Academics Rally Around EFLU Students Charged With Defamation After 'Raising SC/ST Issues'

"From the courts, the underprivileged expect humane recognition of the inequities of their predicament and wise support for their cause. But what they have received is a demoralising and intimidating signal," the statement signed by more than 100 academics said.

New Delhi: More than 100 academics from across the country have issued a statement expressing their “grave concern” that five students from the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) in Hyderabad have been convicted for defamation of a professor and sentenced to six months imprisonment. These students, the statement says, were raising the issue of discrimination against SC/ST students in EFLU’s German department. The signatories include Susie Tharu, Anand Teltumbde, Janaki Nair, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, Kalpana Kannabiran, Mary E. John and numerous others.

The students’ protests and allegations against Professor Meenakshi Reddy that have been termed ‘defamatory’ relate to her allegedly discriminatory treatment of students from SC, ST and minority groups, particularly Munavath Sriramulu, an ST student and one of those charged with defamation. Sriramulu filed a case against Reddy under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act in January 2013. The case is yet to be investigated.

According to the statement:

“The countrywide discussion raised through the struggles following Rohith Vemula’s death in January 2016 drew public attention to the extent of caste discrimination in our universities.  SC, ST, OBC and minority students figure disproportionately in the statistics for failure, drop out, expulsion, rustication and even suicide. Educational institutions and those who run them (teachers and administrators) have been forced to acknowledge that they are implicated in this terrible attrition of young citizens and know they must initiate reforms. Yet, far too little is being done to discuss this evidence, rethink rules, temper teachers’ attitudes, reform syllabi or challenge ideas of merit that discriminate against the marginalised. A teacher’s job is to help the actual students in the classroom to learn; not to uphold abstract standards of merit. From the courts, the underprivileged expect humane recognition of the inequities of their predicament and wise support for their cause. But what they have received is a demoralising and intimidating signal.”

The academics go on to explain the chain of events:

“Sreeramulu failed in some courses in each of his initial semesters, and was subsequently not promoted and asked to leave.  He protested this decision in various ways and complained about discrimination in the department (“not welcomed or encouraged”;  “our answer sheets came back covered in red marks”; “it was never clear what exactly the rules were”; “others received preferential treatment”; “UGC mandated remedial classes were not seriously taught”; “there are seven teachers in the department but no SC, ST or OBC among them; there is no one to understand my pain”). Following an investigative report filed with the NHRC, a committee consisting of external members and EFLU faculty was constituted by the university to examine the issue. Even before the committee finalized its report, the University unilaterally prepared its own version of minutes which rejected Sreeramulu’s case. In protest, the two SC/ST faculty members resigned from the committee and expressed their dissent in writing. In despair, Sreeramulu resorted to a fast.

This was the point at which the [student] organisations came in. Sreeramulu fought hard to stay in the course, but did not succeed.  After he was evicted from the university, despite being disturbed and fighting a tension-related flare-up of his vitiligo, he has worked as a tourist guide, a German and English tutor for foreign students and passed the UGC JRF examination in German. Dalit Camera, a popular Youtube channel, interviewed with him at the time when he was protesting against his failure and subsequent expulsion from the German department. The interview provides us, among other things, a sense of his hold over spoken English. This is an intelligent and capable student, with a flair for language, it might seem.”

According to Reddy’s complaint to the court, Sriramulu, along with Mohan D., Satish N., Upender R. and Ravi C., all associated with various student organisations who have helped Sriramulu in his struggle, have defamed her by calling her casteist and ‘feudal’ in videos that are available on the internet and on posters that were put up on campus. She claimed that these allegations were baseless and Sriramulu’s academic troubles were not caused by discrimination. The “false charges”, she claimed to the court, came only after he failed to perform well.

The students have claimed that Sriramulu’s was not a one-off incident, alleging that professors at the institute, specifically Reddy, routinely did not give SC/ST students the grades they deserved or allowed them to attend remedial classes that the university is meant to provide. The students also cited the examples of two female Dalit students who were driven to dropping out because of the faculty member’s behaviour, one of them also allegedly driven to attempt suicide. The professor, they alleged, also humiliated SC/ST students by “asking them to go to their places and do their work and not attend foreign language courses”.

On December 13, the court ruled in favour of Reddy, citing videos uploaded to Youtube by the independent media group Dalit Camera as evidence. One of the students charged with defamation, Ravi C., is the founder of Dalit Camera, a media organisation that says it highlights “the voice of the people” whose “words are not covered in the other media and are therefore not available for public discussion.” The students were sentenced to six months simple imprisonment. The professor had also asked that compensation be paid to her, but the court did not impose any fines.

The academics’ statement condemns the court’s use of Dalit Camera videos as evidence against the students:

“We also deeply regret that the interviews and documentation developed by Dalit Camera have been used as the basis for the sentences. This original and courageous journalistic initiative has received worldwide recognition for its bold and altogether original use of social media.  By making available voices and perspectives that have hitherto been obscured or overlooked in public discussion, Dalit Camera has on many occasions transformed the understanding of key events. Forums such as Dalit Camera are invaluable because they confront us with the injustice and indignity Dalits face today and, importantly, the insight they have into their predicament.  In its light conventional media houses often lose their aura and established authorities show up as limited and unjust. But that is a part of the ethical and epistemological value of the initiative. The Honourable Court, it would seem, has sadly failed to appreciate this.”

The students, who were arrested after the court’s judgment, are out on bail and have filed an appeal in the session’s court.

Previous instance

This is not the first time students from marginalised communities have claimed discrimination at EFLU. In April 2016, Dalit PhD student Koonal Duggal alleged that he was “treated like a criminal” when security guards physically removed him campus in the middle of a speech he was delivering at Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations on campus.

“They dragged me from the venue in front of the other students and teachers, and treated me like a criminal. They also called me anti-university, anti-national for singing a song by Faiz Ali. Is it a crime a to sing a song?” Duggal told the News Minute at the time. Following the incident, Duggal filed an Atrocities Act case against the university proctor. “When I enquired why I had to be removed from the venue, I was informed that the security guards have received an order “restricting” my entry into EFL University campus, where I currently study. I was told that I should go and talk to Prakash Kona Reddy, who as the Proctor had issued the order. I was never priorly informed on such a restricting order. I have not participated in any unlawful activities,” Duggal’s FIR said.

According to the News Minute, the university has claimed that Duggal was “a key member in a lot of anti-university activities,” but has refused to elaborate on the matter.

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