Left To Fight Their Own Battles

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rohit-vemula-protest

The year was 2012. At a Central University campus in Hyderabad, student protesters had encircled the then acting Vice Chancellor (VC). Despite repeated attempts at initiating a dialogue on student issues at the university campus, the VC had literally walked away from any form of engagement. Taking matters into their hands, the protesters finally found a chance to have a talk with the VC as she made her way to the parking lot. In polite tones, a first generation ST student activist began the conversation: “Ma’am, see we…” Interrupting him, the VC replied with an expression of deep revulsion, “Talk to me in proper legal English.”

In 2014, the same student was rusticated along with two others for allegedly breaking the glass doors of the university library during a protest. Even in the absence of proof linking the student to the incident or the fact that the strike was called by the university’s students council — thus bringing in a large number of students, anyone of whom could have broken the doors in the ensuing struggle with the administration — the blame fell squarely on the shoulders of the student activist who had many a time called out the university’s blatant caste discrimination.

“The students’ council had given a letter to the proctor and the VC saying that they would be responsible in case anything adverse happened during the course of the protest,” the student tells me on condition of anonymity. “But they did not take any action against the students’ council. Instead, they rusticated us; that, too, when the 16-member library staff had given a letter stating that they had not seen anyone of us breaking the glass.” As of now, the case against the three students, all belonging to socially and economically backward communities, is pending at the High Court of Judicature at Hyderabad.

On 17 January, Rohith Vemula, 25, a Dalit research scholar, took his life after protesting for 12 days against University of Hyderabad’s (UoH) decision to expel him and four others from its hostel premises. A double Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) holder, Vemula had been a Students Federation of India (SFI) activist until he left the organisation to join Ambedkar Students Association (ASA). Since then, Vemula had been an active student leader on campus, who vociferously expressed his views on caste.

Photo : Athul Sapna Praksh
Photo : Athul Sapna Praksh

“I was one of the last people who spoke to him,” says Dickens Leonard, ASA activist and a student of UoH. “We had decided to go on a relay hunger strike. But in retrospect, I guess, he had already made the decision to end his life, probably after seeing no reaction even after he and the others were sleeping out in the open at night. Later, that night, he had told me how he couldn’t sleep and that he would sleep in the morning in his friend’s room.”

In its 24-year tenure at the university, ASA has tried its best to move away from the language of the left- or the right-wing ideology in India. “We tried to bring an Ambedkarite movement to the campus that did not simply reduce Ambedkar to Buddhism or to his contribution to the Constitution,” says Dickens. “UoH is the perfect example to explain how there was a different strain of thought on the campus that wasn’t Right or Left. We tried to interrogate the violence that Dalit, Bahujan and Muslim students experienced and we began forging alliances with the Muslims, who are also being witch-hunted by the State. So, not only did we speak about caste, we also raised questions on sensitive issues such as Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) and human rights violations in Kashmir, and opposed capital punishment, a position taken by Babasaheb (Ambedkar) himself. And this is why we also condemned the hanging of Yakub Memon.”

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TIMELINE OF EVENTS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF HYDERABAD 

♦ Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) organises a protest march in UoH against the attack by ABVP on Montage Film Society in Delhi University, which was screening the documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai

♦ In response to this protest, local ABVP leader Susheel Kumar posts a comment on Facebook calling ASA members “goons”, for which he later gives a written apology

♦ Next morning, Kumar alleges that around 30 students belonging to ASA had beaten him up and he had to be hospitalised

♦ UoH’s Proctorial Board, which conducted an inquiry with a medical examiner, could not find any proof of injuries on Kumar. The security guard who was present at the time of the alleged incident, too, confirmed it. However, the Proctorial Board decides to suspend the students despite the lack of evidence

♦ With the intervention of the then VC, RP Sharma, the decision is revoked

♦ Four months later, the decision is upheld with the medical examiner changing her findings to state that Kumar was abused, beaten and forced to write an apology to the ASA activists

♦ A written statement is released by Joint Action Committee for Social Justice, UoH, terming the decision ‘shockingly atrocious’ and ‘incomprehensible’

♦ Expelled students all belonging to socially and economically backward families begin protesting in front of the hostel premises, sleeping out in the open

♦ Rohith kills himself on 17 January

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On 2 August 2015, when the Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP) disrupted the screening of Muzaffarnagar Baqi Hai at Delhi University’s Kirori Mal College (KMC), allegedly for being “anti-Hindu”, student organisations across campuses, including Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi and Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai, held screenings of the documentary. The ASA in UoH, too, held a protest march condemning the ABVP, prompting its activist Susheel Kumar to call the Dalit activists ‘goons’ in a Facebook post.

Though Kumar tendered a written apology for the comment, he filed a complaint later stating that he was physically assaulted by 30 ASA activists in his hostel room. A Proctorial Board of inquiry was thus set up and the board “could not get any hard evidence on the beating of Mr Susheel Kumar.” Yet, the board placed the students under suspension, which was revoked with the intervention of the then VC RK Sharma.