‘We have been made to feel like criminals’: How a defamation case is threatening the lives of five Dalit-Bahujan scholars

Written by Amit Kumar | Published on: August 5, 2017
Indian Universities, and especially those under the Central Government, have for long been presented as spaces where a student or a faculty’s caste does not matter. Universities like the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi are often used as examples of an inclusive campus; institutes where students are free to prosper and focus on their studies.

Dig a little deeper into this idea (or just read the news) and you will soon find that this is hogwash. Campuses in India, much like the Indian society, are spaces where not only caste flourishes, but it also seeks to cut down on any voice that erupts from the marginalised sections. Yes, more Dalit and Bahujan students are now studying in these campuses than ever, yet as even the most basic conversation with Dalit-Bahujan student shows, their presence has not made their lives easier in these campuses. If anything, these spaces are even more ruthless in clamping down on any dissent especially when such dissent seeks to expose the brutal reality of these campuses.

The death of Rohith Vemula in the Hyderabad Central University in 2016 brought the nation’s attention to the disease of casteism that flourishes in Indian Universities, but as is well known it was neither the first nor the last. Ask the five students of the English and Foreign Language University in Hyderabad who chose to speak against a casteist faculty that had time and again, humiliated students because of their caste. The faculty, Meenakshi Reddy did not stop at that, however. In a move that is unprecedented even in India, she became probably the first faculty to ever file a case of defamation against the five students in 2012 and in fact, she even won her case towards the end of 2016, with the Nampally civil court sentencing the five students to six months of imprisonment. However, that order was challenged and the students were able to get bail. Both parties challenged the order, and the case is in now in the Nampally Sessions Court.

‘We have been made to feel like criminals and hide’

This correspondent met one of the defendants in the premises of a University. The defendant (name not revealed as the case is presently underway) works at a college as a faculty. I asked how he got a job if he had a case against him? “I do not know…maybe the administration does not know”, he says almost with a laugh. “If truth be told, despite having the highest degrees and the required experience, I still feel like my job is more due to luck than because of my degrees,” he adds as he sips his tea.

The entire issue of ‘defaming’ a person revolves around the issue of Dalit-Bahujan students protesting against the casteist practices of Meenakshi Reddy, a faculty at the Department of German, which was consistently ignored by the administration.

In 2011, the Osmania University (OU) police questioned two university professors including Meenakshi Reddy after the National Human Rights Commission (HRC) took notice of R Jayamurugan, a Dalit student pursuing German, who claimed that he was being failed consistently in his semester examinations, which forced him to discontinue the course. In 2012, one more Dalit student, Kush Kumar, from the same department tried to commit suicide by consuming pills after he ‘failed’ his exams. According to the defendants we spoke to, these are not mere unfortunate incidents of students failing to cope up with the pressure. “When different students are pointing out that a certain faculty is consistently biased against students from a certain community, how can that be ignored? What does this show, if not an absolute disregard to the problems that we are facing?” the defendant added.

Of the five defendants-R Bathran, M Sriramulu, Upendra, Satish and Mohan–only Sriramulu was a student of the German department and had alleged discrimination at the hands of Reddy since 2011. Others were merely ensuring their support to Sriramulu through protests and agitations. Bathran, in fact, was merely booked because he provided a platform, Dalit Camera, to Sriramulu to voice his pain and the discrimination he had been facing.

One of the other defendants we spoke to, who is currently working at a state university, said this was again a great example of how casteist Reddy had been. “Our issue did not happen overnight nor did it get over in a week. This issue was written about in various local and national dailies. But she booked Dalit camera? Why? If this does not show her casteist nature, then what does? Bathran had been a student leader here and he had both seen and experienced the casteist nature of a number of faculties here. By booking Bathran also, she showed that she is after Dalit Bahujan students who wish to expose the true nature of the campus,” he added.

The defendants also point out that while the civil court pointed out to the terms like “Reddy harasses’, ‘Feudal Reddy’ were used by the court to point out the act of defamation, but even six months later after the verdict, they are unaware as to what damage was caused to Reddy. “If we defamed her, then she must have suffered because of it, right? How? She continues to be in the same job that she was. How did her life change? We have been humiliated for over five years, forced to live a closed life and have been visiting the courts for the past five years. I cannot apply anywhere now because of this case. Yet somehow, we are still debating over how she was defamed,” one defendant said.

‘The longer this case goes, the more trouble for us’

The two defendants also pointed out that contrary to the perception that the order being challenged was a good thing for them, they are actually worried. “The longer this case goes, the more trouble it will be for us. We are all first-generation learners from our families and all this costs us a lot of money. She is a faculty, so money is not an issue for her but we have to think about it,” said one of the defendants.

“If I lose my job, I have absolutely no clue what options will I be left with. And if this case reaches the High Court, then I am almost sure that we will not win this case,” he added. His fears are not completely unfounded. Reddy is the daughter of Obul Reddy, who served as the Chief Justice of Andhra and Gujarat High Courts and the former governor of Andhra Pradesh, and in fact, in the judgement of the Nampally civil court, the judge who gave the verdict, even took note of this, remarking, “she hails from a good family”. Obul Reddy, the defendant added, had a considerable set of “followers and disciples” in the courts and will only make it difficult for the defendants to expect a fair trial and judgment.

Throughout our conversation, the defendants request that no information be published about where they work or even their job profiles. “I know so many people here (in the campus where we meet) but I hardly meet anyone now because they will ask about the case. At this point, we don’t know what to say to them,” says one of the defendants. When asked if they feel any regret, the answer is immediate. “Never. We did what was right.”

Courtesy: Two Circles