“8:25 am: A.R. Reddy to send the message from VC Secretariat to all users that Prof. Appa Rao Podile resumed charge as Vice Chancellor”
As we were preparing to go for our morning classes on Tuesday, March 22, our phones beeped. It was a screenshot of an email from the vice chancellor’s office informing the university community of VC Appa Rao’s return two months after he went on a “long leave” following Rohith Vemula’s suicide. We learned that Rao had called for an executive committee meeting.
Many students see Rao as the main culprit in Rohith’s death. We are enraged that he chose to return while a judicial enquiry on his role in the case was underway.
Soon after receiving the email, a friend and I walked towards Rao’s camp office, commonly called VC Lodge, about one kilometre from our hostel. Media vans passed us, and near the gate a student with a bleeding hand was being taken away. We joined the 50 students who had already gathered at the entrance and were raising slogans demanding the arrest of Prof. Rao.
We were surprised to see a set of students already inside the building, with girls standing in the front row, blocking the back exit using sofa sets, chairs and tables.
The ABVP’s role
“Rajagopal to coordinate with LS (Life Sciences) students to reach VC Lodge by 09:30 a.m. to greet VC on resuming charge”
These quick, easy instructions were included in task sheets that were drafted by the university administration to coordinate the VC’s return, to which we have gotten access. They make it clear that the ABVP, which has a mass following in the life sciences department of the university, formed a protective cover for Rao’s meeting that morning. The whole operation was meticulously pre-planned, which was reflected in the three sets of instructions for different people including “like-minded faculty members”, Rao’s personal assistant Krishna Ram, and Rao himself.
We demanded that the ABVP stop shielding Rao and leave. They instead hailed Rao and sneered at us with a confidence that could only have come from having the backing of the administration. The gathering continued to condemn ABVP’s actions with slogans. This exchange turned into an altercation between the ABVP and the larger student community, whose numbers at VC Lodge swelled as the news of Rao’s return spread.
The ABVP used the furniture at their disposal to keep the agitated students away. Pushing and pulling ensued, during which a glass pane shattered, a sofa leg broke, and the door curtain tore. Later, these images were used to tag those in the peaceful gathering as vandals. But when both sides were responsible for the loss, why were only one set of students slapped with charges of damage to public property? If we were really the violent crowd that we are made out to be, anything that we could lay our hands on should have been broken that morning. But, for example, the 150 plastic chairs scattered across the lawns remained intact.
Staff and administration hand-in-glove
“Rajagopal to inform NTS (Non-Teaching Staff) leaders (Gangaraju, Niranjan Reddy, Sivaiah, Parashuram, Raghuram, Nagarjuna, David Raju, Suryanarayana Raju etc.) at 08:15 a.m. that the VC resumes charge and coordinate with them upto lunch time”
Around 11 a.m., while sloganeering was at its peak, a group of 25 burly men barged into the peaceful gathering. We were momentarily relieved that non-students from the campus seemed to have joined us. Instead, the group, which consisted of the non-teaching staff, aligned with the ABVP, started shouting, “Appa Rao zindabad.”
In the weeks immediately after Rohith’s death on January 17, sections of the staff joined students to demand Rao be punished and the ABVP became isolated on campus. But last Tuesday, the way many of them worked hand-in-glove with the administration shocked us.
A scuffle between a student and a staff member was immediately stopped by others. This five-second episode was misrepresented and exaggerated as students attacking the staff. After the episode, the staff declared a strike, denying food, regular water supply and internet facility to students across the campus for 36 hours.
Role of the police
The police intervened, pushed us back, and asked us to leave the premises, saying we were trespassers in the VC’s personal residence. We shot back, pointing out that it is an “official residence” where a university meeting was underway, and if students were indeed not allowed then why was the ABVP holed up inside since the morning?
But the police ignored our repeated demands to get them out. The coordination between the police and those inside the building was obvious to everybody present.
Nonetheless, we obeyed the late-morning commands to step back for the supposed “safe passage” of the ABVP, whose members were escorted out by a chain of policemen amidst hooting from both sides. A few of the ABVP members in fact stood right next to the protesting students, perceiving no apparent threat, continuing to jeer.
Finally, there was a lull by lunchtime, as the parched gathering sat under the scorching Hyderabad sun, watching cartons of juice and food packets being taken inside the building.
Open violence by the police against students
“6:45 am: Talk to Prakash Babu for police-related matters…”
“Prakash Babu to inform Sri Ramesh, Sri Ramana Kumar and Sri Kartikeya around 08:30 a.m. (check with DR Security whether the letter was handed over by then or not) over phone and request their support if there is any law and order problem”
My friend and I left VC Lodge to check whether our professor would take class that afternoon at 2 p.m. After attending class, we walked back to the VC Lodge around 4:00 p.m. We saw that while we were away, a massive police force had blocked the gate we had used to enter and exit earlier.
The front area was eerily quiet. Wondering what everybody was up to, we followed a few students down a narrow dusty passage leading to the back gate of the lodge. On our way, we saw some students, holding their stomachs, crying and covered in dust, being helped into cars to be taken to the university health centre. A panicked crowd was running along the track at the back; clueless, we ran along. We were confronted by policemen, whose colleagues were slapping, kicking and dragging other students out of the premises. The five women constables, led by a lady officer, did not have lathis, while their male counterparts, equipped with riot gears and batons, did not shy away from using them on both female and male students.
After pushing everybody out of the premises, the police force unleashed itself on students, brandishing batons and pelting stones to disperse us. In response, two or three students tried to throw stones back at the police, but they were stopped by other students. The crowd was chased down the road and lathicharged without regard to sex and age. Professors and male students were grabbed at random and tossed into police vans where we could see them being beaten. Officers were instructing their subordinates to choose and attack students. Female students, who were trying to help their friends from being pulled away, were pushed down by the male police.
When we questioned the detention, the police called us “immature,” stared us down, threatened to charge us with sedition, and snatched the phones from students who were filming the assault.
My friend and I cannot forget, in particular, the 6-ft tall policeman in plainclothes, charging towards us, baring his teeth and cursing in Telugu. We were caught off guard because he was not in his uniform and so we could not pre-empt his attacks.
We were chased to the School of Humanities building. The police followed us as far as outside the classrooms to beat us. Frightened and confused, we asked them: Where do you want us to go from our university?
No information about the arrested students
Shaken and clueless about how many of our friends were taken away and where, we limped back to our hostels around 7 p.m., but only to find the internet cut off and the dining halls shut. With drinking water running out, students feared the wrath of the university administration and believed every rumour that came their way. In the meanwhile, friends detained in the police van texted that they were being taken to different police stations. After an hour, their phones were switched off when we called. There was no way to reach them.
Subsequently, there has been a total blocking of information on the arrests. Those of us who went to police stations for details failed to locate the detained students as we were shuttled from one place to another.
Our classmates are in jail. It is common to see police everywhere on campus now.
Is the administration flexing its powerful muscles to suppress dissent in the university?
Garima Goel and Sahla Nechiyil are students of M.A. Political Science at University of Hyderabad