Intimidatory tactics

Print edition : February 17, 2017
The University of Hyderabad follows questionable practices to shield itself from media scrutiny.

AT the main gate of the University of Hyderabad, at least a dozen security men frisked everyone going into the campus on January 16, on the eve of the first death anniversary of the Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula. They had a bunch of A4-sized posters with photographs of people and the words “not allowed” beneath them.

The usual procedure for entry was followed. The security staff retained government-issued identification, asked entrants to give the name of the person they wished to meet, and noted down the time of entry, the vehicle number and the visitors’ mobile phone number in a registry.

Hours earlier, the university’s management had issued a “circular” “barring entry of outsiders, including print and electronic media, political, social, student groups”, citing an April 12, 2016, Hyderabad High Court order. The order was issued after violence erupted on the campus when Vice Chancellor Podile Appa Rao joined duty after having taken two months’ “indefinite leave” following Rohith Vemula’s death.

The brief interim order passed by Justice Challa Kodandaram specifically applied to “persons, associations and political parties who are conducting meetings in the premises of Hyderabad Central University by giving provocative speeches”. The order does not refer to the press, either explicitly or by extension, as it is not the purpose of the press to conduct or enable such meetings. While taking refuge in this order, the university authorities argued that as students had not been granted permission to hold protest meetings on January 16 or 17, by extension the media did not have a reason to enter the campus.

The University of Hyderabad is a public institution created by an Act of Parliament in 1974 serving a public purpose—education. Section 24 (J) and (K) of the Act allows “the establishment and recognition of Students’ Union or associations of teachers, academic staff or other employees” and the participation of students in the affairs of the university. To restrict students’ campus life to academic pursuits goes against the very statutes that created the university. The authorities can bar assembly on the campus citing Section 24 (O), for “the maintenance of discipline among students.” However, to presume that an assembly of students, staff or faculty by itself amounts to “disturbing the peace and educational purpose of the institution” signals a dangerous attempt to curtail democratic practices allowed by the university’s own statutes. The objective of these rights, conferred on employees and students, is to foster a more inclusive academic environment which allows for an array of opinions, critical thinking and debate. It also ensures redress of grievances without fear of persecution.

The press, by extension, has the right to report incidents and events or the goings-on in the university with reasonable restrictions as guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian Constitution. As the University of Hyderabad is a public university and serves a similar purpose, barring the media outright from the premises violates not only the Constitution but its own stated objectives.

This correspondent was accosted by the university’s internal security staff on January 17 outside the Life Sciences building, where he took photographs of an ongoing protest against the management.

He was aggressively questioned over his credentials. All the while, he was videographed by one of the three men in a van, without being offered an explanation and in violation of his privacy. The security staff attempted to take away the phone of this reporter, which he resisted. He was taken to meet a Telangana State police officer stationed outside the main university gate. Thereafter, the security staff took him through the south gate to the police station at Gachibowli to avoid the media present at the main entrance.

It must be placed on record that this correspondent suffered no physical violence at the hands of either the internal security or the State police.

However, the inquiring officer refused to give this correspondent a copy of the police complaint filed by the university. He aggressively interrogated this correspondent for about 90 minutes, which was recorded on a mobile phone by another officer. The questions seemed designed to elicit from this correspondent details of his contacts within the university, signalling a potential witch-hunt by the authorities against those critical of the present administration. He was initially denied a copy of the first information report (FIR), citing the absence of “arrest”.

The FIR was subsequently published on the State police website the next day, which contained the complaint made by the university’s security staff. It revealed the utter lack of application of mind and a clear strategy to intimidate, by falsely accusing this reporter of “jumping the wall or obtaining entry through other illegal means”. Charges of trespass and disobedience to the orders of a public servant have been slapped against this correspondent.

Widespread occurrence

Such incidents are not confined to the University of Hyderabad. Indeed, it is part of a pattern witnessed nationwide at public universities in the past two years through which they try to shield themselves from media scrutiny. The current procedure of entering the name of a university official/staff to gain entry, especially by members of the press, at several such public institutions facilitates witch-hunts against employees and whistle-blowers by hostile authorities, as this current example demonstrates. It also violates the Whistle Blowers Protection Act of 2014 and the media’s right to keep their sources confidential.

Late at night on January 16, a directive from the administration was conveyed to the faculty over telephone. They were told that they “should desist from participating in any of the student organised activities and that they need not worry on account of security to conduct their classes,” said a senior faculty member who did not wish to be named.

“Things have gotten from bad to worse. The sense of persecution is very real and everybody feels like we are being watched,” said another faculty member, who is the head of a humanities department.

On January 23, the Press Council of India took suo motu cognisance of the incident and instituted an inquiry. It has issued notices to the Vice Chancellor, Telangana’s Chief Secretary, Hyderabad’s Superintendent of Police, and the Station House Officer of Gachibowli Police Station, seeking their explanation. The notice states: “It has been brought to the notice of the Council that internal security of Hyderabad Central University detained Frontline’s reporter and handed him over to the police. It has been further noticed that the university has again imposed restrictions on the media to cover events in the campus despite giving an undertaking to the Press Council. Since the matter prima facie concerns the free functioning of the Press and the Statute mandates the Press Council to preserve the freedom of the Press, the Honourable Chairman Press Council has taken suo-motu cognisance of the matter under Regulation 13 of the Press Council (Procedure of Inquiry) Regulations, 1979.” Replies have been sought within two weeks.