As SAU students continue protests, university administration remains unrelenting

Besides impersonal emails that asked the students to break their hunger strike and return to studies, the administration has made no effort towards reconciliation, say South Asian University (SAU) students.
Students stage a sit-in protest
Students stage a sit-in protest

On November 23, Asif (name changed), a Masters student at Delhi’s South Asian University (SAU) hailing from Bihar, collapsed on campus. More than a week later, he is still battling for his life in the ICU of a city hospital. He was one of the many students protesting at the university, raising various demands. Following his participation in the protest, Asif was rusticated for one academic year. “His rustication came as a shock as he made a representation before the SAU admin explaining his financial situation back home to request an increment in his monthly scholarship or permit him to work while pursuing his Master’s degree,” reads a statement issued by the protesting students. The day before he collapsed, Asif had met with the acting registrar Muhammad Abulaish. Coming out of the meeting, Asif told his friends, “The acting registrar is sadistically enjoying the students’ protests.”

The students of SAU in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri have been protesting for over a month, demanding increase in stipends and scholarships, and extension in course duration on account of the pandemic. But the university administration has not only ignored all their pleas, but has also done everything in its capacity to intimidate and harass the protesting students.

SAU is an international university sponsored by the eight member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). It started offering courses to students in 2010 and has both Indians and non-Indians among its students. The various stipends and scholarships offered to Masters students range from Rs 4,000 to 7,000. Of this, around Rs 3,200 goes to mess fees. The remaining amount is hardly sufficient for students to meet other living and academic expenses in Delhi. For a student who gets Rs 4,000, the remaining Rs 800 is far from sufficient to meet expenses like buying sanitary products, medicines, winter clothes, or taking printouts and buying books. PhD students get Rs 25,000, which too is lower than the UGC JRF amount of Rs 31,000.

It is not easy for student political organisations to function within campus. Nor does SAU have an elected student body. The only position that students can hold is that of observers in the internal complaints committees. However, these committees were not reconstituted for three years between 2019 and August 2022, on the claim that online mode of education didn’t require them. The students were basically left to fend for themselves in matters of sexual harassment, gender sensitisation, discrimination or any other grievances for the past three years. SAU, being an international institution, the staff there “enjoy privileges and immunities under the UN Privileges and Immunities Act 1947, which makes them immune from the Indian legal system. Hence, it is difficult for the students to seek help from the Indian legal mechanisms,” the students’ statement reads. This makes it all the more important that students are given full membership in place of the current observership in the various complaints committees in the university.

When discontent over the reduction of scholarships and stipends grew this year, the protests initially took the form of lone letters sent to the administration seeking increase in the amounts. Over the days, the students collectivised their demands. On October 10, 2022, they submitted a charter of demands to the administration and tried to follow up on October 13.

In the days that followed, not only did the administration refuse to engage in discussions with the students, it also called the police on the students who had formed a sit-in in the lobby outside the president’s office on 13th night. The students were then assured by the administration that it would convene a meeting on the following Monday, October 17. More than 100-150 students as well as members of the university administration, including the acting president, acting vice-president, registrar, and dean of students, attended the meeting. The students detailed their demands, only for the administration to yet again refuse to agree to any of them. They cited the fact that the university’s governing body needs to meet to make changes such as increasing stipends.

Ironically, the governing body had not met earlier this year when the university arbitrarily reduced the stipends. In fact, the last time the governing body, made up of two members from each SAARC country, met was in 2017. The administration also claimed paucity of funds to increase stipends and scholarships. Yet again, the students’ demand to release a financial statement went unheeded. It also came to light that the last time a financial statement was released was five years back. At the end of nearly five hours of fruitless discussions, the students walked out of the October 17 meeting.

The students continued to stage sit-in protests throughout October and were able to hold two informal meetings with the acting vice-president and acting registrar. These were possible after the students raised slogans in protest outside the administrative offices. The university authorities were never once polite or sympathetic during all these discussions, Bhimraj M, a PhD scholar at SAU, told TNM. “All of them still have a feudal mindset. When we meet with them in their offices, the students are never allowed to sit. They do not like students questioning them or raising our voices against them.”

Students raising slogans at the protest site in front of the university's administrative offices

Then, on October 31, the students occupied the administrative floor and launched an indefinite sit-in in front of the president’s and vice-president’s office. A month hence, their protests continue and their demands remain unheard. In fact, the situation has only worsened, with SAU launching action against the students. On November 4, the university proctor released an order initiating action against five students. Two were expelled, two rusticated for a year, and one non-Indian student was suspended for the duration of a semester, without any inquiry, show cause notice, or providing any reason. Bhimraj, who is one of the students who was rusticated for a year, says that the students’ protests evolved organically, without any specific leadership. He adds that they do not know how the university narrowed down on the five from the more than 100 students gathering to protest every day. In fact, Umesh Joshi, one of the expelled students, was not even present on campus for almost half a month during the initial days of protest, he says.

