The answer to a situation where institutions that at least maintained a facade of democracy are being destroyed and any dissenting opinion is being targeted, can come from students who oppose such moves. Perhaps, it is such students who will ensure justice for Rohith Vemula.

Rohith Vemula, the Dalit research scholar from Hyderabad University, who has become the face of students’ resistance all over the country was driven to commit suicide allegedly due to the acts of Appa Rao Podile, the controversial vice chancellor of the university backed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dispensation. It was definitely an institutional murder but not without a face. A massive agitation broke out demanding justice for Rohith and a spate of meetings were addressed by all shades of political leaders, except those from the BJP. A joint action committee (JAC) for justice to Rohith was born and a number of campuses around the country took up its call. In the heat of the agitation, Appa Rao had disappeared from the scene and while the demands of the JAC, particularly for the dismissal and arrest of Appa Rao—the prime accused in the case—were pending, the campus had attained normalcy. On 22 March this year, Appa Rao returned to office and began a new saga of atrocities.

Fact-finding by the IPT

The Rohith Vemula case was investigated by a fact-finding committee of the Indian People’s Tribunal (IPT) comprising Justice (retired) H Suresh; Sujatha Surepally, editor of Desi Disa; U S Rao, Chairman, Chaitanya Bakula Bahujan Samakhya (CBC Federation); Meena Menon, researcher and Gayatri Singh, senior advocate in January 2015. The committee concluded among other things that Rohith’s death was caused by various acts of omission and commission by the university authorities. The committee directly indicted Appa Rao for ignoring Rohith’s note of 18 December 2015 and described it as dereliction of duty as well as grave contempt of the orders of the High Court of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana with regard to the composition of committees, etc. It also accused him of allowing the incident of 3–4 August 2015 to spiral out of control and letting his office be misused by the Minister of Human Resource Development (HRD), Smriti Irani (now Minister of Textiles), in order to advance her political agenda. The recommendations of the proctorial committee were likewise trashed by the committee as unlawful and it found the executive subcommittee constituted by the vice chancellor to be incompetent. It went on to support the JAC demand for a “Rohith Act” which would contain punitive provisions to be used against university authorities found guilty of exclusionary practices.

The administration backed by the power-drunk party at the helm of course ignored these opinions. The prime culprit in the entire episode is Appa Rao, whose academic reputation is sullied by multiple charges of plagiarism and administrative incompetence and has been arrogantly retained like the infamous Gajendra Chauhan of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) fame. Going by other examples too, the BJP government prefers to demean an institution in its fascist arrogance rather than give in to just demands. The fact that the Hyderabad University campus attained normalcy during the period that Appa Rao was on leave was an indication enough for government action. The least the government could have done was to remove him from his post. But instead it bared its fascist fangs and sent him back to unleash a further spate of atrocities.

Appa Rao’s Re-entry

The HRD ministry sent Appa Rao back to the campus to resume office because it assumed that the students would be busy studying for their exams and may not resist his rejoining. It also struck a deal with the state government to repress any resistance with brute force. When the students learnt that Appa Rao had rejoined and was holding a secret meeting at his residence they rushed there shouting slogans against him. A huge police posse was on standby. A scuffle broke out when the protesting students saw members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) with Appa Rao and tried to rush in. The police lathi-charged the students and even though members of the faculty pleaded with the police not to do so, they too were beaten up. The police rounded up 27 agitating students, including two faculty members, put them into two buses and kept beating them as the buses circled the outskirts of Hyderabad for hours. No information was given about their whereabouts until late in the evening. They were charged under as many as 11 sections of different laws and released on bail a week later..

After this incident the university was transformed into a fortress and repressive acts were unleashed against the students. An all-India fact-finding team comprising representatives of the constituents of the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations (CDRO) investigated the 22 March incident. I was one of the members. The CDRO managed not only to go past the security cordon but even interviewed Appa Rao. He was unfazed by the incidents and ignominy the university was incurring because of his haughtiness. He was a mere pawn in the political game being played by the centre and had nothing to fear from the public outrage. The team observed that the incident at the vice chancellor’s lodge was planned with the help of the ABVP students. Appa Rao did not have an explanation as to why they were allowed entry and why the agitating students were prevented from doing so. The presence of the ABVP members, the team concluded, had provoked the agitating students into a scuffle. It was fully exploited by the police, as per their briefing. The manner in which the police unleashed their lathis, chasing them into bushes and beating them could not have been without orders from the above.

Suspension and Revocation

Appa Rao, unashamed of the public condemnation, went on the offensive. Two faculty members, K Y Ratnam and Tathagat Sengupta were suspended, quoting service laws. Their suspension was condemned by the University of Hyderabad Teachers’ Association (UHTA) as well as the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) Teachers’ Forum which described it as an atrocity. These condemnations however left Appa Rao and his cronies in the administration unfazed since they are assured of protection by the centre. The two suspended faculty members went on an indefinite fast outside the main gate of the university on 14 June, and were supported by the SC/ST Teachers’ Forum and a section of students. It began attracting huge support from other students and Dalit organisations of Telangana like the Kula Nirmulana Porata Samiti, with every passing day. On 17 June, the SC/ST Teachers’ Forum and Concerned Teachers of the University held a protest rally in front of the administrative building in solidarity with the fasting teachers, and demanded immediate revocation of the suspensions of Sengupta and Ratnam. The same day, scared by the mounting condemnation from most political and social quarters, obviously prompted by the HRD ministry, the suspension order was revoked.

It is telling that the perpetrators of atrocities on Dalits—in this case, Appa Rao, Bandaru Dattatreya and N Susheel Kumar—who were charged by the police under the SC/ST Atrocity Act for abetting the murder of Rohith Vemula, roam free while the ones who struggle for justice for the victim, the 25 students and two faculty members are arrested and punished. The background for this was set when India inaugurated the new genre of caste atrocities in Kilvenmani in 1968, wherein 44 Dalits, mainly women and children, were burnt alive by landlords for daring to oppose them. The struggle of the Dalits for higher wages had resulted in the death of one Pakkirisami Pillai, the landlords’ man, for which the court convicted eight Dalits, one for life imprisonment, another to five years’ rigorous imprisonment, three to two years’ rigorous imprisonment and three others to one year of jail. All these sentences were confirmed by the high court. However, in the case of the burning to death of 44 Dalits, out of the 23 accused only eight were convicted to 10 years’ imprisonment each by the lower court. However, even these sentences were quashed by the high court, which observed that the rich Mirasdars could not have committed such a ghastly crime. In Rohith’s case, they even stooped to the level of questioning his caste in order to avoid the application of the SC/ST Atrocity Act. This seemed to suggest that if he had not been a Dalit, the crime would be no crime and if he had been a Dalit, he would really get justice. There are thousands of cases registered under the SC/ST Atrocity Act but the conviction rate is abysmal. Fortunately all their tricks have failed and Rohith’s Dalitness has been established. The question is, when will he get justice?

Mapping the Challenge

The saga of Rohith’s death systematically exposes the hollowness of Indian democracy when it comes to the struggling masses. The political culture has been built up over the years in the name of a republican constitution but the entire operative mechanism of the colonial regime which crushes the poor and marginalised with impunity, has been cleverly retained. The current rightist regime, with its antecedents rooted in fascist ideology, is simply testing the limits. Whether it is a question of decimation of institutions that maintained the façade of democracy, or its cultural overtures or economic policies, it will be unscrupulous in destroying any dissenting opinion. The only answer to this can come from students if they stand up and say an emphatic “no” to these intrigues.

Anand Teltumbde ([email protected]) is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

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