary to briefly explain the ‘pinjratod’, or ‘break the cage’ movement, both in terms of the movement in general and its iteration in HNLU in particular. Pinjratod, a women’s movement, has its origins in Delhi. It involves students and alumni from various Delhi colleges protesting against sexist and regressive rules, which are often discriminatory against women but legitimised under the veil of ensuring safety. Examples of such rules range from curfews to dress codes to various obnoxious levels of moral policing. One of the broader aims of the movement is to reclaim public spaces for women. Applying this to the scenario at HNLU over the years, it is fair to say that there was a clear scope for a protest on these lines. The University, as aforementioned, is several kilometers away from the city, and aside from a few villages, is surrounded by vast tracts of empty land. After sunset, the area immediately outside of campus is pitch dark, except for the streetlights on the broad, empty road outside campus. Due to these circumstances, there were curfew rules in place both for the campus gates, and hostel gates. Technically, the campus gates were closed at 6:30pm, after which no was allowed to venture outside. Persons who had gone out before 6:30 could however return before 10:30pm.  After 10:30pm, in addition to the campus gates, the boys’ and girls’ hostels would also be locked. The library, mess, cafeteria, gym, were all closed before 10:30pm. Now it is worth noting that although on paper, the curfew rules are non-discriminatory, in practice this was not so. The rules hardly applied to boys, who could walk in and out at will, with negligible resistance from the guards. The rule was only enforced when wardens were on the rounds, which obviously was the exception and not the norm, and even then, only for a limited period of time. However, the experience of the girls was starkly different. In the event that a girl did not make it to the hostel before 10:30, she would be made to stand outside until such time that the warden would personally allow her to enter. Usually before this, her parents would be informed about the same. Further, if a female student had to leave the campus after 10:30 for any reason, including for catching a train, she would need a prior permission from the Registrar after furnishing adequate proof.

Naturally, this state of affairs led to several complaints and demonstrations before the administration. It was a complicated issue, as equal enforcement of the rules would mean curtailment of de facto privileges which were regularly enjoyed by male students. This stymied the chances of any united protest on the subject. The only solution acceptable to the entire student body was extending the de facto privileges to both boys and girls, but the administration was completely against such a proposal. The newly elected Student Body in 2017 formally articulated these demands before the VC, but it was summarily rejected.

With this impasse as its backdrop, a Facebook page was created in furtherance of the movement, and it was run anonymously. This page would often share news of anti-curfew campaigns carried out in various other universities. It would also publish articles and share opinion pieces on the subject. This set into motion a series of events, which came to a head when several posters in support of the movement were unceremoniously pulled down by the University. The aftermath of this incident was marked by a crackdown by the wardens, including interrogations of several students, and various other measures. Ultimately, the movement lost steam. Still, the page continued to exist, as the underlying issues remained relevant and unresolved. This expressed itself in full force on the night of 27th August, and as yet shows no sign of abating.

What happens when a system widely perceived as autocratic and centered on a despot, is suddenly decapitated? How does the rest of the body, widely held to be comprising of sycophants, react? What effect does it have on a student fraternity, which was collectively suppressed till as far back as it could remember?  These are important questions and need to be borne in mind when considering the events that transpired subsequent to the passing of the fateful judgement itself. What is the logical backbone of a protest, and is it always to be found in a mere narrative sequence? Avinash Samal v. State of Chhattisgarh and the resultant removal of the VC was undoubtedly a paradigm-shifting event. But it is of limited utility as a causal factor, and more appropriately should be considered as a mere spark igniting the movement. It fails to explain the nature, magnitude and scope of the ensuing protests. To understand why and how the current events at HNLU came to unfold, it is necessary to look beyond the sudden push lent by the 27th August judgement, and take into account the long history of seemingly unpopular actions and perceived corrupt practices by those in power inside the campus.

There have been several posts on social media in support of the movement on HNLU, and most commonly these have carried the hashtag ‘HnluKiAzaadi’, or ‘Freedom of HNLU’. This is an indication of the broad spirit of the protest, which is manifesting itself on multiple fronts. The students have been galvanised by the sudden feeling of agency, which was directly and indirectly suppressed for the longest time. Determined that this new-found window of opportunity should not shut before a majority of their demands are met, the protests have been non-violent, relentless and steadfast. The students have stayed outside their hostel (but within the campus), violating the curfew rules en masse. This has led occasionally to misconceptions that the entire movement is solely about the curfew rules, but that is not the case. Symbolically breaking the curfew rules, in numbers, and carrying out peaceful protests thereafter, has captured the imagination of the student fraternity. To a large extent, it is about feeling their way into this new-found power of agency. This feeling is further accentuated by the geographical isolation of the University. It is relevant in understanding the present events in two senses – on the one hand, it is felt that owing to the remoteness of the University, various perceived injustices within the campus walls would remain confined within them. On the other hand, and flowing from the first, there was a feeling that unless the initiative was seized by the students, and change forced through at the level of collective bargaining, nothing would change. The mass participation confirms how widespread many grievances were, and even the infamous student protests of the past has been cited in the context of the present protest. Attempts have been made to characterise these protests as a reawakening of the “Hidayatullah Spirit”, which is a clear reference to the past.

Thus, it is clear that certain historical and cultural factors are crucial in understanding these events, without which it is naturally difficult for an outsider to fully appreciate the nuances involved. Reduced to mere narrative sequence, it is hard to make sense of how a VC’s dismissal can immediately lead to such vehement protests. It is also easy to conflate the multiple issues involved, and reduce it to a mere articulation of anti-curfew sentiment. While this movement should be seen from the perspective of a systematic suppression of any form of dissent against practices which were felt to be shamelessly oppressive and discriminatory on the basis of gender, it is important to note the anti-curfew aspect is only the most potent and symbolic platform to express the essence of the students’ demands and their newfound spirit. The protests must be seen as an attempt to reclaim the University for the students, to reclaim its public spaces, to ensure transparency in decision making, to secure a seat at the tables of power, and to ensure that this momentous event results in lasting, fundamental change. Cautionary tales have been exchanged regarding how the spirit of the previous protests had completely dissipated over time. The students are wary of this possibility, and this partially explains why they have not settled yet despite several negotiations with the newly-appointed interim VC, which have been partly successful. There is a feeling now, acknowledged by all, that normalcy cannot resume, if normalcy entails the status quo as it existed before the judgement. It remains to be seen how negotiations will progress in the coming days, and whether the collective show of strength will translate to tangible, meaningful change.

Kevin James and Oitihjya Sen are former students of HNLU (Class of 2018).

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| Stronger the issues, more powerful the catharsis.