On Monday, June 13, two faculty members of the University of Hyderabad who had been active in their support of the students’ movement after the death of Rohith Vemula, were suspended by the Executive Council citing a rule that mandates suspension of the faculty member has been in criminal custody for 48 hours or more.
Dr. K.Y. Rathnam, Associate Professor of Political Science and Dr. Tathagata Sengupta, Assistant Professor of Mathematics, were arrested in March 22 along with 27 students for alleged “vandalism” and violence on campus. They were released on bail on March 28. During this period, there has been an FIR naming the vice chancellor as an accused in Rohith’s suicide in a case under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act on which no action has been initated to date. The question was raised instead whether Rohith was Dalit. Wednesday’s papers carried a declaration by the Collector of Guntur District that Rohith was Dalit belonging to Mala caste as per records of the district.
So then there is a serious criminal complaint pending in court against the vice- chancellor although no arrests have been made in this case as the law mandates. This is not a matter of fixing guilt. That is for the courts to decide. This is just about procedure mandated by law and facts related to that procedure. Two criminal complaints: One is atrocity, the other is vandalism. Neither is proved nor are there convictions. In a strange twist, it is two faculty members of the university who have been suspended for having been arrested contrary to criminal procedure, while the university administration stood watching. This is after the vice chancellor stated in a letter released to the press on March 28: “I request you to rise above anger and confrontational attitude … I and my team wish to lead by example in this area, with our willingness to be always open for a dialogue with all students, which we have always been. Let’s work towards resolution, instead of confrontation. Let’s together build bridges than walls in this university. It’s very painful to see some of our students and couple of faculty members from campus spend time in jail. While I wanted to intervene, legal system is beyond our control and jurisdiction” (emphasis added by author).
Plea to UoH Faculty
This is a plea from me to the university community to stand together and ensure revocation of the suspension order as a non-negotiable for the restoration of peace on campus.
June is a month of memories of a difficult and challenging time in the life of the country – Emergency was proclaimed on June 25, 1975, marking the beginning of 21 months of fear, unparalleled (till that point) state violence, and the rise of dissent like never before – in courts and outside. It is now 41 years later. An entire generation that demonstrated a fearless resolve to restore and repair the democratic fabric has left us. But we can scarcely forget that the young dissenters – students and very young faculty then – are now in positions of decision making in the academia – universities and colleges, in the professions and in the administration. While several lost their lives and livelihoods, several that managed to survive recuperated and built new lives and stable futures.
While many of this generation of the intelligentsia may not be involved in movements anymore, and may even actually oppose movements of students on campuses they teach in today, certainly they have memories of their own predicament and politics, even if muted or masked.
Suspensions, dismissals, rustications and other punitive measures like this were challenged at several levels during the Emergency — teachers and students were at the forefront with universities then, like now, in the eye of the storm. I still have memories of Cherabanda Raju, a teacher-poet in custody with a terminal illness, facing suspension, and challenging that suspension in court. Among those that were arrested were people of all shades, not only people of the left although the latter outnumbered the others. But there was no denial of politics – rather the assertion was of a right to politics, the right to dissent and the right to participate in democracy through dissent. The university was a space that offered an opportunity for debate on the meanings and failings of democracy and politics of various hues.
As we approach the anniversary of the dark day when Emergency was proclaimed, we are faced with a peculiarly painful situation in the city of Hyderabad that was the heart and soul of dissent and free speech. It was here that history was made four decades ago every day in courts and outside – educating the judiciary and common people who flocked to courts and calling governments and administrative authorities to account like never before. Yet today, we are faced with the suspension of two faculty members for being in custody longer than 48 hours.
This was a manifestly illegal arrest and detention that saw several students and two faculty members in custody for close to a week. The exact ways in which this arrest was a blatant violation of criminal procedure by the police has been written about by renowned legal scholars. Despite this we have one injustice piled onto another – a spell of illegal detention, during which time the university authorities went on record to say that while they were troubled, they had to let the law take its course. And close on the heels of the release, a suspension that draws its justification from the arrest. Clearly the law meanders in the corridors of power and discretion is weighted in favour of those in power. We have known that for decades. But we also know that it can take a most unexpected turn towards justice unsettling dominant complacencies rudely – it is good for us to bear the Emergency and its lessons in mind.
Be that as it may, the law shall take its course. What is much more urgent and necessary, is for the university teachers to come out as a strong moral force – it is either now or never. Not just Dalit and adivasi teachers. There are several senior faculty members (not to speak of the younger/junior ones) in this university who have faced troubles, difficulties and extremely hostile environments in the course of employment and several have sought a personal resolution and sought support – not on lines of friendship alone, but on a matter of principle. This support has been vital to their survival and dignity on campus, even among their peers.
And it is this peer support and moral authority that teachers must exercise in the largest numbers in order to express unequivocal rejection of administrative arbitrariness and vindictiveness against faculty. For the administration, also driven by teachers, setting a humane, accomodative principle of governance that completely eschews personal animosities and disagreements – welcoming opposing political standpoints is the only way to restoring a climate that is conducive to learning. Silence and distance at this crucial time can erode the fabric of an already beleaguered institution irreparably.
Can we afford to forget that we are not here sitting in a feudal village with a velivada (a Ghetto) into which we periodically push students, faculty, non-teaching staff and others in many ways? It is intensely painful to see photographs of Dr. Rathnam and Dr. Sengupta sitting on strike in front of the university gate with garlands and a small group of supporters. Rohith had called this a velivada – how many teachers have at various points in their term in this university found themselves stigmatised and isolated – seeking help from outside and praying for support within? How many others have bought their peace through silence and distance?
It is time that we recognise and resist the culture of the velivada and its insidious ways rather than hastily distancing ourselves from it. This is a university that every one of us has a stake in safeguarding as a university. Insisting on the unilateral and unconditional revocation of the suspension of Dr. K.Y. Rathnam and Dr. Tathagata Sengupta of the University of Hyderabad is the only non-negotiable way forward. This insistence must come from the entire faculty in one voice. The “law” should not instill fear in us or take away our voices and our moral strength – we can imbue the law with a moral fibre through our collective voice. It is also necessary to understand the law and understand the gradations of seriousness and gravity therein. And this is not a call for political agreement among all. It is a call for singular action across differences.
The writer is Professor and Director, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad