On Thursday, students at the University of Hyderabad saw an unwelcome presence. As Magsaysay award winner Bezwada Wilson and Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Sukhadeo Thorat spoke about “caste-based atrocities in educational institutions”, security personnel took up positions outside the venue.
“There were at least five security personnel outside the DST auditorium and two at the door,” said Aswinah Zeenath, who is studying for a master’s degree in sociology at the university. “This is apart from the increased security at the gate.”
She added, “It feels stifling to be under such targeted surveillance.”
Students such as Zeenath expect the campus to only get more tense on Tuesday, the first death anniversary of Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula. The PhD student had committed suicide last year after being expelled from the university hostel after a series of events that, many claim, demonstrated the bias he faced because he came from a lower caste. His death had sparked nationwide outrage.
This past week has been hectic for supporters of the Justice for Rohith Vemula campaign at the university: they have been organising seminars such as the one on January 12, singing songs of resistance, and screening documentaries. A thousand posters have been pasted across Hyderabad inviting the public to join them on Rohith Vemula Shahadath Din, which they have described as a day for “rejecting victimhood and reclaiming resistance”. Zeenath, who is a member of the Students’ Federation of India, has been an active participant in these efforts.
The atmosphere is set to get more heated with the arrival on Tuesday of Vemula’s mother Radhika Vemula; the men from the Gujarat town of Una who were brutally assaulted in July by cow protection vigilantes; Jaan Mohammed, whose brother Mohammed Aklaq was lynched in October 2015 by a mob in the Uttar Pradesh town of Dadri that claimed he had eaten beef and stored some in his home; and the family of Najeeb Ahmed, the Jawaharlal Nehru University student who has been missing since mid-October. The administration, too, is on alert.
The taut atmosphere at the University of Hyderabad is not surprising. In the year since Vemula’s death, the campus has come to resemble a fortress. The administration has been restricting the entry of outsiders, letting in only those it deems non-threatening. On most days, at least half a dozen security personnel guard the gate, manning barricades that force approaching vehicles to slow down. On the days the management anticipates protests, the security is heightened and the police are alerted.
“Radhika Amma [Vemula’s mother] has been refused entry several times over the past few months,” said Munna Sannaki, a research scholar and leader of the Ambedkar Students Association, of which Vemula was a member. “Dignitaries, activists, lawyers and friends have been humiliated at the gate. Even faculty members who supported the protesting students are being stopped routinely at the gate despite producing identity cards.”
Such measures have been in place since March 22, when the police lathi-charged and arrested 27 protesting students and two faculty members on charges of vandalism. Since then, the media, too, has been denied entry, except if it is to cover an official event or interview a member of the administration.
“Our university is turning into a jail and Appa Rao Podile, whom we don’t recognise as our vice-chancellor, is its jailor,” said research scholar Dontha Prashanth, who was one of five Dalit students, including Vemula, to be expelled from the hostel and suspended from the university in late 2015 after a clash with members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. “If things go unchallenged, the university might soon start a mulakat system [a system of appointments to meet imprisoned relatives or friends] on the lines of prisons.”
Curbs and surveillance
Other, less visible, curbs have been put in place as well. Protesting students said they felt “anti-student practices are increasing by the day”. One of the ways in which the administration has chosen to crack down on protests is through strict implementation of attendance rules. Usually, institutions afford some leeway to students with less than the required attendance levels, letting them off with a warning and allowing them to sit for their exams. Not so at the University of Hyderabad this past year. A student who was short of the required attendance by just 1% recalled how he had had to plead with the faculty to allow him to take his exams.
Students who called themselves apolitical said these measures were a fallout of the continuous unrest on campus. Said one such student who did not want to be identified: “Classes got affected during the protests and almost everyone had less attendance” than required. He added, “People like us tread very carefully and steer clear of any activity that might be considered anti-administration.”
These student said the administration dealt stringently with everyone and not just a section, and for various reasons. For instance, it had banned girl students from entering the boys’ hostel but later lifted it after protests. Even seemingly trivial matters such as “possessing an extra mattress in the room” or “crockery from the mess” invite fines, he added.
