The Central University of Kerala is in turmoil as students and teachers protest a series of “disciplinary actions” against leftist and Dalit activists which they allege are meant to crush dissent.

They claim the university is being run by a “vindictive Hindutva regime that won’t spare anyone who raises their voice”. They have received support from a group of academics and writers, including KP Ramanunni and Sunil Elayidam. “We have to resist all fascist tendencies in the society,” the group said in a statement on Sunday.

The university administration has justified its actions. Pro Vice Chancellor K Jayaprasad insisted that no student or teacher has the right to criticise any “collective decision” taken by the university. “A few people want to turn the university into another Jawaharlal Nehru University,” he said. “We will not allow that. We have taken the disciplinary actions based on evidence.”

Jayaprasad is also the Kerala vice president of the Bharatiya Vichara Kendram, a think tank affiliated to the Sangh Parivar.

It all began on September 6, when the registrar dismissed T Akhil, a student of international relations and political science, for writing a Facebook post which allegedly used “filthy and abusive words” against the vice chancellor, the registrar and the warden. Akhil has since rejected the charges. “I have not written anything against the university,” he said. “This is political vendetta.”

The same day, the registrar ordered a doctoral student of linguistics from Telangana to vacate his hostel room. Ganthoti Nagaraju, a Dalit activist associated with the Ambedkar Students Association on the campus, had been arrested on August 9 for breaking the glass covering of a fire alarm in the men’s hostel. He spent six days in jail until he was bailed out.

On September 7, the vice chancellor removed Prasad Pannian as head of the department of English and Comparative Literature for publicly criticising the administration’s action against Nagaraju. His suspension order stated Pannian had violated the Central Civil Services Conduct Rules, 1964 by writing this Facebook post on August 11:

“That an act of misdemeanour has been criminalised is deeply disturbing. As far as I understand, this is a minor offence that should have been settled on the campus itself. Mr Nagaraju lost his mother a few months back and has been going through severe mental stress and agony for the past few months. He has also not been receiving his fellowship for quite some time. It is extremely saddening to know that our student is lying on the cold floor of the prison cell on charges of breaking a glass pane. I strongly condemn this arrest and appeal to the authorities to secure the release of our student immediately.”

Jayaprasad said a committee will look into Pannian’s post. “Disciplinary action may be taken against him based on the inquiry panel’s recommendation,” he added. “We have just dropped him as the head of the department.”

The Central University of Kerala was established in Kasargod in 2009. It currently has around 1,100 students pursuing 17 post graduate and research programmes.

A poster that is doing the rounds on social media.
A poster that is doing the rounds on social media.

‘It is vendetta’

Nagaraju, 28, enrolled for PhD in computational linguistics in 2015 after completing his MPhil from the University of Hyderabad, where his close friend, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide in 2016 to protest caste discrimination. Before joining a master’s course at the Hyderabad university, Nagaraju, who comes from a poor Dalit family, worked as a municipality cleaner.

His friends said he broke the glass pane in frustration over his financial condition. “He had not got the Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship for many months,” said Sonu S Pappachan, secretary of the Ambedkar Students’ Association. “It was hard for him as he also has to look after his family with the fellowship money. He broke the glass out of frustration.”

For this, he was suspended from the hostel on July 9. He tendered an apology the same day but the university’s officials filed a police complaint and pressed for his arrest. He was arrested on August 9 and charged under sections of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act. Now he must report to the Bekal police station every Saturday.

“He was dragged into a vehicle by plainclothes policemen,” said Pappachan. “He was treated like a criminal.”

Pappachan alleged the university authorities were taking revenge on Nagaraju for leading many student protests on the campus, including for better hostel facilities. “Now they have denied him hostel facility,” he added. “It is pure vendetta against a Dalit activist.”

Asked if Nagaraju was victimised for being a Dalit activist, Jayaprasad said he does not identify students by caste. “But I must say that many members of the Ambedkar Students Association here are from the upper castes, they are not Dalits,” he said. “The university has become a haven for drugs and alcohol. You can see plenty of condoms on the campus. We have begun the process of cleaning the campus.”

Ganthoti Nagaraju is associated with the Ambedkar Students Association.
Ganthoti Nagaraju is associated with the Ambedkar Students Association.

‘I didn’t write against university’

Akhil said he will fight the university until he gets justice. “I have done no wrong, so I have to get justice,” he said. “I will fight for it.”

He was “suspended pending an inquiry” on June 25 after posting a paragraph from his Malayalam story on Facebook. “Neither the original story nor the Facebook post contained any derogatory mention of the university,” he said. “It is a work of fiction. But the registrar suspended me alleging that it put the university in bad light.”

Akhil said the inquiry panel asked him to tender an apology at its two sittings on July 22 and August 16. “I didn’t tender any apology as I haven’t done anything wrong,” he said.

So, he was expelled. “He wrote against the university,” said Jayaprasad. “He didn’t apologise. So we expelled him.”

T Akhil was expelled after he refused to apologise, says Pro Vice Chancellor J Jayaprasad.
T Akhil was expelled after he refused to apologise, says Pro Vice Chancellor J Jayaprasad.

‘It is against service rules’

The university had issued a circular on August 14, three days after Pannian’s post appeared, asking all its employees to refrain from talking to the media. “There is a gag order on the campus,” said a teacher who asked not to be named. “You will be targeted if you express your thoughts. It is a kind of emergency.”

The teacher described it as an attack on freedom of speech and expression, “which is the backbone of Indian Constitution”. “People like Jayaprasad are here to implement the saffron agenda,” he said. “They want to control students and academics. They do not give a damn about academic excellence.”

Jayaprasad said allegations of saffronisation “will not work anymore”. “India is being ruled by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s members,” he added. “The president, vice president and the prime minister are RSS members. So allegations against that it is saffronising the education system will not work anymore.”

The students, meanwhile, plan to intensify their agitation. They organised a march on the campus on Monday night, demanding the university revoke its orders against the students and the teacher. “We will fight to defeat the saffron agenda,” said Pappachan. “It is a fight for our society.”