Tamil Nadus gender prisons Engineering colleges with medieval mindsetsImage for representational purpose
news Saturday, August 01, 2015 - 05:30

Jesadimai PangiRaj (JPR) aka Col. Dr. Jeppiaar, popularly known in Tamil Nadu simply as Jeppiaar is the stuff of legends. For decades now, his speeches have regaled students studying in his numerous colleges. His contribution to the private higher education sector is no mean achievement. If not for him and a few others, Tamil Nadu might not be producing engineers dime a dozen. But another achievement of his has been captured in a phrase often, possibly falsely, attributed to him, “Boys-boys talk. Girls-girls talk. Boys girls don’t talk.”

In the corridors of technical education in Tamil Nadu, interaction with the opposite sex has been known to cost a student dearly. The belief, quite clearly rooted in medieval mindsets, is that if boys and girls talk to each other, it will lead to ‘love’, which is the first step towards academic failure and life destroyed forever. And Jeppiaar was the barefaced flag-bearer of that mindset.

Since the early 90’s, the business of engineering colleges has flourished in Tamil Nadu like many other states. But along with the drive to grow the education sector came along a rigid, disciplinarian, control-freak attitude of the administrators and educationalists towards students. What institutionalised the attitude was that students to begin with were tame enough to suffer through it, parents preferred and encouraged such strict rules, and educationalists benefited financially from it.

Today, separating the sexes and rigid discipline in colleges is so common that no one bats an eyelid anymore.

Engineering Penal Code: Fear rules

Engineering colleges run fleets of buses (which are, by the way, the mandatory form of transport) ferrying students. A couple of years back, in many of these buses, a single iron rod used to run along the centre of the bus, separating rows for boys and girls. For the alumni of these colleges, that iron rod was etched in their memory as a marker for what it meant to be an engineering student.

From separate staircases allocated for each sex, to continuous monitoring by non-teaching faculty to prevent interaction, even a cursory exchange of conversation or glance at a student of the opposite sex was considered a cardinal sin. Some of these rules have improved for the better, but many colleges do abide by it, still.

One of the college canteens had their seats divided in the following categories: “Veg Boys”, “Veg Girls”, “Non-Veg Boys” and “Non-Veg Girls”.

Some colleges had ridiculously detailed dress codes. Sample this:

In one of the colleges, the girls had to pin their dupatta, compulsorily, at three body locations – one in each shoulder and one at chest level, just in case an ‘immoral’ girl was flaunting her body in front of a ‘perverted’ boy. The big brother was always watching, and had rules for everything.

Now, boys should be clean-shaven and cannot wear denims or casual footwear. For girls, dress code includes salwar-tops without a slit, tops at knee-length and netted-dupattas and leggings are a strict no.

“When we get down from our college buses, members of the staff are waiting at the entrance and staring at our legs to find out if we have broken the rules,” says a former female student of St. Josephs.

So dedicatedly is the rule followed in some colleges that in 2013, when popular city-based blogger Kiruba Shankar arrived at Chennai’s RMD College of Engineering to deliver a lecture on entrepreneurship, he was requested to change as he was dressed in his trademark denims. He refused to heed to request and left without delivering the lecture.

Even parents have been turned away for turning up in a pair of jeans.

“Right from the morning when we got into the bus, everything was divided for us. Girls and boys were seated separately in class, the cafeteria was separate again,” says *Maithri who graduated from Jeppiaar College of Engineering in 2012.

In fact, many colleges have specialized non-teaching staff or ‘squads’ keeping an eye on students and teachers. These ‘squads’, which some students say comprises of thuggish looking, muscular men, scrutinize the behaviour of students, and are given a free hand to ‘take action’.

“We always had a floor-in-charge. Their job was to notice if girls and boys were talking. If they heard or saw anything, then they would take immediate action,” says Divya, a graduate from a college in the outskirts of Tiruvallur district.

 “We have supervisors for every department and floor to keep a watch on us,” says *Sahil, a recent graduate from Panimalar. “They aren’t too strict about it, but they keep a watch. So students talk outside of college,” he says, matter-of-factly. But if caught, penalty is high. In addition to parents being called, students are suspended, sometime for entire semester.

Colleges like Panimalar College of Engineering, one of the top-ranked Anna University affiliated colleges, is as much preferred by parents of future engineers for its focus on academics as much for its ‘discipline’.

In some colleges, there have been instances of students being locked up in hostel rooms for being caught with alcohol, cigarettes or drugs.

A student from an engineering college at Chennai's Karapakkam, while talking to this reporter from her hostel, suddenly said that she will have to hang up as she needed to hand in her mobile phone for two hours every night. “They say that we will study better if they take away our phones. They are controlling our lives,” she said.

The colleges which were notorious for iron-handed discipline, like Jeppiaar, Panimalar and St. Josephs, are owned by Jeppiaar. But some of Jeppiaar run institutions like Sathyabhama university have relaxed rules, while the ‘segregation business’ has spread to many other colleges and districts.

The MGR loyalist turned businessman is open about it, so much so that parents flock to get their children admitted to these ‘Jeppiar prisons’.

A decade ago, a television journalist met Jeppiaar to talk about a controversy involving the suspension of a male student for ‘interacting with girls’. He told the journalist, “Why should girls shake hands with boys? Only lovers shake hands.” Seeing his success, several colleges have followed suit and maintain a strict behavioural code.

 The situation is, however, not the same in all colleges. “There are limits. We are not allowed to wear sleeveless tops. But as long as we are decently dressed, we can wear what we want,” says a 2015 graduate from SSN College of Engineering. Others like AU’s constituent colleges(CEG, ACT) remain comparatively relaxed and provide students a free hand, and without compulsion, the focus on academics is retained.

Obviously, the ‘law enforcement’ is not working

Far from improving the lives of students, such severe rules have often held students back from developing social skills.

“Boys, especially those coming from villages, are generally shy in front of girls. I have seen it first hand, they even hesitate to open their mouths during group discussions for placements when girls are around. Social skills in most students are a big zero”, says *Sahil from Panimalar.

Hari, a student who graduated from a college in Madurai, says the segregation has only ended up getting students more curious in unhealthy way. “It is obvious that any forbidden fruit is tastier, and that’s what ends up happening,” he says.

Students also say that the constant labelling of those who have friends in opposite sex as ‘immoral’ has a disturbing effect on their psyche. “Many professor calls us girls with ‘bad character’ when they see us talking to boys. It’s demeaning,” says a recent graduate from St. Josephs.

“I don’t enjoy my college life. I have seen how my siblings enjoy in Kerala. What is this?” asks *Hemalatha, an engineering student in a Chennai college.

Nope, there is no light at the end of the tunnel

In 2012, Kiran Kumar was summoned by Sairam institute’s administrative office in Chennai to discuss his son’s poor academic performance. “They asked me to slap him. I refused. Then they slapped him in front of my eyes,” he alleges. His son was later forcibly told to transfer to another college for poor performance. But a parent like Kiran is rare. Most others like the idea of a strict, disciplinarian college.

“We were living in Dubai when my son wanted to pursue engineering. Since we could not relocate, the best option was to put him in a college that was extremely strict,” says Geetha M, a parent from Kerala.

And it isn’t just parents, there are students too who are comfortable with the rules.

 “Some people show indiscipline in spite of the rules. Imagine if they were studying in a free environment,” says Divya, a former Jeppiar college student talking about instances where boys brought in alcohol inside the college. “They are just making sure girls are safe,” she says.

Mythili, a 2014 graduate Kumaraguru College of engineering in Coimbatore says there still are students who prefer a single-sex environment. “There are students who say that they are insecure about boys and girls interacting in college. Many parents prefer putting their children from nearby districts in Coimbatore because they think Chennai will spoil the culture of their daughters,” she says.

Senior academics have tried to change the culture, but in vain. E Balagurusamy, a former Vice-Chancellor of Anna University is staunchly against rigid rules and segregation of students.  “If they aren’t allowed to interact in colleges how will they perform tomorrow when they go and work in MNCs,” he asks. “One college cut its trees down to prevent girls and boys standing under them and interacting. Such behavior affects a student’s growth,” he says.

He says that such strict atmosphere was used as a “USP” to attract parents coming from conservative backgrounds.

When Balaguruswamy was VC, he says he prevented parents from entering the College of Engineering, Guindy, a practice which is not followed anymore, and parents are made to report for even insignificant misbehaviour.

The head of a well-reputed Anna University-affiliated college explains why his college follows the no boy-girl interaction rule. “Why should the students (girls and boys) talk inside college? They are free to talk outside,” says the head of Chennai’s top-most (non-Jeppiar) engineering college, known for its strict rules.

It’s been more than a decade that this practice started, but with parents flocking to these colleges without hesitation, change seems far away, the chain of demand and supply intact.

Attempts were made to reach Jeppiaar, and the heads of other sister institutions with no response.

Disclaimer: This report does not apply to all engineering colleges in TN. A number of colleges allow interaction with a watchful eye while many allow students a freehand. However, the above behavior is not isolated.

*Some names have been changed to protect identities of students

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.