After JNU the ABVP targets Allahabad University and its first ever elected woman president of the students union.
Na to dhan hai, na to bal hai, phir bhi apni jeet atal hai. (We don’t have money, nor muscle power. Still, victory will surely be ours.) Kandala Singh meets up with Richa Singh , the first woman president of the students’ union in Allahabad University who struggles to create space for a constructive, democratic politics but faces harassment from the establishment.
A quiet creative revolution brews in Allahabad University
While Jadavpur, FTII, HCU and JNU has put the spotlight on student politics on campus, the first ever elected woman president of the students’ union in Allahabad University struggles to create space for a constructive, democratic politics.
Since she assumed office in October 2015, Richa Singh has complained several times of harassment by the university authorities and ABVP on campus. The latest is an alleged attempt to cancel her admission. Despite these pressures, both her election campaign and term so far have been marked by small but significant victories towards making Allahabad University a more democratic and inclusive space.
Opening of the girls’ toilets
Richa’s politics of studenthood includes addressing the basic, everyday needs of students. She explains that there not enough facilities on campus, and when available, they are not accessible to everyone. For instance, there are not enough canteens in the Arts Faculty to cater to all students. Another pressing issue was the near absence of functional toilets for women. Richa explains that she has faced this problem as a woman student: in her first year, she would wait for a long break between classes to walk back to the Women’s Hostel campus to use the toilet. Shortly after she was elected President, she spent two days walking around to different buildings on campus, asking if the toilets were functional. She shares the response of some of the departments: “Jab seminar hota hai, tab kholte hain” (“We open the toilets when there is a seminar.”). Others told her “Kya, itna chhota kaam President thodi karta hai” (“The President doesn’t bother with petty things like this.”) After pressurizing several departments to open the toilets, she told the women students in each department to take responsibility and ensure that their toilets remained open. Richa also got ramps built in the Allahabad University library and the Dean of Students’ Welfare office to make these spaces accessible for wheelchair users.
A model of creativity
In her qualifying speech, Richa told the student body that she had a model of creativity as opposed to revolution. When asked what that means, she explains that:
“There is a large communication gap on campus: between service staff and students, students and teachers, and in particular, between male and female students. I wanted to ensure that this gap is bridged by organizing seminars, cultural exhibitions, sports activities, introducing English remedial classes etc.” After assuming office, she has made some efforts in this direction. She organized a three days Sports Meet at the Women’s Hostel, with inter-hostel competitions. Such a meet was organized for the first time in the history of this hostel apparently.
Women in public spaces
“Aadhi aabadi ka naara hai, Lalla Chungi hamara hai”
(Half the population says that Lalla Chungi is ours)
“Aadhi abadi ka naara hai, Chhatra Sangh hamara hai!”
(Half the population says that the Student Union is ours)
Lalla Chungi is the name of a small market situated right across the road from the Women’s Hostel campus. It has a few shops and a dhaba. Despite its proximity, girls would not go there to drink tea or hang out in the evenings because of the fear of sexual harassment and the hostile environment created by groups of loitering young men. The same was true of the Student Union office. Namrata Singh, a former student of Mass Communication at Allahabad University explains, “The environment at the Students Union office was so hostile for women that girls usually cross that area with their eyes lowered.”
During and after Richa Singh’s campaign, both Lalla Chungi and the Student Union office have become spaces which women also frequent. Abhay Rajsingh, co-founder of Friends Union, an independent collective of students started in 2012, shares,“At Lalla Chungi, boys and girls have begun to interact, drink chai and socialize with each other.” Richa adds, “You can hear the sound of girls laughing in these spaces. It may seem like a small thing, but it is huge for us.”
Participation of women in student elections
Winning by a narrow margin of 11 votes on 1st October 2015, Richa Singh, of course became the first ever woman to be elected to the post of president of the Student Union at Allahabad University. This win was not merely a symbolic one, but came along with an increase in women’s participation and interest in student politics. Looking back on the election campaign, a group of women students residing in the Women’s Hostel campus open up,
“We used to think that student elections are dirty, not safe, and above all, not for girls….but for the first time, we participated actively as there was a genuine candidate. We felt that we also have the right to vote in elections.”
Richa Singh confirms that prior to this election, girls in Allahabad University used to watch the entire election from behind the hostel gates. Even their voting booths remained within the women’s hostel campus. She adds, “This time around, the girls brought politics inside the hostel gate.”
An independent candidate
Na to dhan hai, na to bal hai, phir bhi apni jeet atal hai.
(We don’t have money, nor muscle power. Still, victory will surely be ours.)
This was the slogan chanted repeatedly by Richa and her supporters during her campaign. In a campus where elections are contested on the basis of money and muscle power, Richa’s win as an independent candidate became nothing short of revolutionary. She was backed informally by Friends Union, an independent collective of students started in 2012. Abhay Rajsingh, its co-founder recalls, “the purpose of the union was that students should help each other out as comrades…we organize blood donation camps on campus, make sure that old textbooks were passed on to new students who could not afford them.” The Union had decided to back Richa, as they felt she had the larger interest of students at heart.
The only party support Richa’s campaign got was unconditional support from Samajwadi Chhatra Sabha, the student wing of the Samajwadi Party. Richa clarifies this thus: “I didn’t want any other party agenda taking over our agenda to work for the betterment of students, so I made it clear that I would only be interested in their support if it was unconditional.” In her qualifying speech, she told the student body- “I don’t want to contest the elections on the basis of caste, religion and region, or gender, but on the basis of studenthood.”
Despite these small but significant changes, Richa confesses that her focus on small things meant that a large part of the campus didn’t take her seriously at first -“I was the girl who would talk about trivial things like toilets. They made fun of me. However, when our non-violent protest against Yogi Adityanath’s visit was successful, it is then that the tide turned in our favour.” Opposing Adityanath’s visit on the grounds that he has made anti-minority statements, Richa and her supporters sat at the university entrance with a picture of Mahatma Gandhi. Despite the fact that they were attacked and beaten up, Adityanath’s visit stood cancelled (for more details, see this article in The Indian Express). She says that this success made many people take her seriously, and also intensified the ABVP’s attempts to harass her:
“First they tried their best to stop me from winning, but I managed to win anyhow. If I had not raised too many questions after I won, I think I would have been left alone. But now, I am being harassed.”
Today, Richa needs the support of fellow students and progressive forces in the country. Not just because she is being harassed for daring to succeed as a woman in the male dominated bastion of AU student politics. But also since she stands for a politics of nonviolence, democracy and constructive change.
This quiet revolution is slowly brewing at Allahabad University.
Note from the author: I first met Richa in Allahabad in Nov 2015, while assisting Professor Raka Ray from the University of California, Berkeley on a study on youth and aspirations. Data from that interview has been used for this article with the kind permission of Professor Ray, along with the data from a follow-up interview I conducted with Richa in Feb 2016. Photographs courtesy Raka Ray and Richa Singh.