Two professors and 27 students from Hyderabad Central University have been in jail since last Tuesday on charges of vandalism and trespassing, while 26 others are named in a remand order as co-accused. The previous day, a police crackdown on students landed many in hospital and others with bruises.
As those in jail continue to report brutal treatment by the police, students on campus alleged that food and water supplies had been cut off for two days early last week.
Following the national media from New Delhi, though, there’s a fair chance that news about these incidents didn’t even make it to readers' living rooms.
In 2012, senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai wrote about the under-reporting of incidents in north eastern parts of the country by mainstream media and blamed this on the "tyranny of distance". The press reacts fastest to events that occur in close proximity, he noted. This process is perhaps being playing out again in Hyderabad. Despite the turmoil, the institution has not featured prominently in most major newspapers in Delhi.
For weeks before, though, the events at Jawaharlal Nehru University dominated the headlines and primetime shows, after six students were charged with sedition and three of them were arrested by the police. What accounts for the difference?
To be fair, Hyderabad University was the focus on intense coverage earlier this year, after Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula committed suicide on January 19 in a series of events that began with a scuffle in August between the Amberkarite Students Association of which he was member and the Bharatiya Janata Party's student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. After Vemula's death, though, there was significant space devoted to the controversy about whether the student was really a Dalit.
The national media also covered the students’ protest as they demanded the Vice Chancellor Appa Rao’s resignation, holding him responsible for Vemula's death.
Last week, when Rao returned to campus after two months of leave, the agitation flared up again. Some students maintained that Appa Rao should not have resumed this duties until the conclusion of the official inquiry into Vemula's death, since the vice chancellor was among those being investigated. Some students marched to his residents, where vandalism was reported. The police cracked down with a lathicharge.
The very next day, the registrar of the university passed an order barring all outsiders, including media personnel, from entering the campus, citing security problems. This resulted in a near-complete blackout of events on television, since journalists could no longer go inside and report live on events on campus.
No story outside the gates
But is that all there is to it?
Journalists who Scroll.in spoke to had a variety of explanations. While some put the blame on the university authorities for shutting them out, others said that a caste bias could be at play, since many of the students involved in the protests are Dalit.
Take the case of Sundeep Rao, a reporter with the Telugu news channel HMTV who has been standing outside the university every day since Thursday, waiting for students to come out and talk to him. “After they revoked access, it’s become impossible to do any original reportage," he said. "We get our updates from WhatsApp groups while we don’t know what the situation inside is like.”
Rao had his own story to tell about being manhandled by campus security. “I was protesting to get entry inside the campus a day after the violence when the security personnel actually lifted up me and my colleague and threw us out of the gates,” Rao said.
NDTV’s Uma Sudhir said that it wasn't useful to compare the coverage of events at the two universities. “I don’t think Hyderabad University is getting less coverage," she said. "If you see it in terms of space it has received in the media, it’s much more than past Dalit suicides on campuses and otherwise."
She added: "The reason why it is getting more coverage is because of the current political environment where the state is accused of excesses so this is a story worth reporting on.”
Sense and sensationalism?
She added that the reason JNU received so much coverage was due to its physical proximity, since all major media houses are based in Delhi. Sudhir argued that the HCU campus administration has shut out media by revoking access which is a “template” being followed by successive administrations.
“The story is the same in Chhattisgarh, Delhi or Hyderabad – the state might be right or wrong but it simply doesn’t want you to look on certain issues,” she said. “As journalists it is our collective responsibility to take note of these excesses and report as best as we can. But the problem is that we wait till underlying crises turn into a sensation of violence to report on them."
A reporter for a popular news channel who came to report on Hyderabad said that she couldn’t file “objective” stories anymore because the information is not first-hand. “We are getting information on WhatsApp groups or through students who are agitating but that’s their side of the story,” she said. “It could be exaggerated, untrue or simply more layered – but we don’t know. If we don’t go inside, how can we write a half-baked story?”
On Saturday, Dhrubo Jyoti, a journalist with the Hindustan Times wrote on Raiot.in about the underlying caste undertones which, he claims, has led to under-reporting of Hyderabad University, particularly when compared to JNU.
"What is this power that the idea of ‘the government created JNU fracas to distract from Vemula protests’ that has been firmly articulated by Ambedkarites is heard only when Kumar says it? The power is caste. And it is time our comrades acknowledge its power. Brahmanical power is what lets JNU behave like a representative of India’s intellectual might and relegates University of Hyderabad to the backbenches. Brahmanical power is what ensures Kanhaiya Kumar is celebrated everywhere he goes but Vemula’s friends, who have been fighting for much longer, don’t even get their names in the papers."
However, Uma Sudhir from NDTV disagreed.
"I don’t think it’s true that the media is not reporting on it because it is Brahmanical in the larger sense," she said. "They are, in fact, reporting more on this case because it’s about a section of society that has been oppressed and we have given ourselves this mandate of speaking out for the voiceless."
'No heroes here'
But Sangappa J, input editor with V6 news, a popular Telugu channel disagreed. He said that the Hyderabad University issue is being “grossly underreported” because of the media’s pro-Modi bent.
“Nobody in Delhi wants to appear anti-government so they are keeping silent on the issue or not reporting in great detail,” he said. “We are trying to do our job but even the local press is not too keen at times because the state government is able to pull a lot of strings. The issue was reported hotly when Vemula’s caste was being discussed in January but this time, the reporters have vanished from the scene.”
One difference noted by Ramanathan Subramanian, who works with TheNewsMinute, a news portal that focuses on the southern part of the country, is that Hyderabad University is missing an icon, like Kanhaiya Kumar, for the media to focus on. The faces of the movement, so to speak.
“I think there’s definitely a lack of detailed reporting on Hyderabad University," he said. "The press would have gone berserk if it was JNU but it is yet another instance of the mainstream media ignoring what is happening inside the country.”
He added: “Unlike JNU, where Kanhaiya Kumar was the hero, this one is a faceless struggle which has now been dehumanised to an extent that students in jail are just numbers. There are no heroes here in Hyderabad – except Rohith Vemula, who is dead.”