On a balmy morning on March 22, a relatively peaceful campus suddenly turned to rage. Students at the Hyderabad Central University began protests in full swing when news spread that the Vice Chancellor, Appa Rao Podile, had resumed charge. As protests intensified over the next few days, police clamped down, shutting off the University to outsiders and media and arresting a number of protesters.
The students were infuriated at the return of Podile who had gone on leave late in January, following the initial round of protests over the death of Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula. Vemula, along with four other PhD scholars, had been under suspension for months and then allowed only partial access in certain areas of the University, after a scuffle with a group of other students belonging to the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad in the University.
In this interview, Podile argues his case, asking whether the demand of students for his resignation was fair. He also speaks of the need for normalcy to return to the University campus and engages with allegations of casteism and political motives ascribed to him.
Could you please give us an idea of what is actually going on at Hyderabad Central University? What do you have to say about the situation prevailing right now in the university, Sir?
It is unfortunate that in the University there was violence on 22nd when I resumed my charge. It is quite unfortunate. They are all our students. And I thought our students are here for academics – I never thought that they will resort to violence.
They somehow got influenced and they resorted to violence, which unfortunately led to our action. The kind of violence was unprecedented in the campus, where almost 20 of the senior administrative officials, including the Vice Chancellor, were actually kept inside a room. It was a very very uncomfortable situation, tense situation for all those inside the room.
What would have happened to all of them if the students did violence – if the students were able to enter that room, because they were carrying some stones? Some of them were carrying broken glasses in their hands.
We don’t know their intentions, but it was unfortunate that some students lost their sense of balance probably because of the violence. But it took a very long time for us to speak with them, give some counselling, some advice – so many things were done by us but it did not work.
Therefore, some of the students who were doing unlawful things were picked up by the police and we feel bad about that. It should not have happened and it is a black day for the country. We are trying to restore normalcy, we have constituted a committee to interact with the students to understand the actual grouse.
The actual grouse is not so clear, excepting that without a reason they say that some people should go.
Sir I think in this particular round of protests, students are demanding that you should resign. What are your thoughts on this?
That is what I am trying to tell you. They are asking me to resign. Suppose one student is studying and I ask that student to please quit the post without giving any reason, can we ask the student to quit the post?
It is as simple as that.
I am appointed as the Vice Chancellor and there should be reasons, there should be some material which one would be able to show. I am waiting for the legal process to be completed. Let legal process be completed and if somebody finds fault is there, I have to abide by the law.
Before somebody gets charged, their ideas and opinions have to be respected. And if this happens, what I would like to tell you is this: If a small group of people – whether it is students or somebody – if a small group of people can demand and see that a person who is in office is ousted, no institution can work.
All institutions will have some 10 people who may not like the officer. Then the officer will have to quit if those 10 people... I mean to say, a small number could go and ask that this officer should quit. Is it just that you want to order [like this]? Or do you want to respect the Constitution? And the Parliament has passed a statute, and as per the statute the President of India appoints the Vice Chancellor.
There are well known procedures available and well known systems are in place. And if one wants to say, "I don’t respect those things, and just because I don’t like you, you have to go" – that is not a good practice at all.
This whole issue has been precipitated by the suicide of Rohith Vemula. A lot of people have said that it is because of your decision – or, rather the management’s decision – to suspend and allow them access only to certain areas in the college which has precipitated this issue...
Both of them have been challenged in the court. Both of these things that you are talking about have been challenged in court. Also there is an Abetment to Suicide case against me and both of them are in court. Can we not have patience to wait for the court verdict?
I would only like to request through you and through the media to everybody that we need to have patience and wait for the verdict of the court.
Is the university or the Union ministry of human resource development – are either of these setting up an inquiry into this whole issue? Because the minister had spoken about this earlier.
I have no idea about any plans at that time at the institute. Only the ministry will be able to confirm. I will not be able to say anything on that because I have no idea.
I understand. Sir what is your message to the agitating students as of now?
I am planning to put up another appeal on the university website and I will appeal to all. This university is taking forward discussions to resolve the issue in a democratic manner.
We have already made one committee to do that job. Many students have already interacted with that committee. They should put forward to the committee what is possible and what is it that the institution can do. We are ready to discuss and we are ready to take their opinion and within the limits of the university, whatever can be done, we are ready to do.
I would also like to appeal to the students to be calm and quiet and wait for the next few days to complete the semester and write examinations and complete their academic schedule as per the earlier schedule.
There have been a lot of allegations about caste discrimination within the campus of the university. Former students have alleged that when you were the Chief Warden, you were responsible for the rustication of a number of Dalit students. Your comments on this.
Again, I will tell you that a Chief Warden cannot take such action, he is not a disciplinary authority. The disciplinary authority is the Vice Chancellor and executive council.
The point that you are referring to has already been disposed of by the Honourable High Court of combined Andhra Pradesh. Judgement copy is easily available – as much of the effort you have taken to reach me, if you put half the effort, you will be able to get the judgement copy. I will ask you to please read the judgement copy and please come to a conclusion on what was my role in that. It is easy to make an allegation and difficult to go on explaining to a thousand people as to what happened.
There are allegations that this issue has been politicised by the ruling party and that you are close to the ruling party. Your comments, Sir?
I am the one who has been saying that there should be a line between academics and politics.
I do not know to what extent they are all right, but the ruling party has been criticised. When other suicides happened in other governments’ regime, nobody [politician] has come. But in this boy’s case, the very next day, within hours, some of the top leaders came to the campus – in a few hours.
So we have to analyse – when you are asking this question, I would like to express to you as a journalist to analyse yourself. Who has first politicised? Who has made news out of this death? Two important leaders, national leaders did – on the day of a death.
Is it the government which has done it [politicised it] or is it the other people who have done so? Both ways, I don’t like. Nobody should do it. Academics should be seen as academics and politics should be politics.