The refusal of Velpula Sunkanna, a student of the University of Hyderabad (UoH), to accept his PhD degree from the Vice Chancellor Podile Appa Rao is an unprecedented act of resistance that has shaken the institution. Sunkanna was one of the five students expelled from the hostel and public places in the university along with Rohith Vemula, who committed suicide in January this year.
It is worth examining and reflecting upon the genesis and implications of this act of defiance.
We have not yet forgotten the rustications and expulsion of students from the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) that led to the tragic death of Vemula. The stunning protest that cascaded through the country led to a new sensibility on the meanings and purpose of education, and the inseparability of learning from deep democracy and deep diversity.
The naming of exclusionary actions by utterly arbitrary university administrations – Rao was VC then too – that absorbed the unholy task of dismantling autonomy and freedom of thought, conscience and expression in universities as ‘the velivada‘ – the untouchable hamlet outside the boundaries of touchable habitations – by Vemula, Dontha Prashanth, Sunkanna and their compatriots was an unimaginable turn in the politics of the possible.
Universities, like formal learning in the Hindu caste order, have been Republics of the Touchables – which, unable to escape the justiciable constitutional requirement of reservations, ever so grudgingly admitted students from the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Despite admitting students, however, the micro practices of caste held students from marginalised social groups in multi-tiered, multi-layered velivadas that locked them into poor scores, depression and deprived them of equal opportunity (in choice of supervisors, access to laboratory facilities, counselling services, access to timely financial resources through scholarships and fellowships, and setting standards of merit outside their life experience, for instance).
A well-worn velivada strategy has been to push students who come in through reservations out of the system without detaining them but giving them grades that effectively expel them for life from employment in higher education. Discussions in meetings of boards of studies and departmental committees mirror the old way of learning of slokas by rote with teachers repeating and reinforcing each other’s prejudices by stigmatising the performance of first generation students. Teachers who come into universities through reservation lack the strength of numbers and effective voice to counter such narratives; they are also utterly dependent on the benevolence of the agraharam (the Brahminical enclave).
At the heart of this system is arbitrariness, opacity and the lack of accountability with impunity – we were witness to the frightening proportions this can reach when the police was called in to assault students and teachers, and arrest them, in violation of all procedure in the UoH. The last head load of filth flung into the velivada was the suspension of teachers who had been subjected to illegal arrest and detention because they were arrested on a criminal complaint – the university files the complaint, has them arrested and suspends them for being arrested. Some would perhaps argue that this was an exceptional situation. But the everyday dissonances prime the space of the mind and the physical space for larger violations which are then dismissed by teachers in the service of the administration as necessary action to deal effectively with “student vandals” and “teacher agitators”. Uncertainty, callous neglect by supervisors and the tacit complicity of the faculty in safeguarding (with deceit if necessary) the Republic of the Touchables are lethal poison.
The violence that creates and perpetuates the velivada is known to foreshorten lives – through murder, neglect, harm and the imposition of collective suffering across generations. I wonder even today at the spirit that students routinely call up to keep their optimism, focus and good cheer. That this is not an isolated case is evident from the deaths of Dalit students on campuses before and after Vemula.
But more importantly for our present purposes, the spirit of resistance is not an exception either. Even as he left us, Vemula opened out for us pathways to the stars. Against this backdrop, Sunkanna’s refusal to accept his doctoral degree from Rao in full public view is historic. It restored a vital measure of dignity to an event that sits at the threshold of students’ lives – the convocation. This will remain etched in the memories of the event that degree holders will take with them – whether or not they were in the struggle with Sunkanna and whether or not they shared in his loss, humiliation and pain, and in his conviction.
This will also remain imprinted in the minds of those that rule through the creation and perpetration of velivadas, and those of Ambedkarites and anti-caste resisters everywhere. The UoH convocation stage on October 1 was the site of an unprecedented reversal – it belonged to Sunkanna and the ASA. Rao epitomised all that has gone terribly wrong with the university system in our country apart from his individual culpability in the perpetration of profound wrongs in an institution he was meant to govern in trust and good faith. And in those 40 seconds he stood ousted, forced to stand apart, not allowed to touch the degree that the Dalit scholar had earned despite the depredations of the Republic of the Touchables. He stood isolated, confined to a velivada of his own making. His closest ally, pro-vice chancellor Vipin Srivastava, was forced to break ranks with him and forge a connection with Sunkanna through the degree. The cameras have captured this image for posterity, the forty seconds stretched infinitely.
This act of resistance by Sunkanna (that is no doubt a culmination of the larger resistance witnessed also in the electoral victories of the resisting students in the student union election last month) has forged a new path and has removed Justitia’s blindfold in an enduring fashion.
Kalpana Kannabiran is Professor and Director, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad.