On October 1, the University of Hyderabad held its 18th convocation where PhD scholars lined up to receive their degrees from Vice Chancellor P Appa Rao. When the name of Sunkanna Velpula was called out, the 37-year-old, dressed in a maroon shirt and formal trousers, came up on stage. As Appa Rao handed him his degree, he stood still with hands folded, not saying a word. Appa Rao pleaded with him to take the degree and then, visibly embarrassed, requested the pro-vice chancellor, Vipin Srivastava, to take his place. Velpula received the degree from Srivastava and left the stage.

This picture of a silent Velpula has since gone viral on social media. It was his way of marking his protest against developments following the death of fellow research scholar Rohith Vemula, who committed suicide in January after being suspended with four others – including Velpula – from the university hostel.

The incident sparked country-wide protests and demands for action against the vice chancellor. A one-man commission of enquiry headed by a retired High Court judge was set up to investigate the suicide and the allegations of caste discrimination surrounding it. In August, the commission submitted its report. The report, revealed earlier this month, stated that Vemula was not a Dalit and that had committed suicide for personal reasons. It gave the university management a clean chit in the matter.

Velpula – who was born to Dalit farm labourers from Kurnool district in Andhra Pradesh and completed his MA, BEd, MPhil and PhD from the University of Hyderabad after joining it in 2005 – believes justice is yet to be delivered to Vemula. Now a post-doctoral fellow at the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, Velpula spoke exclusively with Scroll.in about why he refused to receive his degree from Appa Rao and why the protests demanding justice for Vemula will continue.

Why did you decline to receive the degree from Vice Chancellor Appa Rao?
I didn’t recognise him as the vice chancellor because of three important reasons.

1. He was appointed by the Bharatiya Janata Party government and for that debt of gratitude, he listened to the human resource development minister (Smriti Irani at the time) and took a biased stand, suspending five Dalit scholars. I am one among them and this move led to the death of Rohith Vemula.

2. He is facing criminal charges. If I take the degree from him, my degree does not have any value.

3. He is anti-Dalit. Basically, to maintain my self-respect, I ignored him as vice chancellor and declined to receive the degree from him.

What do you think of the report of the one-man enquiry commission?
Its latest report stated that Rohith was not a Dalit and that he committed suicide for personal reasons. It is a completely biased report. The chairman of that committee is a retired judge – who is he to say whether Rohith was a Dalit or not? He does not have any right or legal authority to decide Rohith’s caste. He was appointed only to look into the matter of Rohith’s death. But now, it has been proved that he was completely biased and working for the government. He was working as a government agent and not as a retired judge. The committee was formed to enquire into the issues that led to Rohith Vemula’s suicide.

The Guntur district collector issued a press note saying Rohith was a Dalit and the chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, PL Punia, declared Rohith was a Dalit. These people have the authority to prove Rohith was a Dalit. Who is that retired judge to decide Rohith’s caste?

What are the students’ demands regarding VC Appa Rao?
We are demanding VC Appa Rao’s resignation and his arrest under the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act.

Critics say students protesting against the VC are being unfairly harsh. Your comments?
The critics should first know the details of the entire incident. Our suspension was initially revoked on September 11, 2015, and we were told that a fresh enquiry committee would be formed. But Appa Rao came on November 27 and without forming any new committee or conducting a fresh enquiry, took a biased stand. The vice chancellor suspended us, so he is directly involved in this and without questioning him, how can we take the movement forward? So, people who are critical of our movement are biased in favour of the government and against us.

The protests have died down in a sense. What is your next course of action?
We are holding protests and rallies on campus and the vice chancellor is not a free man on campus. In any other university, the vice chancellor is a free man. Here, wherever he goes, he is accompanied by two gunmen. Wherever he goes to attend academic programmes, he faces slogans raised against him, so he is unable to attend conferences or seminars.

The media wants some masala. When the news is very hot, the media will cover it but it is not interested now. Our movement is going on and we are least bothered about the media.

What are your plans?
As of now, we are not allowing Appa Rao to attend any seminars and he is not free to move around like any other vice chancellor. Until he resigns, the protests will continue. We will not allow him to move freely or allow him to attend any seminars.