Caught in a trap

The sudden return of HCU Vice Chancellor Appa Rao Podile from long leave sparking violence and arrests on the campus shifts public attention away from the debate on discrimination in universities that followed Rohith Vemula’s suicide in January.

Published : Apr 13, 2016 12:30 IST

Students staging an agitation outside the University of Hyderabad on April 6.

Students staging an agitation outside the University of Hyderabad on April 6.

The resumption of work by Professor Appa Rao Podile, the embattled Vice Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, or Hyderabad Central University (HCU), has sidetracked the national debate following the suicide by the PhD scholar Rohith Vemula on the campus on January 17 on the silent but pervasive discrimination based on caste in institutions of higher education across India. It has instead shifted the focus to police brutality and the detrimental effects of violence on campus life. Several observers feel that this was the real purpose of the return of Appa Rao after his “indefinite leave” of two months.

Appa Rao said he was not resuming charge under instructions from higher-ups, meaning the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). Many academics refuse to buy into that story. Former University Grants Commission (UGC) Chairman Sukhadeo Thorat said: “The leave has to be taken from the Chancellor. Whether in this case the MHRD did intervene, I don’t know. At the expiry of the leave, he returns to work. He cannot go on leave for that long a period without any permission.” Another section maintained that in the case of a Central institution like the HCU, the Visitor (the President of India) had the final say, but it would be customary for all decisions to be routed through the MHRD. Appa Rao claimed: “There are no prescribed rules on how a Vice Chancellor takes leave and whom he must keep informed. There are only established practices” (interview on page 43).

Appa Rao’s return seems to have been scripted carefully. Three sheets of paper the protesting students could lay their hands on after they forcefully entered the Vice Chancellor’s lodge testify to this. The sheets, titled “Tasks for Appa Rao”, “Tasks for Krishna Ram”, his personal secretary, and “Tasks for Faculty Colleagues”, listed various tasks for each. These included the quantity of milk and water to be bought for the meeting Appa Rao had called, whom among the faculty and staff he would meet, and a standby security beef-up plan “if there is any law and order problem”. The Vice Chancellor seems to have anticipated violence. He paid extra attention to law and order by deputing the Dean of students’ welfare (DSW) to follow up on it. “Tasks for Appa Rao” mentions a 6:45 a.m. phone call to the DSW on “police matters”. Another sheet names three police personnel at the local police station who should be “informed” of his return. Appa Rao also chose to use the Vice Chancellor’s official residence for the first time since his appointment in September last year, indicating that he was there to stay.

Telangana’s Home Minister Naini Narasimha Reddy told Frontline that Appa Rao met him a month after Rohith Vemula’s suicide. He said: “Appa Rao informed me that he would like to join duty. I sought the Police Commissioner’s opinion, who suggested against it. The Commissioner said things could get ugly as the students were agitating. I advised him not to join duty. Then, we come to know that he has rejoined, only after the incident [of violence].”

It is rather odd that someone like Appa Rao, who is known for his meticulousness, did not inform the in-charge Vice Chancellor, Dr M. Periyasamy, of his return. Periyasamy, who has been widely praised for his work, told Frontline that he was caught unawares when Appa Rao walked into his hilltop bungalow on the campus. This has led to accusations that Appa Rao approached only staff and students who are loyal to him and, in the process, attempted to divide the university community. One of the Deans who attended the 10 a.m. meeting called by Appa Rao on March 22 confirmed receiving “a call just a few minutes before we reached the venue”. Not wishing to be named, he said: “Usually, his personal secretary informs through telephone as well as SMS. That is the practice. After he [Appa Rao] took over, every fortnight there used to be a meeting, and the dates were pre-decided, mostly with the Deans and the Executive Council members. But it was not the case this time.”

One non-teaching staff member, who reached the Vice Chancellor’s lodge at 9:30 a.m., claimed that an office-bearer of the students’ union was the first to arrive at the location at 10:15 a.m. as soon as news of the Vice Chancellor’s return spread. He said this person “got down from his bike and called someone”. As he was talking on the phone, the staff member heard another voice say, “if they are not allowing you inside, tell them that we will burn the university”. “A few minutes later 20 to 25 students reached the spot. They demanded entry through the gate of the Vice Chancellor’s residence. When the security officers resisted, they climbed over the gate and rushed towards the main door. They began throwing stones and broke several glass panes.”

The stand-off

The protesting students said several members of the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) were kept abreast of Appa Rao’s return. They said the ABVP students were waiting in the backyard of the house to provide the Vice Chancellor cover and retaliate if violence broke out. A senior member of the ABVP at the HCU said at least three ABVP members were present at the meeting called by Appa Rao, but that they were there as his students from the Life Sciences Department. Some members of the umbrella students’ group, the Joint Action Committee for Social Justice, admitted to initiating the violence but said they had walked into a “trap”. The JAC was formed in response to the university’s harsh measure of a semester’s suspension from common facilities to five Dalit research scholars, one of whom was Rohith Vemula. They said not a single incident of violence was reported since Rohith Vemula’s death, but this single instance was being used to show that they had a history of violent behaviour. The stand-off lasted for about 45 minutes, after which a massive scale-up of police personnel was used to calm down tempers.

Subsequently, hundreds of students held peaceful protests on the lawns of the Vice Chancellor’s residence. The police urged the students to disperse. Around 4:30 p.m., the police began to use force to remove the students. Several of them were beaten. Some women students complained of being molested, others were threatened with rape. Avipsha Sengupta, a student from West Bengal, said: “It didn’t matter that we were women. We were being handled by women police officers. I was still pulled and kicked in the abdomen, beaten up and dragged out of the scene.”

