On March 31, the Andhra Pradesh police paraded two former students of the University of Hyderabad before a group of journalists in Kakinada, alleging that they had been assigned by Maoist rebels to murder the university’s vice chancellor, Apparao Podile, presumably for allegedly driving the Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula to suicide in 2016. Prudiviraj Ankala, 27, and Chandan Mishra, 28, had been detained in Yetapaka Mandal in East Godavari district bordering Telangana the previous day, the police claimed in the remand note. Firearms, gelatin explosives, detonators and Maoist literature had been recovered from them, the police said. The media uncritically reported that the police had “foiled a plan” to kill Podile.

However, relatives and acquaintances of the arrested men have punched holes in the police story. They dispute the location and circumstances in which the men were arrested, their alleged links with Maoist rebels and association with Vemula. The real aim of the arrest, they suggest, is to discredit an ongoing movement for progressive education reform in Telangana, led by the Telangana Vidyarthi Vedika, a “non-party political students association” that Ankala and Mishra have been associated with.

It is a layered story of competing claims and few definite answers. At the centre of it, two young lives hang in the balance.

In the dock

Ankala is a law student in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh. He moved here after exiting an integrated master’s course in social sciences at Hyderabad University in 2013. The reason Ankala left Hyderabad was that he had been arrested by the police in Bhadradri district in eastern Telangana, allegedly for helping Mothibai, the ailing wife of Maoist leader Pulluri Prasada Rao alias Chandranna, to get to a hospital in Khammam earlier that year. He was freed on bail within a fortnight, but the case filed against him under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, Andhra Pradesh Public Security Act and the Indian Evidence Act is still pending. “Soon after he got bail, I took my son with me to Vijaywada and enrolled him in Siddhartha Law College, where he is in fourth semester now,” said Ankala’s father Dharma Raju, a senior officer with the Indian Railways. “He can be a lawyer if not an IAS officer as I had wanted him to be.”

Raju lives with his son in Vijayawada city. The rest of his family lives in their native village in Krishna district.

While at university, Ankala was a member of the Vidyarthi Vedika, said the group’s president Maddileti Bandari.

Not much is known about Mishra. He was pursuing an MPhil in Political Science at Hyderabad University but lost his fellowship in early 2017 after failing to submit his thesis, according to Arif Ahammed, general secretary of the university’s students union.

From Raju’s account, his son and Mishra were friends.

'He can be a lawyer if not an IAS officer as I had wanted him to be,' Dharma Raju says of his son Prudiviraj Ankala. Photo credit: Malini Subramaniam

Far-fetched claim’

The police claim that Ankala confessed to “conspiring to murder the vice chancellor”, along with Mishra. The plot was hatched when the two met a man named Haribhushan, supposedly the leader of Maoists in Telangana, in January, the authorities allege.

They have been charged with hatching a criminal conspiracy, possessing firearms and explosives, and unlawfully associating with banned groups under relevant sections of the Andhra Pradesh State Security Act and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

This is what the police remand note states about Ankala:

  “In the year 2010, he joined [a] degree course in Central University, Hyderabad, and studied up to 2013. At that time he [was] a member of Telangana Vidyarthi Vedika. He [was] inspired [by] Marxism and [Leninist] revolutionary ideology, and decided to join Maoists due to the incidents...in university such as suicide of Vemula Rohith...and antagonism against vice chancellor, namely Apparao.”  

Arif Ahammed of the Hyderabad university’s students union contested this claim. He pointed out that Ankala had left the university long before Vemula’s suicide in early 2016. “I have been on the campus since 2014 and I do not recall meeting him or Mishra,” Ahammed said. Another student who is pursuing a PhD in Economics and was closely involved in the agitation against Vemula’s death said it was far-fetched that some former students who probably had not even participated in campus politics could plot to kill the vice chancellor.

In fact, after being bailed out in 2013, Ankala rarely attended the meetings of even the Vidyarthi Vedika, said a student who knew him and is still at the university. He took to writing, publishing his first book, Marxist Philosophy, in 2016. He also wrote for several Telugu magazines and a collection of his articles was published this year by Virasam, or the Revolutionary Writers’ Association.

