The shopping complex at the University of Hyderabad that used to be a relaxed space for swapping stories after holidays and sharing chai (tea) over debates, has turned into a point of focus of late. With security personnel, police and media converging around the Ambedkar Students' Association (ASA)-erected Dalit ghetto, and students jostling to get the best view of the speaker on stage, especially when it was a Rahul Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal, it's a far cry from the sort of platform for a healthy exchange of ideas. The loudspeaker on the sound system blares for many hours a day and the audience shrinks or swells based on who the speaker is and how far away they have come from.
On Monday, joining in were several people from outside the university, in response to the "Chalo HCU" protest march call from the joint action committee, with tension soaring up a notch or five. With solidarity came a platform ready to express personal views, and with personal views came many strong and often noxious grievances against the "murderers" of PhD student Rohith Vemula. The hatred has been palpable on stage and off it. And posters bearing "Missing" and "Wanted" under vice-chancellor Appa Rao Podile's caricature-ish sketch have been pasted everywhere.
The emotions within the shopping complex are mixed, though. Mingling with the anger is anxiety in some and boredom in some more, especially those watching from the sidelines. Losing precious semester time and a sense of "status quo prolonging without any concrete development", as one student points out, has left many feeling restless. "The uncertainty is tiring," shares another.
Fatigue settles over the students on hunger strike with a few from the second batch catching on some much needed sleep, and others holding fort in the meanwhile.
"At least thrice a day, our blood pressure etc are checked. We carry on sitting here and shouting slogans until we are too weak and taken away to the health centre," shares Prameela KP, PhD scholar from the Centre for Women's Studies who has been on hunger strike since Sunday.
She is among those replacing the first batch, some of whom were reportedly hospitalised after their health deteriorated. Although the administration is desperately hoping for a breakthrough to come about by January 27, the students are firm about not budging till all the demands are met.
Prameela hands over a photocopied sheet of the list, which reiterates the sacking of the vice chancellor, resignations and arrests of Union labour minister, Bandaru Dattatreya and human resources development (HRD) minister Smriti Irani.
"We are prepared to continue the protests indefinitely till then," says Prameela, adding that a protest march will also be carried out at the People's Plaza on Republic Day; some of the action shifting outside the university. "We have called for a national bandh on 27th, appealing to students from universities across India to participate in the bandh."
In the meanwhile, a PhD scholar from the theatre arts department, Osman VK, put up an impromptu performance, gathering another six students for a play, "with an anti-brahmanical theme and featuring Dalit issues."
Some of his friends from various other disciplines painted their faces, "as a mark of protest. This is our way of showing solidarity," shares Jebin Thomas, a student from the political science department. "Beliefs are coloured," points out Suraj SV, an MPhil student of Philosophy, sporting painted cheeks and forehead in green, black and yellow. "Our identity is related closely to these beliefs. Through colour we want to express those dark areas of our own conscience that we are not aware of."
Several students of fine arts have been sketching relentlessly over the last four days, doing up portraits of Rohith or depicting the impact of his death and using the canvas as an outlet for their own emotions. Says professor Stanley Suresh from Jawaharlal Nehru Architecture and Fine Arts university, putting his brushes and paints away for the day, "I've spent the last four days making a painting in acrylic on canvas showing Rohith and all that he stood for. Tomorrow onwards, I'll make some more pictures in water colour and pencil. Not only artists and fine arts students, but many others have sketched and painted too," he says, showing a row of artworks strewn on a string along one side of the shopping complex.
Amidst heartfelt poetry rendered in calligraphy and scores of different versions of Rohith's Facebook picture, which is now a recognisable face across the country, is also a blue cloth noose suspended from a tree. It's a grim reminder of the tragedy, of the loss of a fellow student, regardless of the reasons behind the loss.
But amid all the many different colours of protests, blares loud on the sound system for several hours a day the unchanging leitmotif of the Dalit identity.