From taxi drivers who cautioned this writer against entering the campus to speculation at tea stalls about why media vans have has been stationed at this specific corner of Hyderabad's Gachibowli area for the past few days, Hyderabad University has become a talking point – and not for its academic prowess.
The front gate has two checkposts manned by police personnel. Behind the barricades are members of the campus security who ask everyone seeking entry for an identity card before deciding whether they will be allowed in. The only exceptions are vehicles belonging to members of the faculty or carrying supplies of food and water.
The ban on the media on campus has resulted in a near-blackout of credible information about events at the university.
On the grounds on Friday morning, however, there is near-silence. There were no obvious clues about the ideological churning inside the institution. Since Tuesday, the campus has been in a heightened state of tension, after the crackdown that in several students being detained for allegedly vandalising Vice Chancellor Appa Rao’s office on Tuesday.
At the campus shopping complex is a makeshift memorial stone to the man whose suicide in January came to embody the concerns swirling on campus. Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula hanged himself in a hostel room on January 17, after a series of events that had started with him and four other Dalit students being put on indefinite suspension for allegedly assaulting a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party's student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.
Since his death, students have been sitting under a tent at the memorial singing songs of resistance, protesting, shouting slogans and issuing releases to the press reiterating their demand that Vice Chancellor Appa Rao should take responsibility and resign.
While Appa Rao took a few weeks off to calms tempers, he returned to campus earlier this week.
Students accused the authorities of shutting off supplies of electricity and water, and trying to starve them by closing down hostel messes. The authorities denied these charges: the lack of water was caused by miscreants damaging a pump, they said, while the messes stopped functioning after staff went on strike to protest students attacking their colleagues.
On Friday morning, the tent was largely empty. This was because 27 students who participated in the protest at Appa Rao's residence on Tuesday are currently lodged in jail on 11 charges ranging from criminal intimidation to trespassing on private property.
A woman reading Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste next to Vemula’s picture told Scroll.in that even more students were “preparing themselves for jail”.
She was referring to a latest remand order that the police filed on Thursday that names another 26 people as accused on a complaint filed by university registrar M Sudhakar. These names come with the bracketed disclaimer that they are “yet to be arrested”. The list ends with the open-ended phrase “and others”, implying that it could be extended to include more students during the course of enquiry.
The registrar's complaint says that on Tuesday morning, “about 10 students…came to the lodge, jumped over the main gate, broke open the man door windows/door glass panes and entered the premises. They…ransacked the V-C’s lodge, damaged the TV, furniture, computers and laptops.”
Preparing for jail
Fifty metres away from the shopping complex are a set of shops that sell everything from groceries to tea. Here, Firdaus Soni, a student of sociology and one of those named in the latest list of the 26 accused, was finishing her tea while discussing plan of action for the day.
“Yes, I am an accused now,” she said. “What is the basis of making someone an accused anyway? The university seems to have supplied the police with a list of names of the students who were present there at the protest on Tuesday and those who are participating in the movement to fight for the rights of Dalits and minorities on campus.”
Soni pointed to the Hostel C building nearby where she introduced Scroll.in to many other co-accused who, she said, were waiting to be picked up by the police.
“Do we become criminals for simply voicing our concerns?” she asked as others nodded in unison. “We have to fight this battle till the end and all they want is to send us all to jail so that this movement fades away.”
Soni took Scroll.in to the visitors room at the hostel, where a few women were writing up complaints of the assaults and harassment from the police personnel who entered the campus on Tuesday.
Vaikhari Aryat, a PhD student, was watching videos students recorded on their phones to identify the policeman she claims abused her for her complexion and made death threats.
She has been using her Facebook account to send out updates about the situation on campus and she said that her complaint will ensure that the “police can’t get away with their witch-hunt”.
