Teaching and Learning Amid the Riots in Hyderabad

by Linda Dittmar

hyderabadmap1In India on a four months’ Fulbright assignment, I am encountering a reality here in Hyderabad, capital of the state of Andhra Pradesh, quite different from anything I anticipated. After more than a month on my home campus of Osmania University I am yet to meet any of my students. The students are very much “here,” demonstrating and rioting but not in their classrooms. More often than not the campus has been shut down altogether, with students sent home, armed guards at the gates, me locked in under “protective custody.” The few students I meet by the internet room are from Iran and Yemen. Like me, they have nowhere else to go.

The riots are about partitioning Andhra—a long-standing government promise, some sixty years old and still waiting to be fulfilled. With the coastal agricultural east rich, the inland west impoverished, and the booming cyber-capital of Hyderabad located in the poor western side but bloated with investments from the rich east and others, the patience of the underserved people of Telangana (i.e. the western part of the state) has worn too thin. Now, after decades of government neglect and empty promises made in the flush of electioneering, the leader of the Telangana separatist movement went on a hunger strike, and rioting erupted on our campus and throughout the city. Buses were burnt, installations smashed, cars overturned with passengers inside them, protesters clubbed, chants chanted and fists raised.

Looking ahead to Tuesday (5/1/2010), when a government decision is anticipated (no guarantees) about the partition, 100,000 students flooded the campus for a major rally on Sunday afternoon. They arrived by bus, train, three-wheelers, bikes and foot and had to pass through metal detectors and be frisked before entering the campus. Some had their dressed to spell “Telananga,” others had inscriptions on their bare chests, and many carried Telananga flags, beat drums, and danced. The rally was had a festive feel but the mood was clearly determined. Banners carried photos of “Telananga Martyrs” and the crowd rocked to the sounds of “Salute to the Heroes” and “Hail Telananga.”

Initially this seemed to me, an outsider, a cross between melodrama and farce: too much brio, I thought, for a partition that could be easily negotiated and is anyway just the lesser of two evils—a doubling the already politically unwieldy and sometimes even corrupt political apparatus. But given the enormous economic gap between the two parts of the state and the role that the burgeoning economy of Hyderabad can play in sustaining or marginalizing Telangana, it is not a farce. By now the US State Department is issuing travel advisories to American citizens regarding Hyderabad and a student group from Wyoming cancelled their projected study-visit here.

It’s not a farce for the local students either, some 83% of them coming from Telangana. Here are some telling facts, taken from the Times of India. As a result of the riots,

  • 1,400,000  students will have trouble passing their March (end of year) exams.
  • 1,600,000  students will be under-prepared for their intermediate Public Exams.
  • 1,000.000 students will be wanting to qualify for higher education.
  • About 30 school days were lost to the riots through December 2009  (plus 25-30 days lost to floods earlier this year, 15 more due to elections, and 10 for other stoppages).

Even with rescheduled classes such damage is hard to repair, and especially so in higher education, where qualifying exams are now postponed from one week to the next, an entire semester may be lost, expectations are lowered, and graduating students’ may find themselves unemployed and/or ineligible for continuing study. At present students are unable to take the highly competitive national level entrance exams to all institutes of higher education, including India’s elite Institutes of Technology and Institutes of Information Technologies (IITs and IIITs) and other out-of-state universities. With local exams that serve less privileged students also postponed indefinitely, and with coaching centers experiencing a dramatic dip in attendance, crucial educational opportunities at all levels are endangered. Considering that until now Andhra boasted filling 23% of all national seats in IITs and IIITs, the scale of the damage emerges starkly. Further, with Osmania University seen as “a citadel of political activity,” recruiters refuse to risk campus visits during the present peak recruiting season. It’s not only a matter of safety; there is also a backlash against students who participate in “T” (separatist Telangana) activism, branding them as “agitators.”

News reports and some public opinion pin the riots on “anti-social elements,” suggesting that the disturbances were cooked up by opportunistic politicians and their paid thugs. There may be some truth to this, but overall the students’ presence and involvement (some students have gone on hunger strikes!) are beyond doubt. Even the university authorities support them. As one senior administrator put it, the students are “sincere in their agitation,… participating in the making of history.”

If anything, this struggle cuts across the Town/Gown divide. The fight for a separate Telangana is about redressing long-standng injustice done to the communities from which many students come but to which they may not necessarily return. The riots are hurting everybody—not just the students’ relatively privileged prospects but the poor too, especially Hyderabad’s countless day laborers, people who do not have enough money to carry them over to the next day. Many others are suffering too, including service workers and small business owners, for example, who depend on Hyderabad’s world-class high tech and research institutes. Flower sellers can’t sell flowers; cancelled New Year festivities meant huge losses; construction workers (a major employer here) can’t be hired. But while the damage is widespread and dismaying, it is not entirely to what extent off-campus agitation is artificially fanned by politicians, as many by-standers seem to believe.

Perhaps because much of the rioting involved students, and especially the privileged ones who are (or were?) heading for elite higher education and competitive technology placements, the problems of Telangana’s poor are not receiving much coverage, though they are at the eye of this storm. Undeniably, Hyderabad’s students are a major force in India’s economy, existing on a separate “track” from the poor and lumpen “anti-social elements.” But in this instance there seems to be a common cause of sorts—I say “of sorts” because I doubt its duration. At a wedding I recently attended, where the hosts and the guests were all middle-class academics, there wasn’t one family whose post-college children were still living in India. All of them were in the sciences and/or high-tech, most graduates of elite Indian institutions, and all living abroad. This is a separate track from the sweeper who cleans my guest-house’s corridor.

Of course not everybody goes abroad. 23% of Andhra’s students may people the nation’s IITs, IIITs, and other specialized institutions, but a recent television news included a report on protests in other parts of South India—in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and southern Andhra, areas where the Naxalites and other Maoist/Marxist groups have become entrenched. The newspapers say nothing about that. We may not be able to predict the future, but the logic of a common cause beckons on the one hand and the lure of paying jobs overseas beckons on the other.

  • Hyderabad, January 3, 2010

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