Campus Politics

Message from Hyderabad

Print edition : October 27, 2017

Arif Ahammed (centre), who won the post of general secretary, with other SFI members after the election results were announced. He is flanked by Suddhabrata Deb Roy and Swathi and behind him are Malavika and Baisakh. Photo: Suddhabrata Deb Roy

The Rohit Vemula memorial on the HCU campus. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Union election results at the Hyderabad Central University confirm the growing disenchantment with right-wing forces among students.

THE student elections at the University of Hyderabad (Hyderabad Central University, or HCU) this year were won conclusively by the Alliance for Social Justice (ASJ) consisting of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), the Dalit Students Union (DSU), the Tribal Students Forum (TSF), the Muslim Student Front (MSF) and the Telangana Vidhyarthi Vedike (TVV). These organisations had come together following the suicide of the Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula on the campus on January 17, 2016.

The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and its ally, the Other Backward Caste Forum (OBCF), though unable to win any of the posts, did win a fair number of votes. Incidentally, the two groups came up with an appeal for the invalidation of the election to the post of vice president, which was won by the TSF candidate Lunavath Naresh, a first year master’s student of public health. They alleged that that he lacked the necessary attendance to contest the election. Naresh’s victory was annulled, a decision against which the ASJ has appealed. A decision is yet to be taken on the issue.

The ASJ’s victory came within days of the ABVP’s defeat in not only Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where it has been relatively weak, but also at Delhi University, its erstwhile stronghold. The Congress-backed National Students Union of India made a thumping comeback this year. These victories represent a maturing of student union politics and a greater awareness of issues that go beyond the campus. Right-wing student organisations restrict their focus on mess food and hostel facilities, issues which limit campus life to brick and mortar and are generally considered benign and manageable by university administrations. These election outcomes also reflect the growing political sentiment against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) economic policies and the idea of a homogenised Hindu India representing upper-caste values.

‘Mainstreaming beef’

The ASJ’s victory is also a reminder that Hyderabad’s college campuses have for long been crucibles of anti-caste movements, which the Hindu Right has been trying to counter. HCU, in fact, was the first Central university where students demanded that beef be allowed to be served on the campus, way back in 2006. The DSU demanded, and had, a stall serving beef at the three-day inter-collegiate festival called Sukoon (a word that means peace or relaxation in Urdu), usually held at the Ambedkar Auditorium on the campus. Suresh Kumar Digumarthi, who was DSU president in 2006, recalled how it all came about. “That was the year when several kinds of foods were introduced in our mess—like crab and mutton paya [a soupy dish considered a delicacy]. But those of us who liked and wanted to eat beef had to consume it outside the campus.”

Digumarthi and his friends would occasionally visit Mehdipatnam, one of Hyderabad’s old Muslim-majority neighbourhoods located at a considerable distance from the campus, to eat at restaurants that served beef. But every time they did this, they wondered why they should be forced to eat beef in seclusion and not on the campus. Sambaiah Gundimeda, a Dalit scholar and professor at Bengaluru’s Azim Premji University, was a student in HCU from 1999 to 2002. “No one dared to cook beef in the dorms. We feared that the smell could give away what we were eating,” he said. “We would go to the edge of the Sports Complex, located on the edge of HCU’s campus. We took our utensils, gathered firewood from around there, cooked and ate the meat.”

In 2005, DSU members felt that since beef-eating was part of the food culture of a section of the students, it should be “mainstreamed”. In 2006, the DSU approached the students’ union seeking permission for a stall that would sell beef dishes during Sukoon. The union, then controlled by the SFI and Dalit groups, readily accepted their demand and a stall named Arundhati came up serving chicken and beef biriyani cooked at a local restaurant. Students led by the ABVP protested against the stall. The university administration agreed with the ABVP’s view that there were “hurtful intentions” behind the stall. But the Dalit students did not relent and the stall ran for three days from March 31 to April 2.

The next year, a ruckus broke out again over the stall, and security personnel had to be called in to restore order. In 2008, troubled university authorities decided to intervene in what had so far been a student-run affair. They issued “guidelines” banning the sale of beef and pork during Sukoon, citing questionable health benefits of beef and the lack of hygiene in the cooking environment. This was rebutted by students who produced a sanitation and hygiene approval certificate issued by a Municipal Health Officer to the restaurant from where the biriyani was obtained and a statement from the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition that stated that “beef is not banned in India” and that it “has one of the highest protein content among Indian foods”.

Exasperated university authorities called for meetings between the warring student organisations. As mediation ended inconclusively, the HCU administration finally took the position that the university was founded under an Act of Parliament and was therefore governed by Central laws, which did not restrict serving or consumption of beef on college campuses.

This incident inspired similar student-led initiatives in colleges elsewhere. Prominent among them were JNU, the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and another Hyderabad-based Central institution, the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), between 2011 and 2012. Around the same time, politics over food habits entered Osmania University, which was then the epicentre of the Telangana movement.

The recent election results at HCU show that the ABVP continues to have a strong presence on the campus. Arif Ahammed of the SFI, who has won the post of general secretary, however, pointed out that the ABVP’s vote share had been reduced. “It received 1,400 votes last year for the post of president in alliance with a weak OBCF. But this time the OBCF was much stronger because of the unity of its various factions. Despite this, the alliance could win only 1,350 votes for the post. In the elections to all the other posts, they lost by significant margins. The general secretary’s post was won by a margin of 409 seats, which is the highest margin among all six elected posts.”

Monu Rajan, a journalist with Business Line who was an SFI counsellor elected unopposed in 2010 from the humanities department, recalled how the election of 2009 was a lesson for both the ASA and the SFI, which contested separately. The ABVP won five of the six posts that year. The SFI and the ASA contested the election jointly in the next two years, but the allies fell out following differences over seat-sharing. This year they sank their differences and formed an alliance of left-leaning groups.

The ASJ’s victory sends out a message that issues such as caste discrimination, gender sensitisation, and the larger ideas of dissent and freethinking will henceforth take centre stage in campus life. Ahammed said: “Much effort was put in to form this alliance, and there is a possibility that this will continue because it was formed given the larger political context in the country. Our sole aim was to the defeat the ABVP. We will act as per this aim next year as well.”

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