Early morning on the 22nd of January, the students in the University of Hyderabad spread across the campus to various departments to close them down. The joint action committee for social justice formed before Rohith Vemula’s death to lead the struggle against the suspension order of the 5 Dalit students, had given out a call for a University strike. On the 17th Rohith Vemula died as a result of the institutional violence committed by the university and the castiest excesses of the Vice Chancellor, Executive sub-committee and the administration acting upon political intervention from the BJP and Sangh Parivar. The very next day of his death, in order to ‘contain’ the situation the administration declared a university holiday for 4 days. By this time, the students had already filed a Sc/St prevention of atrocities case against the VC, involved administrative officers and ABVP student Susheel Kumar, BJP central minister Bandaru Dattatreya and others.
The day when the university was supposed to resume, the students went on an all out strike to demand the arrest of the implicated (which has still not happened). Every morning for the next 10 days, the students would gather in groups in front of all the departments to ensure that the strike happens. The university had witnessed a complete shut down for the first time in its history. Even during the Telangana movement, when the universities in the state had been the hot bed of the struggle, university of Hyderabad had ensured that a semblance of ‘normalcy’ was ascertained. To the shock of the students, they witnessed that the strike breakers were not students, but the teaching faculty. The esteemed professors and teachers stood in conflict with the same students in front of the department gates. They did not want the ‘normalcy’ of the campus to be disrupted. Justice cannot be sought by force, they professed, 5 days into Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder.
It is important to note that the teaching community was of course not a homogenous lot. There is a section of teachers who till today stand with the students in their struggle in individual and organizational capacity. The Sc/St teacher’s forum and a loose formation called the ‘concerned teachers’. The former even resigned from all their administrative posts in protest.
This article locates itself in the conflicting political responses of the faculty; a permanent stake holder of the university, and the protesting students of the university to the death of Rohith Vemula. It will unravel the challenge posed by the arrival of anti- caste consciousness to the promise of democracy of these modern institutions.
This challenge is not confined within the four walls of the campus, but reflects a larger political processes that our society is going through.
In the UoH, there have been 2 watershed moments. The incidents of 2002, (i.e. the rustication of 10 Dalit students of ASA) and the incidents of 2016, the suspension of 5 Dalit students leading to the death of Rohith Vemula and culminating into a nation-wide struggle. These two events are not just linked with each other, but present a story in continuation, a story of caste discrimination, assertion, violence and changing social spaces, that has continued to unfold in this entire period of time.
The article will look at this process in 3 sections; first section is about the changing composition of the students in the university leading up to the 2002 incident. The second part will look at the response of the teachers, and the question of violence and Dalit assertion. In the third part we will return to the events in 2016, response of the faculty this time and change in the nature of protests and student politics, followed by a conclusion.
When ‘they’ entered
After independence the affirmative action policies of the state have made possible the entry of Dalits into the ‘temples of modern India’. Reservations facilitated the entry of first generation learners into the university. Their presence on campus was invisiblised and did not particularly threaten the dominance of the upper caste monopoly.
Apart from the reservation policy, what has aided the entry and survival of Dalit students was the provision of fellowships. Post Matric fellowships and later Non-net fellowships, RJNF, MANF etc. for Research scholars have played a very important role in checking dropout rates.
Ironically casteist remarks are made on students receiving fellowships by calling them ‘free babies’ or ‘free loaders’, telling them that the only reason they enter higher education is because of the fellowships.
While reservations has been a polarizing question, until Mandal commission, the polarization played out between Dalits and ‘others’. With Mandal commission, and the vicious anti-mandal agitations across universities created a strong anti-reservation sentiment by the upper caste. Reservation for Dalits also became a target in this campaign. Dalits who have historically fought for their rightful claim of representation in the democratic politics, they naturally emerged again at the forefront of the battle to defend the Mandal commission. In the context of university of Hyderabad it was Karamchedu and Tsunduru struggles and the Mandal commission that provided the political language for assertion of Dalit students on the campus. The student formations inside the university reflected the larger socio-political changes outside. In 1994 Ambedkar students association is formed. It was an organization that represented the voice of Dalit assertion on campus. Their exclusive aim in the beginning was to ensure a secure and a dignified existence to the Dalit students. For example, aiding students in order to prevent dropout, fighting with the administration for implementation of reservation policy, anti-ragging campaigns etc. were issues that they took up .
Many Dalit students would take up the responsibility of becoming mess secretaries as it aided their survival on the campus. Under the pretext of corruption, the chief warden Apparao sought to hand over the mess control to private contractors. Upon opposition by the students and then warden, Prof. K Y Ratnam, “ the chief warden divested him of his financial authority in hostel mess management and asked him instead to look after sanitation work. He handed over financial authority to a brahmin” . This led to protests and the scuffle. The 10 students were immediately rusticated without any enquiry or opposition from anyone. It was after a very long legal battle that their rustication was lifted. Organised Dalit presence, and a very articulate and ‘aggressive’ one at that, became a threat to the upper caste monopoly in the University. Tensions and friction finally led to the 2002 incident. 10 Dalit students were rusticated without an enquiry for allegedly beating up the chief warden, Podile Apparao, who is the current VC and the prime accused in Rohith Vemula’s atrocity case, and responsible again for the arrest, suspension of Prof. K Y Ratnam in 2016.
