Striking similarities to Rohith Vemula’s case at the Central University of Kerala

On 9 October, after Akhil Thazhath, a former student of the Central University of Kerala, attempted suicide, around 300 students of the institute staged a protest outside the administrative block. Subramanian N
18 October, 2018

On the morning of 9 October, Akhil Thazhath, a former student of the Central University of Kerala, in the state’s northernmost district of Kasaragod, cut his wrists at the institute’s helipad grounds. “I cannot express the pain, cruelty and neglect that I have experienced,” he had written in a suicide note discovered in his pocket, with a blood stain on one corner. “Vice Chancellor Gopakumar, Registrar Radhakarishnan Nair, Pro-Vice Chancellor K Jayaprasad, Dr Mohan Kunder, are not people who only harassed me as an individual. They are anti-social elements as well.”

Three days later, the university filed a petition in the Kerala High Court stating that the police had failed to provide protection to the administration from student protests. The petition accused several students, including Thazhath, of a “wilful attempt to cause bodily harm” to Jayaprasad, the pro-vice chancellor of the university. It also stated that Thazhath had “created a small wound on his hand,” which his friends dubbed as a suicide attempt. Thazhath’s discharge report, which was issued by the psychiatric department of District Hospital, Kanhangad, in Kasaragod, records that he was admitted with a “wrist slash.”

His friends told me that Thazhath was driven to attempting suicide due to sustained harassment by the university administration. It began on 25 June, when the CUK issued a suspension order against him, claiming that he had written “abusive and filthy words” about the administration on Facebook at 3.46 pm on 22 June. In the petition, the university attached a screenshot of the first few lines of a post by Thazhath, which contained expletives against members of the administration. Thazhath, however, denied making any such post at the specified time and date. The screenshot in the petition is undated.

Thazhath was dismissed from the university in September. According to Subramanian N, a student pursuing a master’s in international relations at the CUK and Thazhath’s friend, he had been morose since then and unsure of how to move on from the CUK. After his dismissal, Thazhath was prohibited from entering the university premises—effectively preventing him from collecting the certificates for completing his bachelor’s degree. A day before his suicide attempt, Thazhath had talked about Rohith Vemula, a PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad whose suicide in January 2016 had led to protests against caste discrimination erupting across the country. That day, Thazhath shared a poem on Facebook:

The ones who fought for a day are good people
The ones who fought for several days are very good people
The ones who protested all their life...they are the essence and the substance of the fight.
The ones who fought even in death...they are the time and the vision of the fight.

In tandem with other central universities, such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the University of Hyderabad, which have witnessed administrative crackdowns in recent years, the CUK administration has been discouraging political activity on campus. Since 2016, multiple allegations against the administration have surfaced—of caste discrimination, corruption, inaction on sexual harassment complaints, and stifling dissent. This period also witnessed a corresponding increase in the frequency of student protests and the severity of subsequent disciplinary actions. The heavy-handedness of the CUK administration and the unfolding of events at the university over the past few months bear a striking similarity to the circumstances leading to Vemula's suicide at the UOH. The impact of these actions reached a crescendo with Thazhath’s suicide attempt.

I first met Thazhath in September this year, 12 days after he had been dismissed, at a bus stop outside the university’s entrance. He narrated his account of the events leading to his dismissal. Before his suspension, Thazhath was in his second year of a master’s programme in the department of political science and international relations. He was a vocal critic of the university administration and regularly participated in student protests on campus. In June 2017, he was among 200 students who participated in a widely-reported protest, which came to be known as the Student Refugee Movement, to demand improved hostel facilities.

Shortly after he was suspended, on 29 June, Thazhath published a short story on a blog, The Nelli, about an engineering college, its autocratic administration and their casteist abuse of power. Describing the registrar as “manuvadi,” he wrote, “Ravindran Registrar’s first decision was to cancel the hostel admission of those who did not score 50% marks in the semester. As per the decision, two Dalit students were removed from the hostel immediately.”

The screenshot of Thazhath’s Facebook post, which the university had attached in its petition before the high court, contains lines from his short story. However, the suspension order was passed one week before the story was published on the blog. It is unclear whether Thazhath had posted a portion of the short story on Facebook on 22 June, as the suspension order would suggest. Thazhath denied making any such post. Around one month after his suspension, the university constituted an enquiry commission, headed by a professor Mohan Kunder, to look into the allegations against him. He began to lose hope during the enquiry process, which he said was opaque and biased. “They behaved as if they had the evidence but didn’t want to show it to me.”

On 16 August, the enquiry commission asked Thazhath to submit an unconditional apology admitting his guilt, failing which he would be dismissed. He refused. In the first week of September, the university published a press release announcing Thazhath’s dismissal before he officially received the order. According to him, the commission did not cite any proof to justify his suspension. “They had intended to dismiss me even when they issued a suspension pending enquiry.”

