On March 14, police forces entered the campus of the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad to detain students who were participating in a 24-hour hunger strike. The strike was called by the Students’ Action Committee (SAC) of EFLU due to the refusal of the university to pay heed to the students’ persistent demands to open up parts of the campus like libraries and hostels – which have been closed since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic a year ago.
The police detained 14 students and allegedly manhandled several students. The detained students were taken to the Osmania University police station early Sunday evening and released the same day at around 8 pm.
“The police attempted to threaten us by saying that since this is election time, public gatherings of any kind are prohibited. Clearly, this was a last-ditch effort by them to stop the protest,” said one of the student protesters.
Over the last two months, students at EFLU have staged two sit-in protests with the aim of getting the authorities to allow them phased access to facilities on campus. “The administration has refused to let us use to toilets. Even the most repressive states let protesters access basic facilities like drinking water and toilets. But this administration doesn’t have an iota of humanity left in them,” said another student.
The protests intensified last month after Professor T. Samson, the EFLU registrar-in-charge, issued a circular, in light of rising COVID-19 cases in some Indian states, stating that “the university is exclusively dedicated to the study of humanities and does not have science, engineering, or technological subjects that require in-person access to the laboratories for experiments. In view of this, the committee has resolved that the classes will continue to be conducted in the online mode until March 31, 2021, after which the situation will be reviewed”.
However, once the students, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, began voicing their discontent, the university, according to the students, had promised to settle the issue and reopen the campus in a phased manner. Students were asked to send a list of those who needed urgent accommodation on campus.
In a survey conducted by the SAC, over 500 students admitted that they needed urgent access to the hostels and other facilities. The latest UGC guidelines allow up to 50% of the enrolled students to be present on campus at any point of time.
Following no meaningful response from the university to their demands to reopen the campus, the SAC went ahead with their plans for a hunger strike on March 14, held just outside EFLU’s Gate 2, well within the university’s premises.
According to SAC members, police started arriving on campus shortly after the strike began. A couple of hours later, the EFLU administration invited six students to a meeting to help resolve the issue. At the meeting, the student protesters were apparently told to call off the strike or at least convert it from a hunger strike into a sit-in, since the authorities were concerned about the protesters’ health. The students, in turn, wanted a circular to be issued that clearly stated the date for reopening of the hostels, which the authorities declined on the grounds that they needed more time.
As per the students at the meeting, one member of the administration had told the students that if they did not stop their strike, they would be removed by force. Once the six students returned from the meeting and decided, alongside their peers, to continue with the hunger strike, the police called in their vans.
What followed was a prolonged struggle between the police and the protesting students, with the police dragging the students and shoving them into the vans. “The police were manhandling us even though we were cooperating to get into the vans. Even the female officers were being violent and aggressive. Some students’ clothes were torn, some had their shirt buttons broken… They tried to beat and push people away, snatch away our phones… They were chasing whoever was sitting or standing around. Some of us were coerced into sharing our live location (on WhatsApp) and other personal details, and there was moral policing of some of the female students that was happening simultaneously,” said one of the students who had been detained.
A total of 14 students were taken to the Osmania University police station and detained under preventive custody, with the police citing the code of conduct in effect due to Hyderabad’s MLC elections to justify their detention of the students. Those detained complained of being insulted verbally at the police station, charges which the police have denied.
“The students were detained because they were protesting in groups outside the campus premises during election time. They had not obtained prior permission for the protests from the deputy commissioner. They were disrupting traffic and violated the code of conduct during elections. They were not insulted once detained… we were simply doing our job. An FIR was filed and the students were released,” said one of the constables at the police station.
“I felt really helpless watching the videos of students being dragged by the police on the WhatsApp groups…because I know for a fact that the police would not have been able to exert such force if the student strength was greater in terms of numbers. There might be disagreements among the administration and the students, but the unleashing of the police upon the students can never be justified. I wish I were there in person to help out and add to the numbers in whatever way I could,” said a master’s student currently in Kolkata, who has been unable to return to the campus till facilities are reopened.
At the time of writing, the registrar’s office at EFLU has not yet responded to questions about Sunday’s events and what the administration intends to do in the aftermath.
Meanwhile, the SAC has urged EFLU students to go for an “indefinite online class boycott until our demands are met”. The call for action does not include students with internal or end-semester examinations, who have been asked to continue with their assessments as normal.
Priyam Marik is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata, who recently completed his post-graduate degree in journalism at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom.
Featured image: Special arrangement