Articles were printed in support of these students by outside political voices but from within the university the voice that came out was the one that criminalised the student’s dissent on the basis of their ‘violent’ actions . These articles did not find it necessary to even condemn or engage with the core issue of mess privatization and castiest humiliation of Prof. Ratnam or the fact that institutional procedures had been overstepped when the rustication was given. These articles written by esteemed professors justified the rustication and looked at the ‘violence’ committed by Dalit students as a breach of the university decorum.
On one side of the conflict were ASA Dalit students and on the other side was the rest of the students, teachers and staff.
The post-mandal university
During the strike one heard several casteist remarks from various people including the teachers. Many of them, frustrated by the blockade of access to their offices and normal routine due to the strike. One of the esteemed professor from the social sciences expressed his confusion to the striking students by asking if “Rohith Vemula was depressed enough to commit suicide?”. The unsaid statement being, the social boycott and suspension may not be severe enough punishments to drive somebody into depression. This professor, who was so confused earlier, helped Podile Apparao sneak inside the university and is currently a staunch supporter of Apparao.
Another professor on the first day in class after the strike was over opened with the statement “if Rohith had read Gramsci he wouldn’t have committed suicide.” Another remark that one overheard was “this is the problem with the post Mandal classroom.”
2007, saw the implementation of Mandal commission. The increase in the number of OBC students led to the campus becoming more heterogenous. The steep divide between the Dalits and upper caste was affected by the presence of the OBC students. N Sukumar narrates an incident in his article on everyday exclusion in the university, where a Dalit girl who was in relationship with a Reddy boy committed suicide in 1995. He mentions that the students knew of her situation and helplessness. The same night in the same hostel when she died, the upper caste girls continued with their birthday celebrations .
This incident brings out the distance, the invisiblisation and violence between the Dalits and the upper caste. With the entry of the OBC section into the university, this divide has no remained as ‘clean’.
In 2016 again the Dalit students became the target of institutionalized casteism. Their assertive presence needed to be taught a lesson. Again following the same pattern 5 active leaders of ASA are suspended and victimised, this time with an enquiry. The whole of student community except for ABVP, who is responsible for instigating the incident, stands with ASA and demands revocation of suspension and later the social boycott and protests after Rohih Vemula’s demise. One of the most important changes from 2002 that one sees here is the coming together of the students. In 2002 the Dalits were left to fight their lone battle, but this time it was not so.
This change in the composition of the students after OBC reservations led to a certain process of democratization of the student community. This change is also reflected in that fact that in 2010 for the first time ASA contests elections in alliance with SFI against the dominance of ABVP. From then on ABVP has suffered a severe blow, ASA and other groups continue to participate and win in various alliances. One saw the prominence of the caste question being taken up in campus politics. In the begining the only student organisation that took up the question of caste as its defining character was the ASA. Over time, post mandal the isolation of the Dalit students has been broken to an extent, the discourse of caste has gone beyond just an acknowledgement of the fact that there is caste based discrimination into deeper nuances. The later political formations on the lines of identity based assertions like Dalit students union (constituting largely of madiga students and questioning the Mala dominant character of ASA), tribal students forum, Bahujan students forum (affiliated with the BSP) etc. are a reflection of the same.
It is not just the other students who were affected by ASA’s articulation of Dalit subjectivity but this democratization is reflected in the way ASA also changed over time. It could no longer limit itself to the Dalit question but had to extend its position to incorporate other kinds of questions about nationalism, oppression of Muslims, AFSPA, militarization of Kashmir, capital punishment etc. They have united with political formations of Muslim students, and in the words of one of the student from that organization, they have offered a possibility of unity of the oppressed. To protest against the unfair suspension and later to seek justice for Rohith Vemula, all the students barring ABVP came together to form the JAC for social justice.
What has baffled and threatened the outside forces that seek to use the administration as a tool to implement their political agenda is this unity across ideology and identity over the question of social boycott of Dalit students. It is not just the unity of the oppressed, of Dalits and bahujans but the real threat has emerged as they are uniting under Dalit leadership. It has set an example of alternative political possibilities to that of hindutva’s agenda of homogenised assimilation of a Hindu identity under upper caste leadership as reflected in the BJP/RSS power across the country. Across central universities, one can see that the assertion of Dalit students political groups, winning of union posts, emergence of BAPSA in JNU etc. reflect the this political possiblity taking shape due to heterogenisation of student composition post the Mandal commission implementation.
