In the besieged University of Hyderabad campus, jesters and storytellers are in demand these days. There is a great variety of them to choose from 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 left him badly injured.
He points to a body part and says, “Ek mar, char Tukda (One shot, four pieces).” There’s a Manipuri boy who specializes in telling extremely detailed stories about nothing. If you are smart, it will take you an hour to realize 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; a body type that has always appealed to those with a low sense of humor. His style is more gesture, less dialogue. He is also the saddest of the ‘clowns’ on campus. “You can call me King Lear in your story,” he says, invoking a Shakespearian metaphor and refusing to be identified.
He looks older than 35 but is only 22. The hair loss started four years ago when he had just turned 18. A few days before his 18th birthday, he was arrested by the police following a complaint that his Facebook post had 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 the agitating students and teachers were beaten by the 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 diagnosed with clinical depression and has 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?)” Our man joins the roaring chorus, “Har ghar se Rohith niklega (A Rohith will take birth in every house).”
It feels eerie to hear him say those words. Has the King ever felt suicidal? “How many more martyrs do you want, Anna?” He asks me striking, one of his classic goofy expressions.
One can’t tell if he’s serious or joking. His is one of the few depression cases that have been diagnosed. His political fight is largely over and although he is a firm supporter of the struggle, he stays on the fringes of it.
But there are dozens of others who have been with the agitation for months and are beginning to show tell-tale 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. He is irritated by the suggestion that he might be suffering from depression and says that he’s always eaten little, slept less and been underweight. He has no answer for why he has become even more skinny, sleep deprived and malnourished since the death of Vemula. He doesn’t explain why he’s started snapping so often.
There are those who look like they will burst into tears if asked too many questions like the female professor whose dark circles have acquired an even deeper color since this reporter met her last in January.
She often burst into tears in public during the days when students and teachers of the university were in jail. Then there are those who have a permanent scowl on their face and look like they’ll yell if asked too many questions. Everything about this place, including the 40 degree heat, feels like a pressure cooker.
An OBC girl, who has been with the agitation since the death of Vemula, is one of the few who readily accepts that her mind is playing tricks on her. She is in a better mood when the interview starts because she’s just attended an impromptu performance of Pehel - a campus-based musical troupe that supports the ongoing agitation through their songs.
It’s around 2 am, most people have left but she doesn’t want to go back to her room. “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?” She talks about her politics, her time on campus, her family in Kerala. By 3 am, she is talking almost from her stream of consciousness. Maybe I am very good at getting people to open up or maybe she just wants somebody to talk to.
She is interrupted by loud honking and shouts of “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. The ABVP students are taking out a motorbike rally. “See, just 50 of them. They don’t have much support on campus. All of it is from outside,” she says when suddenly a man screams loudly from very close by. We can’t see him but it sounds like he is running. She doesn’t look as frightened as me and coolly continues with her stories.
Her story stops again when one of the alumni activists calls and says he wants to meet urgently. He turns up in five minutes but is unable to find words to describe what is troubling him for the next hour and a half. He smokes seven cigarettes and leaves with a half formed list of complaints with the world.
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. There are issues over here which have put a big question mark on our future. 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. If another student commits suicide it will be because of the pressure that is being put on us,” says a leader who was was forced to go underground after the police crackdown.
If the depression and anxiety is coming from the state of affairs, then there is lot for the Joint Action Committee (JAC) and its supporters to be unhappy about.
Vice Chancellor Appa Rao, who has been accused by the students of pushing Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula to suicide, is back. The campus has been 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 Members of Parliament are not being allowed inside. Exams start in three weeks and then the summer vacation. Except the PhD students, everybody will be sent back home. The PhD students are worried that the university administration will take their revenge once the vacations start. 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 like JNU’s Kanhaiyya Kumar. 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.
The siege breaks emphatically on Tuesday night when around 2,500 students and supporters from outside gather to welcome the 27 students and teachers who have been released from jail. The gates are flung open as they enter the campus with flaming torches and flags of all 14 student unions belonging to the JAC. Each Union shouts its favourite slogans and hails their heroes: Ambedkar, Phule, Marx, Lenin, Malcom X, Bhagat Singh.
The procession winds its way around the facility and ends at the South campus which is the ABVP stronghold. Passionate speeches are being made and vows taken to continue the fight. The main leaders are back on campus. The tension has eased considerably.
King Lear is feeling sleepy for a change and wants to go back. Before he leaves, he says that bail is not a great reason to rejoice. The case will drag on for years. “Look at what happened to me,” he says.
The rally has dispersed and only the main leaders and the core group remains at Shop Com. The jesters are hard at work. When the Telugu boy starts to talk about the brutality of the police, everybody bursts out laughing because of the way he’s saying it. The Malayali Romeo talks about how happy he is to see women again. The Manipuri boy says, “You want to listen to a story about Mahadev?”