How an Institution Let Down Women.. Again

Students often hear the words “College is the best time of your life”. However, if you’ve been keeping track of news headlines lately, you’ll know that’s a blatant lie – especially if you’re a college student in Delhi. It’s been a hot winter on campuses in the capital, with alleged police brutality at Jamia, mob violence at JNU, and now, mass molestation at Gargi College’s festival, “Reverie”. Over the weekend, reports emerged – first on social media, and later in mainstream outlets – of a shocking incident of widespread harassment taking place at Gargi College, after unidentified men broke into the festival and went on a spree of criminal behaviour.

This included breaking through the college gates without valid entry passes and overcrowding the festival premises, but worst of all these offenses was that the intruders acted like every unflattering stereotype about tharki Indian men, inappropriately touching the female students, making lewd remarks, and in extreme cases even stalking the women attendees as far their PG accommodations. Accounts posted on Twitter detail the harrowing experience of the women who had the misfortune of being at the same venue as this mob of creepy intruders.

As of Monday, the incident has started getting attention from mainstream news outlets. Swati Maliwal, chief of the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) got involved, visiting the college to meet with the students’ representatives to probe into the matter. Meanwhile, the students of Gargi College have gone on strike and planned a closed protest inside the college. The Delhi Police, on their part, registered a case after receiving a complaint from the college authorities.

Also on Monday, the DCW sent a notice summoning the principal of Gargi College, Promila Kumar, to appear before it on 13 February, according to ANI. Kumar also spoke to ANI, promising “to set up a security protocol to ensure such incidents never take place again”. However, before the summons, Principal Kumar had a much more laissez-faire attitude about what was a grievous breach of student safety. One of the most shocking details to emerge from the “Reverie” that turned into a nightmare, was the principal’s response to students who went to her with their complaints. There were reports that Kumar responded to them with the rejoinder, “If you feel unsafe, don’t come to these fests.”

Principal Kumar also implied that any harm that befell the students was of their own invitation.

Imagine you are a college student, excited to attend a big festival headlined by a popular musical act. On the day, your joy turns to dread as the party is gate-crashed by hundreds of drunk interlopers more intent on groping girls than enjoying the evening. Imagine going to the principal for help, only to be brushed aside, as if a small army of harassers is a spider on the wall that you can just ignore. Sadly, the students of Gargi College do not need to use their imaginations to picture themselves in such a scenario.

Principal Kumar wasn’t done digging, though. Speaking to Indian Express (before receiving her summons from the DCW), Kumar said that no complaint had been filed on the day. She also implied that any harm that befell the students was of their own invitation, saying, “We had police, commandos and bouncers on campus, and staff were also on duty. There was an arena in the campus meant only for girls. If they were outside that, it was their personal choice.” Forget for a moment that accounts from the ground claim that security forces failed to intervene, the principal’s decision to blame the victims for what transpired is a slap in the face to those who thought that colleges were safe spaces for the young – regardless of gender – to experiment with progressivism.

It’s no secret that India is still a largely patriarchal society, and in a country where being a woman is in itself a daily battle, Delhi is a place that makes that uphill struggle even more difficult. It’s the city of toxic masculine energy; the city of “tu jaanta hai mera baap kaun?” and “tu baahar mil”. It’s the city of Nirbhaya. But its colleges are supposed to be safe harbours from this stormy sea. Institutions meant exclusively for women, like Gargi College and Lady Shri Ram College, do not have the same “troublemaker” tag as places like JNU. For the young women who go there, it’s a place they can call their own, where they can be secure in themselves. By victim-blaming the survivors of the mass-molestation incident, Principal Kumar undercut the legacy of these institutions.

Hardly a week goes by without another report of an atrocity taking place on a college campus in Delhi. Hopefully, with the matter of the election finally in the rear-view mirror, the city’s focus will now return to making the old saying that “college is the best time of your life” true once again.

Dushyant Shekhawat

This article was first published in Arre