“I am rule-bound and will not do anything against the established statutes of the University of Hyderabad,” says Appa Rao Podile, the beleaguered Vice Chancellor of the university. He has refused to step down, but the 26 students and faculty members who were arrested and released on bail after several days would not budge from their demand that he do so. Appa Rao is confident of the outcome of his case in the Hyderabad High Court seeking annulment of the first information report (FIR) filed in the case of the suicide of PhD scholar Rohith Vemula. The FIR was registered by the Hyderabad police on the basis of a complaint by Dontha Prashanth, in which he accused Professor Appa Rao of taking discriminatory and harsh punitive action against Dalit students and claimed that this led to Rohith committing suicide. But Appa Rao maintained that the complaint was an “emotional” act, and that it could not be backed by evidence. Dontha Prashanth, an economics PhD scholar, was one of the five Dalit students who were suspended from the dorms, the messes and common facilities last November for a whole semester on the basis of a complaint alleging violence against the member of an opposing students’ union. The suspension was revoked this February following Rohith’s death and the national outpouring of solidarity with the striking students. Appa Rao, a life sciences professor, is confident that the charges levelled against him will not stand legal scrutiny, but he refuses to consider even temporary absence from the Vice Chancellor’s post until his petition in the High Court is decided. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline :
According to you, what happened when you resumed charge on March 22?
We were all in a Deans, staff and Executive Council meeting at the Vice Chancellor’s lodge, which is also the V.C.’s camp office. It included the Chief Proctor and Deans of all schools.
Going by the complaint filed by HCU Registrar M. Sudhakar, the alleged vandalism, that is, the damage to property and breaking of glass, was solely carried out by the students protesting against you. But the Joint Action Committee for Social Justice said that the vandalism was from both sides and that there were no fewer than 20-30 students, mainly from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, and even more faculty and non-teaching staff who are your supporters present inside the lodge.
Investigation into that incident is ongoing. It will reveal everything. If there was violence from the other side, that will also come out. The police have taken pictures of the place and noted the damage that happened, etc. But I am not sure of the course of investigation.
How do you explain the papers that mention clearly the tasks assigned to various students, the Dean of students’ welfare, your Personal Secretary Krishna Ram and several professors, including those from the Centre for Integrated Studies and Life Sciences Department? It appears that your return was carefully planned and meant to be executed with utmost care, taking into account the possibility of violence.
I won’t go by those papers, but one thing I can say is that I have to inform my P.A. and faculty/staff that are here, and I have to know about the basics about those I am interacting with and those who have been asking me to return to the university. The question of fear of violence was never there in my mind. When my colleagues and non-teaching staff met me, I asked them not to stay back. I told them that they [protesting students] were all my students and never thought that anybody had to stay here [V.C.’s lodge]. I expected protests and I was willing to face them. When I say that, I mean a democratic protest. I was willing to meet protesting groups about their demands.
Why did you choose to return when an investigation into your role in the suicide of Rohith Vemula is pending, particularly when some clauses of the S.C./S.T. Act have also been mentioned in the FIR? Would it not be in the fitness of things for you to have stayed away until the filing of the charge sheet, considering that you hold a public office and were the head of the institution when the suicide occurred?
I have sought the quashing of the FIR, and my legal counsel says that it cannot be established that I will be found guilty of any of the charges levelled against me.
Yes, but has the court stayed the investigation by the police?
We have not sought the quashing of the investigation. The same data that have been submitted before the court have been submitted to the National S.C./S.T. Commission.
Again, would it not be in the fitness of things that you continue to be on leave until the completion of the investigation and the filing of charge sheet?
In this university, two years ago there was a judicial inquiry into a similar case of Dalit suicide and the V.C. had not taken even one day’s leave…. I am referring to the Madhari Venkatesh case. Professor Ramaswamy was the V.C., he never took leave.
If the High Court does not quash the FIR, then you will step down?
Anytime a court establishes a case…. I have a job to do. I have been appointed through a search-cum-selection process, and there is a difference between this and a nomination. My powers are different from someone who is only an in-charge V.C. If at any time the judicial process finds fault with me, I will have to honour its decision.
But could you not set a good precedent by stepping aside temporarily, unlike your predecessor whom you have cited?
I am yet to see any V.C., or any official, of that kind who has…. I am glad you are asking these questions, I want somebody to look at it [suicide] as a common man [would]. You consider the suicide note. Has the boy [Rohith Vemula] made any mention of the university, Appa Rao, or any such kind? If, in future, any small complaint is given against the V.C.,… I am not trying to reduce this [suicide] to a small incident, it is not and I think it is a very serious issue.
