A fig leaf called ‘vandalism’

Statement by the SC and ST Faculty Forum and Concerned Teachers of the University of Hyderabad

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Egon Schiele, ‘Bare Tree Behind a Fence’ / WikiArt

For the past three days the news media has been widely circulating stories about ‘vandalism’ by students of the University of Hyderabad that led to the police crackdown. Surprisingly little information is actually there on the actual context, timing, duration and nature of the vandalism. It appears that the claim that a group of students indulged in acts of vandalism is enough to justify a full scale war on the entire campus community of over 4000 students. Yet this charge of vandalism is no more than a fig leaf.

Mera name plate dekhega? Chal main tere ku sabak sikhata hoon!
You dare look at my name badge? Let me teach you a lesson.

Naam kya hai tera? Acchaa tu Pakistani hai. Chal main tere ku sabak sikhata hoon!
What is your name? Oh, you are a Pakistani? Let me teach you a lesson.

Tu kahaan ki rehne wali hai? Itti kaali hai! Aa tere ku sabak sikhata hoon!
Where are you from? You are so dark. Let me teach you a lesson.

Kiskaa fotu khenchraa re tu? Abhi bataata hoon tere ku!
Whose photo are you shooting? Let me show you…

This was how the police read rights to students and faculty members of the University of Hyderabad as they were ‘arrested’ on March 22. Arrested from different places all over campus much later in the day, when most of them were nowhere near the lodge that morning.

Two teachers, Prof. K. Y. Ratnam (Centre for Ambedkar Studies) and Dr. Tathagatha Sengupta (School of Mathematics and Statistics), known for their commitment to social justice were targeted, roughed up, and arrested. Prof. Ratnam, who was in a selection committee meeting till 2pm and then came to the Vice-Chancellor’s Lodge, saw police beating up the students sitting on the lawns and went to dissuade them. He was himself roughed up and thrown into the van. When a female faculty member rushed there to urge the policemen to stop beating up Prof. Ratnam, she was told that she was welcome to jump into the van. When a female student tried to intervene when a male student was being dragged into the van, she was told she would be raped. Thus began a three-track ordeal for the University of Hyderabad community.

Track I – Denial of food, water and basic amenities

Electricity, water, food and internet were all shut off for two days by the non-teaching staff who, according to the Vice-Chancellor, were on strike. Fourteen hostel messes were completely shut down affecting the 5,000-odd students on campus. For 48 hours, volunteers from across the city were desperately trying to supply food and water to the students through the barricaded gates. Many students protected themselves from dehydration by drinking water from the bathrooms. On March 23 some students tried to cook food on the campus. They were stopped from doing so.

Udaya Bhanu, a research scholar who was cooking for the starving students at the shopping complex, was beaten up brutally despite his pleading that he was just recovering from a surgery. In fact, he was then hit at the spot of the surgery and on his head, and had to be rushed to hospital in a critical condition. The police taunted him about his political views and activities on campus, and indicated that he was receiving his just deserts. A security officer of the University who was watching the events told the police personnel to beat the excess fat out of Uday. All this while the ‘nationalist’ students affiliated to ABVP were circling them on motor cycles shouting slogans cheering India’s win in a cricket match and taunting the others.

The University of Hyderabad campus could easily have been any of the police camps that dotted the Telangana region in the eighties. The younger generation of students who are not familiar with such images have been describing it as Jallianwala Bagh, surrounded as they were by armed, hostile men.

Track II – Seemingly random detentions

As of now, precise numbers of people arrested, detained, or mentioned in FIRs are all up in the air. What we do know is that the bail orders for 27 persons are reserved till 3pm on Monday, March 28, in the Miyapur court. We are told that several other FIRs against many more students have been filed. These are all supposed to be based on video and photo evidence—the Vice-Chancellor announced graciously in a faculty meeting that those against whom there is no evidence will be let off. The atmosphere on campus is one of trepidation and uncertainty, with students being arrested at whim and moved from one police station to another, and with information being deliberately withheld.

While the Cyberabad Metropolitan Police’s website regularly puts up all FIRs relating to gendered offences, including (often) sensitive data, it does not upload FIRs for the offences under which the students are being charged. The only option left for the families of those who are possibly accused, in order to get hold of the FIRs in question, is to get a court order requiring the FIRs be made available—a tall task, given the intervening holidays.

Track III – Denial of civil rights

Long after the said incident of vandalism, which resulted in some damage to furniture in the building, a large number of students arrived on the lawns of the lodge in a state of shock and dismay, questioning the sudden and surreptitious return of a Vice-Chancellor who had not been cleared of any of the serious charges levelled against him. These students were evicted from the lawns by around 5pm; soon after that, the crackdown began. It was as if the police were not looking for the vandals, but for those who could potentially be accused of vandalism and beaten up with impunity.

If the comments from the police addressed to the detainees cited above indicate that anything from the tone of your skin, the way your name sounds, the way you looked at the policeman, the way you pleaded on behalf of the students, your political views, your personal history, any of these could mark you, then look at what the detainees and their relatives were treated to later on:

Why does your husband instigate students to take positions against government? Why doesn’t he just do his job and teach in the classroom?

Do you know that your daughter does not study? She is too politically active.

If you refuse to eat food in jail, we have videos of you eating in police custody. We will release them and tell people that you are lying about the quality of food in jail.

The story of impunity is not complete without going briefly over the manner in which the students were produced before the magistrate. The detainees were hauled into police vans and severely beaten. They were taken to undisclosed locations. Faculty spoke to the ACP, who assured them that the detention was only until things calmed down in the University and that no charges would be filed. On March 23, 2016, members of the University’s faculty visited the Cyberabad Police Commissionerate, but were unable to meet the concerned officials as it was a holiday. From there, they went to the Miyapur Police Station where they found 18 of the detained persons were being held. However, they were told that the police had no idea where the rest of the detainees were being held. They claimed to have no knowledge of the situation, saying that the University was outside the police station’s jurisdiction, and that the 18 were being held there only on account of space constraints elsewhere.

Here too, they were told that the detainees would be released from custody by 3pm, and that no charges were going to be filed. It was discovered later, when friends of the detainees sought to visit them, that they had been moved again to an undisclosed location, before 2pm.

Acting on some vague information they received, the faculty then headed to Narsingi Police Station where they were told that no students had been brought there at any point of time. However, testimonies indicate that students were first taken there initially and then shifted out. They went to Raidurgam Police Station, and then to Gachibowli Police Station, where police personnel insisted that they had no information regarding the detainees. The detainees’ lawyers too ran from one police station to the next without being given any information regarding their whereabouts.

In the meantime, information was received that the detainees would be produced before the Miyapur Court at 5pm. Faculty and a team of lawyers went there and waited but found no sign of them. Then they were told that the detainees would be produced before the magistrate at her residence; at the same time, a ticker tape on television proclaimed that the detainees had been produced before a magistrate and remanded to judicial custody for 14 days. Later it was discovered that they had in fact been produced before the Magistrate in a clandestine fashion only at about 11pm, then sent to Cherlapally Central Jail, in contravention of the constitutional requirement to produce arrested persons before a magistrate within 24 hours.

The team of lawyers tried to move a House Motion in the High Court, unsuccessfully. Several students, faculty and lawyers sought to meet the Chief Justice of the High Court, but just two lawyers were permitted inside the premises and they too were only able to meet the Justice’s Personal Secretary.

Taking note of the situation on campus, a group of lawyers from Bombay offered their pro bono services to the students. They arrived in the morning on March 24, but were denied permission to enter University premises by campus security. The students whom they were due to meet argued that they had a right to consult counsel and that there is no mentioned restriction against the entry of lawyers, but were told that they had been ordered to bar ‘outsiders’ from entering. They were asked to seek permission from the Vice-Chancellor—the very person against whom the students were protesting and the person who sought that charges be brought against them—if they wished to take the lawyers inside. Members from civil rights organisations who wanted to visit the campus having taken note of the situation there were not allowed inside. The Dalit Human Rights Commission too was barred from entering the University. Faculty members attempted to reason with campus security on the grounds that other ‘outsiders’ (those favoured by the administration) had been permitted inside, to no avail.

Evidently, the term ‘outsider’ had been defined to mean any person who sought to speak with the students on campus. Both the students and the faculty demanded that the denial of permission to enter be put in writing, but campus security refused. Most importantly, through the entire period, the media has been barred from entering the campus.

A bail petition for 24 students, two faculty members and a video journalist was moved in the Miyapur court on March 24, but was hotly contested by the prosecution, which sought till March 28 to make counter arguments. The State Human Rights Commission has taken cognisance of a complaint in relation to the events unfolding at the University of Hyderabad, and scheduled a hearing for March 26, where the Vice-Chancellor is required to report on the case filed. The word on the block is that the official narrative has been tailored to make the entire lockdown of the campus and the stoppage of essential amenities on campus seem like a skirmish between the students and the non-teaching staff: a patently false claim, by all accounts.

Clearly, the war on the campus community is not simply about vandalism or about a disagreement between students and non-teaching staff.

A small number of students and faculty have been targeted and persecuted for their political views and sympathies.

A much larger number (almost entirely Dalit and Muslims) have been simply profiled by their names, appearances and identities.

The entire campus community has been subjected to collective punishment and the larger civil society in the city and in the country has been disallowed from reaching out any kind of support—even the basic humanitarian support of food and water.

Students and faculty and their families have been denied basic civil rights. That the non-teaching staff were co-opted into this is more than evident by the circumstances in which they went on a protest.

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What is the justification for this war on students and sympathetic faculty?

The story doing the rounds until now in media and among the faculty is that the students indulged in vandalism at the VC Lodge. The said incident of vandalism was supposed to have happened between 9:30 and 10:30am on March 22. When students supporting the Joint Action Committee arrived in the morning at the VC’s Lodge to protest against Prof. Appa Rao’s taking charge, there were members of the ABVP, apart from chosen faculty members, Deans of different schools, students largely from School of Life Sciences, already inside. Some non-JAC students inside are said to have been shouting slogans. It is understood that was a scuffle and some damage to property. Only one section of students is being held responsible for the incident. The University Administration justifies the arrests and beating up of students as a crackdown on vandals. It disassociates itself from the denial of food and water and other services to the students by projecting this as a conflict between the students and non-teaching staff over which the administration had no control. Indeed, the administration believes that it has no culpability in what happened on campus.

Politically motivated and fully scripted

It is important to understand the broader context and timing of Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao’s return to campus. Social media commentaries point towards the caste nexus between Appa Rao and the Union Urban Development Minister [Bandaru Dattatreya] and thus to the broader political nexus between the university administration and the BJP. Whatever the truth of these commentaries, they are not adequate to explain the viciousness of the attack on the campus community and the larger goal of political isolation.

Appa Rao has taken extreme pains to deny any involvement of the Union Human Resources Development Ministry in the course of events on UoH campus. But that would then mean that the administration is directly accountable for the suicide of Rohith Vemula. As a matter of fact, the first thing the MHRD’s delegation of officials secured in February was a statement from the Vice-Chancellor’s office that they were not influenced in any way by the routine communications from the Ministry regarding ‘anti-nationals’. The administration then must explain how it allowed the situation to slide into such a disaster, ending in Rohith’s suicide.

Even as the government appointed a judicial enquiry, the Vice-Chancellor went on leave. The next seniormost professor to take charge as Vice-Chancellor, who held a press conference to announce that he had everything under control, was forced to leave in a jiffy. The next in line—Professor Periaswamy—managed to steer the campus to the end of the semester so that academic work could carry on even as the larger demands for justice in the instance of Rohith Vemula and other students continued.

This is the point at which, when the issue of institutional accountability is yet to be settled, when the campus was hobbling towards the end of the semester, Appa Rao returns to campus. And he returns to campus with the triumphant stance of a hero returning home—one day before there is news that Kanhaiya Kumar is visiting Hyderabad and may visit the campus. The acting Vice-Chancellor is informed about this by subordinate staff. Appa Rao is garlanded and welcomed and cheered by a large number of faculty and students. This, when senior police officials have reportedly advised him not to go to campus yet to resume office. Students affiliated to the ABVP were present in the lodge and on the terrace with video cameras.

It was an incitement to a skirmish. Students frustrated with the unrepentant, unconciliatory and authoritarian attitude of the administration took the invitation at its face value and walked into the trap.

Did a group of students barge into the Vice-Chancellor’s lodge? They may have. Did they break furniture and ransack the front office? They may have. Did the broader campus community camp out in front of the VC Lodge protesting? Yes. Was there a murderous mob occupying the lawns from 11 and could only have been disciplined by unleashing this violence ? Most certainly not!

The return of Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao to the University campus, that seemed so ill-advised at first, seems now, in light of what happened over this entire week, like a fully scripted war—a war to mete out collective punishment, to target individual faculty members and students, to threaten the families of students. And a mechanism to derail the process of bringing about institutional accountability for questions of casteism on campus and the tragic loss of life that resulted from it.

The Vice-Chancellor has also claimed that he has widespread support from faculty and students; that those dissenting are very small in number. Let us note that of the nearly 450 faculty members, only a little more than 100 attended the meeting called by the Vice-Chancellor. As far as student support is concerned, it is well known that except for the ABVP, the rest of the students and organisations on campus stood and continue to stand for Justice for Rohith Vemula.

Let us recall the extraordinary institutional violence including administrative lapses that led to the suspension of five Dalit students and the consequent death of Rohith Vemula. One must appreciate the immense maturity and patience of students in the past three months in carrying out their struggle for justice in the most peaceful and democratic manner under utter, tremendous pressure. To forget all this and to unilaterally implicate our struggling students in the incidents on the morning of March 22 amounts to devaluing the life and death of Rohith Vemula. Are we equating some broken furniture to the loss of a precious life?

The events of the last few days at the University of Hyderabad are a wake up call to the entire academic community. It is not the protesting students, often from historically oppressed and marginalised communities, that are the cause of the trouble on campuses. This is a well orchestrated political programme with the full support of the police and other armed forces to silence dissent, crush the liberal democratic potentials of university campuses.

Vandalism by students is only the fig leaf.

maxresdefault-1Egon Schiele, ‘Edge of Town’ / WikiArt