In 1995, I had just moved into my second year of master’s programme at the University of Hyderabad. The 2,300-acre campus had beautiful lakes and rock formations and students often went for long walks, to date amidst nature’s bounty, for night outs. It was Eden, such that it began to heal me who came from a troubled family and from the terrorist violence in Punjab. The campus was alive with discourses, writings of great thinkers, and some excellent teachers – discussions on gender and caste violence. It opened my mind. I could see how many students who came from poorer backgrounds, caste-oppressed situations, could not fully comprehend the mostly English discourse in the Liberal Arts and Humanities departments. I also noticed how there was an undercurrent of envy or a bit of an otherness towards a student like me – English and Hindi and Odia but not Telugu, apparently upper caste, male.
On August 15 that year, Ustad Bismillah Khan was performing in the city. A great many students headed to town to listen to him. In the mostly empty campus, at 6.15 pm, a physics research scholar was coming back from her laboratory to the Ladies Hostel II. The route was short and one side of it was a forest. It was unusually deserted at that hour. Three men pulled her into the forest and raped her. The rapists were outsiders.
The rape changed everything on campus. It started that night itself with all the students being aghast, united, and protesting to the university authorities. We didn’t really know what we were protesting about. Gender crime was very low in the university. We couldn’t have asked for more patrolling or heightened security or curbs on individual freedom. That was against the ethos of the university. The protest was angst. Of course, it included the demand that rapists should be caught and tried. But it was anger, loss, a very demonstrative display of mourning at the death of innocence on campus. What we were screaming came from all that we knew or were grappling with in terms of the discourses we were now encountering: ideas of equality, feminism, and so on. It was accentuated because the Vice Chancellor was not available and the acting Vice Chancellor refused to come and assuage the students.
On the third evening of the protest, at a student meeting one of the anguished faculty members said, “I feel ashamed to be a man.” That divided the campus because many of the male students had not yet realised that the violence of the rapists was a violence of bodies, of gender. It was an anguished remark, it could have been let go but it was picked up by those students who wanted to disrupt the students’ targeted anger against the failure of the system to protect one of us. In about two hours, a huge group of male students rallied against the faculty member. They walked to his home ostensibly to demand an apology but really to lynch him. The target of the blame was the faculty member but the anger of some of the male students was also against the very modernity of the campus, the freedom that the more privileged students enjoyed, because of their previous education, social class, middle or upper-caste backgrounds, the discourse in English language.
One research scholar defied them. He stood at the bottom of the stairs to the teacher’s home and told the crowd that if they wanted to attack the faculty member, they would have to step over his body. This student’s wife, also a research scholar, was behind me in the crowd. She wanted to go stand with her husband. A few friends and I made a circle around her to escort her lest anyone attack her. One male student reached from behind my back to kick her. He fell down. We proceeded with the circle. The husband wife united and learnt the faculty member was not in his home. The crowd’s attention moved to the fallen student. The crowd shouted slogans against the women students in front of the Ladies Hostels. Then it dispersed. The university authorities, the faculty, even the security guards, were completely absent from the scene.
The student who had injured himself trying to attack the fellow woman research scholar complained to the authorities that she had kicked him. I was witness and knew well that she had done nothing. A University Disciplinary Committee was set up. The brave couple was determined to be in the wrong. The fracas between students moved the attention away from the rape. The students’ collective anger against the failure of the system dissipated and the university authorities did nothing to improve campus life. With Rohith Vemula’s suicide on Sunday, it is clear that even after two decades they have still done nothing.
The rapists were nabbed. They got a sentence. A senior researcher in the physics laboratory married the woman. I have visited the campus a few times since I passed out. I have seen immense infrastructural changes: an International Institute of Information Technology opened next door on land donated by the university, the new Information Technology city has come up on large parts of the university campus, and many new buildings have come up inside the university. The Humanities and Liberal Arts departments have moved closer to the library. There is a shopping complex very close to the lonely stretch of road near the Ladies Hostel. It is clear that the vast expanse of the University has now shrunk. Yet, within the students, what has changed is that these articulations of caste and identity positions have congealed into political formations – the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad and Ambedkar Students Association. The authorities have still not woken up to fix the system. On the contrary, the authorities have become deeply politicised.
I remember three statements I heard during and after the episode. A senior research scholar pointed to me, “Observe the couples: one almost always chooses from one’s own class and caste.” A faculty from Mass Communication asked, “What is the point of talking politics day in and day out if we could not rally together for a joint cause for more than one-and-a-half day?” A professor on Fulbright scholarship remarked, “What has happened seems like a replay of the OJ Simpson case. In that [case], colour and gender ended up fighting each other. Here it was caste/class versus gender.”
It mattered to me that I was from upper caste and still oppressed by terrorism from my part of the country. It mattered to me that I was from the so-called stronger gender but had come from a background of abuse and mental illness. The gender and caste politics in the university and in our country has been and is being written in broad paint strokes. That bothers me. It matters immensely to me that Vemula wanted to be a writer, like Carl Sagan, but fell prey to the institutionalised murder resulting in suicide. I relate to his emptiness.
While mental illness in my family had scarred me, and separatist violence in my state had scared me, seeing a united movement for equality break down into such factionalism in an institute of higher learning broke me. After university, for a long time I lost my voice. I can no longer do anything for him but in my own life I took it as my responsibility to find my voice and try to nuance these brush strokes through my writing.
I will always remember Rohith Vemula’s final letter. To me, he is a writer who has ignited the country. His words will live on.
Amandeep Sandhu has written Sepia Leaves on mental illness and Roll of Honour on separatist violence in 1984.