OLYMPIA SHILPA GERALD - How to Wreck a University. The crisis in Pondicherry University

Even at its bustling best, this south Indian Union Territory retains a sleepiness which its tourism department loves to plug as ‘Peaceful Puducherry’. But  just 12 kilometres outside the city, this image of calm is belied by the turmoil at Pondicherry University, which has been besieged by student protests, vandalism and vigilante violence. After a month of  disturbances, there is finally hope among students and faculty that the university will return to routine. This follows a communication from the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) ordering Vice-Chancellor (VC) Chandra Krishnamurthy—whose stewardship of the university triggered the unrest—to remain on “compulsory wait until further orders … in the interest of restoring normalcy to Pondicherry University.”

The Pondicherry University Student Movement (PUSM), supported by the Pondicherry University Teachers Association (PUTA), have been demanding the ouster of Krishnamurthy—VC since January 2013—citing plagiarism, misrepresentation of facts in her resume, administrative malpractices and human rights violations.

In the past week, pro-Krishnamurthy sections of the teaching and non-teaching faculty, along with some students, have targeted those protesting against her, ransacking departments, destroying equipment and interrupting classes. Even as cases and counter cases (for instance a case filed by the Registrar against PUTA for harassment) were booked, regional and linguistic tensions surfaced among students. The Joint Action Committee (JAC), which comprises various campus associations, alleged they were an outcome of divisive tactics deployed by the VC’s supporters.

But a deep sense of fear has long lurked in the campus. “We have been walking around in groups even when we go to the mess or the hostel, since the day we launched the protest,” said an apprehensive male student. “In the course of the protest, students have been lathi-charged by cops and roughed up by the VC’s henchmen, said another postgraduate student.

The detention and torture of a male student for 27 hours and the suspension of two female students who complained of sexual harassment on campus in 2014—the NHRC is probing the former while the Madras High Court reprimanded the university for the latter—has aggravated the sense of anxiety over safety on campus. “Anytime anyone has voiced a serious issue, goons have been deployed to intimidate them,” says a research scholar.

Some faculty who have kept away from the protest also say their decisions are shaped by fear. “For many of us, the university is also our home and we fear thugs may turn up at our doorstep anytime,” says a humanities professor. “It is appalling that we do not have the basic right to teach or learn freely, without being terrorised,” adds a senior professor.

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