Appa Rao Must Go, HCU Admin Guilty of Conflict Leading to Rohith’s Death: Scientists

Written by SabrangIndia Staff | Published on: January 16, 2017

A fact finding report of reputed Indian scientists belonging to premier academic institutions has squarely blamed direct Central government interference in the autonomous functioning of the University of Hyderabad in exacerbating a conflict that has gone on uninterrupted from August 2015. “Direct interference by BJP’s central ministers and politicians in the running of the university” are one of the factors responsible. Senior scientists with various Indian institutions have conducted this detailed suo motu inquiry and released a report in early January.
Last year, in July 2016, Suvrat Raju, International Centre for Theoretical Sciences,  Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (Bengaluru), Prajval Shastri, Indian Institute of Astrophysics (Bengaluru) and Ravinder Banyal, Indian Institute of Astrophysics (Bengaluru)visited the University and conducted a detailed fact-finding which has resulted in the report.
Other key scientists who are signatories include Dileep Jatkar, Harish-Chandra Research Institute (Allahabad), Srikanth Sastry, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (Bengaluru), N. Raghavendra, Harish-Chandra Research Institute (Allahabad), Rahul Siddharthan,  Institute of Mathematical Sciences (Chennai), Saikat Ghosh, Indian Institute of Technology (Kanpur), Samriddhi Sankar Ray, International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (Bengaluru), Sandeep Krishna, National Centre for Biological Sciences,  Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (Bengaluru), Alladi Sitaram, formerly with the Indian Statistical Institute (Bengaluru), Bhanu Das, Tokyo Institute of Technology, formerly with Indian Institute of Astrophysics (Bengaluru), Sugata Ray,  Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (Kolkata) and Sumathi Rao, Harish-Chandra Research Institute (Allahabad). This is the first firm public articulation from the scientific community on the gross injustices that led to Dalit research scholar, Rohith Vemula’s death.

Among the key findings are one, that “the events at the University started with a relatively minor conflict between the Ambedkar Students Association and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). But the Ministry of Human Resource Development escalated the matter by writing five letters, in quick succession, to the University.  This is part of a disturbing trend where the central government has chosen to make partisan interventions in University student politics. 
“Second, the report finds that although the University of Hyderabad is a diverse institution, discrimination on the campus continues and in one of its most pernicious forms is disguised as a concern for "merit." This is part of a larger problem: reservations are not just about quotas, and a meaningful implementation of the reservation policy should include steps to combat discrimination in its myriad forms, and address the educational needs of a diverse student body.”

There are some key Suggestions made in the detailed report that can be read here.

University Administration Responsible for Conflict Leading to Rohith’s Death
The report states that “the University administration must accept a large portion of the responsibility for the current conflict. The University of Hyderabad is a diverse institution and many students on campus hold sharply diverging ideologies. So it is especially important for the administration to be non-partisan in its conduct. The administration must also ensure that members of the University are free to express themselves and pursue their ideas, and it should act as a shield when external political forces attempt to suppress student groups on campus. The administration has repeatedly failed to uphold these principles, from the time of the conflict between the ASA and ABVP students in August 2015. ”

The report goes on to analyse that the university administration further escalated the situation that it failed to keep a non-partisan view on.

“The initial conflict was a relatively minor dispute that could have been re- solved within the University. However, the administration succumbed to external political pressure, from BJP politicians and the central government, and repeatedly took partisan steps against ASA activists, including passing an extraordinary order that banned a set of ASA students from “common places in groups.”

Appa Rao Negligent and Insensitive
“Prof. Appa Rao himself failed to appreciate the significance of Mr. Rohith Vemula distressed letter in December 2015. In March, the admin- istration was complicit, either through its tacit approval or at least through March 28, 2016 inaction, in police brutality against protesting students. Subsequently, the ad- ministration failed to defuse tensions on campus, and instead suspended two dissenting faculty members on flimsy grounds.

“The administration cannot justify its actions by pointing to some hot-headed actions by the dissenting students. Rather, this conflict casts light upon some significant systemic weaknesses, including the unwillingness of academics involved in administration to stand up for principles against pressure from those in power. These issues go beyond individuals. Nevertheless, as the first step in a healing process, we feel that it would help greatly if Prof. Appa Rao Podile were to voluntarily step down from his position as vice chancellor. As the head of the administration, he must accept responsibility for its multiple failures.

“Moreover, it is important for academics to keep in mind that administrative posts are ultimately about service to the community. They are presumably not an end in itself and involve significant personal sacrifice, since they prevent an academic from doing his or her own work. As such, while members of the academic community are sometimes willing to put aside their academic careers to take on administrative responsibilities, this only makes sense if they are able to contribute to the institution in a constructive manner.

Appa Rao Must Go
“After having visited the University, and spoken to its members on both sides of this conflict, we do not see how Prof. Appa Rao can possibly contribute positively to the University in the current polarized atmosphere. His very presence as vice chancellor has led to a sustained conflict that has embarrassed the University. It is clear that Prof. Appa Rao cannot be forced to resign, as he continues to have the support of the central government. However, if his intention is genuinely to contribute to the welfare of the University, it is clear to us that he cannot do so while remaining as vice chancellor.