At the beginning of his short story, Thazhath adds a disclaimer that the story is “fictional,” but its parallels to CUK are apparent. This year, two Dalit students, Ajith Kunjunny and Shiv Kumar, were dismissed from the university. In March, one month after Kunjunny enrolled into CUK to pursue a PhD in political science, he received a call from the university informing him that his hostel admission had been cancelled. Until four months ago, the UGC’s cut-off for PhD admissions for all students was 50 percent. In December 2017, the CUK lowered the cut-off for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students. Kunjunny met the criteria and gained admission to the PhD programme at CUK’s department of international relations and political science.

On 21 March, the administration sent him a letter dismissing him from the university claiming his admission was “irregular” because there were no vacancies for SC and ST students under the supervisor he was assigned. Later that month, he challenged his dismissal before the Kerala High Court. One of the reasons cited for his dismissal was the absence of the teacher supervising his PhD programme during his interview with the department’s research committee. But Kunjunny accessed the minutes of other interviews and argued in court that this could apply to other students as well. “Through minutes, I found out that the current pro-vice chancellor, Dr Jayaprasad, was not present on the interview board for the students under his charge,” he told me. The university informed the court that the UGC prescribed 50 percent as the minimum cut-off, and the following March, it cancelled the December 2017 notification. Meanwhile, Kunjunny secured admission at the University of Hyderabad in August. Since his petition sought readmission to the CUK, the case became infructuous.

On 5 February, Kumar gained admission to the university to pursue a thesis in the Hindi department. On 23 April, he said he left for his home in Delhi, after seeking leave officially, because his father was unwell. “There was collusion in the university to remove me by force,” he said. When he returned three months later, the administration informed Kumar that his admission had been cancelled. “During the time I was away, there was no communication [from the college] in writing or through phone calls.” He received no warning prior to the cancellation and is still waiting for official communication from the university stating the same.

On 9 April, around 30 Dalit organisations in Kerala organised “Dalit Hartal” to protest against attempts to dilute of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The previous night, five students painted slogans outside the hostel buildings to raise awareness about the event. Shilpa Bose, secretary of a leftist student organisation, All India Students Federation, told me, “We painted a few slogans on the road like, ‘Down down, Brahminism.’” After the incident, the students appeared for the end-of-semester exams and dispersed for vacations. Over a month later, they received orders dismissing them from the hostel. Subramanian, who was one of the five students, told me, “The order said that we all abused the warden, security, agitated and damaged the property of the institution with paint.” He added that the action was taken without any official enquiry.

At CUK, excessive disciplinary actions, without proper enquiries, appear par for the course. In the early hours of 9 July, Ganthoti Nagaraju, a PhD scholar at CUK’s department of linguistics, broke the glass pane of a fire alarm cabinet in his hostel. On 6 August, after the university initiated criminal proceedings, Nagaraju was arrested and held in Kasaragod’s sub-jail for five days for destruction of property. In the high court petition, the university has claimed that he was inebriated at the time of the July incident.

Nagaraju hails from an economically weak Dalit family. At the time of his arrest, according to his friends, he was struggling with emotional and financial issues. In 2008, Nagaraju worked as a cleaner at Quthbullapur’s municipal cooperative office in Hyderabad for around 15 days and was then recruited by them as a data operator. In 2014, as a recipient of the Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship, he joined the CUK. A couple of months after Nagaraju’s mother passed away, in June 2017, he stopped receiving his fellowship grant.

When Nagaraju broke the glass pane, it had been 11 months since the university had released his fellowship grant. After his arrest, the student body of CUK and academicians from around the country expressed their solidarity with him. A few days after the arrest, Prasad Pannian, the head of CUK’s English department, wrote on Facebook, “That an act of misdemeanour has been criminalised is deeply disturbing. As far as I understand, this is a minor offence that should have been settled on the campus itself.”

On 7 September, the administration suspended Pannian from his post as the head of the department because he had “criticized the decisions of the university and published his comments on social media.” Pannian’s dismissal, too, was met with huge uproar on the CUK campus and on social media, including a petition by several academicians, such as Gauri Viswanathan and Nandita Narain, submitted before the president of India, requesting his intervention.

The CUK, however, stood by its decision. K Jayaprasad, the pro-vice chancellor, justified the suspension order citing the Central Civil Service (Conduct) Rules, 1964. “As an HOD, he is part of the administration. A government employee cannot criticise the administration while in service.” In the past few months, the CCS Conduct rules have been invoked in universities across the country. In a meeting on 11 October, the Federation of Central Universities’ Teachers’ Association took “serious note of the constant threats being posed to the freedom of expression and other democratic rights of teachers of Central Universities” through attempts to bring them under the ambit of the CCS Conduct Rules.

On 26 September, Pannian filed a writ petition before the Kerala High Court challenging the suspension order. He accused an assistant professor, the vice-chancellor and the pro-vice chancellor of the CUK of targeting him and also elaborated on other allegations against them that escaped administrative action. Pannian’s petition presented a pattern of behaviour within the CUK that suppressed any internal complaints against the administration and curtailed any expression of dissent within the university.

Vellikeel Raghavan, an assistant professor at the CUK, had filed the complaint against Pannian that had led to his dismissal. In Pannian’s petition, among other things, he mentions that the university administration did not act on a sexual harassment complaint against Raghavan. Pannian stated that Raghavan had sent “lewd and unsavoury comments” to a high-school teacher via WhatsApp. The teacher in question had filed a complaint against Raghavan to G Gopakumar, the vice-chancellor, but he did not take any action. Raghavan refused to comment on the matter.

