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Hyderabad University Must Rediscover Its Tolerant Past

30/03/2016 8:16 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Activist of a Dalit organization participate in a candle light vigil holding photographs of Indian student Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad, India, Wednesday, Jan 20, 2016. The activists were protesting the death of Vemula who, along with four others, was barred from using some facilities at his university in the southern tech-hub of Hyderabad. The protesters accused Hyderabad University's vice chancellor and a federal minister of unfairly demanding punishment for the five lower-caste students after they clashed last year with a group of students supporting the governing Hindu nationalist party. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.)

A lot has been written about the events surrounding the unfortunate suicide of Hyderabad Central University (HCU) scholar Rohith Vemula. As the din slowly settles down to a quiet introspection beyond the media glare, for a change, it is also time to focus on the university itself. HCU as an institution is relatively understated but an academic equal of its high-profile counterparts in Delhi.

Although the recent chain of events point to deep political and caste fault lines in the campus, for long this university's reputation was built on solid academic achievements. In 2015, HCU received the Visitor's Award for the best central university (presented by the President of India) and was ranked high for research excellence by the prestigious science journal Nature. These accolades reinforced what alumni like me knew all along; HCU is a place for frontline research and education.

To me, personally, the campus ethos then seemed to stand "for humanism, for tolerance and for the adventure of ideas", to use Jawaharlal Nehru's words.

Unfortunately, this excellence seems to be tainted by a dark underbelly of intolerance and discrimination. But it was not always so. In the HCU of the early 1990s, political activities were not accompanied by violence. As a student, I had witnessed acrimonious agitations on campus for and against the Mandal Commission implementation that introduced reservations for the backward classes. On one particularly critical day of the agitation, there were wild rumours of a self-immolation bid and some students subjected to violence in Hyderabad city. One section of students had locked the main gates of the campus in protest. The then vice-chancellor, Prof. Bh. Krishnamurty, an internationally reputed linguist and scholar, personally ventured among the volatile student crowd without any security and talked them into opening the gates. The students and vice-chancellor had heated arguments but there was no violence or retribution.

If the university can rediscover its tolerant past, it can easily accommodate all shades of opinions and activities without taking recourse to violence.

Campus politics at HCU was generally dominated by the students of humanities and social sciences. Unusually for a science student, my classmate decided to plunge into the electoral race for the vice-president of the students union without any financial resources or political backing. In any other university, this would have meant guaranteed defeat. But HCU then had a place, and maybe even partiality, for apolitical candidates that helped my friend win the elections. In contrast, student elections in recent years have seen widespread politicization and even rigging; an election declared void in 2009.

To me, personally, the campus ethos then seemed to stand "for humanism, for tolerance and for the adventure of ideas", to use Jawaharlal Nehru's words. HCU always welcomed an eclectic mix of visitors, from a Naxal sympathizer to a Carnatic music maestro. I remember squeezing myself inside the packed lecture hall complex auditorium to listen to Gaddar's rustic songs during his visit. This was my first introduction to Gaddar, a well-known Telugu balladeer, Naxal activist and sympathizer. Today, it is impossible to imagine a Naxal sympathizer welcomed in any institution in India.

Similar enthusiastic crowds greeted Dr. Balamurali Krishna's concert. Returning the gesture, he distributed prizes to the students who got the maximum number of roses from peers on Valentine's Day. A reputed Carnatic musician indulging Valentine's Day enthusiasts! It happened at HCU. Needless to add, no one threatened the harmless Valentine's Day fun.

High-ranking research and pursuit of knowledge cannot coexist with intolerance and discriminatory practices.

HCU was started in 1974, in the desolate outskirts of Hyderabad, as part of a development package to end the protracted Telangana and Jai Andhra agitations in the then undivided Andhra Pradesh. Four decades later, HCU campus is still largely desolate and a veritable jungle of nearly 2000 acres, with diverse flora and fauna, lakes and rock formations unique to the Deccan. Among the most famous landmarks here is the iconic mushroom rock, which is every student's quick getaway destination within the campus.

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Iconic mushroom rock at Hyderabad University campus; image source: Official newsletter at uohherald.commuoh.in

I lived in a hostel beside one of the scenic lakes. Living close to nature amid a diversity of life forms should inspire respect for plurality of ideas and people. If the university can rediscover its tolerant past, it can easily accommodate all shades of opinions and activities without taking recourse to violence. High-ranking research and pursuit of knowledge cannot coexist with intolerance and discriminatory practices.

The author is an alumnus of HCU and is now an associate professor of physics at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune.

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