Yesterday, the University of Hyderabad served suspension notices to two of its faculty members: KY Ratnam and Tathagata Sengupta. Both Ratnam and Sengupta were arrested on 22 March this year during a protest outside the residence of Appa Rao Podile, the vice chancellor of the university. That day, Podile, who had been on leave since a week after the death of the Dalit PhD student Rohith Vemula, returned to the campus and resumed his post. Vemula was a member of the Ambedkar Students Association, an anti-caste student political group. The ASA and its affiliates held Podile and the university’s oppressive casteist mandate responsible for Vemula’s death. Several student groups protested Podile’s return, congregating outside his residence and demanding an audience with him.
In his May 2016 cover story, ‘From Shadows to the Stars,’ Praveen Donthi reported on how the ASA came to be one of the most potent political forces on the university campus, as well as the events surrounding Vemula’s suicide. In this excerpt from the piece, Donthi recounts the events of 22 March, and how the mainstream media’s coverage of the incident left out essential aspects of the students’ protest.
On 24 January, a week after Vemula’s death, the University of Hyderabad announced that Appa Rao Podile had gone on leave, with his replacement officer, Vipin Srivastava, citing “personal reasons” for the departure. It was a small sign that the university was willing to try and cool tempers. But since Srivastava had been part of the committee that punished the Dalit students, and had been the head of the school of physics when Senthil Kumar committed suicide in 2008, he too was an unacceptable interlocutor in the eyes of much of the student body.
In the face of protests at the end of that week, Srivastava also went on leave, and another senior professor, M Periasamy, took up the role. Periasamy, the first OBC individual to hold the post, adopted a far more thoughtful approach than Podile had, making a clear effort to address students’ concerns, and assuring the media that some of their demands could be met. After months of exhausting protests, the students saw some hope of relief.
That hope was shortlived. On the morning of 22 March, even as dialogue with Periasamy was underway, the vice chancellor’s secretariat sent out a one-line email to staff and students, which read: “Prof Appa Rao Podile resumed the charge in the forenoon of March 22, 2016.” Students were aghast. Just when it seemed there could be some resolution, they would once again have to deal with a man who they believed carried a toxic bias against Dalits.
That same morning, a group of students from the Joint Action Committee—an umbrella group that included members of the ASA, formed to support the five suspended students—gathered at the vice chancellor’s campus residence, known as the “VC’s lodge,” to protest Podile’s return. They learnt that he was holding a meeting of the executive council, and that many ABVP students from the school of life sciences—where Podile is a professor—were with him. The JAC students were provoked by what they saw as the administration’s partisan behaviour. “We told TV Rao, the chief security officer, that we want to meet the VC—but he said a meeting is on,” Ashok Dara, a senior ASA leader, told me. They waited for 15 minutes, he added, and then saw that the students inside were filming those who had gathered outside as they argued with the security guards. According to Dara, the JAC students demanded that the ABVP students exit the premises, in response to which the latter shouted at them to go away. “We have the same right as they do to sit in the VC bungalow,” Dara said. “Is he the VC of only that group?”
The JAC students tried to enter the room, which led to a skirmish. In the fight, students damaged the premises of the VC’s lodge, breaking window panes, flower pots, a television and other objects. But while the administration and the media portrayed the damage as being solely caused by the JAC group, the students I spoke to said the ABVP, too, was responsible for at least some of the damage. “We did some damage but nobody focussed on the damage they had done, but blamed it on us,” Dara told me.
“For three months we did a very peaceful protest, madam, we never did any vandalism or property destruction of our university,” an anguished Prabhakar of the ASA told the CNN-IBN reporter Sakshi Khanna. “We are human beings. Why he came again? He hurt our sentiments. Because he is the first culprit in the Rohith Vemula case.”
At around 11.30 am, police arrived on campus, even as the JAC students continued their efforts to enter the VC’s lodge. Wearing riot helmets and carrying protective shields and sticks, they continued to pour in and assembled at the lodge until they outnumbered the students present. The students remained undeterred. That evening, at around 5.30 pm, the police started forcefully vacating the protesting students from the premises.
Though several television journalists were present by this time, they recorded very little evidence of police action, instead focussing only on the lodge’s broken property. The mainstream media’s emphasis on the vandalism over the police crackdown lent credence to the Dalit students’ fears that coverage was biased, playing up the stereotype of the violent Dalit.
The clearest video available of the action shows students cowering and clinging to each other as the police drag them out of the lodge compound. Throughout, the students scream at the police, insisting that they are protesting peacefully.
In the absence of media footage, the most detailed accounts of the police’s excesses are in first-person video testimonies shot by students and uploaded onto YouTube. In these testimonies, women students said that members of the police abused them, threatened them with rape, and molested them. In her testimony, Akshita, an MSc student of physics, recounted that the police said, “You girls should behave like girls, not like prostitutes.”
