MEA-backed South Asian University suspends faculty supporting protesting students

The students, who have been demanding higher stipends, among others, have been at the receiving end since September.

Published : Jun 23, 2023 18:05 IST - 5 MINS READ

SAU students on protest.

SAU students on protest. | Photo Credit: Ismat Ara

Delhi’s South Asian University (SAU) has suspended four faculty members allegedly for supporting students who have been staging protests for months for certain demands. The students have been demanding an increase in the monthly stipends of those pursuing masters’ degrees, which had been cut, and representation in statutory committees such as gender sensitisation and sexual harassment committees.

On June 16, the administration suspended Snehashish Bhattacharya (Economics), Srinivas Burra (Legal Studies), Irfanullah Farooqi (Sociology and Social Sciences), and Ravi Kumar (Sociology and Social Sciences).

The issue first flared up in September 2022, when several SAU students initiated a protest against the slashing of stipends for M.A. students. The protests grew over the weeks, but the situation escalated in October, when the university administration called in the Delhi Police to disperse the protesting students. A day after the protests, 13 faculty members wrote to the administration against it. In a letter, they said: “Given the international character of the university and possible negative ramifications of such action, this should be carefully avoided irrespective of contingent impulses.”

The suspended professors have been accused of “inciting and leading students and outsiders” and “antisocial acts”, among other things. But the faculty members said they believe their duty extended beyond delivering lectures and sought to address the dire need for improved stipends. Recognising the financial hardships faced by many students, they urged the administration to reassess the stipend structure to ensure a more equitable environment.

A faculty member who requested anonymity told Frontline that several of the protesting students came from poor financial backgrounds and their stipends, which had been slashed, were a matter of survival for them.

The SAU administration said that the professors were not suspended for their support to the protesting students and that it had given them a fair chance to respond to the notice before suspension.

Trouble in SAU

SAU is an intergovernmental university funded by the governments of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries. It falls under the purview of the Ministry of External Affairs. It lacks a registered students’ or teachers’ union, and the top three administrative positions are currently vacant and held by officials on temporary assignment.

In November 2022, the administration issued office orders announcing expulsion, rustication, or suspension of five protesting students. Fifteen faculty members wrote to the university community expressing their deep concern over the worsening of the situation and requested the administration to begin a process of sincere communication with the students.

In a letter, they said: “These actions have succeeded in making internal issues public and in drawing attention of the press for all the wrong reasons. This will have severe negative repercussions for the future of the university, destabilise it further, and jeopardise the future of all the stakeholders.”

Soon, the students began a mass hunger strike that turned into an indefinite hunger strike, with some of them registering alarmingly low levels of blood sugar and blood pressure.

Ammar Ahmad’s hospitalisation

Some students had to be admitted to hospital on an emergency basis to revive their condition. Ammar Ahmad, a masters’ student in the sociology department, who had been suspended in November, collapsed and had to be admitted to the intensive care unit of Primus Hospital, Chanakyapuri.

According to his friends, family, and other students, the initial collapse was caused by mental agony and emotional distress as well as his inability to convince the administrators of his innocence.

Later that night he suffered a cardiac arrest and could be revived only after being administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

Following his hospitalisation, the administration withdrew the earlier orders against the students but issued fresh notices against two students named Umesh Joshi and M. Bhimraj. These students have challenged their expulsion orders in the Delhi High Court.

Till date, Ammar Ahmad’s speech is seriously damaged, he is not able to walk on his own, has a serious infection in the left eye that will require surgery, and completely reliant on caretakers for daily functioning.

Several faculty members have repeatedly requested the administration to start a dialogue with students and find an amicable solution, to no avail.

The students are waging a relentless battle against an uncaring administration.

The students are waging a relentless battle against an uncaring administration. | Photo Credit: Ismat Ara

Harassing faculty

In December, five faculty members received notices from the administration asking them to respond to several charges, including instigating students to protest, questioning administrative decisions in relation to the students’ protests, failure to perform appropriate duties and to follow university rules, and association with a Marxist study circle.

In March 2023, a committee comprising Sanjay Chaturvedi, Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, Deepa Sinha, Dean, Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Sciences, and Ravindra Pratap, Dean, Faculty of Legal Studies, was formed to investigate the matter.

In May, the faculty members currently suspended were asked by the committee to answer 130 to 150 questions in writing in front of the committee members. They were also advised that their comments could be used as evidence in deciding whether or not to pursue further legal action against them.

The committee turned down multiple requests to electronically distribute the questions to faculty members, allow them to respond through email, or give them additional time. According to the suspended faculty members, responding to most questions would have necessitated extensive research and legal advice, which was not possible given the committee’s guidelines.

The Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers Association (JNUTA) slammed the suspension, calling it unjust and intimidating. In a statement, JNUTA condemned the “unprecedented harassment, coercion, and intimidation” of the SAU faculty by the administration.

The Federation of Central Universities Teachers Association (FEDCUTA) also condemned the move, stating that SAU had been witness to a creeping process of autocratisation that is a “necessary complement” of the commercialisation and saffronisation of higher education.

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