Ayesha Minhaz goes undercover at the University of Hyderabad to chronicle
the events unfolding there
The Cherlapally Central Jail of Hyderabad is bustling with visitors since the last 24 hours. Some local media persons have stationed themselves and their OB vans right outside the prison. They are all waiting. Such attention is not strange for this prison. However it is not high profile gangsters or politicians that have garnered attention this time. Instead, it is 24 students, 2 faculty members of the University of Hyderabad (UoH) and an independent documentary filmmaker. They have been charged with vandalism, trespassing into private property and criminal intimidation. Two cases have been lodged—one related to the damage caused to the lodge of P.Appa Rao, the Vice Chancellor (VC) of the university, and the second is for stone pelting that caused injuries to policemen.
The accused have been granted bail this afternoon. But for over two months now, UOH has been simmering with protests where a section of students are demanding justice for the death of dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula. Vemula who hanged himself in a friend’s hostel room was suspended from the hostel along with four other dalit scholars for allegedly attacking an ABVP student leader. The five students at the time of his death were facing social boycott in the university and living in an open space on campus.
Ever since his death, there have been widespread protests across the country and Vemula’s mother Radhika Vemula has stationed herself inside the university, demanding justice for her son’s suicide. The local police registered two cases against the VC, one under the SC and ST (prevention of atrocities) act and one for the abetment of suicide on January 24. After that, the VC went on an ‘unplanned leave.’
Classes resumed. The protesting students were assured justice. Between January 17 and March 22 there were agitations, but they remained peaceful. But on March 22, less than two months after his leave, VC Appa Rao suddenly resumed his duties at the university and chaos ensued. The protesting students vandalised the official residence of the chancellor. Window panes, doors, and furniture were smashed in the clash.
Within a few hours, the campus was in a state of siege.
Almost a week later, around 40 kilometers from the prison there is an eerie calm at the University of Hyderabad. Blue barricades are stationed at places, reminders that the police continues to be deployed at the university. There are prohibitory orders. No one except the UoH staff and students are given an entry into the campus. Inside, students, and activists who have been working restlessly on the bail petitions of the arrested have arranged the Rs. 4 lakh that is required to pay as bond money. A committee that includes human rights activists and lawyers has said that women students were threatened with rape. Muslims were referred to as ‘terrorists’ by the police.
The government has been supportive of the students, but only so much, the Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao has said that he will request the Prime Minister to removed Appa Rao from the post of Vice Chancellor. While the incident of vandalism of VC’s lodge occurred before noon, the police hauled the students into vans in the latter part of the day. Several students, including girls, were lathi charged and suffered bruises. “It was as if the police were not looking for the vandals, but for those who could be potentially accused of vandalism and beaten up with impunity,” read a release from the SC and ST Faculty Forum and Concerned Teachers of the University of Hyderabad.
On Friday, 20 more students were booked for being involved in violence. The new list named five girl students who claim they weren’t even present at the spot. “We are living in a state of fear because of the way cops used brute force against students. Our fellow students and professors in the prison are bruised and tortured both physically and emotionally. We are staying strong, we will continue protests. But, precautions are being taken to avoid any further arrests,” said a student leader from the university.
For nearly 24 hours, the faculty, students and team of lawyers were running from one police station to the other to ascertain the situation of detainees, in vain. For more than 36-hours, there was no food, water and internet at the campus, which is home to nearly 5000 students from across the country. During the time, when protesting students were attempting to meet the VC, a clash with non-teaching staff resulted in a few of the workers suffering minor injuries. “Filthy language was used against us by students. At least three non-teaching staff were injured during the scuffle at VC lodge. Still, we didn’t file any cases against students. We have not even named any student groups. We aren’t against anyone,” alleged the representative of the union of non-teaching staff. He wishes to remain anonymous, as he fears a backlash but states that, “We deny allegations that water supply was stopped. The mess was stopped for a day because the union decided to go on a strike.”
What is unfortunate is the sparing coverage of these issues at the university by the national media. While some students called it apathy toward dalits, others have ruled that most coverage focused on the visit of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar. When Kanhaiya’s visit to the UoH was finalised, almost every media organisation stationed the correspondents for nearly six hours outside the main gate. Kanhaiya Kumar was denied entry into the campus and left after delivering a speech at the gate. The national dailies carried this news prominently the next day and the undeclared emergency-like situation at campus failed to get the deserved attention. “There was so much unrest at the campus and the entire media was focusing on Kanhaiya Kumar. Also, the media has been producing biased reports. Our version of the entire events hardly got any representation,” ABVP-HCU convenor Gosala Raju claimed.
Rumours were doing the rounds about how the ABVP with the help of BJP had orchestrated the return of the VC to curb the protests and influence of leftist, dalit, student organisations at the university. Raju brushes off these rumours. “Our organisation has sympathisers, but we hardly have 30-40 active members in the campus. We aren’t that strong.” He says that they never vouched to remove other student organisations from the campus or the country. ABVP representatives have been vocal against the vandalism at the university and have posted videos on social media platforms to support their claims. “We have enough evidence to prove who were involved in this. If cops or courts ask us for it, we will submit it,” says Raju. “Like the leftist and dalit student organisations have freedom of speech, we too have the same. We can’t deny a constitutional right. Similarly, don’t deny our rights. We demand peace to be restored on the campus.”
In response to the ongoing protests, the VC issued a statement. “The University was and will always be committed to freedom of speech and expression. While the difference of opinion and dissent is not discouraged, the University certainly does not take kindly to vandalism and other acts of indiscipline.” In what can be seen as trying to use parents to stop students from protesting, the statement also included “The University administration seeks your kind co-operation and requests you to advise your ward to avoid any activity that will affect the reputation of the institution from which they wish to graduate.”
However, activists and students point out that the university needs to resolve its issues first before they attempt to clamp down dissenting voices. Most important of all, justice must be delivered to Vemula, who a month before his death wrote a letter to Rao, describing the plight of dalits on campus and the rampant discrimination against them. Students accuse Rao of apathy because he suspended Vemula instead of helping him out.
For now though, the VC doesn’t appear to be in the mood to go on another unplanned leave this time around. The barricades continue to guard the university. The divisions between confronting groups are becoming more vivid. University classes still stand disrupted. Life is a long way from normal.