In the early hours 28th May 2016, at around 2 P.M., the authorities at the University of Hyderabad removed the tents erected in North Shopcom around the Velivada and the venue of protest following the death of Rohith Vemula. This happened in the darkness of night, shrouded in secrecy and utterly insensitive towards the turmoil it was bound generate within the student community. Such an act reaffirms the dictatorial stance of the present administration as well as its intolerance to dissent.
The removal of the tent is a clear act of provocation against students since it is well known that they are emotionally attached to the Velivada and consider it as a place of mourning and memorial for Rohith. Especially for the Dalit students, it remains the site of challenge against caste discrimination. Further, bringing down the posters of Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar’s quotes that surrounded the tent is a grave insult to the Father of the Constitution of this country and an atrocity in itself. It is indeed ironic that the university administration that overtly pronounces its intent to celebrate Dr. Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary for a year has no qualms about removing his posters, or barring his grandson, Prakash Ambedkar, from entering the university. Such actions unmask the true character of the administration; revealing its deeply discriminatory, apathetic and disrespectful attitude towards Dalits and their leaders.
Perhaps the University officials have long forgotten that a University is not to be ruled and subjugated through the military doctrine of “shock and awe” (who can forget George Bush’s now ill famous use of the term during the military invasion of Iraq by the US in 2003!). Instead, patience, maturity and genuine dialogue with the students alone can help us through these difficult times. Unfortunately, the authorities have acted in an extremely unbefitting manner, without the slightest concern for the feelings of their own students. Further, this act of destruction appears doubly mindless and vindictive because the presence of a tent in the Shopcom area does not harm anyone. In fact, through the scorching summer, many people take shelter under it beating the intense heat—be it the students having their food there or other workers who need to be around the Shopcom area. Therefore, we see absolutely no justification for its removal, that too in such a stealthy and unceremonious manner, taking advantage of the the anonymity of the night during vacation. Clearly the authorities are well aware how heartless and unethical such an action is and the serious opposition that it is sure to encounter if carried out during daytime.
The thoughtless desecration of the Velivada compels us to ask a few critical questions. Is it necessary to instigate confrontations in a campus that is already struggling to come to terms with the tragic death of Rohith Vemula, the brutal lathicharge and imposition of false cases against students and faculty and the continuous harassment of students that takes many different forms? Is it not the urgent responsibility of the administration be a little more receptive to the concerns and feelings of the students, keeping in mind the larger interests of the University? It is a cruel irony that while the administration proclaims to the world that it wants “normalcy” to return to the campus, its actions remain blatantly aggressive, anti-student and discriminatory.
More than four months have passed by since that fateful night when a brilliant young man with immense potential and a strong sense of social justice gave up his life, hounded by the administration on the basis of a fictitious charge and non-existent evidence. We may recall that the cruel and unusual punishment of suspension from hostels and all common spaces was handed out to the five Dalit students during another vacation—the winter of December 2015. Is it just serendipity? Or, perhaps vacation is time of total impunity, when all natural and moral laws are suspended and humanity is forgotten? While the Rohith and his friends were forced to spend the cold winter nights out in the open, distraught students protesting the removal of the tent spent the day under the unforgiving Hyderabad sun near the main gate of the University on 28th May until they were pushed away by the security guards.
Prof. Appa Rao Podile resumed office with the knowledge of a hand-picked teaching and non-teaching staff (after abandoning the University in a state of despair following the death of Rohith) on 22nd March, 2016, without so much as giving prior notice to the interim VC, Prof. Periasamy, fully aware how this would affect the protesting students and friends of Rohith. Now, once again, the Velivada has been desecrated when the world was asleep. We quote what a leading jurist Amita Dhanda had said recently with respect to the events at HCU: “A VC must not only be fair but be seen to be fair.” We leave it to our readers to decide whether the VC has ever acted or appeared to act as fair!
Evidently, the loss of Rohith’s life has not meant nor taught anything to the the University of Hyderabad authorities. Those who had closed their eyes to the evidence that screamed out that Rohith and his friends were “Not Guilty”, have moved on. They now head important committees and speak on behalf of the University to the rest of the world. As ranks are bestowed upon the University, they brim over with pride and claim credit. It is well beyond their comprehension as to why large groups of students and faculty should hang on to a make-shift Velivada—with walls made up of flex-board images of Babasaheb Ambedkar, Jotiba and Savitribai Phule and Kanshi Ram. For them, it is time to “cleanse” and “sanitize” the Shopcom of those disturbing reminders that tell us that “Something is rotten in the state of the University of Hyderabad.”
But the memory of injustice is a powerful tool. The very same structure that has been an eyesore to the administration is our history—poignant, gut-wrenching and yet imbuing our present with direction and the strength to struggle. To recall a stirring line that has emerged through the Rohith Vemula movement: “A spectre is haunting the brahminical academia—the spectre of caste.” We welcome and embrace this history. The Velivada is the place where Rohith spent his final destitute days, anxious that his years of hard work and aspiration to give a better life to his family may come to nought. This is where we come to pay our respects and to remind ourselves that there should be no more Rohiths. Around this very place, a community has gathered—of those who may not have known each other earlier but who understood how critical it was to work towards a world where “a man is not reduced to his immediate identity”. People thronged to this place from different Universities and from all walks of life to pay homage, and in solidarity. Those who could not come still became part of this imagined community—those from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala, the North East, in fact, from every part of this country—threaded together by empathy and experience. Rohith became an icon and a rallying cry because his life struck a chord with the large majority of Dalit and other minoritized and underprivileged groups in India for whom education is still a humungous struggle. More important, breaking into the bastions of higher education remain acts of transgression and trespassing. Perhaps that is why the august body that passed the fatal judgement on Rohith Vemula did not even bother to maintain a facade of impartiality. Unfortunately for them, the masses of India—the Dalit and the underprivileged, those who are the “wretched of the earth” in the immortal and evocative words of Frantz Fanon, recognized this judgement for what it is, even as it came cloaked in the language of discipline and bureaucracy.
The socially marginalized, struggling parents who dream of a better life for their children instinctively know what happened—they completely and empathetically identify with Radhika Vemula who sent her son to the big University only to lose him forever. Similarly, all those students and teachers who have relentlessly and often silently faced discrimination in the hallowed portals of premier institutions of learning also know. We, the concerned faculty and students at the University of Hyderabad know. We shall not forget. We cannot forget. The administration is bent upon erasing the Velivada. Can they erase our memory? Can they erase the memory of that fateful night of January 17th? Rohith has travelled from the shadows to the stars. We ask Mr. Appa Rao Podile and his believers, “Can you destroy the stars? Because every time, on each dark night, when we look up we will see Rohith Vemula and we will remember what he lived and died for.”
Perhaps the University Administration presumes that a Velivada rightfully and customarily belongs to the margins of the village—far far away from the modern, secular/brahminical, high-ranking spaces of the University. However, through an extraordinary and imaginative act of symbolism, Rohith and his four friends have re-installed the Velivada in the midst of the University, in our hearts and in our consciousness. We need not skirt past it or bemoan the loss of the Shopcom (as the administration has been doing). For us it is a living history of sacrifice and struggle, forcing us to continually work towards a more pluralistic and egalitarian idea of the University.
There is a writing on the wall that that the administration cannot whitewash! The Velivada can no longer be cast out into the margins; it is here to stay. The University must take note and be attentive to this momentous turn of history.
SC/ST Teachers’ Forum and Concerned Teachers, University of Hyderabad