NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Authorities in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on Monday ordered an investigation into reports that police attacked and beat female students with wooden batons during a protest demanding action after a spate of campus sex attacks.
Scores of students at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in the northern city of Varanasi - which is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency - began demonstrating on Thursday after a female student said she was molested by three men on the campus.
But violence broke out late on Saturday and reports - including video footage - emerged on social media showing police storming the campus and beating female and male students.
One video filmed on a mobile phone showed police beating a young woman lying on the ground with sticks.
“I haven’t seen the video, but intend to look into it,” Ram Krishna Bhardwaj, Varanasi’s Senior Superintendent of Police told reporters.
“It could have been university security guards as they have a similar khaki colored uniform as the police have.”
Uttar Pradesh state makes up almost 20 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people and is ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. The state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, has ordered an investigation, and a magistrate and two policemen have been suspended pending its findings.
Police officials said some of the students threw stones and damaged university property. Hundreds of students have been booked for crimes such as arson and vandalism, they added.
Students however say they were peacefully protesting against the rising cases of sexual assaults on female students on campus and a failure of the university’s administration to take women’s safety seriously.
BHU vice chancellor, Girish Chandra Tripathi, told reporters he was going to meet the protesting students when “outside elements” disturbed the peace.
“We are aware of the problems faced by female students and we are looking into this. I agree that there has to be more sensitivity toward the safety of female students,” he said.
University holidays due to begin on Thursday have been brought forward and BHU and other colleges in Varanasi will remain closed until Oct. 2. Hundreds of police have also been deployed in and around the university to maintain law and order.
Reports of sexual violence against women and girls are widespread in India.
There were 34,651 rapes registered across the country in 2015 against 24,206 in 2011, according to latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau.
Police attribute the rise to increased public awareness following the notorious 2012 gang rape and murder of a woman on a Delhi bus which sparked nationwide protests and forced the government to strengthen laws on crimes against women.
But campaigners say such crimes are under-reported as many victims in the socially conservative country are reluctant to speak out against sex attacks, fearing they will be blamed and shamed for the violence.
Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org