When Millennium-Plaque Awardee Appa Rao Podile Clashed With Dalit Students at the University of Hyderabad

Appa Rao Podile, vice chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, received the Millenium Plaque of Honour from Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 3 January 2017. {{name}}
05 January, 2017

On 3 January 2017, the Indian Science Congress Association awarded the Millennium Plaque of Honour to Appa Rao Podile, the vice chancellor of the University of Hyderabad. The Millennium Plaque of Honour is awarded to two eminent scientists every year along with a cash award of Rs 20,000. Podile received the award from Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the inaugural session of the one-hundred-fourth annual meeting of the ISCA in Tirupati, reportedly for his contribution in the fields of bio-technology and higher education. Threestudents of the University of Hyderabad, Dontha Prashanth, Seshu Chemudugunta and Vijay Pedapudi, have reportedly released a statement condemning the award. The students alleged that Podile is a “stooge” of the Bharatiya Janata Party, “a proven plagiarist,” and a “disgrace to the scientific community.”

In January 2016, the University of Hyderabad had witnessed a month of protests against the institution’s administration decided to bar five Dalit students from using its hostels and public spaces. On 14 January, the mess staff of the university, rallied by Podile, threatened to shut down the campus messes if the protests continued. Three days later, Rohith Vemula, one of the five students who were barred, committed suicide. Protests erupted in the university and across the country. Podile was later named in a complaint lodged by the four other students, under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989.

In his May 2016 cover story, “From Shadows to the Stars, Praveen Donthi, a staff writer at The Caravan, reported on students politics at the University of Hyderabad and the rise of the Ambedkar Students Association, the Ambedkarite student political party to which Vemula belonged.  In the following extract from the story, Donthi recounts Podile’s  first serious clash with the Dalit students on campus, over the mess payment system, which began after he took over as the chief warden in 2011.

Appa Rao Podile's most serious clash with Dalit students in the past occurred in the early 2000s, when he held the position of the university’s chief warden, with the responsibility of overseeing all the campus hostels. The Ambedkar Students Association, or ASA, at the time, focussed primarily on helping Dalits with administrative tasks, such as completing admission procedures and procuring fellowships. The group also sought to prevent the ragging of Dalit students, and strove to make the university environment more welcoming to them in general. Its battle with Podile was its first major crisis, which threatened its existence. But it emerged with greater resolve, and grew into the dominant political force on campus.

The ASA had taken shape in April 1994, a few years after the VP Singh government implemented the Mandal Commission’s recommendation for 27-percent reservation for other-backward-class, or OBC, individuals in government jobs. The national political atmosphere was charged with caste-related rhetoric, as dominant-caste groups campaigned aggressively against the move.

In Andhra Pradesh, the shadow of two massacres loomed over the state. On 17 July 1985, a group of Kamma men murdered six Dalit men and raped three Dalit women in Karamchedu, a village in Prakasam district. Six years later, on 6 August 1991, a group of men from the dominant Reddy caste hacked eight Dalit men to death in Chundur village in Guntur district, before discarding their bodies in gunny bags in a canal. The Karamchedu massacre occurred when the state was ruled by the Kamma-dominated Telugu Desam Party, and the Chundur massacre while the Reddy-dominated Congress was in power. Some attributed these violent acts to new political developments. “The younger generation has started rejecting the social and political subordination to the forward castes,” the human rights activist K Balagopal wrote inEconomic and Political Weekly. “It is this socially and politically effective advancement … that the forward castes find so intolerable, leading to assaults such as Karamchedu and Chundur.”

Around this time, in 1990, a group of students at the University of Hyderabad formed the Progressive Students Forum, or the PSF, which brought together radical Marxist and Dalit students to represent the marginalised sections of society. “We were just 60, 70 of us,” K Satyanarayana, the first convenor of the PSF, now an associate professor at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad, told me. “We had a long battle to even put up posters. We tried to counter anti-reservation protests with posters and pamphlets.”

Reservations had helped Dalits enter academic institutions, but the environment they encountered within them was far from welcoming—if anything, reservations had increased casteist hostility. Faculty discriminated against students in admission interviews even when they had done well in the written entrance exams. The faculty “used to openly make statements like ‘The horses and donkeys can’t be tied together,’” P Rajasekhar, a PSF member, now a senior professor at the Acharya Nagarjuna University in Guntur, told me.