A police complaint filed by the administration named nine students and “others” for the violence. But the police rounded up just about anyone who either spoke up or was filming the incident or was a name they could recognise from the list of troublemakers provided by the university. Those rounded up included two faculty members, a young assistant professor of mathematics and a senior faculty member who heads the Centre for Ambedkar Studies. Both were not part of that morning’s violence.

In fact, going by the university’s complaint only three of those arrested caused damage to public property. Gowtham Uyalla, a postgraduate diploma student at the Centre for Human Rights who was arrested, went to the Vice Chancellor’s residence around 4:30 p.m. when he heard announcements over the public address system warning students of action. Within minutes there was mayhem. When Gowtham began filming the incident, an officer who spotted him swiftly bundled him into a police vehicle. The bus quickly filled up with 16 others. As the van neared the university gate, Prasanna Choudhury, who was filming the arrest, was also picked up. The arrested were thrashed and abused using the choicest of epithets, which lasted until the van reached a police station. The abuse reserved for Muslims and for those eating beef was heard several times.

Md. Hasanujjaman, an MPhil student from West Bengal who had no role in the violence, said: “About six policemen started beating us with their hands. They didn’t spare any body part. They snatched away my glasses and when I protested, they beat me further. They accused me of being a Pakistani agent and asked me to go back to Pakistan. They asked us why we held a candlelight vigil for Rohith and said that he was a spoilt child. I am still on painkillers.”

An independent film-maker who followed the van exiting the university was also arrested. The mobile phones of those who were arrested were seized and returned only a week later when they were released. Evidence of police violence recorded in the phones was deleted and some of the phones were even reformatted.

Around 9 p.m. on March 23, after the outdoor broadcasting vans of news channels had left, and well over 24 hours after the violence, news spread of the return of Rohith Vemula’s mother, Radhika, and his brother Raja to the main gate of the university. Radhika and Raja were not allowed to enter the university earlier that evening when they had come with Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar. Students who were protesting inside the campus rushed to the gate to stage a sit-in in a show of solidarity with those arrested the previous day. A couple of media persons, including this correspondent, managed to sneak into the campus. The university had barred the entry of media persons following the violence. Politicians were also not allowed inside. Students’ lawyers, led by the Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network, were not allowed to meet the JAC members.

In a curious turn of events, the non-teaching staff, who had backed the students who were protesting after Rohith Vemula’s death and kept the university running for weeks even when the administration was closed, struck work on March 22 alleging that the students had used “filthy language” against them during the protests. Students were forced to get food and water from outside the campus. Allegations of sweet deals between the Vice Chancellor and the non-teaching staff began to fly thick and fast. But a senior member of the non-teaching staff said: “This is a matter of our self-respect. We went to protect the Vice Chancellor and other members only because of our loyalty to this institution. We built this institution with our time, energy, blood and sweat, and not by showing loyalty to the Vice Chancellor alone. Had there been any other professor in Appa Rao’s place, we would have done the same.”

The arrested students were produced before the magistrate at her residence close to midnight that day, well past the 24 hours required by the law if the prosecution wished to seek judicial remand. First information report no. 113 filed on the complaint by the university states the time of the arrest as 6:30 p.m. while the remand case diaries before the magistrate says 9 p.m. The judge granted remand for 15 days and listed the case for further hearing the next day, when the prosecution sought time to file a counter. In other words, the police decided to appeal against the arrested students’ bail petitions. The judge once again granted time until March 28, a whole week after the arrests.

Narasimha Reddy admitted to police violence. He said: “Six hours were given to the students to leave the Vice Chancellor’s lodge. The students did not listen. It is only after that the police resorted to baton charge. If the police were not there Appa Rao would have got killed. We would have been blamed for that later. We had a neutral policy—this is a Central government issue. Just stop any violence if it takes place.” On the delay in producing the students before a magistrate, he said: “The judge did not give us an earlier time. The time she gave us is when we produced them.” The students were moved from one police station to another to prevent family and friends from meeting them and for “fear of attacks on stations from protesting students”, he said.

The Minister’s response came following an embarrassing opposition uproar both inside the Assembly and outside, bringing the HCU much closer to Telangana politics than Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhara Rao would have liked. Asaduddin Owaisi, leader of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), met the students at the city’s central jail and expressed concern over the police high-handedness. Owaisi’s brother Akbaruddin said on the floor of the House four days after the arrest: “I do not want my Chief Minister and my State to get a bad name. I am saying this as a supporter of the Telangana government [the AIMIM is the Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s alliance partner]. I know this government is a protector of Dalit rights. Why have the State police only arrested protesting students and not the Vice Chancellor who has been accused under the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe [Prevention of Atrocities] Act?”

During the hearing on March 28, the prosecution did not press for judicial remand and the students were granted bail.

On March 25, the university was back on its feet. Power supply was restored, the Internet began functioning, and food was served in the messes. But it was an uneasy calm.

An overwhelming majority of the students and several staff members hold Appa Rao responsible for Rohith Vemula’s suicide. They described the incident as an “institutional murder”. A view widely held is that Appa Rao should not have returned to work while investigations were under way under the S.C. and S.T. Act into a complaint filed after Rohith Vemula’s suicide, which names Appa Rao and six others for abetting the suicide and accuses them of “instituting false, malicious or vexatious suit or criminal proceedings” against Dalit students.

A one-man judicial probe headed by a former Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court, the second such commission in the university’s history, is also under way.

After the students were released close to midnight on March 29, attempts were made to draw attention to their demands. Appa Rao said he was willing to discuss them “as long as they are within the statutes”. But the students have decided to take their protests to the streets of Hyderabad. They are unrelenting in their demand for the resignation of Appa Rao.

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