By Amrita Singh:
Professor Appa Rao Podile, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad was awarded the ‘Millennium Plaques of Honour’ on January 3. The award is given to two eminent scientists every year by the Indian Science Congress Association. Podile is an accused under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. He also admitted to “unintentionally” plagiarising three of his articles.
This year, the event, the 104th Indian Science Congress, is taking place from January 3 to January 7 at Tirupathi. It was inaugurated by PM Narendra Modi, who also presented the award to professor Podile.
Academics from all over the country are enraged by this move due to multiple reasons. The primary one being Podile’s involvement in the events revolving around the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula, a former member and student of the Ambedkar Students Association and UoH respectively.
Rohith’s stipend of ₹25000 per month had been stopped in July, for raising issues under the banner of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA). Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and ASA have had clashes in the past.
In August 2015, ASA organised a gathering to protest against ABVP’s activities in educational institutes. As a response to the protest, ABVP activist Nandanam Susheel Kumar, posted a Facebook comment, labelling the ASA members as goons. On August 3, Kumar alleged 30-40 ASA members came to his hostel room and beat him for the comment. However, ASA members claim that they asked for a written apology, which he gave.
Later, the proctorial board of the University investigated the matter and recommended that the five students who had allegedly led ASA during the alleged fight, Rohith and four of his friends, be suspended for six months on grounds of indiscipline.
Students termed their report as self-contradictory which is why the VC at that time revoked the suspension. The long and short of it is, that Podile, who took over as VC of the institute in September 2015, was allegedly pressurised by members of Bharatiya Janata Party and the Human Resource Development Ministry to suspend the five students.
The HRD Ministry denied these allegations even though according to reports, the Ministry sent four letters and an email to the university, seeking ‘comments/facts‘ on the matter between September and November. On December 17, the five students were suspended from the hostel and disqualified from participating in the annual students union elections. They stayed in a tent within the campus.
Rohith wrote a letter to the VC on December 18, expressing his anguish with the decision. He said, “First, let me praise your dedicated take on the self-respecting movement of Dalits in the campus. When an ABVP president got questioned about his derogatory remarks on Dalits, your kind personal interference into the issue is historic and exemplary… I request your highness to make preparations for the facility ‘euthanasia’ for students.” The VC took no further action. On January 17, Rohith Vemula committed suicide and left a heartbreaking suicide note which shook the nation.
Podile’s response to the storm that ensued soon after was, “He was my student in a master’s programme and was a gifted student. When I read what is being referred to as the suicide note or his last note, my question to everyone is: Does he blame the University for taking his own life? Please read the note carefully and tell me if he mentions the University as the reason for taking his life.”
Professor Podile went on a long leave on January 24, only to return in mid-March. Academics from around the world have condemned his actions and students of the University have been demanding his removal as Vice-Chancellor since then.
This wasn’t the first time he was accused of caste-based discrimination. In 2001, when he was the Chief Warden of the hostels of the UoH, he allegedly held a deliberate campaign to rusticate 10 Dalit students. At that time, students used to buy provisions for the mess and those who did were exempted from paying the mess fees. Since the scholarship provided to Dalit students was insufficient for staying in the hostel, most of them often volunteered.
“Podile created a ‘Centralised Purchasing Committee’, removing students’ involvement, negating the mess fee waiver and said that the mess supervisor would henceforth buy the provisions,” said someone who was in the hostel at that time. He allegedly set up contracts with supermarkets and bought poor quality oil and rice by citing a higher price. Students protested; a scuffle broke out and Podile got 10 protesting Dalit students rusticated on January 10, 2001.
Naturally, when the news of him receiving the award broke out, academics from all over the nation were enraged, especially those from UoH. Munna Sunaki, a student of HCU who’s a prominent activist in the #JusticeForRohith movement, told Campus Watch, “The same Modi who said in last year’s UP convocation that ‘Mother India lost her child’, is honouring an accused under SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act in the Rohith Vemula case? He has honoured the killer of Mother India’s son.”
Dontha Prashanth, Seshu Chemudugunta and Vijay Pedapudi, all three students who were suspended along with Vemula, penned a response to this, which is doing rounds on social media. They wrote, “Let’s not forget that this man was chosen out of turn and by overlooking several eminent scholars. This was done by the government clearly to suppress Dalit Student Assertions on the campus… He is not only a believer in the unscientific caste system but also is a proven plagiarist and a sub-standard scholar. Apparao Podile has been a disgrace to the scientific community.”
They also criticised the Indian Science Congress and accused them of making “unscientific and unverified claims” in the past as well. We tried, but couldn’t get through the Indian Science Congress Association for a comment regarding these allegations.