KY Ratnam and Tathagatha Sengupta, faculty members who were arrested with students after protests against the university vice-chacellor on March 22, shared their experiences.
New Delhi: A day before protests at Hyderabad Central University gained a renewed momentum and students and supporters tried to break open the university gates on Wednesday, two faculty members from the Hyderabad Central University, Tathagatha Sengupta and KY Ratnam came to Delhi to talk about the happenings in Hyderabad. Both of these teachers had been arrested after student protests and police brutality on campus on March 22, and are now out on bail.
Part of a panel discussion on ‘Caste in Higher Education’ held at JNU that ran into the night, the teachers talked about the events of March 22, their time in prison and the future of the struggle at universities.
To understand the student protests after vice-chancellor Appa Rao Podile’s return to campus on March 22, Sengupta said, it was important to know what was happening on campus before that. The interim VC, M Periaswamy, had suggested administrative steps that supported the students struggle, including the increase of non-NET fellowships, creating the post of an anti-discrimination officer and proper representation of SC/STs in all university committees. “It is to block these changes from being passed in the academic council meeting on March 24 that Appa Rao came back when he did. One of his first moves was to postpone the academic council meeting,” Sengupta said.
“And what moral basis did Appa Rao have to come back to campus?” asked Ratnam. “He did not even pay his respects to Rohith [Vemula’s] body. The judicial enquiry into his role in the suicide is still pending. Then, while professors from his university were jailed, all he did was put up a YouTube video saying he was ‘pained’. He made no effort to intervene on our behalf, or say do not arrest the teachers. … Then, while we were in prison, he cut off food, water and ATM services for the students on campus.”
Ratnam was in a meeting when protests began on March 22, and when he reached the scene of the protest, students were holding a “decent and democratic dharna” on the lawns of the VC’s lodge. “Then the police came,” Ratnam said. “They dragged students, including male policemen dragging girl students, and hit them repeatedly. I kept saying ‘don’t hit my students’, but all they did was ask my name again and again. Finally, they took me into a police van too.”
“It took the van 40 minutes to reach the police station, and in those 40 minutes they hit students mercilessly. One of the students dropped his spectacles, and when he tried to look for them a policeman picked up the spectacles and punched the student in the face,” Ratnam added. “It is very difficult to explain what it was like in that van.”
Sengupta echoed his sentiments. “The police and other forces threatened us with encounters, asked if we knew what the Telangana police is capable of.”
The arrested students and teachers were taken to 2-3 police stations on the same night. For almost 24 hours, nobody had any idea where they were. “They did not even allow us to contact our families,” Ratnam said. “The first thing they did was take our cellphones. When we got them back, all the photos and videos we had taken of the incident had been deleted, our phones had been reformatted.”
Once in custody in the central jail, things were different. “Though we won’t say much of our time in jail, what I will say is that we were treated like ‘academics’. We were allowed to speak to each other, meet, discuss. At first they even sent some ‘petty’ criminals, young boys in jail for theft, etc. to clean our rooms, though of course we stopped that,” Sengupta said. “Even in jail, social hierarchies were very visible, and we were treated better than other inmates.”
“Appa Rao thought police brutality would crush us,” Sengupta added. “He didn’t realise that he created hundreds of Rohiths that day.” Speaking to The Wire, Ratnam said the students in HCU would not give up on their struggle anytime soon. “What we are asking for now is solidarity, from across the country. Appa Rao must go, without that normal functioning at HCU is not possible. We need people to come together on this, and support our struggle.”