Yesterday, the University of Hyderabad served suspension notices to two of its faculty members: KY Ratnam and Tathagata Sengupta. Both Ratnam and Sengupta were arrested on 22 March this year during a protest outside the residence of Appa Rao Podile, the vice chancellor of the university. That day, Podile, who had been on leave since a week after the death of the Dalit PhD student Rohith Vemula, returned to the campus and resumed his post. Vemula was a member of the Ambedkar Students Association, an anti-caste student political group. The ASA and its affiliates held Podile and the university's oppressive casteist mandate responsible for Vemula's death. Several student groups protested Podile's return, congregating outside his residence and demanding an audience with him.
In his May 2016 cover story, 'From Shadows to the Stars,' Praveen Donthi reported on how the ASA came to be one of the most potent political forces on the university campus, as well as the events surrounding Vemula's suicide. In this excerpt from the piece, Donthi recounts the events of 22 March, and how the mainstream media's coverage of the incident left out essential aspects of the students' protest.
On 24 January, a week after Vemula’s death, the University of Hyderabad announced that Appa Rao Podile had gone on leave, with his replacement officer, Vipin Srivastava, citing “personal reasons” for the departure. It was a small sign that the university was willing to try and cool tempers. But since Srivastava had been part of the committee that punished the Dalit students, and had been the head of the school of physics when Senthil Kumar committed suicide in 2008, he too was an unacceptable interlocutor in the eyes of much of the student body.
In the face of protests at the end of that week, Srivastava also went on leave, and another senior professor, M Periasamy, took up the role. Periasamy, the first OBC individual to hold the post, adopted a far more thoughtful approach than Podile had, making a clear effort to address students’ concerns, and assuring the media that some of their demands could be met. After months of exhausting protests, the students saw some hope of relief.
That hope was shortlived. On the morning of 22 March, even as dialogue with Periasamy was underway, the vice chancellor’s secretariat sent out a one-line email to staff and students, which read: “Prof Appa Rao Podile resumed the charge in the forenoon of March 22, 2016.” Students were aghast. Just when it seemed there could be some resolution, they would once again have to deal with a man who they believed carried a toxic bias against Dalits.