“I vaguely remember meeting him at a meeting in Mahboobnagar but I never spoke with him,” said Varavara Rao, the poet and journalist who founded Virasam. To become a member of Virasam and be published by it, Ankala would have had to spend a year with the association, Rao said. At the meeting in Warangal, he recalled, Ankala spoke about caste and class but that is “nowhere near revolutionary”.

Ankala’s books are about Marxist philosophy and his articles are mostly in line with leftist ideology, Varavara Rao said, but he could not possibly be a member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), which forbids members from being employed, studying, getting a pension or even having an address.

The police claim that Ankala and Mishra were arrested from near the Telangana border but Raju alleges that they were abducted from Vijayawada. He also disputes the timing of their detention. “My son was caught at Kesarapalli junction about one kilometre from our residence in the afternoon on March 28,” he said, suggesting that the incident took place two days before the police claim to have arrested Ankala and Mishra. “His friend Chandan was coming to meet him and he was to pick him up from the bus stand at Kesarapalli.”

That evening, Raju said he came from work to an empty, unlocked house. He assumed the friends had gone out but when they did not return even by the morning, he went out to check. He overheard people in the neighbourhood talking about a group of men in civilian clothes forcibly taking away some young men in a “Qualis”, a Toyota SUV. Some of them had informed the local police about the kidnapping, Raju said, but the authorities had not responded. He checked with relatives and his son’s friends, but failed to find him. Fearing that Ankala had been taken away by the police, he filed a habeas corpus in the High Court on March 30.

Raju is now convinced that the police have “fabricated a case against his son”.

Why would they do so? Varavara Rao points to “growing discontent” among students across India, especially among Dalits. “The ghost of Rohith Vemula will not let the perpetrators and abettors be in peace,” he said. “The state when challenged feels threatened and the only way it knows to react is by repressing those challenging it. All democratic agitations against the state will be met this way.”

Specifically, the Telangana government is alleged to be targeting the Vidyarthi Vedika. Registered as a students’ union in 2006, the group played a key role in mobilising support for the Telangana statehood movement. Starting with just 30 students, it counts 36,000 members now, around 800 of them active.

Vishal Gunni, superintendent of police in East Godavari, dismissed the allegations of the police finding pretexts to discredit students’ struggles as “fallacious”. Ankala and Mishra were arrested solely for indulging in “anti-national activities” and “under due procedure of the law”, he said.

“There is enough evidence, technically and scientifically sound, that will be produced in court,” he said.

Gunni added that the police was keeping a watch on “many frontal Maoist organisations”. Asked if the Vidyarthi Vedika was considered as being such an organisation, he replied that it “might or might not be”.

'The only way to check rising emotions of students is to malign them in such a way that they fear participating in democratic protests,' says Prof K Laxminarayana. Photo credit: Malini Subramaniam

Thorn in state’s side

Since Telangana state was formed in mid-2014, the Vidyarthi Vedika has been constantly reminding the ruling Telangana Rashtriya Samiti to implement its campaign promise of “free education from KG to PG”, from kindergarden to post-graduate level. Recently, it has been spearheading a campaign to tackle the growing incidence of suicide by students in private junior colleges in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Last year alone, nearly 50 students in these colleges reportedly took their own lives, unable to bear the academic pressure and poor living conditions in hostels. In January, a social activist, Dasari Emmanuel, petitioned the Hyderabad High Court, asking for a judicial inquiry into the suicides. He alleged that institutions run by the Narayana and Sri Chaitanya groups were the main offenders and they were operating without proper government permission. The Narayana group is owned by P Narayana, minister for urban administration in the Telugu Desam Party government in Andhra, while the rival Sri Chaitanya group is run by the family of Boppana S Rao, a doctor from Guntur who returned in 1986 after several years abroad. Each group manages over 400 junior colleges and coaching centres in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and beyond. Taking “serious note” of the petition, the High Court issued notices to the governments of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana as well as Narayana and Sri Chaitanya groups.