She said that the students were angered by the fact that Appa Rao had resumed charge without any official intimation. “He’s accused of orchestrating this whole series of incidents which led to Vemula to suicide and he just walked in one day and resumed office like nothing happened,” she said. “I was targeted by a burly policeman who abused me for being dark skinned and made comments of the nature that I should be sent to Pakistan or be dead.”
Using the law to counter legal action
Aryat is not the only one who has resolved to fight the authorities. As of Friday afternoon, at least seven other students had framed complaints as the student Joint Action Committee held a press conference to announce that they were going on the offensive against the authorities.
A party of five lawyers had arrived from various offices of the Human Rights Law Network, a non-governmental organisation. Archana Rupwate, a lawyer from Mumbai who was overseeing the process, said that even lawyers weren’t being allowed to enter campus so they had to “sneak in”.
“The charges against these students are not serious except two which are non-bailable offences so we might be able to secure a bail for those in jail and an anticipatory bail for those who have just been named,” she said. She added that the legal process has been delayed because of back-to-back holidays due to Holi, Good Friday and the upcoming weekend.
“I have heard so many testimonies of students who say they were beaten up with lathis and even blades by the police on campus but many are scared to come out and file cases,” she said. “We are trying to get as many students as possible to at least write what they went through because this will form a part of our defence in the court that the police went out of its way to beat up students.”
Meanwhile, the students’ union president Zuhail KP was loading packages of clothes in a SUV parked outside the university gate to be sent to the students in jail. A delegation of seven students went along with the car to Cherlapally central jail where the students have been lodged for three days now. Their bail plea for these students will come up in the court on Monday.
Amid the hustle and bustle, a sociology student pulled out her mini-notebook and started scribbling a letter that she said she was going to send along with the clothes to her colleagues in jail.
“I hope you are as aggressive and as angry as you have always been,” she wrote in the letter. “And if we get picked up we have to plan a protest demanding that we are all put together. Anyways, you should know that we are all safe. You also take care. Lots and lots of love.”
This student is also named as an accused on the recent list.
Hope and despair
By 2 pm, the shopping complex area saw some activity as students who had woken up late in their water-starved hostel rooms finally managed to get ready and assemble. Meanwhile, teams from human rights and Dalit rights organisations had arrived on the campus to investigate complaints against the authorities for denying students food and water for two days.
More lawyers from the Human Rights Law Network had managed to enter the campus and they discussed how to get anticipatory bail for the students. The students’ union president Zuhail, meanwhile, managed to find five minutes of peace and lied down under a tree to catch some rest before addressing a press conference.
“I am too tense to speak or do anything here,” he said. “There is a lot of support from the students and we all are working towards fulfilling our demands of VC’s resignation and an impartial enquiry into Vemula’s death. If the Bharatiya Janata Party government can exert influence on autonomous universities like ours in such a brazen manner than I don’t know what happens in states ruled by the BJP or universities directly under their control”
Zuhail also expressed surprise at being left out of the police report.
“I don’t know why they left me out,” he said. “I am happy that at least there will be someone here to lead and run the movement but there’s no guarantee that I won’t be named today or tomorrow or soon. Students are under pressure from their families to stay quiet or come home so the participation is getting affected but it will resume as soon as college reopens on Monday.”
Nabeel Shah, a member of the Joint Action Committee that represents 14 organisations, was in a similar situation. Shah was sitting by himself near the stage, lost in his own thoughts.
“Unfortunately they didn’t name me as an accused,” he said. Asked why he felt that this was unfortunate, he said that he couldn’t bear the thought of his friends being accused of something as serious while he was left there helpless since he’s been part of the movement of Day 1.
“It will be good if they put more of us in jail, the number will get bigger and maybe then the media will notice us,” Shah said. He express his disappointment with the media coverage of the incident and said that Hyderabad University, unlike Jawaharlal Nehur University, had failed to capture public attention because the authorities had barred students and organisations on campus from expressing their support for the cause.
He said: “They have branded us as some renegades working against peace on campus.”