Students insist the spectre of caste discrimination hasn’t gone away, and that redressal mechanisms exist only in name. But university says all is well.
New Delhi: Exactly three years after the suicide of Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula, the University of Hyderabad is back on the boil, this time over the demolition of the ‘Velivada’ within the campus.
The ‘Velivada’ (Dalit Ghetto in Telugu) was a temporary structure that was built after Vemula and four others were suspended from their hostel in late 2015. It featured a tent, which bore images of icons like Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Savitribai Phule and Periyar E.V. Ramasamy. After Vemula’s suicide on 17 January 2016, his bust was installed right next to it, and the place came to be a symbol of Dalit and marginalised resistance.
It was demolished by the university administration last week, leading to renewed calls for the resignation of vice-chancellor Appa Rao Podile.
ThePrint spoke to various students and teachers at the university to find what has changed in the three years since Vemula’s suicide. The majority opinion seems to be “not much”.
The ASA and flashpoint Velivada
A student who wished to remain anonymous alleged that the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA), an organisation that Vemula was a part of, only resurfaces in full force every time his death anniversary comes up.
“The ASA has stopped demanding Appa Rao’s resignation. It isn’t particularly active throughout the year. Only on the anniversary of Rohith’s suicide does it raise these issues,” the student said.
But the ASA was back in the news last week when the university administration demolished the Velivada, which the organisation had rebuilt on 5 January 2019 to commemorate Vemula. This incident turned into a flashpoint for protests, but university spokesperson Vinod Pavarala said the structure was too “in-your-face”.
“The university cannot endorse such structures. The term ‘Velivada’ is symbolic of an ugly past wherein Dalit communities would be ostracised and forced to live in Dalit ghettos,” Pavarala said.
“Why did it have to be called Velivada? Why couldn’t they name it the ‘Ambedkar structure’? They surely cannot expect the university to endorse a structure called Velivada.”
Redressal mechanisms only in name
Vemula’s death had given rise to a nationwide debate over caste discrimination on university campuses, but at his own university, the spark seemed to die out soon enough. A student at the university told ThePrint there were protests and discussions for a few months after Vemula’s death, but things went back to square one soon enough.
“I haven’t seen a drastic change in anyone’s attitude towards caste or caste-based discrimination. No workshops or sensitisation programmes have been conducted,” said the student, who did not wish to be identified.
The university administration has put certain in place structures to ensure there is a redressal mechanism in cases of discrimination. However, the efficacy of these mechanisms is questionable.
“For the first time in the history of the university, an anti-discrimination officer and an equal opportunity cell has been put in place. These are all post-Rohith interventions,” said a professor, who also wished to remain anonymous.
“These definitely carry symbolic importance, but whether or not they are fulfilling their responsibilities can be contested. Institutions are not particularly quick-paced at dealing with crisis situations such as these.”
However, another student said while there may be some structures in place, they are hardly publicised.
“The provisions in cases of sexual harassment and ragging are quite pronounced and well-publicised, but that is not the case with anti-caste discrimination provisions,” this student said.
However, Pavarala, who had headed the committee that investigated the suicide of another Dalit student, Senthil Kumar, in 2008, said the university is the victim of incorrect perception.
“I have been a professor in the university for 22 years, and the campus has always been extremely aware of issues pertaining to caste and human rights. An image has been created that the university has heightened caste discrimination, and that is very unfortunate,” Pavarala said.
The UGC had laid down specific guidelines in 2011 and again in 2013, which universities are required to follow to address caste-based discrimination. Pavarala said almost all the UGC recommendations, as well the recommendations put forward by the committee he chaired in 2008, have been implemented by the university.
“Every department has a grievance redressal committee, which is meant to be the first source of redressal in cases of discrimination. If the complainant is not satisfied, they can go to the school-level redressal cell, and if there is still any discontent, they can approach the university redressal cell,” he said.
However, Pavarala clarified that none of these cells are meant to specifically address caste-based discrimination.
‘Dalits face plenty of hurdles’
Despite the university’s insistence that everything is in place to combat caste-based discrimination, members of the ASA say Dalit students continue to face plenty of hurdles.
“In some instances, the aggrieved – a victim of caste discrimination – has complained to the authorities, only to be told to take back their complaint,” Dontha Prashanth, former president of the organisation and one of the students who was suspended along with Vemula in 2016, told ThePrint.
Sreeja Vasphavi, another ASA member, recalls the time she was humiliated by a professor during her postgraduate studies.
“She never engaged with me, she never even looked at me while taking the class. I decided to not take her course again,” she said.
“This one time, my bag was in the classroom and I thought the class had dispersed, so I entered the classroom. The professor yelled at me in front of everyone and said ‘You people do everything wrong and then say sorry’. The manner in which she said ‘you people’ was extremely shameful.”
But Sreeja doesn’t want to go to the authorities with her complaint.
“We don’t find any functioning SC/ST Cell for us to take our complaints to. There are no trustworthy channels for us to voice our experiences,” she alleged.
On his part, Pavarala dismissed all allegations of miscarriage of justice when it came to the issue of caste discrimination at the university.
“I would like students to show me a single major incident of caste discrimination in the last three years that the university hasn’t dealt with effectively. Instead of working with the university, certain organisations are constantly invoking symbols of caste discrimination. This leaves little room for a productive conversation,” he said.
“The anti-discriminatory officer hasn’t received too many complaints in the past three years, barring one or two.”