Since 2017, students have been protesting over a lack of sufficient water and the poor quality of hostel food.

Apathy and simmering anger Events that led to Amrita college student Harshas death
news Protests Thursday, October 24, 2019 - 20:09

For the fourth day in a row, scores of students sat in protest at the Amrita School of Engineering campus in Bengaluru. They were demanding action against those who allegedly harassed their friend and classmate, 21-year-old Harsha Sri, a fourth-year engineering student who killed himself on the afternoon of October 21.

It was on this day that Harsha was called into a disciplinary hearing after he was accused of vandalism at the college. The disciplinary committee wanted Harsha to ‘confess’ his involvement in an incident of vandalism on September 23, after agitated students broke windshields and windows of seven college buses, students claimed. The alleged vandalism also included breaking the glass frame of a provision store and a CCTV camera. 

Though Harsha’s family and friends do not clearly know what happened during his hearing with the disciplinary committee on October 21, whatever transpired behind those doors allegedly led to the student’s death.

However, it is now clear that the students’ anger against the management had been simmering for months and what transpired on September 23 was a culmination of multiple events.  

What led to the vandalism?

Beginning in 2017, students in the college have been protesting against the management over the lack of sufficient water and the poor quality of food served in the hostel.

A student representative who helped lead the protests and alleges that he was also harassed, told TNM, “We pay Rs 85,000 for hostel fees each year. For that amount, we don't even get basic amenities like edible food and water. There have been numerous days where we did not even have water in our taps or to flush our toilets. For every floor which houses 150 students, we had to manage with one emergency water line.”

Though the students have repeatedly complained to the institute’s management since 2017, their protests have been in vain, the student leader said. “We would gather in numbers and walk from the hostel to the director’s quarters. Every time, the director would just ask us to submit a letter and say the issues would be resolved. But there was no change.” 

“As exams approached, we would naturally have to end the protests. But even in those times, the institute did not pay heed to our demands,” he added. 

The student leader alleged that in the last couple of weeks, the quality of the college hostel food had drastically deteriorated. That’s when they decided to take their concerns to the management again. 

“On 22nd September night, we joined together to meet the director again. We had been told that there is a shortage of water in the entire city and that the college was unable to arrange for more. We can understand the situation in summer, but in the monsoon, the situation did not improve, even though we have a rainwater harvesting system. Moreover, while we don’t have any water, the director and the principal who stay on the same campus have water 24x7.”

But on September 23, the situation worsened after college director Dhanraj offered a bizarre take on the students’ woes, including their complaints on the deteriorating quality of the hostel food. The students were told to assemble in the Sudhamani Hall of the college as Dhanraj was planning to address them himself. But the students were shocked when they heard their college director’s words. 

The student representative said, “Till then, we all used to respect Dhanraj sir, but that day he spoke in a wayward manner. Even a drunk person wouldn't speak like this. He said that even when Chandrayaan-2’s mission failed, we did not criticise the scientists but supported them. Similarly he asked us to support college authorities for failing to provide us with basic amenities.”

Dhanraj also seemingly told the students that “in the olden days, people used to manage without water” and clean plates with leaves, the student said. 

In another comparison, Dhanraj suggested that the global depreciation of the rupee was also a reason behind the issues at the college, and there was no remedy to the situation.

The student said, “When we expressed our displeasure, he called us a ‘nuisance’ and said that ‘you can do whatever you want’ as he headed back to his quarters. This was not received well by some of us.”

Some of the students followed Dhanraj to try and talk to him as he walked back to his quarters, but Dhanraj ignored the students, the student leader said. However at that point, he admits, the situation went out of control. 

“Some among us decided that they would break the windows of the buses and a few others joined. But we stopped them and asked them not to resort to vandalism,” he added.

The following day, all the hostel students were told to leave the premises indefinitely. They would only be allowed back in mid-October. 

The college is one of the many institutions run by Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham under Kerala-based spiritual leader Amritanandamayi. The college in Bengaluru has 2,000-plus students primarily in B.Tech and around 200 from M.Tech and MBA courses.  

Harassment and torture

Once the students returned to college, as many as 12 of them were rusticated or suspended for “a year without any proof,” they alleged. 

The students were questioned and allegedly harassed by a 10-member disciplinary committee. 

These 10 include Director Dhanaraj Swamy; Rakesh SG, a lecturer in the Mechanical Engineering Department; Bhaskar BL from the Chemistry Department; Ravi Kumar from the Mechanical Engineering Department; Ramesh TK from the ECE Department; Nipun Kumar and Amudha from the CSE Department; Venkatesh B from the Math Department; Nagaraja SR, the HOD of the Mechanical Engineering Department; and Murty NS, the HOD of ECE Department. All of them have now been booked under Section 306 (abetment of suicide) and 201 (disappearance of evidence) of the Indian Penal Code by local police.

“Even though they knew I did not do anything, they said they would sabotage my career and cancel my job offers. They accused me of breaking one CCTV camera, even though they knew I was innocent,” the student representative alleged. 

“They reduced me to tears and told me to give out the names of the other people, as if they were interrogating criminals. Because of me, the college has got many appreciation letters, but now they were saying his grades would be worthless. Luckily for me, my father supported me and told me not to worry.” 

He added, “They forced our parents to come to the college and then would not let them enter the premises. After all that, they told me and others, ‘we know you did not do anything'.”

Students and family have described Harsha as shy and dedicated to his studies. “Harsha was the one who would mostly be in the library. Before entering the committee room, he had told his friends that he would join them for a joint study session,” the student said.       

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