However, Zeenath said the administration’s actions were an attempt to demonstrate to the students that “they are the ones holding power”. She recalled, “Earlier, things were never escalated this way.”
She said that one of the main reasons she had opted to join the University of Hyderabad was because of the freedom it offered dissenting voices. “Over the last one year, I realised that the liberty we enjoyed came after several struggles from students and that we will have to keep fighting to protect it,” she added.
On the Velivada, which is the nerve centre of the Justice for Rohith Vemula campaign, four close-circuit cameras keep an eye on things. On July 17, the university registrar had sought to ban “any assembly of group of individuals in common areas leading to or holding of any meeting in public, including protest march”. Students refused to respect the order.
“Everything is being recorded as if they might need evidence in future to persecute us,” said Munna Sannaki of the Ambedkar Students Association.
Sannaki recalled how in the past year, even with the increased security presence, an Ambedkar statue and tents set up by protestors had been stolen, a bust of Vemula vandalised, and graffiti in his memory erased. “This was yet another way of warning the students,” he said.
Students alleged these incidents had been engineered by the administration, a charge that prompted a denial from the pro vice-chancellor.
The students also accused “those in power” of employing backdoor methods to intimidate them. “After the March 22 arrests, once everyone got bail, students were warned that FIRs will be sent to our natives,” said Dontha Prashanth, one of those arrested. “Despite all this, 250-300 students join every protest meet.”
Again, the university denied the allegation. “None of the basic human rights of students at the university was violated by administration,” it said in a release after the arrests.
But the number of students anonymously sharing their experiences of the past year speaks a lot about diminishing rights at the institute.
“What is the point of teaching concepts like equality, justice, rights, inclusive policies and so on if those who teach don’t show it in their actions?” asked research scholar Ankush Kamble. “The anger is still there, but then there is fear. We wish there was more support from all quarters, but we will fight even in its absence.”
An outside voice of concern
It isn’t just students who are worried about what they claim are increasing restrictions on campus. An independent “Fact-Finding Report on the Events at the University of Hyderabad” by a group of scientists released on January 2 voiced similar concerns. Commenting on the events of March 22, it said, “We do not understand how these events could have happened without at least the tacit approval of the university administration, which should be held to account for this violence against its students and faculty.”
Touching on the vice-chancellor’s role in the controversy, it added, “As far as we can see, Professor Appa Rao has turned into a polarising figure, and his mere presence as vice-chancellor has led to a constant conflict, which has disrupted the academic activities of the university. So, we hope that Professor Appa Rao will heed his own conscience and decide to step down from his position as vice-chancellor for the larger good of the university.”
The report also pointed to the need “to create a larger, more accessible and more powerful anti-discrimination cell that goes beyond the minimal protection mandated by the UGC [University Grants Commission]. This anti-discrimination cell should have representatives from students, faculty, the administration, and the non-teaching staff and also some members from outside the university”.
A year after Vemula’s death triggered a wide debate on campus discrimination, students continue to share, anonymously, their experiences of the same at the University of Hyderabad, saying there has been no improvement during this period.
“Most often, lives of Dalits are nothing but case studies for faculty members who come from elite, urban and upper-caste backgrounds,” said Dalit PhD student Tushar Ghadge. “At times, the discrimination we face is brushed off as a minor incident, which is why better representation of reserved category in the faculty helps. When a student interacts with someone they can connect to ideologically, there is always a higher chance for them to perform better in academics.”
Ghadge’s father, Madhukar Ghadge, of Satara district in Maharashtra, was reportedly murdered in 2007 by Hindus for digging a well in his field. “My fight for justice for my father, the fight for justice for Rohith Vemula and the academics will all go hand in hand,” said Tushar Ghadge. “It is all a part of the move towards empowerment and our success on all fronts shall be a fitting reply to those who discriminate.”
All photos courtesy of Joint Action Committee for Social Justice, University of Hyderabad.