The recent protests in university campuses were not only a battle for freedom of speech but also a demand for acceptance of disadvantaged students.
This article was first published in The Hindustan Times on 24th April, 2016
India’s public universities and technical institutes are suddenly transforming into sites of youthful turmoil and bitter contestations. Unfolding within their walls are battles for freedom of speech in universities, and less edifying skirmishes about nationalism. But my recent visit to Hyderabad Central University (HCU) reminded me that in some educational centres disquiet springs from long-thwarted yearning and suppressed struggles of students from disadvantaged and stigmatised castes and religions for a climate of equality and welcome in institutions of higher learning.
The HCU ferment refuses even today to die down. At its main gate, policepersons block entry to any ‘outsider’. However, I was able briefly to meet the protesting students and some faculty at the university. Invited for a lecture, I was let in by a side gate. After my talk, I went to the protest site to talk to the students — and also some faculty — who sent word that they wanted to meet me.
The protest site is the courtyard of a small student shopping arcade called shop.com. This became the epicentre of struggles ever since PhD Dalit scholars Rohith Vemula and his four friends — suspended by the university administration — launched a relay hunger strike in January. The frayed tent still stands at the same location. It bears the sardonic sign ‘veli vada’ or Dalit ghetto, students continue their protest under it, now against the continuation in office as vice-chancellor of the man who ordered Vemula’s suspension. On a screen behind the tent, among pictures of Dalit icons BR Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, and Savitribai Phule is a smiling photograph of their lost comrade Rohith Vemula. A few steps away, his friends have erected a white plaster-of-Paris bust of Vemula.
The student protests in HCU only partly resemble those in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), insofar as both seek to defend the rights of students to dissent, mainly against what they see as anti-poor, majoritarian and communal politics and policies. But it is important to recognise that unlike in JNU, the central issue in HCU student and faculty protests is the embedded institutional bias within the university against students and faculty from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.
The splendid, possibly paramount contribution of public-funded universities like JNU and HCU is that among the students admitted to these universities are growing numbers of young women and men whose childhoods were marked by want and social discrimination. Kanhaiya and Rohith are not exceptional in their deprived backgrounds, as the numbers of young people like them who battle and overcome extremely deprived backgrounds — socially, economically and educationally — to qualify for the country’s best public universities, have risen rapidly.
The critical difference between JNU and HCU is that the large majority of the JNU faculty nurture these young students of disadvantage. JNU students may feel compelled to battle injustice outside the university, in the larger world, but not within their campuses. The Dalit and Muslim students in HCU are not so fortunate. Senior professors from Hyderabad tell me that large sections of the university faculty are openly anti-Dalit and communal. Rohith was not the first Dalit student to have taken his life in HCU. Nine students committed suicide on the campus in the last decade, yet corrective steps were not taken to understand and change why the university remains threatening and unwelcoming to Dalit students.
One hundred and thirty scholars from around the world wrote to the VC of “the hostile, casteist environment of higher education in India. A university where students turn away from life with the regularity they have at the University of Hyderabad requires urgent and massive rehauling …This suicide is not an individual act. It is the failure of premier higher educational institutions in democratic India to meet their most basic obligation: To foster the intellectual and personal growth of India’s most vulnerable young people. Instead, Rohith now joins a long list of victims of prejudice at premier institutions in the country, where pervasive discrimination drives so many Dalit students to depression and suicide, when not simply forcing them to quietly drop out”.
The last of these suicides occurred in the last week of November 2013, when PhD scholar M Venkatesh killed himself. Rohith’s close friend Ch. Ramji recalled to Deccan Herald that Rohith was disturbed by his passing. He had said: “These protests and media coverage will die out in a few days. Dalit students will continue to be harassed here”. Months later, Rohith was suspended for his ‘anti-national’ activities by a committee constituted by vice-chancellor Appa Rao, comprising four out of five upper-caste faculty. This action was taken even without hearing the students. Rohith wrote a month before his suicide to the VC to supply Dalit students “sodium azide and a nice rope” at the time of admission itself.
Unmindful of the anguish and anger of students — Dalit, Muslim, Left and liberal — in HCU, the same VC Appa Rao who ordered Rohith’s suspension recently re-joined his duties. After the violent protests that followed, 24 students and 2 faculty members were arrested. It is hardly a coincidence that 14 students and both staff were Dalit, and most of the rest Muslim.
This is not only a battle for freedom of speech in universities. It is a demand, a struggle, for a climate of equality and acceptance in universities from students who emerge from disadvantaged and stigmatised castes and religions. Faculty members spoke to me about their concerns about the targeting of these students by other faculty and the police. The students agonised about their futures, convinced that they would continue to be beleaguered by a university administration led by a VC they believe to be anti-Dalit. Their teachers worried even more about their mental health. Their depression, their loneliness, their despondency. All these students are demanding is a fair, accepting, egalitarian space for them to study, understand the world, and dream.
Harsh Mander is convener, Aman Biradari
The views expressed are personal