But if there is a minor incident in the university or any other place, it is impossible that the head of the institution will have the acceptance of 100 per cent of the stakeholders. Not even 10 per cent or 40 per cent for that matter, that is, when a small number is trying to project it as a problem, that can happen in any institution. This means we are suggesting that any person appointed can hold office only for one month or at best six months. There will come a time when no sensible person will take up this job.
If I am proven guilty, I will be the last person to continue. I am being given unfair treatment. My right to serve as a V.C. is being curtailed. For example, the case has been filed, let the judiciary take its course…. I am very much troubled by Rohith’s death, but emotions are not grounds for removal. My friend [Dontha Prashanth] has filed an emotional complaint because he has lost his friend, but where is the legal ground? If somebody asks me to leave on that ground, how can I? If I have to relinquish this office, the reasons have to be substantiated. There are two ways of addressing the problem: you demand either a police inquiry or an internal inquiry into the incident, or you approach the judiciary.
But you approached the judiciary, not them, and the court has neither stayed the investigation nor granted you stay of arrest, or the quashing of the FIR, which was your main plea.
So let them [High Court] not grant [quashing of FIR]. They will either punish or quash the petition. It may take some time. I was trying to push it, but it is taking time. And here, an institution [HCU] cannot wait for one individual. There are some connected things. It is not that I am craving for power. After five or six years I will go back to being a professor. I am honestly following the systems in place, the statutes, and I have approached this matter as a law-abiding citizen. It is unfair on my friends’ part to expect me to both step down and then approach the judiciary as well.
Yes, in many things we have worked together, my professors. We have worked together, but now they are asking two things from me at one time. Is there any order anywhere asking me to step down? No such order from the Ministry [of Human Resource Development] either. And the students as well, they are all my friends.
There are allegations that you have brokered deals as quid pro quo for buying the support of non-teaching staff. That is, allocation of 60 acres of land for housing, which is why they have turned in your favour. They had overwhelmingly supported the JAC following Rohith’s death.
No, please don’t buy into such arguments. I have established credibility on this campus. For different purposes, some people are trying to dent my credibility. People know, you have to know this by now, and look into what or who is Appa Rao for the past 10 years? In this time, I have worked with almost everyone, every leader of the unions, every faculty and department head, and they all have regard for me and for the systems that I have put in place. It is that respect that they have for me. I am not a person who brokers deals. I am rule-bound, and that bothers many of my friends. So the kind of utterly false allegations that I will pay one rupee extra to anybody who is not eligible for it are only meant to malign the immense goodwill that I enjoy in this institution. I am here today because of the goodwill that I have earned.
But the university seems to be divided.
You have got that wrong. You have to correct your sentence there. Suppose there are 400 faculty members, 200 on one side and 200 on the other, it could be considered to be divided. But that is not the case here. There are only a few who don’t want me here, very few.
So the majority are with you then?
That is the sense I get. When the demand [V.C.’s resignation] of the students was referred to the schools, all schools unanimously said that we cannot do it, it is beyond our purview. If they wanted to join they could have done so, but they didn’t.
What is statutorily possible and what are largely expected of you could be two different things.
Yes, you could say that. But, as I said, I am rule-bound, and one has to consider what already exists in University of Hyderabad’s own statutes.
You have said that you returned of your own volition, but as a Central university of considerable standing, when your own appointment is done by a panel set up by the MHRD, would you not have to keep the Ministry in the loop on your return?
When I went on leave I did not inform them. But when I joined I simply sent a note informing that I have joined. There are no prescribed rules on how a V.C. takes leave and whom he must keep informed. There are only established practices, and I am going by them. If rules are framed, I will gladly follow them.
Protesting students say they will not give up until you resign or go on leave.
There are those who want me to stay as well.
But a large number of the students who are represented by elected bodies/unions, ASA, SFI, DSU, they say…
I am not sure who these large numbers of students are? Out of the 5,000 [students], even I am not clear. My assessment could be wrong. For some Appa Rao is anti-Dalit, for some Appa Rao is rule-bound, for some Appa Rao is asking for transparency. Even after all that, I am not sure who are against me of the 600/700 non-teaching staff, 400-odd faculty and 5,000-odd students, I am not sure who they are. Others [other faculty, students, staff] have the liberty to speak what they want. When the university writes anything, we have to be very careful. We have to word everything very carefully.