This antipathy affected the students’ performance. “Most Dalit students used to drop out after two, three months,” Rajasekhar said. “The faculty blamed the students for being inadequate. The PSF raised questions. ‘If 90 percent Dalits are dropping out, it is the failure of the institution and the faculty. Is the university only for the public school educated, English-speaking students? Have you become only a certifying agency?’ I filed a case in the high court asking them to implement SC/ST Cell in the university.” Today, the cell is in place, but is overseen by the assistant registrar, and so lacks the autonomy it needs to function effectively.

Though the PSF involved itself in caste-related issues, many Dalit students began to feel the need for a separate organisation. The PSF was under heavy state surveillance because prominent Naxal ideologues, such as Varavara Rao, and the poet Gummadi Vittal Rao, or Gaddar, supported it. “Once they took us to the police station for questioning,” Rajasekhar told me. “That made me think. The participation is mostly by Dalits. Why should we get victimised? Dalit students understand Ambedkar, so I thought of starting an organisation where Ambedkar would be central.”

Many leftists opposed the move. “Those were the days when caste was not openly discussed on campuses,” Rajasekhar said. “Even if it was discussed, it was done within the Left perspective. The Left-oriented teachers showed their opposition through their disagreement, and other teachers used to fill VC’s ears against us.”

But the Dalit students persevered, and, on 14 April 1994, the ASA came into existence: an organisation exclusively dedicated to promoting the welfare of Dalit students. The challenges before the founders were considerable. “Nobody was willing to come out with the Dalit identity openly,” Rajasekhar said. “And the Dalit students were in need of an association for representation.” He recounted that the first pamphlet he wrote after the formation of the ASA was called “Social consciousness comes from the consciousness of the downtrodden.” “I wanted the students to understand Ambedkar on par with Marx,” he said.

To Dalit students, life on the campus was like walking through a minefield. The ASA felt the need to overcompensate against the biases people held against Dalits. “We discouraged drinking on campus,” Rajasekhar said. “We never encouraged such things that were considered part of Dalit culture as perceived by the dominant-caste society.” This wariness extended to opposing other practices that they felt were considered taboo, such as the “screening of porn films in hostels.” The rules weren’t intended to foster “a strict disciplinarian-type approach,” Rajasekhar told me, “but we were careful because the Dalit leaders and activists are always tarnished through cultural stereotypes that society believes are true.”

Nevertheless, the students found that stereotypes persisted. Among the most pernicious was the idea that Dalit students were violent. “They branded us as the most violent people, though everybody indulged in violence,” Rajasekhar said. “In Hyderabad University, everything is tolerated, but not violence. But the Dalit students coming from rural areas, unable to articulate or unable to figure out the discriminating ways of the elites, displayed small acts of physical aggression.”

One of the most significant issues the ASA focussed on was that of Dalit students’ access to food. Many of the students obtained regular access to food for the first time only after they arrived at the university. To be allowed to eat in their hostel mess, students had to hold a mess card and settle bills every month. Dalit students often relied on fellowships to pay a part of these dues. “The differential amount between the scholarship and the mess bill had to be paid by the students,” Kali Chittibabu, a former ASA member and now a professor in the school of social sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, in Delhi, told me. “The defaulters were mostly Dalits.”

Defaulters would have their mess cards cancelled. Those who didn’t have the cards “used to wait for the mess to get over and eat the leftover food,” Gummadi Prabhakar, a senior ASA leader told me. “They used to get the leftover dal and make rice in their friends’ rooms. Many of them are now professors.” Often, senior Dalit students would contribute money to the ASA to help out students with mess card problems. “The ASA tried its best to make sure that nobody’s mess card was discontinued,” Prabhakar said.

To deal more effectively with some of these mess-related troubles, ASA members would volunteer as mess secretaries, who were responsible for running them. But allegations of corruption began to be levelled against some of these individuals. ASA students I spoke to agreed that some of the group’s students did make money from their positions, but that Dalits were unfairly singled out. “Corruption is nobody’s exclusive prerogative,” Satyanarayana, who was a student till 1996, told me. KY Ratnam, a Dalit professor at the university, who was a warden in the early 2000s, told me of an instance where a dominant-caste student was involved in misappropriating a sum of Rs 60,000. “The vendors will offer money on their own,” Satyanarayana said. “But a stereotype was created that Dalits were corrupt.”