Balagopal in an article about the 2002 atrocity blamed the “democratically-minded” and progressive faces of the University for failing to stand up for the rights of the students. Today, in university of Hyderabad, the students from various social backgrounds have been able to come together and recognise the caste violence and take a stand against the social boycott of their fellow students. By the means of an official students union with a glorious majority they have been able to bring out an official mandate towards removal and arrest of the VC, over the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula. But the UHTA has failed to even bring out a statement condemning the administration’s lapses and social boycott of the Dalit students.
During the strike after Rohith’s death, teachers conducted a GBM of the UHTA, when after heated debates no consensus was reached, the teachers decided that they will go and listen to the remaining 4 suspended students. Among them were several teachers who had stepped into the protest site for the first (probably the last) time. The 4 students got on to the stage together first time since Rohith’s death and spoke about the social boycott, the unjust suspension, sleeping in the open, the external political pressures and their deliberate targeting. Everyone heard them out in rapt silence, the professors’ indifference when the suspension and social boycott was declared, when Rohith and 4 others were sleeping in the open for 15 days before his death, haunted the air. The teachers said that they will get back to us. We are still waiting.
It is important to note though, that SC/ST teacher’s forum has endorsed all of the JAC’s demands. Another formation that emerged out of the failed attempts of UHTA is called the concerned teachers.
The concerned teachers brought out a statement sympathising with the Dalit students, but after the incident of 22nd march and allegations of ‘vandalism’ majority of them have distanced themselves from the issue. They have refused to speak about Rohith but have spoken about the deteriorating democratic space in the university, targeting of innocent students etc.
It is a repetition of the 2002, when on the allegation of violence caste punishment was justified. Here again on the question of violence, Rohith’s institutional murder is forgotten. In 2002 even though the legal process ruled in the favour of the Dalit students and they returned to the university, Apparao remained unquestioned. It was he who victimised the students, upon dissent the victimised were dubbed as criminals, burdened to prove their innocence. The perpetrator Podile Apparao remained scot free. The same Kamma professor becomes a VC and is yet again absolved of his role in the caste atrocity by shifting the focus to the alleged vandalism by the students.
The only difference that we see today is that, while in 2002 the teachers who justified the casteist ostracisation were public and vocal about it. Today they still do not care about the social boycott of Dalit students in the university but cannot do so publicly.
This teachers have not been able to rise to the political moment as the students have been because of the absence of the democratisation process that the student community saw after the OBC reservation. The number of OBC faculty remains highly under represented, the space remains to be dominated by the upper castes and their networks. The Dalit faculty are witnessing the 2002 moment, where their fight is still a lone one.
Podile Apparao, chief proctor Alok Pandey, EC sub-committee members headed by Vipin srivastava etc. are able to function in the university, use their privilege to secure their positions, continue to enjoy power and suppress student dissent, kill the democratic promise of the public university because they enjoy impunity.
Podile Apparao went unpunished in the earlier instances, and was rewarded with VC-ship. No precedent has been set that can check the casteist excesses of people in power. The faculty silent today, unable to stand against the social boycott and crminalises student dissent in the name violence is equally complicit in maintaining the caste order.
During all the recent student protests and attacks on various universities, one has repeatedly heard that the students are being attacked by those in power. Majority of the most progressive faculties have expressed this as an attack on student’s spaces. One wonders why they do not look at this attack as a more severe blow on their own space? They can afford to tolerate a Podile Apparao because these attacks do not threaten their caste and class privilleges. The student space is still witnessing some changes but the faculty spaces remain to be an Agraharam.
To maintain the upper caste dominance, during the Mandal agitation, they wanted to shut down the university for some time, till ‘normalcy’ could be restored. The Dalit students demanded the university to remain open in order to claim their right to access this privileged space. Today the same students along with others forced the university shut, when the promise of these opportunities and democracy started turning into graveyards. It is at these shut gates of the university that the striking students are challenging their faculty, a challenge that they are unable rise up to.
[Authors are research scholars at the University of Hyderabad and were active participants in the Rohith Vemula movement.]
 Donthi Praveen, 1 May 2016, From Shadows To The Stars, The defiant politics of Rohith Vemula and the Ambedkar Students Association, The caravan magazine.
 K Balagopal, 15 May 2016, The Unspeakable Violence of Caste: Lessons from 2002 for Hyderabad University, The Wire. Translated by Anant Maringanti from the Telugu original as published by Andhra Jyoti on February 23, 2002. This translation has been published by The Wire
 Sanjay Palshikar and Arun Kumar Patnaik, 2002, Violence in a University, Defending the Indefensible, Economic and Political Weekly April 20, 2002; Rajen Harshe and Sujata Patel, Identity Politics and Crisis of Social Sciences, Economic and Political Weekly , February 8, 2003.
 N. Sukumar, Living a Concept: Semiotics of Everyday Exclusion, Economic and Political Weekly,Nov. 15 – 21, 2008