In spite of the outrage, how did such colleges thrive?

Regressive engineering colleges of Tamil Nadu will remain so until parents change
Voices Sexism Tuesday, September 29, 2015 - 17:53

It was in 2007. A boy waiting for his college bus at the stop sees his girl classmate. He remembers it’s her birthday, goes ahead and shakes her hand, wishing her a happy birthday.

Within hours, he is suspended for one and half months by his college. A driver who had witnessed this ‘indecent’ behaviour had complained to administrators at Satyabhama Engineering College in Chennai, who later suspended the boy.

Working with a TV channel then, I had interviewed Jeppiar, the man who started the Jeppiar Institutions, of which Satyabhama was a flagship college. “Why should girls and boys shake hands? Only lovers shake hands,” he told me. He also said, “This is Tamil culture.”

That’s Jeppiar for you. He has never been secretive about the medieval rules that his colleges followed. Armed with a spy cam then, I had boarded one of the college buses and shot extensively inside three colleges in Chennai, some of them belonging to Jeppiar.

What I saw inside these colleges was nothing less than a cultural shock for me. Girl students had to use three safety pins on the dupatta: two pinning the dupatta to the shoulders and one to make sure the dupatta stays in place, over the breasts. 

Their heads down, they were supposed to enter the college, walk through paths marked ‘Girls’ or ‘Boys’.  We managed to get shots of canteens, staircases, classrooms- every place was clearly demarcated.

Sounds unreal? Well sample this. Those days Chennai did not have too many malls, and so ‘squads’ or goons hired by the colleges would even keep a watch on students in those malls, outside the colleges in the city. Yes, believe me, it is real.

There was a big hue and cry after the story was aired. Many other media houses too have sporadically reported on these gender prisons.

Almost a decade later, the image of a circular supposedly imposed by Sri Sairam Engineering College in Chennai went viral on social media. Though the college has denied it, the rules were almost the same as they were in 2007. Numerous ways were specified to keep girls and boys away from each other. The only addition perhaps was the restriction on social media and WhatsApp accounts.

We outrage once in few years and demand change. Some rare but spunky students too gang up and arrange protests. But in spite of this, how is it that these colleges that follow the Jeppiar model have not just survived, but thrived in Tamil Nadu?

Simple: many parents seek out such colleges. Where there is demand, there will always be supply. And don't forget that parents are ready to pay exhorbitant fees to get students enrolled in these colleges.

Most of these colleges have students who are not from Chennai city, and many of them are kids of NRIs. What better place to leave youngsters for four years without having to worry about affairs and other mundane joys that teenager may indulge in?

“We are living in Dubai, and it’s a big relief for us if the college is strict,” a mother had told me.

What we see as medieval, bizarre and absurd is the dream-college for many parents. Parents seem to think of their children as assembly-line products – send teenagers to a top-notch gender-prison engineering college so that by the time they leave, they are equipped to oblige their parents’ dream-life of 6-5-4-3-2-1 (6-figure salary, 5-day work week, 4-wheeler, 3-bedroom house, 2 kids and 1 spouse).

But such extreme segregation is creating a few generations of young men and women who may have no idea of how to deal with members of the opposite sex, personally and professionally, when suddenly thrown into a 'job space'.

Who knows how much this period they’ve spent in a medieval time-warp affects their ability to be wholesome, well-adjusted assertive individuals who know to think for themselves and stand up for themselves and others when required.

There are those parents who have taken their children away from such colleges, but they are sadly a negligible minority. There are others who protested when students were assaulted or failed by college managements as mode of punishment. But collectively, no one has stood up.

The problem is one of society, the solution lies there too, couched in a golden rule of economics – if there is no demand, there will be no supply. The change has to happen outside the colleges first. Parents, grow a conscience and know the importance of freedom for your children, you are destroying our future.

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