Kashmir-related protests and discussions stopped at the University of Hyderabad

Students held a panel discussion on Article 370 outside a university auditorium after the permission to hold it inside was revoked. Midhun Mohan
24 August, 2019

On 5 August, the Rajya Sabha passed the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, splitting the state into two union territories. The government also effectively revoked Article 370, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir. In the aftermath of this, students at the University of Hyderabad attempted to organise protests and public discussions on the government’s moves in Kashmir. But the university prohibited protests and revoked permission for a panel discussion related to Kashmir. The police and the Rapid Action Force were also deployed on campus to prevent protests. Students and faculty I spoke to viewed this as an attempt to curb dissent and the freedom of expression of the student communities.

The day the reorganisation was announced, eight student organisations at UoH came together to protest the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir and the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status under Article 370. They also planned to burn an effigy of the home minister Amit Shah. The organisations included the Students Federation of India, Ambedkar Students Association, Muslim Students Federation, Dalit Student Union, All India Students Association, Students Islamic Organisation and the Jammu & Kashmir Students Association. The protest was scheduled to begin at 6.30 pm. Students gathered in large numbers at South Shopping Complex, a shopping space inside the university.

Soon after, a heavy strength of the police and the RAF entered the university, forced the students to disperse, and announced a notice issued by P Sardar Singh, the registrar of UoH. The notice was dated 5 August and published on the university website. It told students that the police had imposed Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure in Cyberadabad, which prohibits an assembly of five or more people. “It is to inform that all the protests and agitations are prohibited in UOH campus with immediate effect,” the university order said.

The same day, the police also dispersed a group of students from Jammu and Kashmir from the North Shopping Complex, another public place inside the university. The students had gathered to discuss the situation in Kashmir. Hadif Nisar, a Kashmiri student who is pursuing a masters in communication and is the president of the Jammu and Kashmir Students Association, was present at the spot when the police arrived. “Many of us were in a panic, there was a communication blockade,” Nisar said. “Many of us couldn’t contact our parents. So as president, I was addressing their problem, whether monetary or psychological. While we were discussing, the police came in and asked us to disperse saying that 144 has been imposed on campus, please disperse otherwise we will arrest you. Later, when the protest was to take place, the police again came in, disrupted the protest, and threatened the students. It was a complete attack on students’ democratic right to assemble in campus or register their dissent against the abrogation of [Article] 370.”

However, the next day, the Live Mint reported a statement from the Cyberabad commissionerate contradicting the university’s notice. “Section 144 is not imposed in Cyberabad limits as the situation is normal,” the statement said. On 9 August, the university issued another order stating that the 5 August order prohibiting protests and agitations on campus “stands withdrawn with immediate effect.”

But a few days later, the university revoked the permission for a discussion on Kashmir. The Social Science Forum, a student group from the social-science department, and Abhiyan, a cultural organisation, had organised a panel discussion with five faculty members, scheduled for 13 August. The discussion was titled “Kashmir: 370 and beyond.” Students associated with the Social Science Forum told me that on 8 August, Sarat Jyotsna, the dean of humanities, had given them permission to use the humanities auditorium for the discussion. However, students said that 45 minutes before the program was scheduled to begin, the dean cancelled the permission for the auditorium without any explanation. The police and RAF also appeared at the event site. Students responded by organising the talk right outside the auditorium. They said the police tried to intervene and stop the discussion by showing the cancelled permission letter.

“We have gone there as speakers,” G Vijay, an associate professor in economics at UoH and a member of the panel discussion, said. “And there was the police. The administration should itself come and communicate if at all they wanted to cancel the program. What they [the police] showed us was the cancelled permission letter for the auditorium. The program was not cancelled.” Despite the police presence, the students persisted with help from some teachers and the discussion continued outside the auditorium. The police remained present until the end of the panel discussion.

Soon after, a video went viral on campus. In the video, students can be seen arguing with Jyotsna over the permission to hold the discussion in the auditorium. “Ma’am, tell us the reason to stop the debate,” the students asked. “No reason,” she replied, and added, “Go outside of university.”

The university spokesperson, Vinod Pavarala, told me that the permission was revoked because the organisers misrepresented the topic. The subject of the panel discussion in the permission document was different from the program poster circulated on the campus. The request form submitted by the students, which I accessed, stated “Democracy and Dissent” as the topic, whereas the publicly advertised title was “Kashmir: 370 and Beyond.”

Pavarala added that the university had issued a circular in July 2016 banning public talks and protests in common areas. The circular said that only “in-house meetings”—referring to those conducted in the university’s lecture halls and auditoriums—will be allowed. It also made it mandatory for students to seek permission for such events. Pavarala refused to comment further on the university restricting student discussions. However, in a statement to the Times of India, he had said, “The university will continue to be open to debates and dialogues within the framework of some institutional norms. We are fully in favour of fostering a climate of debate and discussion on campus.”

I also spoke to Rajiv Velicheti, an associate professor of theatre arts at the university. “There is some controversy regarding whether there was Section 144,” he said. “The police announced Section 144. It seems the commissioner has given a statement refusing Section 144 in the Cyberabad area. So we don’t know what game the police are playing. Whatever the police are doing, the question is why the police are there for every event when the whole thing is organised as a university program. The university should not be encouraging the police in what they are doing now.”

Apart from discussions on Kashmir, other student events have also been restricted. On 20 August, the All India Students Association, or AISA, organised a screening of the filmmaker Anand Patwardhan's 1992 award-winning documentary Ram ke Naam, or “In the Name of Ram.”The documentary chronicles the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and the movement to build a Ram temple in its place. According to a press statement released by the university, P Venkata Rao, the dean of social sciences, denied students permission to hold the screening in the New Seminar Hall on the grounds that “school spaces cannot be given for events by student organisations.” The students then tried to hold the screening in a classroom, but the police came and stopped them. Students said that the police confiscated a laptop and briefly detained six students, including SFI’s former students-union secretary Arif Ahammad. The students then blocked the main gate of the university in protest. The Telangana Police, however, denied detaining the six students. They told the Times of India that they interfered following an oral complaint from the university registrar.

“We were informed that students were screening a film despite authorities denying permission,” R Srinivas, the inspector of Gachibowli police station told the paper. “When we reached the spot and seized their laptops, they argued. We did not detain them, as when we suggested they accompany us to the police station while we check the content of the laptop, they agreed.” The students returned to the campus by evening. Thereafter, members of the SFI and AISA marched together to the North Shopping Complex and burned the effigy of the university vice-chancellor, Appa Rao Podile.

“It gives the university no joy to see our students being detained by the police, even if temporarily, as in most cases we would not like to invite the police to resolve issues with our own university community, especially students,” the university’s press statement added. “It is only under extreme provocation and apprehension of disturbance to peace on campus that the administration has had to resort to calling the police. We would like to emphasize that calling the police for resolving issues within the campus is not normal University policy.”

“Campuses in India are becoming increasingly authoritarian, which is a negation of every democratic structure,” G Haragopal, a human-rights activist and the former dean of social science at the UoH, told me. Haragopal is currently a visiting professor at the National Law School of India University in Bangalore. “The authoritarian culture of the university is the result of a deep economic crisis and also a cultural crisis,” he said. “But it is also a result of the increasing democratic consciousness of the people. The students’ community is becoming more conscious of its dignity, its freedom. I think the dismantling of institutions is part of the model of development and also incapability of governance.” Haragopal added that those who are ruling the country have lost the confidence to govern and are therefore eroding institutions. “But students at the same time are increasingly asserting and this assertion will release democratic forces,” he said. “As things stand today, we are in a critical state.”