Dalit mess secretaries strove to help students with their bills, aided by a system whereby most students paid their bills every month, while those with financial hardships paid them at the end of each semester, usually the time when scholarships were disbursed. But systems such as these were dependent on the whims of individuals in power, which became clear when Dalits were faced with someone who brought prejudice, rather than empathy, to their job.

Appa Rao Podile was one such individual. B Nageswara Rao, who was a PhD student then and is now an assistant professor at the university, told me that after assuming charge as chief warden in 2011, Podile discontinued the flexible payment system. “He said the chief warden’s office didn’t have funds,” Nageswara said.

Then, claiming that he wanted to stem corruption, Podile moved to privatise the messes, overruling opposition from many students. With the help of a Dalit professor, Bellamkonda Raja Shekhar, Podile devised a purchase system whereby supplies would all be procured from a single vendor. “They said the prices will come down,” Ratnam told me. “But instead, the cost went up, and the bill almost doubled. When I protested, they said I was encouraging corruption.”

Ratnam, who, as warden, served under Podile, did not unthinkingly obey his superior’s orders. As a Dalit himself, he understood the students’ concerns. “Once, during a hostel feast in 2002, some dominant-caste students accused the mess secretary, Istharla Krishna Rao, of serving beef in the name of mutton,” Chittibabu told me. After a clash between Dalit and dominant-caste students over the issue, the latter “complained to Ratnam, who was the warden. But he didn’t punish them.” Soon after, Podile stripped him of his financial powers. “A professor junior to him was given the power to issue cheques,” Chittibabu said. Ratnam was put “in charge of sanitation and gardening,” Chittibabu added—an assignment that Dalits interpreted as a casteist affront, since subordinated castes have traditionally been forced into sanitation work.

The ASA and the university’s association of scheduled caste and scheduled tribe employees submitted a memorandum to the vice-chancellor and to Podile, asking that the decision be revoked. At an ensuing meeting, recalled Nageswara, who was present, Podile said, “This is an administration issue. I know what to do. You are crossing your limits. You are questioning things not under your purview.” According to Nageswara, Podile then “provoked us by saying that the reserved category students are bringing down the standards of the university”—one of the most commonly deployed insults against Dalits. An anonymous piece on the news website The Wire, by one of the Dalit students involved, recounted that Podile asked his security guards to throw the students out. “A scuffle broke out and some glass got shattered,” the piece claimed. People who were present told me that, in the melee, students slapped both Podile and Raja Shekhar.

Seven students were taken to a police station. They sought help from prominent leaders, including “Bandaru Dattatreya, who was then a minister in the NDA government,” Nageswara said. According to him, not only was Dattatreya unsupportive, “he said that we were Naxalites and he put a lot of pressure on the police to punish us.” He recounted that a sub-inspector told him that Dattatreya had been calling his superior “every couple of hours.” According to The Wire’s contributor, Podile managed to extract an apology from one student, which “lost the case for the students. The young student who had been allegedly lured into handing in an apology attempted suicide by consuming poison. He was hospitalised for 15 days but survived the attempt.”

Ten students were expelled at first. But the punishment was reduced to a two-year suspension after the students, with the help of the Dalit lawyer Bojja Tarakam, moved the high court. When asked why only Dalit students had been punished, the then vice chancellor responded, “I am not casteist. Please don’t give this a casteist slant. The assaulted warden also belongs to the SC community.” (This year, Smriti Irani deployed a similar defence in Rohith Vemula’s case, telling the media that a Dalit had headed the committee that punished the students. This was a lie. The faculty member she meant, Prakash Babu, had only been co-opted as a member of the committee, which was headed by Vipin Srivastava, a professor of physics.)

The rusticated students used the two years of their suspension for fieldwork. When they returned to the university, Podile used his influence on the executive council to have their punishment extended. “They kept postponing our admission and we served one-and-a-half years’ more punishment than the court had ordered,” Nageswara, who is now an assistant professor in the university’s economics department, told me. “We told them, ‘We will either become radicals or commit suicide because we can’t go back, as our parents have expectations.’” With support from a faculty member, they were able to return to the university.

The students were determined not to let their careers derail. Many of them proudly told me that, out of the ten students who were rusticated in 2002, eight are professors at various universities, one works with a multinational company in Hyderabad and one works with an NGO in the city. As Vulli Dhanaraju, one of those who was rusticated, said, “We wouldn’t have been here if we were not serious about studying.”