The proctorial order came after a set of changes in the administration. The former proctor, Arup Mitra, had refused to issue a similar order and resigned on November 3. This was followed by the appointment of Kapil Sharma, who issued the order against the students on November 4. The next day, the students launched a one-day mass hunger strike in which 82 students participated. The university’s silence and refusal to budge despite the relentless protests had become unsurprising by then.

On November 7, the protesting students launched an indefinite hunger strike. The health of several of the students was badly affected, and many had to be hospitalised. Even when students fell seriously ill, the university administration remained unmoved, refusing to get them medical help nor visiting the hospitalised students or offering to pay for the medical expenses. Those who took ill were taken to the hospital by the students themselves. Besides the impersonal emails that asked them to break the hunger strike and return to studies, the administration made no effort towards reconciliation. On occasions when it was reported that the health of some student was critical, the administration would agree for short meetings with one or two representatives, only to go back to its original unrelenting stand once the student’s condition improved, Bhimraj says. Some faculty members who sympathise with the students visited them in a personal capacity. Bhimraj says that it is likely that they too faced administrative pressure and intimidation to distance themselves from the protesting students.

The students were also able to exert political pressure by getting several parliamentarians to write to the Ministry of External Affairs, requesting its intervention in the matter, but to no avail. Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar, in a reply to one of the MPs, said that hurdles in SAARC have prevented meetings, including those in connection with SAU, being conducted in recent years, affecting the university’s administration and budget. He wrote, “India is working with the SAARC secretary general and like-minded member states to try and resolve these issues.”

The External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar's response to a letter by Kunwar Danish Ali MP

On November 22, the five students say they were pressured by the administration to write a regret letter. It was on the following day that Asif collapsed following seizures and was hospitalised. He had been getting support for mental health from AIIMS. The students’ statement alleges that the university administration was “well aware of his situation and was repeatedly requested to reconsider at least Asif’s case on a priority basis. He met the acting registrar Muhammad Abulaish and acting vice-president Senthil Kumar Venugopal, requesting them to reconsider his arbitrary proctorial order. However, the administration refused to acknowledge his vulnerable condition and didn’t take any steps to address his concerns.” Asif had suffered a cardiac arrest when he collapsed, requiring him to be supported by a ventilator. He is still under treatment in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

Following this, more than 100 students went to the acting registrar’s office. As a result, a new proctorial order was released reducing punishment to suspensions ranging from two weeks to five days for all five students. “They compelled us to write a letter of regret saying that they will reconsider the decision. Instead, they betrayed us,” Bhimraj says. The students pressed forward with their demand for unconditional revoking of the proctorial orders, at least in the case of Asif, who was struggling for his life in the hospital. However, no positive response came their way. In all these interactions, there was no show of empathy for Asif from any of the university authorities, Bhimraj recalls.

The police were called to the university again by the administration. Junior Inspector Yogendra Kumar heard out the students and asked the administration to take some steps to build the students’ trust. The acting registrar shot off a mail to other administrative officers to convene an emergency meeting to relook into the proctorial order. However, none of them turned up on campus on the day of the meeting, displaying not only blatant disregard for the students’ collective demands but also indifference towards Asif’s health.

In fact, the administration released another proctorial order expelling Umesh and Bhimraj. Both of them were at the hospital taking care of their friend as he battled for his life in the ICU when the order reached them on November 25. They were charged with making the registrar’s office dysfunctional the previous day when they entered it to demand the revoking of the earlier orders. Yet again, the university followed no due process nor give them a chance to explain themselves. The irony is revealed when Bhimraj tells us that more than 100 students had entered the registrar’s office that day. Five others had been served show cause notices for the same reason while Umesh and he didn’t even get those. In fact, the two were on hunger strike on the said day, leaving them with no energy to lead the crowd into the office.

The students have been fighting for close to two months now. Bhimraj says that the general mood in the campus is one of despair. In his words, “It is very, very depressing.” Non-Indian students have even been threatened with deportation. Even before the current protests evolved, the acting vice-president Senthil Kumar Venugopal, then Dean, had been accused of discriminating against non-Indians and woman students. Students say that the administration’s tactic at present seems to be to destroy their morale. But echoing the voice of his fellow protesters at SAU, Bhimraj says that they will continue the sit-in protests and try to exert pressure through the media.

Edex Live reported on Thursday, December 1, that the university administration said that a committee has been formed to look into scholarship and stipend policies. "The administration has constituted and announced a scholarship and resource generation (SRG) committee which includes faculty members, administration staff and two external experts as the members to look into the matter and provide recommendations that will be placed before the Governing Board for approval when its meeting will take place in future,” it said, citing a university statement. 


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