The issue of segregation of the sexes in college campuses in Tamil Nadu has been simmering on the back burner for long, but when IIT Madras (IIT-M) gets caught up in the controversy the issue begins to take importance.
How can IIT-M do this is the raging reaction among the student community.
Recently, IIT Madras -- which has routinely been in the news for its students getting recruited for massive salary figures that go up to Rs 70 lakh annually — announced a curfew for the hundred odd female students residing in the three hostels.
They are prohibited from stepping out of the hostel after 11 pm.
Many students, both male and female, called the move regressive.
"The issue regarding curfew is not just about moral policing. But also about female rights. Rape/molestations are not caused because of any problems of women (the victim). So it is a grave injustice to women when their rights are suspended when the males (possible culprits) can move freely," said many of them.
IIT-M's dean, LS Ganesh, however rebutted the charges.
"This is not moral policing, but a safety measure", he said adding that the curfew is not a new measure, but an old one that has been in place for decades.
Female students who want to step out to a lab (IIT-M labs function round the clock) or go for a midnight snack (eateries in the campus are open until 1.30 am) now have to obtain a pass, said Ganesh.
"We are a multi cultural society, and although students are adults and have the right to vote, we are still answerable to parents,” Ganesh added.
The dilemma that IIT-M administration faces — parents vs students' rights — is a small example of the larger problem in India where the male-female social relations and interactions are restricted.
A few years ago, Anna University banned the use of cell phones in colleges. Many colleges also forbid male and female students and staff from communicating with each other in any way.
Recently, Justice V Dhanapal of the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court looked into a petition by two students who were de-rostered by an engineering college. Their crime? They had sms-ed each other in college.
Observing that there should be a mechanism for depositing cell phones, the judge said the punishment was disproportionate, and told the college to take back the students.
However, more colleges are finding new ways of actively segregating the sexes. One of the newest engineering colleges has even 'banned' greenery of any kind on its premises. The founder's rationale? Bushes and trees could turn out to be a meeting ground for a "boy and girl" and act as a catalyst to developing "relationships".
Higher education analysts, such as D Suresh Kumar, say unreasonable restrictions — such as banning cell phones when students travel more than 10 km each way to study — have no place in society.
"The differences in the mindset of parents and students is another factor in this socio-cultural problem," he added.
India is producing more number of engineers — with an estimated 14 lakh engineering students in 2015 — than ever before. Tamil Nadu's pioneering entrance exam and single window counseling system have put quality higher education within reach for more students from the marginalized sections of society.
However, the formula for a comfortable co-existence of the sexes, both academically and socially, seems to be eluding the colleges.
Across India, class XII boys and girls are not ready for social growth. And isn't social growth a vital part of education?
“Definitely," said Amrutash Misra, an ex-IITian. He recalled an incident when a girl used to spend a number of hours in a boy’s room at IIT Madras. When the boy was questioned, after complaints from other students, the boy reportedly yelled at the professors.
“This is not how an adult presents his case," said Misra, who also felt that the current blanket 11 pm ban could possibly have been based on a specific incident.
However, many female students view the night curfew as a violation of fundamental rights, and a denial of their legitimate space. Recalling incidents of sexual harassment by construction workers (who are currently working on site at IIT-M) many students said they felt humiliated when the faculty wanted to know what dress they were wearing. Clearly, both sides need to take a breather and look up precedents.
Way back in 1999, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) took the lead and instituted the Gender Sensitisation Committee against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH). The composition of the committee included not only male faculty and students, but also female students, female wardens, female staff, a teaching professional from other universities, a female NGO and a female counselor. Nothing like that exists in Tamil Nadu, although IIT-M has a woman’s forum, and a few meetings have been held.
It is time we went beyond scratching the surface, felt Magadalene Jeyaratnam, director, Centre for Counseling, an NGO.
Gender insensitivity will impact on human resources and economic development.
"Regardless of how restrictive a college is, a certain percentage of boys and girls will always find romance. That is life, and our colleges and universities have to focus on skills development instead of getting bogged down by this," she added.
Academics conceded that there are fundamental issues which they were trying to address by taking a larger perspective. Meanwhile, girls at IIT-M are hoping they can go out for a cup of tea and samosa, whatever time of day or night — without it leaving a bitter taste.
Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist