As interim vice-chancellor of University of Hyderabad, Vipin Srivastava is making every attempt to bring back normalcy.
Feeling the burden of responsibility
After the V-C of University of Hyderabad, Apparao Podile, announced that he was going on indefinite leave from January 24 , it's been a tough week for the interim V-C, Vipin Srivastava, what with the collective rage of the students shifting onto him. By virtue of being the senior most professor, going by the statutes, Srivastava has taken charge as acting V-C in the absence of the V-C a few times in the past but this is the first time that security had to be put up outside his home on campus. With the amount of unrest and disturbance on campus and off, following the student protests after PhD scholar Rohith Vemula's suicide, Srivastava confesses to "feeling the burden of responsibility".
"I've been appealing to them to lift the siege on the administrative office and the academic buildings. Salaries of Class IV employees need to be disbursed. All the administrative work is badly affected. I've also been writing to the staff who have submitted their resignations to reconsider. But nothing concrete has come about so far," he says. The attempts he's made to initiate a dialogue with the "estranged students" to resolve the situation has only backfired with them taking on the same aggressive approach as they did with Apparao earlier.
Srivastava says, "My responsibility of taking charge as the interim V-C should not be mixed with my role as the executive council sub-committee head. It is by statutes and protocol that I have assumed the responsibility of interim V-C since I happen to be the senior-most professor."
I had detailed conversations about the case
Recalling the sequence of events from August 2015, he shares, "In August 2015, there was a prima facie case that ABVP leader Susheel Kumar was allegedly roughed up by about 30-40 students. The proctorial board recommended that the students involved in leading this group had to be suspended for six months. There were protests following this and the then V-C, RP Sharma, revoked the suspension eventually."
In September, Apparo Podile joined as the V-C, and the action taken report by the proctorial board had to be submitted to the court by November 19. It was resolved in a meeting a day before that, that an executive council sub-committee would be formed to look into it, which was headed by Srivastava.
"I tried to understand the situation over the weekend following this after detailed conversations with the doctor, the police, the security and also Sharma. We had to submit a report to the court finally by November 25. We essentially endorsed the recommendations of the proctorial board in the report submitted to the V-C on November 24, which involved suspension of the students. The full executive council decided in its collective wisdom that suspension of the students would stop their fellowships too and that would not help matters in any way. So instead, it was recommended that their fellowships should not be stopped and that they should be allowed in their departments, the library, to attend seminars and the likes. However, we felt that they should not stay in their hostels on campus and were barred from participating in student elections. Their fellowships came with house rent allowance that could help them find accommodation just outside the campus. The idea was to have them focus only on their work and complete their PhDs."
When the order was given, the students moved the high court against the executive council decision and this appeal was clubbed with the writ petition filed by Vinaya, ABVP leader, Susheel Kumar's mother, and the hearing was to come on the January 18. "The university was functioning normally in the meanwhile. On January 3, they erected a tent in the shopping complex and were sleeping there. The dean of student welfare tried his best to persuade them to not do this and find proper accommodation just outside the campus but to no effect. Even their supervisors and heads and deans of the concerned departments had tried reasoning with the students but nothing worked. On January 13, they locked up the administrative block and they would just not relent. When we moved to the administrative block, the students started to behave rather rudely with the V-C. It was quite embarrassing and ugly. On January 14, we told them that all channels of negotiations were exhausted and we were compelled to call the police. They agreed to let the administrative block be opened. On January 16, classes were held as before without any interruptions."
Students were being judgmental
All along, Srivastava was requesting that the parents of the concerned students be informed about the ongoing events in the university. "But since opinion was divided on this, the parents were not informed. I wonder whether matters would have gone out of hand if the parents were kept in the loop."
After Rohith's suicide on Janaury 17, the V-C was advised to leave the campus. "From January 18 onwards, the V-C has not been able to come back to the campus and talk to the students as he followed the advice of the police. That in a way also added to the complications, with the students insinuating that he is absconding. The campus is filled with "missing" and "wanted" posters of the V-C.
The faculty members, in a meeting on January 22, decided to talk to the students in response to a letter sent by the joint action committee. "But they were not entertained and all sorts of comments were made." This breakdown of communication has been a constant over the last few weeks, adding to the difficulty of the situation. The demands of the protesting students were spelled out, including the resignation of the V-C. The students had even asked this delegation of teachers to write to the President of India. "The students were being rather judgmental. That was not acceptable and we couldn't have done something like that."
The next day, the divide in the faculty community was more apparent. "Majority of the faculty was of the view that the students have to be urged to let the university function. But the small percentage of faculty members who were in disagreement took a rather rigid stand that the V-C must step down."
The impasse at the University of Hyderabad continues with the protesting students and joint action committee not budging from their demands despite the revocation of expulsion of the other four students. Srivastava is concerned about the students, "especially those in the final year and the research students who have not been able to enter their labs now for more than 12 days. He has been receiving mails from several students and faculty voicing these concerns.
In the meanwhile, he asks pertinent questions: "I was told that for all the people who came over to the university in response to the 'Chalo HCU' call, free lunch packets were provided. Who has been funding it? There are new glossy expensive-looing posters all around. Who is financing them?"
I don't see a distinct culture of discrimination
The other D word besides Dalit featuring repeatedly is discrimination. Srivastava says, "I can't vouch for everybody, but in the 36 years that I've worked with the University of Hyderabad, I haven't seen a distinct culture of discrimination, at least among most of the teaching faculty. Privately, we have been doing so much for the people; my wife has been teaching the children in the outhouses without thinking about what their caste might be. Why should we talk about caste at all over here," he questions. Several students like Rohith gain admission through the general merit quota too. "It's the merit and mind of the student ultimately."
He points out that in a class consisting of 50 per cent students from the upper classes and the remaining half from the reserved category for whom the bar is considerably lowered, "it turns challenging for a teacher many times to strike a balance. But we do it. We encourage all students to ask questions and take special care with the ones that might feel marginalised, regardless of which category they belong to. Also, a bright student may not necessarily be from the higher classes and vice versa. We invite them to approach the teachers in their offices or even homes in case they might be shy to freely discuss something in the classroom".
I'm saddened by being accused of caste discrimination
Students have been objecting to Srivastava as the V-C because they see him as belonging to an upper caste and think that he, therefore, had expelled five Dalit students in his capacity as chairman of the executive council sub-committee. "I'm sad and pained for being accused of discrimination based on caste. This over emphasis on the caste factor is pretty disturbing. I've never thought of myself in terms of the caste that I belong to, nor looked at anyone else in those terms. In fact, I'm dead against it."
He had taken this a step further by ensuring that his wife and children used his first name as their surnames and not use Srivastava "so that there is no question of identifying them based on whatever caste they belong to".
Another grouse the students hold against him is the suicide of Dalit student, Senthil Kumar, in 2008 who was allegedly not allotted a supervisor despite many requests. Senthil was a PhD scholar from the department of Physics, of which Srivastava was the dean. "Enquiries were made at that time to probe into the matter and my name was cleared in all respects in the capacity of the dean or otherwise".
Loss of any student is painful
But regardless of everything, he says that the loss of a student is a huge loss for the university. "A student is ultimately a student, regardless of any other identity of his or hers. It is deeply painful for any of us to lose a student." He holds the view firmly that suicide is never the answer. "It's an open atmosphere at the university and we encourage any student to approach us and talk to us about their problems so that a solution can be reached by working with the student. We encourage all students - particularly the Dalit students - to speak up against discrimination in whatever form they would have experienced it."
Fishing in troubled waters
It's ironic that discrimination based on caste and political affiliations starts right at the beginning with gestures like different banners of different groups for welcoming freshers etc.
"I was particularly saddened when they started calling the V-C by his caste name. They are the ones who are talking about caste discrimination and so forth and yet that's exactly what they were doing too, by bringing up the V-C's caste," he says.
In this whole episode, so much caste and party politics has played out and several politicians have cashed in on the matter. "I would call it fishing in troubled waters. The whole issue is hijacked by people from outside. I wish Rahul Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal and the other politicians who visited the university in the last few days had met with us and looked deeply into the case, rather than assuming that the V-C and everyone else are acting arbitrarily."
The institution is above us
He is attempting to make further attempts to appeal to the students and hopes that some breakthrough will be made sooner than later through dialogue. "Normalcy needs to return ultimately. After all, the institution is above us all."