Anger over suspension of faculty following student protests

The suspension of four faculty members at a New Delhi-based flagship regional university established, governed and funded by the eight member nations of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has caused outrage, with teachers’ and scholars’ groups condemning the university for its ‘anti-democratic’ action.

The suspensions were connected to the 2022 student hunger strikes and other actions at the South Asian University (SAU) in protest against the downward revision of monthly stipends for postgraduate students.

The student protests led to the expulsion of two students – one of them, law student Bhimraj M, a dalit, has since been admitted to the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom on a scholarship – and the suspension of others.

Issuing the suspension order for four faculty members on 16 June, the SAU administration accused them of instigating students to protest, failing to “suitably discharge duties”, and claimed they had links with a Marxist study circle, according to a faculty member who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Amol Shaila Suresh, a masters student at SAU, said the suspension of the four faculty members showed the “egoistic and undemocratic nature” of the SAU administration.

He told University World News the suspended professors were not only great teachers but also good human beings. At times they went beyond their academic duties to help students in their personal and professional lives. “The accusation of inciting students is absolutely baseless and questions the autonomy of the student collective to decide for themselves,” said Suresh.

A 28 June joint statement of several university teaching bodies said that to selectively single out the students and faculty members for disciplinary action “seems to be arbitrary and authoritarian, and sheerly a vindictive policy for a university administration. These measures are also in plain violation of SAU’s own rules and regulations”, the statement read.

One of the suspended professors, who did not wish to be named, said 13 SAU teachers had written to the university administration in October 2022 and another 15 wrote in November in favour of the protesting students, and criticising the university’s handling of the dispute. But surprisingly, only four were targeted and suspended.

The suspended faculty members are Srinivas Burra from the faculty of legal studies, Irfanullah Farooqi from the faculty of social sciences, Snehashish Bhattacharya from the faculty of economics and Ravi Kumar from the faculty of social sciences.

Police called to campus

The university administration called the police twice last year to disperse the agitating students, first in October and then in November 2022.

The students launched an agitation last September after the university made a downward revision of stipends for postgraduate students from INR5,000 (US$61) to INR3,000 per month. The students said stipends should be raised to INR7,000 rather than curtailed.

The students’ protest continued for weeks, although the university withdrew the reduction in the stipend. However, the university did not concede to demands to hike the stipend.

Police were first called in October 2022, when students assembled at the office of the then SAU acting president. Police were called to the campus again a month later when the students launched a protest after the university announced the expulsion or suspension of five students.

On both occasions many faculty members supported the students and emailed letters to the university administration expressing concern over the university’s action.

One of the suspended faculty teachers told University World News on condition of anonymity: “In our first email we had said that police should not be called on campus. The matter should have been resolved internally and amicably through various bodies that are in place through dialogue etc.

“We wanted to point out the way universities usually function. We wanted that due processes should have been followed.”

A second email by these faculty members was in response to the student suspensions. “We said you can’t suspend students arbitrarily; you need to follow due process. We never took sides,” he said.

“Of course, teachers are always with students because they are part of the same community. But here we were only making a case of procedural integrity. We were getting our voice registered in relation to a very blatant procedural lapse,” he said. “We asked the university to follow due process and then suspend students. You should not randomly suspend, rusticate and expel students this way,” he added.

‘Show cause’ notices

Five of the faculty members were issued ‘show cause’ notices in December. A ‘show cause’ notice signals an employer’s intention to take disciplinary action if suitable explanations are not provided by an employee.

One of them later apologised, but the four who were later suspended refused to apologise, saying they had not done anything wrong.

“The four to five people at the top level in the university administration were appointed temporarily, but they are doing permanent damage to this beautiful project,” said Suresh.

“All top decision-makers are from the science faculty and have serious issues understanding dissent, social struggle and basic democratic values. During our protest, people in the administration had problems with us,” said Suresh.

Suresh alleged that students were being targeted as part of a larger plan of making the SAU campus free of protests, to crush every voice of dissent.

“It is visible in the silence of other SAU professors. The teaching staff is the most privileged among all, but they haven’t taken a stand and silently watched their colleagues being subjected to this humiliation. The economic incentives, lucrative salaries, diplomatic immunity and whatnot keep their mouths shut and their moral self dysfunctional,” said Suresh.

An SAU spokesperson told local media the university did not suppress the voice of teachers who criticised the administration for calling police on campus, and said it respects the voice of teachers, including expressions of their differences of opinion on principles in seminars and other places where students are present.

SAU said it had given the professors a fair chance to respond to the ‘show cause’ notice before the suspension.

Statements of support

The All India Federation of University and College Teachers’ Organisations (AIFUCTO), in a statement this week, condemned the action by the SAU administration.

AIFUCTO General Secretary Professor Arun Kumar said the enquiry conducted by the university’s fact-finding committee was “mere camouflage” of the “hidden undemocratic agenda of governance to stifle all vestiges of democratic voice for asking for rules and regulations to protect the academic interests of the university community”.

AIFUCTO also called for the SAARC secretary and India’s Ministry of External Affairs – as SAU comes under its remit – to “intervene urgently” and direct the SAU to immediately reinstate those suspended.

On 28 June, 22 international scholars also sought the withdrawal of the suspension.

“'The situation at South Asian University, a higher education institution brought forth by the international collaboration of the eight SAARC countries, is becoming a source of dismay and anxiety in regional academia,” the scholars, mostly associated with institutions in Bangladesh, said in a statement this week, adding that “the sequence of events showed lack of clarity and liability at a prominent university”.

According to the statement issued by the scholars: “The incidents that gradually unfolded from October 2022 onwards have exposed how academic freedom has been rendered weak and powerless in the face of regional autocratic governments and fascist, often populist, ideologues.”

No academic freedom is possible when students, professors and researchers can be subjected to such “disgusting and unprofessional conduct”, they added.

Binoy Viswam, a Communist Party of India member of the upper house of parliament, the Rajya Sabha, said he had written to External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. Viswam maintained the faculty members were only trying to mediate between the aggrieved students and the “obtuse SAU administration”.

Said Viswam: “Their expression of concern through a letter signed by 15 faculty members after the expulsion, rustication and suspension of five students was completely under democratic limits and was deliberately misinterpreted by the administration as ‘incitement’.”

Besides Indian students, students of other SAARC member nations – including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – study at 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 eight SAARC countries.