Has the return of Prof Appa Rao Podile, Vice-Chancellor of University of Hyderabad, aggravated the situation on the already-simmering campus?
The slew of events that unfolded in quick succession in the last two days clearly indicates that the BJP government at the Centre wanted to assert its position by ensuring the return of Professor Rao to resume work.
Why has Appa Rao returned now? The timing of Rao’s return to the campus appears to be pre-meditated and premature. Of course, he doesn’t agree with this. "There are several reasons for my resuming duty. Some of them I have explained yesterday in the press release. Thank you."
This was Rao's terse reply to Firspost when he was asked whether his return wasn’t too early when the dust hasn’t settled yet on Rohith Vemula's suicide. Rao was, however, cagey to prolong the dialogue.
Interestingly, it would have been extremely difficult for Rao to fight the case registered against him under the SC/ST Atrocities (Prevention) Act following Rohith’s suicide if he was still not on the top job. He must have perceived that this was the apt moment to return as the vice-chancellor.
If the government changes its mind, it becomes an uphill task for him to endure the process of fighting the case. His term of office ends in 2020.
Rao, who has superseded 35 others to scale to the coveted position, has strong political connections, especially with Union Minister M Venkaiah Naidu. This was widely discussed among the students and also in the media in the aftermath of the suicide of Rohith Vemula on 17 January. Rao proceeded on an indefinite leave on 24 January.
What role did Venkaiah Naidu play in Appa Rao’s return?
Even though the Union Minister had reacted against the agitations a few days after the incident, Naidu did not involve himself directly in the controversy. The Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) leader Venkatesh Chowhan has alleged that Rao mustered courage to get back to the university only at the behest of Venkaiah Naidu, who is described as the "villain of the piece" in the latest turn of events.
Prof Lakshminarayana, former president of UoH Teachers’ Association, sought to know if the government was really unaware of the situation and why weren't they suspending the vice-chancellor? He strongly felt that his return would vitiate the academic atmosphere on the campus. He clearly sees the hand of Venkaiah Naidu and the HRD Ministry in Rao’s return.
How can a prime accused in a case, which is under judicial probe, can return to resume the post of vice-chancellor? “Had he come back as a professor, we wouldn’t have had any problem?” Lakshminarayana said.
While the controversy surrounding Rohith Vemula's suicide had drawn national attention, the stakeholders on the campus polarised into pro-and-anti-BJP groups.
The anti-BJP protesters vociferously began gunning for the head of the vice-chancellor. Against this background, the BJP, which was caught in a bind over the incidents in the University of Hyderabad and the subsequent JNU controversy, wanted to prove its one-upmanship by asserting its authority, surreptitiously, though.
HRD Minister Smriti Irani and Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya were caught in the eye of the storm for their respective roles in the sordid episode that unfolded. The BJP and the Centre government are fully aware that Rao’s resumption of work would take the situation back to square one, as the embers of anger and anguish on the campus are still simmering.
Instead of taking measures to placate the frayed tempers of all groups and ensure academic continuity after a protracted unrest on the campus, the behind-the-scene managers and lickspittle apparently ensured that the people at the helm demonstrated their one-upmanship.
Revolutionary writer and popular maoist sympathiser P Varavara Rao and secretary of the revolutionary writers association P Varalakshmi, in a statement alleged that Rao was brought back to the university to resume duties at the instance of the BJP and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). The VC's return has caused an unexpected split between the faculty and deans of different departments on the campus.
Most deans, activists of the ABVP and students of life sciences backed the VC, while most teachers and non-teaching staff have demanded that Rao must go.
Lakshminarayana alleged that the return of Rao as the V-C would surely enable those accused in the Rohith Vemula’s case to tamper with records to fight the legal case against them.
Two faculty members and 25 students were arrested in the cases related to the attack on Rao's lodge on Tuesday. While the non-ABVP students and faculty members who had been opposed to Rao alleged that the vandalism was the “handiwork of ABVP” workers, the police registered cases against the protesting students based on a complaint from the University authorities.
However, Varavara Rao and Varalakshmi of the revolutionary writers association alleged that it was ABVP which was responsible for the vandalism in the VC’s lodge. They said that it was a premeditated destruction with an intent to shift the blame on those who were protesting the return of Rao.
General Secretary of the CPM Sitaram Yechury in his letter to Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao on Wednesday said that the students were precisely opposed to the return of Prof Appa Rao as the Vice-Chancellor. He vehemently condemned the “brutal attack” on the students by the police and strongly opposed the arrest of students and demanded their immediate release.
However, Rao has been trying to give tongue-in-cheek responses in his desperate bid to be "politically correct". His offer to call on the bereaved family of Rohith as soon as he had committed suicide and the refusal of the family to see him is a clear contradiction of what Rohith’s family had said then.
Rao's pouring of "bleeding heart sympathy" to the departed soul and the dash of sentiment he had added to Rohith’s suicide that the boy was his student in Microbiology and the need to show respect to the points Rohith had written in his “life-ending” notes only aggravated the situation, wittingly or unwittingly.
The reasons Rao cited for his return were, recruitment, promotions and choice-based credit systems, which could not be taken up by in-charge VCs. Any delay in his resuming charge would damage the reputation of the university, he said.
Rao’s return had a ripple effect. Several student groups posted on Facebook that the university authorities had cut off the supply of water and electricity to hostels. In another Facebook group, the post read:
“ Seriously !!! Blocking debit cards issued from UOH SBI Branch??!!!!
Come on Appa rao!! Which all method will you make possible to provoke us?! Testing our patience?!
Though Our struggle will remain democratic by all means!!
Try your level best.” (sic).
Rao told Firstpost, “We are nobody to block Bank Accounts of any students. We cannot answer to everything that is posted in social media, Facebook and Twitter. As regards the mess, there was an incident between students and some non-teaching staff. One of the non-teaching staff members was injured. As a result, the non-teaching staff are protesting and we are trying to resolve the issue.”
Asked if his return wasn’t well-choreographed and planned to the tee, as the students released the copies of minute-to-minute task-sheet he had issued to different people, Rao said: “Some planning had to be done, right?”