Rohith Vemula solidarity rally in Kerala, March 7, 2016. Wikicommons/ Zuhairali. Some rights reserved.Indian politics in 2016 has been marked by a rise of student protests and leading Indian universities have become battlegrounds for national politics. The ruling nationalist party has enabled Hindu nationalist activists to gain control over student politics. The label ‘anti-national’ has been used to curb politically articulate students who publicly question issues that are sensitive to the current government in Delhi.
More alarmingly, recent police violence and the imprisonment of students and teachers in Hyderabad Central University, South India, has escalated the politics of exclusion that oppresses Dalits and other minorities. Reports and videos appearing on social media showed premises normally characterised by sober academic activities overtaken by violence and turmoil. These violent developments, upon investigation, seem to be the result of coordinated action between Hindu nationalist students, the police and high-ranking university administrators.
This reflects a wider critical challenge for institutions of higher education in the world’s largest democracy. So, how is it that the power of Hindu nationalism can intensify the politics of caste-based exclusion in this way, turning an academic campus into something like a war zone?
The violence in Hyderabad University on 22 March is an instance of local abuse of power. The vice-chancellor, Appa Rao Podile, had been on leave after the suicide of a Dalit doctoral student, Rohith Vemula, on 17 January. There have been allegations that he was partly responsible for the trauma that led to the suicide, including the discontinuing of Vemula's monthly stipend in July 2015 and suspension in December 2015. Rohith Vemula was a leader of the Ambedkar Student Association (ASA) on campus. He and four other ASA members had lodged a criticism of the Hindu nationalist student group for disrupting their events. Further problems emerged when the Vemula challenged the death penalty at the time (July 2015) when the Indian government was presiding over the execution of the accused in the Bombay bombings, Yakub Memon.
But in the political controversy that erupted after Rohith Vemula’s suicide it became publicly known that members of the central government in New Delhi had sent up to five letters to ensure that the Hyderabad Central University suspended the five Dalit students.
A number of Dalit students have committed suicide due to caste-based discrimination in institutions of higher education across India, but that of Rohith Vemula shocked the country like never before. Rohith Vemula's suicide told a tragic story about how a student from a very poor economic background decided to end his life after enduring financial and political problems in the university. But it also exposed a direct link between the central government and his suspension from university. This prompted a rare political debate.
Leading members of the Indian opposition have publicly condemned this treatment of Rohith Vemula and the political interference in Hyderabad University. Finally, the Education Minister in the BJP government had to address the case in India’s Parliament on 25 February. It is worth noting that a student’s suicide can become a hot topic at this political level, and yet if anything the politics of exclusion has intensified since then, in a situation where ruling Hindu nationalists appear determined to cooperate with local strongmen and right wing students.
The violent battle on 22 March in Hyderabad University seems part of an ongoing coordinated action to affirm dominance and power. Some students protested when the controversial vice-chancellor suddenly returned, only to face a brutal clampdown by police and right wing activists. During the day, twenty-five students were collected from the large campus and sent to prison along with two teachers. While the campus was full of police personnel, basic infrastructure and services such as electricity, food, internet, ATMs were shut down and news media and external food deliveries were prevented access to campus. It was like an enclosed fortress.
Dalit and Muslim students were both targeted by the police. However, the case has been met with a certain apathy from the news media and the political establishment, compared to the numerous other controversies relating to student politics across India in the past couple of months. On Tuesday, 29 March, the students and teachers were released on condition that they report regularly at the police station, as if they remain criminal suspects.
Returning to a congenial work environment is a challenge in the light of these exceptional tensions and external interference in university life and governance. More broadly, this imprisonment has raised new questions about prejudice, freedom of speech and caste-based exclusion in higher education in India today.
Hindu nationalism has a long history, but the last couple of months have witnessed a relentless campaign to gain control over higher educational institutions. The space for dissent in the world’s largest democracy has shrunk considerably, with the label “anti-national” regularly carted out to criminalise student protests. This happened in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (despite the top academic ranking and robust student activism of 'India's Berkeley') after its left wing student leaders criticised India’s policies in Kashmir. However, the event of 22 March in Hyderabad University has that extra element of caste-based discrimination, which connects with the regional history in the new southern state of Telangana that was previously part of Andhra Pradesh.
This part of India has a history of brutal caste massacres committed by traditionally dominating landowning castes, including the killings of six Dalits in the village of Karamchedu in 1985 and another nine Dalits in Chunduru village by locally dominant castes in 1991. Many of the massacres have been carried out “to teach the Dalits a lesson” so that they do not oppose local landowners.
The history of caste brutality in the then Andhra Pradesh provided the background for activists who travelled from Andhra Pradesh to South Africa to attend the World Conference against Racism in 2001. These activists wanted caste-based discrimination as part of the problem of racism, intolerance and human rights law to be internationally recognised. Instead, the Indian government rejected any comparison of caste and race in international human rights law, in order to avoid any global scrutiny of caste discrimination in India.
It is a long way from villages and landowners to a leading university where students and teachers are dedicated to teaching, reading, writing and ongoing debates. Yet, the violent restriction of these student protests again viciously remind Dalits to remain silent or face the consequences meted out by local power holders. The transformation of an academic space into political turmoil does in any case mark a significant deterioration in India’s democracy.
The political targeting of institutions of higher education has become a trademark of current Hindu nationalism, but with its dramatic enforcement of political control on an Indian campus it has reached a new stage. How will India’s democracy and rule of law fare in the light of such deepening antagonisms?