Student unrest escalates at flagship regional university

Two students have been expelled and three suspended for various periods amid ongoing and protracted protest action at a New Delhi-based flagship regional university established and governed by the eight member nations of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

The students of South Asian University (SAU), who have been involved in unrest and agitation for almost 50 days, are calling for an increase in stipends and scholarships, and more time for students to complete their PhDs in the wake of COVID-19.

They are now pushing their cause beyond India’s borders and have appealed in writing to student unions and other student groups across South Asia to observe a day of protest on Friday 2 December in solidarity with their “struggle for accessible higher education in the South Asian region”.

“The struggle is a united effort to preserve the unique character of the university as a public institution facilitating the uninhibited flow of knowledge across borders,” according to the appeal released on 30 November signed by a group calling themselves the “General Body of Students” at SAU.

Besides India, students of all other SAARC member nations – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – are studying at South Asian University (SAU) which started its operations in the academic year 2010. Among its ideals is to promote regional cooperation among young people and provide opportunities beyond national borders.

The university now offers postgraduate and doctoral programmes in various disciplines and its degrees are recognised by all the eight SAARC countries.

The protests escalated last month after police were called in and two students received expulsion notices.

Struggling with cost of living

Amol Shaila Suresh, a masters student in development economics at SAU, told University World News students are struggling with the cost of living

“We feel that with rising inflation there is a need to increase the stipend because it is becoming difficult for [students] who have come from outside India to live here and meet their expenses.”

Suresh, who is Indian, added: “When this institute was established, it was their mandate that no [student] should be deprived of studies due to lack of money under any circumstance. But now the situation has become such that it is becoming difficult for the [students] to survive.”

Students say the amount of stipend money has been reduced since the pandemic and economic criteria for determining who gets scholarships tightened, leading to a drop in numbers qualifying for financial assistance.

A student from Bangladesh enrolled for a PhD, requesting anonymity, said: “The authorities have not been interested in listening to our demands. They have reduced stipends and now there are fewer scholarships. It is becoming difficult for us to survive.”

Earlier, there were five scholarships for Indian and another five for foreign students in each of the seven departments. Now they have reduced it to two in each department, one for a foreign student and another for an Indian, the student said.

A sociology student from India, Umesh Joshi, one of those expelled for his part in the protests, said the number of scholarships at the university had been substantially reduced, and were being reduced even further. “There was a time when in a class of 30 students, 21 used to get some scholarship or the other,” he told University World News.

Students said they want an increment in their stipends in view of inflation so they can continue their research and studies without hardship and are demanding an increase of the masters students stipend to INR7,000 (US$86) from INR5,000 (US$61) per semester at present.

They also want a paid-for extension for COVID-affected PhD students as the pandemic led to delays in the progress of their research. International PhD students are demanding from India’s University Grants Commission stipend funding on a par with Indian government-funded Junior Research Fellowships for PhD students.

Police summoned to campus

Protests began on 13 October in front of the university administration offices after students submitted a “charter of demands” earlier that month, according to the account by the student body. On 1 November, the students launched an indefinite sit-in and occupied the lobby of the administration floor of the university.

“For the first time in the history of the intergovernmental institution, on October 13, Delhi Police was summoned by the [university] administration within its territory, thereby threatening the sacrosanct nature of the university,” according to the student body’s account.

Two students were expelled, two suspended for a year and one, a PhD student from Bangladesh, suspended for a semester. The student body described these punitive actions by the university as “arbitrary” and “without due procedure”.

The university has said it was justified in calling the police in order to prevent any further disturbance of the peace. It said students had been engaging in “acts of indiscipline” and had defied the code of conduct. Therefore, the authorities took action against them.

According to the university, two students “forcibly barged into the office of the acting registrar with a group of students when the said registrar was meeting with other officials of the university in his office, and made it dysfunctional/paralysed. Later they made the acting registrar captive for several hours and did not allow him to leave his office for home well after the close of business of the day and not before the availability of assistance from the host country” (the latter being a reference to the arrival of police).

Students organised hunger strike

The expulsions further angered students, who organised a 24-hour hunger strike on 7 November with 80 students taking part, according to the student body’s account. Eight students from four countries started an indefinite hunger strike.

Tensions rose when a hunger striker, admitted to ICU (intensive care) on 22 November, suffered a cardiac arrest, according to the student body’s account. At an earlier hunger strike “one by one, several of our comrades collapsed or were rushed to hospitals at ungodly hours of the night,” it said.

Although expelled, Joshi – and another student, Bhimraj M – said they planned to continue their protest against the university administration. Joshi said they were no longer allowed to enter the university. The administration was still not ready to talk to them, he noted.

According to SAU authorities, after several days of protest, the administration agreed to some demands but maintained that not all demands could be accepted as only the university’s governing body meeting was authorised to make certain decisions.

Sahil Kumar Singh, a masters student in the international relations department, explained that a governing body meeting was supposed to take place for these decisions. “But no meeting has taken place since 2017,” he said at a press conference earlier this month.

A statement issued by the university, however, said the governing body meeting could not be held since 2017 due to “unavoidable circumstances” and “logistical issues”. The Ministry of External Affairs has the authority to set up the meeting.

There are concerns that events on the campus will deter foreign students and the SAU, as a hub of international learning, will lose its relevance. “The administration is currently working against the university’s stated mission to foster the spirit of regional integration and cooperation,” said a student.

Administration using ‘scare tactics’

Suresh said via Twitter last week that the SAU administration was using “all the cheap tactics” to scare the protesting students, “like complaining to embassies about foreign students and by instilling the fear of deportation”.

He told University World News that students from the science stream, which includes biotechnology, computer science and mathematics, are “not participating actively in this protest under pressure from the faculty who are in the management of the institute”. He noted they feared reprisals from the faculty.

However, students from the university’s remaining four departments – economics, sociology, legal studies and international relations – were supporting the protest, he said.

University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this article.