UoH Alumni Open Letter against the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula, the return of Dr. Appa Rao as UoH’s VC, and the brutal display of state violence in campus.

As alumni of the University of Hyderabad, we observed with dismay the return of Dr. Appa Rao Podile as the Vice-Chancellor of University of Hyderabad (UoH) on March 22. We strongly condemn this provocation that led to the police brutality on campus. The shutdown of the university which has followed is unacceptable and unlawful.

A couple of days ago, a report ranked three departments of the University of Hyderabad among the top 500 university facilities in the world. The education we received at UoH helped us to not only shape our careers, but also to question, critique and analyse concepts such as equality, fraternity and social justice. Upon entering a central university of this size, we were exposed to the sheer diversity of this country. UoH, like other central universities in India, is an amalgam of many languages, cultures, religions and regions.

However, much like the rest of the country, the university campus is a space where systematically oppressive caste structures operate and are institutionally legitimised. Recent events at UoH have left us dismayed and angered at the treatment meted out to peacefully protesting students at the hands of the administration and the police.

Suicides of Dalit students have been recurring in UoH. While such incidents continue unabated across the country, the issue spiralled into a nationwide students’ protest with the untimely death of Dalit scholar and social activist Rohith Vemula on January 17, 2016. Rohith’s suicide note gives us glimpses into the individual that he was — an astute observer of the human condition. His progressive ideas gave hope, especially to marginalised groups, for whom he fought tirelessly. The son of a Dalit mother who makes her living out of a sewing machine, he proudly bore his mother’s identity and fought for the rights of all people regardless of caste, class, gender and sexuality. He was especially vocal about the plight of Dalit students, a 200-million-strong population that has historically been denied fair opportunities to achieve social mobility in Indian society. It is unforgivable that the university administration could not save him.

A grave problem lies, therefore, in the fact that as of March 22, Dr. Appa Rao Podile, who mismanaged the suspension of Rohith and others, leading to his suicide, has resumed the office of the VC after two months of leave. This is highly inappropriate especially given that a non-bailable charge is registered against him under the SC/ST Atrocities Act and a judicial inquiry to determine accountability is still pending.

“We the alumni of University of Hyderabad write to draw attention to the atrocities that the students are experiencing for raising their voices against injustice”

The morning of Rao’s return saw an unprecedented display of violence in the campus. The media reported that the students pelted stones and ransacked the VC’s lodge. But, information from several sources, especially eyewitness accounts from students, faculty and non-teaching staff, contests mainstream media reports. There is ample footage of the police brutally assaulting students with lathis. Some police personnel allegedly threatened to rape students. Even faculty members were not spared.

After the incident, the university has been locked down with no food (14 messes have shut operations), water, electricity (in some parts), and no internet connectivity. This cannot be the reality of a central university, where, as we write this letter, ATM cards linked to student accounts have been blocked barring students from making essential purchases. Students who attempted to cook for their peers were severely beaten up by the police for the absurd crime of ‘cooking in a public place’. The administration has imposed an emergency-like situation in one of India’s biggest universities. Today UoH resembles a surveillance state with students being attacked, and their basic needs like food, water and money being denied to them. As the University and state administration try to starve out its own students by using state machinery and the law to wage war on members of a public institution, the response of the city has been heartening, with residents of Hyderabad cooking and delivering food and water to the students.

In light of these developments, we appeal to all citizens to keep asking the unpleasant questions that Rohith’s suicide has raised; questions about the persistence of caste in our educational institutions, and the present government’s apathy and refusal to hold the university administration accountable. Universities are spaces for understanding our complex social structures where questions are and must be raised against the abuse of power and authoritarianism.

We the undersigned alumni of this university-in-turmoil write to draw attention to the atrocities that the students are experiencing for raising their voices against injustice. We stand with the students and faculty around the country in universities like UoH, JNU, FTII, DU, IIT Madras, University of Allahabad and numerous others that are fighting to uphold the freedoms that are guaranteed by our constitution. We stand with Radhika Vemula and her ongoing courageous struggle for justice against a casteist and patriarchal administration. We demand the immediate and unconditional release of students and faculty members who were ambushed and taken into judicial custody on the morning of March 22. We condemn any kind of violence that tries to suppress freedom of expression and seeks instead to spread fear. Let all students and citizens debate to make India the safest example of a real grassroot democracy. Let them speak for a just world where everyone feels safe to just be.

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