In the besieged University of Hyderabad campus, jesters and storytellers are in great demand, especially at the shopping complex (Shop-Com) of the North block, the centre of the protests that erupted after the suicide of Dalit PhD student Rohith Vemula.
There is the Malayali Dalit boy whose attempts at finding an upper-caste girlfriend always end in a hilarious disaster. He calls the comic retelling of his heartbreaking stories ‘Dalit love’.
There is the Telugu boy who finds something funny to say about everything, including the March 22 police lathicharge on campus that he says badly injured him.
He points to a body part and says, “Ek mar, char tukda (One shot, four pieces).”
There’s a Manipuri boy who specialises in telling extremely detailed stories about nothing. If you are smart, it will take you an hour to realise that it’s a prank and his stories are designed never to end. Their stories and jokes help fill the stony silence after each round of slogan shouting and every protest. They are the jesters of a war against caste-based discrimination on campuses that claimed Vemula’s life and sparked a nationwide debate, students say.
One of the favourites is a Telugu Dalit boy who deliberately wears a clownish expression all day long. He is short, bald and overweight; he is also the saddest of the clowns. “You can call me King Lear in your story,” he says.
He looks older than 35 but is only 22. A few days before his 18th birthday, he was arrested following a complaint that his Facebook post hurt religious sentiments. By the time, he was released a month and half later, there was nothing boyish left in his appearance.
On the day protesting students and teachers were allegedly beaten by police and arrested, he was acquitted of all charges by a lower court.
In the four years that the case ran, his appetite became unpredictable, his body weight fluctuated wildly and his sleep pattern went haywire.
King Lear has recently been prescribed sleeping pills. “The acquittal has come as a great relief. And I am more calm now. I still need the pills,” he says in a rare moment of seriousness.
As he is speaking, a student leader cries out at the Shop Com, “Tum kitne Rohith maroge? (How many Rohiths will you kill?)” He joins the chorus, “Har ghar se Rohith niklega (A Rohith will take birth in every house).”
There are dozens of others who have been with the demonstrations for months and are beginning to show signs of mental illness. Most of them have been part of the struggle from January 17 when Vemula died. Some have been there longer.
Most refuse to seek help or accept that they have a problem. One Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) leader is down to 47 kilos and is around 20 kilos underweight. He sleeps barely for three hours every day and eats only one good meal on most.
Others look like they will burst into tears if asked too many questions. An Other Backward Classes woman, who has been with the protests since Vemula’s death, is one of the few who accept their mind is playing tricks.
“When I go back to my room, I can still hear the slogans in my head. I can’t sleep. Are you sure you have time because I can go on talking till morning?” Many of the leaders here are wary of accepting that the agitating students may be suffering from depression and extreme anxiety.
“It is because we are afraid that some journalist will pass off our entire existence as mental problem. We are getting more and more isolated. If another one of us dies, we don’t want you to come and say that it was because of depression,” says a leader. There is lot for the Joint Action Committee (JAC) to be unhappy about.
Vice-chancellor Appa Rao, accused of abetting Vemula’s suicide, is back. The campus is surrounded by private security guards and plainclothes policemen. The administration is considering calling in paramilitary forces.
Reinforcements from the nearby Osmania University can’t enter, neither can the media. Even MPs are not allowed inside.
Exams start in three weeks and then the summer vacation. Except PhD students, everybody will be sent back home.
Only the first year Masters students will return next academic year. There is no saying which side the new batch of students will take.
The leaders of the movement here don’t speak Hindi. Their speeches are not going viral on YouTube.
They are still gathering by the hundreds inside the campus, shouting slogans, holding talks and picketing the shopping complex at the North block of the campus. But what good is a demonstration without an audience?
In three weeks or perhaps sooner, the JAC will have to find a way to clinch their main demand: the sacking of Appa Rao. There is talk of seeking help from like minded organizations in breaking the siege. But right now, the students are fenced in and on their own.