This is not the first time that the university administration has been accused of inaction on a complaint of sexual harassment. Last year, Ansiya Rehman, a PhD scholar, filed a sexual-harassment complaint against an assistant professor and her guide, V Nagaraj. Rehman said that after attending two or three classes, she realised that “he was not looking at her face,” which made her uncomfortable. When she confronted Nagaraj, she said he told her, “I have sisters, wife and mother. So I am not the type to do such a thing.” Eventually, Rehman told me, she filed a complaint before the university’s anti sexual-harassment cell, in February 2017, which was forwarded to Gopakumar as well. Again, no action was taken. That month, Rehman left CUK. He is now pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institution of Social Sciences. Nagaraj continues to work at the university. When I tried to reach him for a comment, his phone was unreachable.

Gopakumar’s tenure as vice-chancellor of the university has been marked by findings of maladministration and misfeasance, such as drawing undue dearness allowance and overstaffing, apart from taking arbitrary disciplinary actions against students. In November 2017, the New Indian Express reported that Gopakumar had been drawing undue dearness allowance. Gopakumar retired as a professor from University of Kerala and joined CUK as a vice-chancellor in August 2014. For three years, he had claimed dearness relief on pension from UOK and dearness allowance from CUK—in total, the report noted that he had taken a sum of Rs 14.5 lakh in undue benefits from the UOK. The undue amount he drew will now be deducted from his salary at CUK and reimbursed to UOK. Gopakumar did not respond to multiple calls and messages for a comment.

At the centre of Pannian’s petition as well as the accounts of students who have faced administration action is Jayaprasad, the pro-vice chancellor of the university. The petition states that during Pannian’s tenure as the chief vigilance officer from March 2015 till October 2016, he had uncovered funding irregularities in the construction of a multipurpose hall. Jayaprasad, who was the university’s finance officer at the time, directed Pannian to back off, failing which he would have to “face dire consequences.” When Pannian recommended a CBI enquiry into the construction of the hall, he was removed from his post as the chief vigilance officer well ahead of the completion of his term.

Jayaprasad is the vice president of Bharatheeya Vichara Kendram, a “centre of studies for national reconstruction” founded by P Parameswaran, a pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Several students told me that Jayaprasad’s affiliation with the RSS influences his decisions as an administration member. He is the editor of Pragati, a research journal published by the centre that highlights “Indian perspective on global issues.” In the January to March 2011 issue, in a piece he penned for the journal, he wrote, “‘Manusmrithi’ offers an ideal legal system based on Dharma.” He also mentions Gopakumar in the note of thanks of his 1991 book, RSS and Hindu Nationalism: Inroads in a Leftist Stronghold.

Jayaprasad has consistently been vocal about his belief that campuses should be apolitical. In February 2016, following a student protest against institutional caste discrimination in the CUK, in the wake of Vemula’s death, Jayaprasad, who was then a senior associate professor, sent a letter to the faculty members. The letter announced the formation of a “non-political teachers’ association,” splitting away from the existing association. “The Association to be formed will not be an association with political objectives or a forum for agitators or activists … As the university is in its childhood, politicisation of the campus will defeat its academic goal.”

On the evening of 19 September, I went to meet Jayaprasad in his office in the administrative block named Gangotri. At the time, there were various posters doing rounds on Facebook branding the university administration as “fascist.” He started speaking before I could ask him any question: “Narendra Modi has been there for four years. I have been here for four years. Why was no action taken in the last four years? Was there no fascism here then?” When I mentioned the names of the students who were handed suspension and dismissal orders, he told me that they consistently flouted hostel rules, and alluded to the students’ personal conduct and lifestyle choices. “The fundamental problem in the university is drugs, alcohol and free sex,” he said. He later refused to comment about Pannian’s allegations because it is an ongoing case.

With the exception of a few who believed they have nothing more to lose, my conversations with everyone from the university began with a request that I should not name them. “No one should open their mouth. No one should call them out on their misdeeds,” a professor said. “It is beyond my imagination to think how we can do academics without being able to criticise a policy. Blinders are put on your thinking.”

Thazhath’s stance against the administration remained undiluted after his dismissal. On 10 September, the day after he received the dismissal order, he wrote on Facebook: “The University administration has done more culpable, violent and vengeful act than my dismissal.” A few days later, when I met him, he had said, “I wrote it [the fictional short story] sarcastically against nepotism and corruption. If they think that it was with reference to them, aren’t they accepting that they have done it?”

After Thazhath’s attempt to commit suicide, around 300 students protested outside the pro-vice chancellor’s office. The administration struck an informal deal with the protestors—his admission would be reinstated if he wrote an unconditional apology to the university. On 11 October, shortly after Thazhath regained consciousness, he submitted a handwritten note to the administration offering an unconditional apology. The administration has not confirmed if his admission will be reinstated or not. The note reads: “If there has been any misdeed on my part against the university authorities, I apologise unconditionally.”