At the University of Hyderabad, protests by students demanding justice for Rohith Vemula – the Dalit PhD student who committed suicide in January 2016 after being suspended from the hostel and allegedly facing caste discrimination – may have died down, but the anger remains. And it was given a fresh outlet earlier this week when the government decided to present an award to Vice-Chancellor Apparao Podile, whom the students hold responsible for the scholar’s death.

On January 3, Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented Podile with the Millennium Plaque of Honour at the Indian Science Congress in Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh. This has incensed students and a section of academics.

Sannaki Munna, who is pursuing a PhD in social science at the university and was part of the protests demanding justice for Vemula last year, called the award to Podile an insult to the student community. “Last year, at another convocation, Modi said ‘Bharat Mata ne beta khoya’,” the 26-year-old recalled. “This time, he is giving an award to the one who killed her son. Giving an award to him [Podile] is like insulting Bharat Mata.”

Munna questioned why the vice-chancellor had not been arrested when the chain of events pointed to his partisan stand against the suspended students being the cause of Vemula’s suicide. “We have not forgotten Rohith Vemula’s sacrifice and how it happened,” he said. “Also, we have not forgotten how the Modi government neglected this issue by not putting the blame on [Podile]. The fact is, everybody knows what happened – so many intellectuals reacted and many universities wrote letters. They [Centre] are trying to suppress this atrocity by not arresting Apparao.”

The PhD student also accused the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre of insulting the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe communities. “They humiliated us, once again, by giving an award to Apparao,” he pointed out. “Giving an award to Apparao is like putting chilli powder on the wound.”

According to Munna, the students will take their anger against the BJP to Uttar Pradesh, where crucial elections are scheduled in February-March. “We are going to UP to campaign against the BJP, speaking about the Rohith Vemula issue to all Dalit organisations,” he said. “We will support the BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party] in protest against the BJP. We are going to protest against BJP until they respond by doing justice to Rohith Vemula.”

Podile shrugs off protests

The government’s decision to award Podile has angered Vemula’s brother, Raja Chaitanya Kumar Vemula, too. “This is a shame on the education system,” he said. “I don’t know how Narendra Modi gave an award to Apparao. He was responsible for my brother’s death. He killed my brother. And for killing my brother, he was given an award.”

The vice-chancellor, on his part, was cautious in his response to the anger the award has generated in the student community. “I don’t know who they are,” Podile told about the protestors. “I have received an overwhelming response from students, faculty, well-wishers from the campus and all over the country.”

He also shrugged off students’ demands for him to step down from his post. “See, it is a democratic process that they are trying to exercise, let them exercise it,” he said. “With somebody’s democratic right, I should not interfere, right? Please try to avoid such controversies. If they have exercised their right, let them exercise that. I should not contradict.”

Plagiarism and politics

The honour to Podile triggered protests from academics too, who pointed to charges of plagiarism against the vice-chancellor apart from the controversy surrounding Vemula’s death. In fact, on January 2, a day before Podile received the award from the prime minister, a fact-finding team of academics that delved into the issues surrounding the suicide as well as various allegations against the vice-chancellor, released its report. One of the members of that committee, Suvrat Raju, a theoretical physicist at the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences in Bengaluru, told that he was surprised at the choice of Podile for the award. “I was surprised when I heard this because last year there were serious charges of academic plagiarism that were raised against Professor Apparao,” he said. “In our report, we also found evidence that in the conflict at the UoH [University of Hyderabad], Professor Apparao took one-sided decisions against student groups opposed to the BJP. The current award suggests that the Central government is now rewarding him for acting in a partisan manner.”

Another committee member, Kaveri Karthik Bittu, termed the award to Podile a danger to academia. “It is astonishing that a plagiarist gets an award for academic excellence,” said the DST Inspire faculty fellow at the University of Hyderabad, who is now an associate professor at Ashoka University. “However, it is less surprising when one considers the fact that both the awardee and awarding agency have come under fire from the scientific community for prioritising a Sanghi Hindutva agenda over a scientific approach. I believe this is a political award for [Podile’s] services for the Sangh, and not a scientific award as his plagiarism charges mean he does not merit such an award.”

Raju added that the academic community stands to lose out as a result of such political moves. “The most important issue here is not about Professor Apparao,” he said. “ Rather, as a member of the Indian academic community, I am concerned that the Central government is promoting those who toe its line politically, rather than those who have the strongest academic credentials. In the long run, this is damaging for Indian academic institutions.”