Realising that their government was still unmoved, the Telangana Vidyarthi Vedika, in late March, launched an agitation demanding that Sri Chaitanya and Narayana junior colleges be shut down. On March 27, the group decided to “lay siege” to the Intermediate Board, which regulates junior colleges, in Hyderabad. The police detained around 50 of them. Undeterred, the group started an online petition to press the demand.

“Pushed to the forefront of the statehood agitation, it is ironic Telangana Vidyarthi Vedika is considered a threat now that it is raising genuine demands of the student community,” said Bandari, the group’s president. Instead of addressing the students’ concerns, he claimed, the state government has been finding ways to discredit their “democratic struggle”.

On October 18, the police arrested Mahesh Nakula, who was Vidyarthi Vedika’s president at the time, and his friend Kranthi Rana Dev. They were allegedly abducted by plainclothes policemen from a community hall in Hyderabad. Nakula was reportedly tortured and charged with recruiting for Maoists. Activists allege that the police fabriated the charges against Nakula because he was speaking against the government’s education policies. He is currently out on bail.

“The only way to check rising emotions of students is to malign them in such a way that they fear participating in democratic protests,” said K Laxminarayana, professor of Economics at Hyderabad University. By linking such movements to Maoists not only helps the state contain democratic protests, Laxminarayana claimed, but also distracts the public from the problems confronting students and other marginalised communities.

Presumably, this is where the arrests of Ankala and Mishra fit in. “Arresting and linking the students with Maoists and further to their alleged plot to kill the vice chancellor cannot be seen in isolation,” argued Varavara Rao.

Since Ankala was the only member of the Vidyarthi Vedika whom the police could find with a case of association with Maoists in the past, Varavara Rao pointed out, he became a scapegoat in the state’s attempt to vilify the group and, thereby, suppress the students’ movement. However, the fact that Ankala is not an officer-bearer of the group or even a student of Hyderabad University shows the police’s “conspiracy” was “poorly concocted”.

Teachers at Hyderabad University during a protest against the University Grants Commission’s new reservation policy for recruiting faculty from Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribe communities. Photo credit: Malini Subramaniam

Part of a larger struggle

At the university, students say that the allegations levelled by Varavara Rao and Laxminarayana are not unfounded. “Since the two former students were arrested, the presence of police in civilian clothes has increased on the campus,” said a student who asked not to be identified. “All those students who actively participated in the agitation seeking justice for Rohith Vemula are facing a tough time. Ten students were suspended last year on some pretext or the other and one more this year.”

Other students disagree, especially those affiliated to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “Although I cannot comment on the recent arrest of the two ex-students, there is certainly an atmosphere of radicalisation on the campus,” said Abhishek Malhotra, the group’s leader at the university, buttressing the police’s allegation of some student activists working with Maoist rebels. As evidence of radicalisation, Malhotra cited the 2015 protests against the execution of Yakub Memon, convicted of bombing Mumbai in 1992, and campus events at which students have called for Kashmir to be freed from Indian rule. He accused “a good 30 professors” at the university of brainwashing students against mingling with other students.

Malhotra would not specify it but his list of errant professors is certain to include Laxminarayana, whom the ABVP has had run-ins with. The Dalit professor is involved in a campaign at the university demanding cancellation of the University Grants Commission’s new reservation policy, issued on March 5, for recruiting faculty from Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribe communities.

He has steadfastly stood by students seeking justice for Vemula. In an article in the Economic and Political Weekly last November, he criticised the Justice Ashok Roopanwal report discrediting Vemula’s Dalit identity, calling it a travesty of justice. He also spearheads the Telangana Save the Education Committee, an alliance of “democratic groups”, including the Vidyarthi Vedika, which campaigns against the shutting down of public schools and privatisation and the “saffronisation” of education. Moreover, he was instrumental in forging the alliance of leftist and Dalit student associations that trounced the ABVP in the university’s student elections last year.

This provides another dimension to the arrest of Ankala and Mishra, Laxminarayana argues: the alliance of Dalit and leftist groups and their growing influence threatens the interests of dominant socio-political groups, which are retaliating by seeking to discredit the progressive students’ movements.