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.