According to Munna, the police took three hours to clear the students from the lodge. In the chaos, 27 people were picked up and bundled into police vehicles; among them were two faculty members, KY Ratnam and Tathagata Sengupta, as well as one film-maker, Moses Tulasi. “The police said, ‘Why are you standing here? Go away,’” Ratnam recalled. “I said, ‘I am faculty here, you are beating my students without a reason.’ They said, ‘Take this fellow as well.’” When Sreerag Poickadath, a Dalit student from Kerala, asked the police why they were picking up a professor, he, too, was forced inside the police van.” One student, Gautam Uyyala, who was filming the incident on his cell phone, told me that a policeman said to him, “Why don’t you film your mother and sister naked?”
The 27 people who were detained were transported in one group of nine, and another of 18. People in the latter group were beaten all the way from the university to the police station, according to Poickadath, who was among them. “In the van, a police slapped and asked me if I was a Muslim because of my beard without a moustache,” he told me. One sub-inspector, he said, told him, “I will kill all Muslims today.” Poickadath added: “While beating us, they said things like, ‘You eat beef and conduct beef festivals,’ as if it was a crime.’”
According to Poickadath, the students were not allowed to use their phones. They were also not produced before a magistrate within 24 hours, as required by law. “The judge did not give us an earlier time. The time she gave us is when we produced them,” the Telangana home minister Nayani Narasimha Reddy told Frontline magazine. But a report by Sudipto Mondal for the Hindustan Timesrevealed that there were networks of power working against the students—Dharmavarapu Varoodhini, the magistrate who was hearing their bail plea, is married to M Vijaykanth, who works in the law firm of the BJP MLC Ramachander Rao, accused in an abetment of suicide case filed by the police after Vemula’s death.
Five days later, on 28 March, those who had been detained were granted bail. More than a thousand students welcomed them back to the campus. But from the day of his return, the vice chancellor had turned the campus into a kind of fortress, barring the entry of outsiders and the media. The activist Yogendra Yadav, who was denied entry, called it “a 2,500-acre jail.” Prominent intellectuals and activists who visited the university in solidarity gave speeches outside the gate, while students stood inside and listened, in protest. As of the end of April, the blockade was still in force.
In the first week of April, I managed to get inside the campus to assess the mood. Munsif, one of the arrested students, told me, “22 March is the biggest blow to the culture of dissent that was the hallmark of this campus.” Though some students who had been arrested had returned inspired, the police had managed to instil fear in many others. “The semester is going to end and the holidays will begin,” Sunkanna told me. “I don’t know what to do, but we have to do something. We wanted to intensify the movement in April, but students are scared of cases.”
Political support had waned by this time, as had attendance at the evening velivada meetings. The VC was stationed in his bungalow and had been conducting all his official work from there instead of the administration building. A posse of 20 policemen provided him with round-the-clock security.
Poickadath offered a theory for why the student struggle at Jawaharlal Nehru University, which was occurring at around the same time, was receiving far greater support from faculty. “The protests in JNU had more faculty participation because it was not an anti-caste movement,” he said. “A Brahmin professor can come wearing the cloak of Marxism and talk about campus freedom. But here they have to criticise the privilege they are born with, so they don’t come and participate. They will be forced to talk about caste and criticise it, so they are wary. Their silence means they are casteist.” His conclusion was, “If you try to annihilate caste, the state will throw you in jail because it is a Brahminical state.”
Prashanth told me that in the government’s unbending support for Podile, he saw parallels with the situation in Gujarat after the violence of 2002. “Despite a lot of pressure, the RSS and the BJP kept Modi in the chair, giving him power to crush his opponents and establish his command,” he said. “Appa Rao is a hero for the RSS, as he performed his dharma.”
“Sustaining a movement for a Dalit cause is difficult because socially, politically, economically and legally we are not strong enough,” Sunkanna said. “The enemy is stronger. No sources outside the campus to lead the movement. It is an academic struggle and only students can speak about it.” But he did not concede defeat. “I can’t say we have lost the battle yet,” he said. “But I can’t predict the outcome. There is a legal battle going on and a student movement. If it was a fight between two individuals or two groups, it was OK. This is a fight against the system and the state that is thousand times more powerful than the ASA. Still, we are fighting and we will fight till the end.”
On 13 April, the university’s student union held a general body meeting to vote on a resolution demanding the removal of Podile from the post of vice chancellor. It was near unanimous: 948 students voted in favour of the resolution, while only one opposed it.
Sunkanna told me that some faculty members were trying to persuade the students to back down from their demand, warning them that the government might “bring in an RSS strongman to replace him.” According to Sunkanna, the teachers say, “This man has already been cornered and tomorrow if you put forth any demands, he will accept them.” He continued: “To them, I said only one thing. ‘Let someone stronger come, let Modi himself come. If he does anti-Dalit activities, we will fight against him too. But punish Appa Rao before that.’”
Praveen Donthi is a Staff Writer at The Caravan. He is trained as a researcher in modern Indian history and became a journalist by accident. He has previously worked for Tehelka, Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald.