By Suresh Ghattamaneni
Appa Rao Podile, the Vice Chancellor of Hyderabad Central University, who was on indefinite leave, returned to office on Tuesday, claiming he had yielded to “popular demand” and that he enjoyed support of the institution’s teaching and non-teaching staff. HCU students retaliated violently, as reported by the Hindu. Parts of the university bore the scars of strife, littered as they were with shattered glass, office furniture, computers and official documents.
Much of the media chose not to report serious injuries sustained during a lathi charge ordered by the police, and the detention of more than 30 students including few girl students and a couple of faculty. More than 40 students were treated for injuries at the health centre in the university, of which ten were sent to private hospitals for further medical help. University administration shut down access to the internet, rendering social media networks silent. Electricity and water supply to hostels were turned off. Non-teaching staff reacted to the protests by closing university mess halls. Those students who attempted to cook their meals outside their hostels faced police reprimand.
Rao’s return is badly timed considering the fact that the anger of the students is yet to abate. Moreover it raises several doubts as his return coincides with the visit of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union leader Kanhaiya Kumar, who arrived on campus on Tuesday to address students.
Events leading up to his resumption of duties began when Rao summoned the deans of all university departments to a meeting at the VC lodge, during which he declared he would resume office. Later, Rao claimed that his decision to return was prompted by appeals from teaching as well as non-teaching staff.
There are two views that offer an explanation. The first is predicated on the mechanics of bureaucracy and the second on political strategy.
Rao declared on 24 January that he would “indefinitely” recuse himself from office, after protests broke out on campus following research scholar Rohit Vemula’s death. As per University Grants Commission rules, the VC’s absence was treated as “extra ordinary leave without pay”, which should not exceed three months during his full term of five years. It’s then a matter of procedure that he chose to return in keeping with that stipulation.
However, the timing of the action suggests otherwise. The political clout of Rao, which has been a matter of contention could have provided him enough of a ‘shield’ to ‘get back’ the position he gave up with assurances. While there exists no tangible evidence of his ties to any political party, the fact remains that no action was initiated against Rao following Vemula’s death.
The political aspect points at the BJP’s strategy in diverting the attention of public from its failure to address systemic defects in social reforms, evidenced in its handling of student protests at JNU. The ruling party, its student wing and other affiliated groups were quick to present doctored evidence to corner the students in JNU thereby shifting the attention from the dalit issues to the debate of nationalism. The face of those protests in JNU, Kanhaiya Kumar, who was to address UoH students on Wednesday, was denied permission by university administration and had to issue a statement to the press outside the campus. The manner in which all of the action on Wednesday was orchestrated is indicative of the government’s intent in asserting its dominance in university campuses across the country.
It is therefore essential that we examine the larger issue at hand: repression of student movements by state agencies, suppression of the Dalit voice, meddling with the education system and the politics of distraction. Caste discrimination and the politics of ‘right and left’ may not be a new phenomenon in Indian universities. It has existed for several decades. But the fact that there is consistent effort by the right wing groups in the recent past to bring down those who do not align with their ideological norms and enforcing their dogma by aggressive means indicates the repressive attitude of the state. Adding to this is the institutional support these student groups enjoy; they are given free rein to execute the will of the party in power. The privilege exercised by these groups in the universities shows the rotten side of the system. And those who opposed the spread of this rottenness had to face legal notices, suspensions, rustication, expulsion, and ostracism leading to death. And those that oppose or question this forcefulness have, in the recent past, earned a new label: “anti-national”. It has come to pass that one has to prove his or her love for the nation and its people by complete allegiance to the norms of “nationalism” laid out by those in power.
The usual ephemeral nature of media reports could have made Rao and the government assume the situation would return to. However, developments in the HCU indicate the anger and anguish of the students has not yet simmered down. Rao’s resumption of work could turn the situation back to square one. If the administration, with the backing of the government, attempts to meet it with further suppression, the BJP will be met with consequences that the party will find very hard to face.