Withdraw All Cases Against Protesting Students and Faculty
“It is exceedingly important for the University to take steps to withdraw all cases against the protesting students and faculty. As far as we can see, the only actionable event that happened on 22 March pertained to vandalism of property in the vice chancellor’s house. No one was hurt in this process. Moreover, many of the students and faculty who were arrested were clearly not involved in that event. There is no excuse for a continuing police investigation that constitutes constant harassment of these students and faculty. The students who vandalized the vice chancellor’s house can be identified, and counselled in internal University proceedings. 

“It is also important for the University to ensure that action is taken against the policemen who used excessive force on the protesters on March 22. The University should support the cases filed by students and faculty on this issue, and ensure that a strong message is sent, through the courts, that this kind of police misbehaviour will not be tolerated. The dissenting students and faculty have made several grave allegations. Some police officers allegedly even told them that their fundamental rights had been suspended. The University should push for an internal inquiry against these officers, and ensure that they are disciplined if these allegations are found to be true.

Violent Police Officers Must Be Punished
“The behaviour of the police, and particularly the fact that they linked the dissenting students to “supporters of Pakistan” and characterized them as “anti- Hindu” and “pro-Muslim” is a symptom of the communal rot that has infected elements of our law-enforcing agencies. As a society, it is important for us to weed out these tendencies and ensure a sensitive and secular police force.

Universities Must Remain Immune to Govt Pressure
“It is important, in the future, for the University to strongly resist undue pressure from the central government. As the Ministry of Human Resource Development has itself pointed out, it has “no role to play in day to day affairs” of the University. Therefore, intrusive letters from the MHRD should be met with a firm reminder of this fact, and a refusal to share personal information about students or faculty, beyond what is publicly available 

Institute an Anti-Discrimination Cell at HCU
“It is important for the University to have a more comprehensive anti-discrimination cell. We understand that the University has appointed an anti-discrimination officer, and this is consistent with the relevant UGC regulations. But a larger anti-discrimination cell — with representations from students, and various faculty and non-teaching staff, and also representation from outside the University 
— would be significantly more effective. This cell should have the power to investigate complaints of discrimination even against members of the administration and its members should be easily accessible to the University community. Moreover, incoming students should be familiarized with the role of this cell, and the procedure to contact it. 

“The issue of the suspension of faculty members leads to a broader issue of academic freedom in Indian Universities. Some, although not all, academic institutes in India have incorporated the civil service rules of the government of India into their contracts for academic staff members. As we described above, these rules are anachronistic. It is not clear that they are appropriate even for bureaucrats, and they are certainly inappropriate for University teachers. For instance, it is obvious that University teachers should be at the forefront of 
critical-debate in society, but the civil service rules technically prohibit them from criticizing the government. Often, University employees are unaware of these rules. Administrations also do not implement them strictly, except in times of conflict when the precise wording of the rules is suddenly wielded as a weapon against recalcitrant faculty members.

“It is important for the broader academic community in India to formulate a new and appropriate set of guidelines to govern academic employees. These guidelines should make ample allowance for academic freedom and the freedom of speech that is crucial on a University campus. Of course, this change will not be easy, but unless the academic community initiates this debate on service rules, the status quo will continue.

“The broader issues in this conflict pertain to the manner in which the reservation policy is being implemented. The University of Hyderabad, on paper, is an excellent example of a diverse institution that has successfully implemented the letter of the policies on reservation. However this, by itself, does not imply the end of discrimination. Over the past several years, multiple students from Dalit and other minority communities have committed suicide at the University. This points to a pervasive problem that cannot be solved with small administrative tweaks.

“In fact, one of the objectives of a public institution of higher learning such as the University of Hyderabad is to provide educational opportunities for marginalized sections of the society. This is a small step towards combating injustice. So the University must take greater efforts to ensure a healthy social fabric on campus. As some of the University’s own documents note, it is important to have sensitization programs for administrators, faculty members and students. As we mentioned above, it is also important to have meaningful complaint mechanisms against discriminatory behaviour. The University can also help to promote inclusiveness by explicitly supporting social programs that celebrate diversity and encourage the intermingling of students from different backgrounds.

Recommend Structural Changes in Curriculum
“Apart from this, we feel that structural changes in the curriculum may also be beneficial. In fact we are glad that at least some members of the administration indicated that the University has, itself, been pushed to think along these lines.

“One possibility is to redesign both the M.Sc. and the PhD curriculum to allow for greater flexibility for students who come in with different levels of preparation. For instance, the M.Sc. course could be formally extended to three years, instead of two years, with the first year consisting of foundational courses. It is important that these foundational courses be mandated for all students. This is necessary to avoid stigmatization and the creation of a parallel stream for students who are admitted through a quota. Moreover, students who are admitted through the so-called “general category” also have widely varying levels of preparation, and many of them may benefit from these courses. On the other hand, to cater to students who are better prepared, the course structure should allow for the possibility of “drop tests”, where students can demonstrate their preparation and skip the foundational courses. A similar structure can be introduced at the PhD level. It is, of course, true that these flexible structures will require greater resources in teaching and research. But it is necessary for society to make this investment to redress persistent injustice.

“In the absence of such systemic reforms, the reservation policy simply continues discrimination in a hidden form. These shortcomings are not the result of oversight. Rather, efforts at meaningful reform of the reservation policy are confronted by powerful conservative political forces at each step. It is this broader societal contradiction — between those who seek to redress injustice and build a more egalitarian society, and those who have a vested interest in the status quo — that lies at the heart of the conflict at the University of Hyderabad. ”