Rohith Vemula suicide: Seven steps University of Hyderabad must take to set its house in order

University of Hyderabad, the embattled centre of excellence also known as Hyderabad Central University (HCU), is now in jeopardy what with unrelenting students, a large section of teachers supporting their agitation, and a host of politicians visiting the campus to express solidarity with the striking students.

Politics apart, the campus is mourning the suicide of research scholar Rohith Vemula. Now, Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao Podile has stepped aside to “ease the atmosphere.”

In his act of bowing out, Prof Appa Rao has given in to three important demands of the striking students:

1. He has stepped out of the shoes of the helmsman, albeit temporarily.

2. He has announced an ex gratia of Rs 8 lakh to Rohith's family (though not in consonance with the Rs 50 lakh compensation demanded).

3. The executive council has revoked the punishment imposed on five students, who were suspended, of course, with a rider that the decision is subject to the verdict of courts of law in the various cases.

Against this background, a ‘Chalo HCU’ programme was conducted on campus drawing huge crowds and delegates from different universities across the country on Monday.

Prof. Vipin Shrivastava was appointed the in-charge vice-chancellor and Prof. Appa Rao will resume duty after some time, once the dust has settled. He will, in the meantime, be working on an Indo-UK research project.

 Rohith Vemula suicide: Seven steps University of Hyderabad must take to set its house in order

Students stage a protest over the death of Rohith Vemula in a file photo. PTI

When we interacted with students and professors on what should be done for setting the house in order, we received various views.

Interestingly, a large section of students and teachers demanded that in-charge Vice-Chancellor Vipin Shrivastava also must go. They hold him responsible for the prevalent situation on campus. They said it was he who had headed the committee that recommended the suspension of five Dalit students, which triggered the ongoing controversy.

Prof Lakshminarayana, head of the professors’ body, told Firstpost that Shrivastava must step down in the larger interests of the university, as there is no trust in him. This message must be sent across; for he shouldn’t have accepted the responsibility of the in-charge V-C. He also explained that Shrivastava was the Dean of Physics when the fellowship was stopped to research scholar S Senthil Kumar who had committed suicide. There appears to be large-scale resentment over Shrivastava holding the fort in the absence of Appa Rao.

Prof Vinod Pavarala, who was Dean of Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication, feels that the academic schedules of the university have never gone for a toss like this. He advises that teachers too should take a greater initiative in ensuring that “we don’t give room for any discrimination.”

Here are the seven things the university should do to set the house in order.

1. Identify a more acceptable academic, one who has proven administrative capabilities, even if he or she is from outside the campus. They must be appointed the in-charge vice-chancellor. At the moment, nothing less than replacing Shrivastava will work for he is seen as the villain. The student community is treating him worse than it treated Appa Rao. There is an immediate need for a vice-chancellor who can get students of all affiliations to come together.

2. What is prevalent in the university is trust-deficit. Therefore, trust must be restored by the administration in itself and a dialogue should be opened with teachers, whose sentiments were badly hurt. In fact, over 100 teachers of all ranks gathered on Friday and volunteered to accompany Appa Rao as he opened a dialogue with the striking students. He, however, refused to adhere to their request. Now with Shrivastava stepping into his shoes, the teachers feel the impasse on campus is far from over. To bolster their sagging morale, the new person should take into confidence the University Teachers Association, SC/ST Teachers and Officers Association, non-teaching staff and all stakeholders, and draw up a plan of action.

3. Students must be persuaded that since four of their demands have been met to a certain extent — Appa Rao has been sidelined, Rohith's family has been given compensation, the punishment meted out to Dalit students has been terminated and a judicial inquiry has been ordered — it is in the interests of the student community that they step back a bit and allow academic activity to get back on track.

4. On a long-term basis, the university must ensure that its teachers are involved in the decision-making process. Teachers should also be sensitised to the fact that the world outside is full of inequalities and they should not think that “caste doesn’t matter in my classroom”. After all, the classroom is a microcosm of the external world: the social composition of campuses is always undergoing a metamorphosis as students from diverse economic, academic, social and cultural backgrounds join the university.

The Pavarala Committee too said in the recommendations it made in 2008 that rather than being impervious to caste and other markers of inequality in our society, it is important to be proactive in mentoring and advising students who come from less privileged backgrounds. At a time when 'access' and 'equity' in higher education are the buzzwords of the government and the University Grants Commission, it is imperative that a top-ranking central institution such as ours takes a lead in nurturing and promoting a corps of scientists from among the marginalised sections of our society.

5. There have been charges by the students that some professors are not agreeing to be mentors or guides for research being undertaken by SC/ST students. The inconsistencies in admission processes for doctoral programmes have to be addressed and every effort must be made to eliminate the feelings of persecution and discrimination among students of SC/ST and other backward classes.

6. Every department must have a grievance redressal mechanism so that students can air their grievances without any fear of reprisal. This must involve faculty and students, with adequate representation of reserved category and women members. Students should be informed about the mechanism and what procedures they need to follow to avail of it. This is one of the issues dealt with by the Pavarala Committee.

7. The university must allow free flow of political thought and debate across a wide spectrum of issues impacting different sections of society. Even the nation’s policy and political issues must be debated on the campus in a highly academic environment, while taking the necessary steps to insulate the university from political parties and politicians. The already-charged situation on campus in the aftermath of Rohith's suicide was fomented even more by politicians.

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Updated Date: Jan 25, 2016 18:50:04 IST