Student Protests at South Asian University; Four faculty members suspended

  • June 21, 2023

On June 16, 2023, the South Asian University (SAU), Delhi, suspended four faculty members on “allegations of misconduct” and violation of the code of conduct of the University, “which need to be investigated”. The four faculty members — Snehashish Bhattacharya (Faculty of Economics), Srinivas Burra (Faculty of Legal Studies), Irfanullah Farooqi (Faculty of Social Sciences), and Ravi Kumar (Faculty of Social Sciences) — have been singled out and accused of “instigating” the students to protest against the university administration.


South Asian University (SAU) started its operations in the academic year of 2010. It was established and is governed by the eight South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.  The university offers post-graduate and doctoral programmes in various disciplines including Economics, Mathematics, Computer Science, International Relations and Law.


The professors at this university are supposed to be provided immunity as per the convention on the privileges and immunities of the United Nations to defend their rights of freedom of expression and prevention from policing. The suspension of the four professors for expressing their concern over the “arbitrary actions” of the administration in dealing with student protest in the campus is pure political vendetta and violation of the democratic rights to free speech and expression in an academic institution. A coterie of professors, including the acting President, Vice President and Registrar have been whimsically running the university, as the governing body of the university could not be constituted due to the cancellation of SAARC meetings for several years. The current suspension order is another attempt of this coterie to intimidate and silence the faculty and the students who raise their voices against their authoritarian and arbitrary actions.


Student Protests at SAU


Last year was not the first time that the South Asian University had seen student protests. In 2021, several students from the University had decided to boycott classes and protest for the immediate disbursal of “scholarships and free ships with arrears from October 2020” in addition to demanding “phased accommodation” on the university’s campus.


In September 2022, protests erupted on the university campus, after the students demanded an increase in Masters and PhD scholarships and adequate representation of students in certain statutory committees of the university, particularly the committees on gender sensitisation and sexual harassment. On the evening of October 13, 2022, the university administration called in the Delhi Police to disperse students who had gathered at the Acting President’s office.


On October 14, 2022, thirteen faculty members wrote to the university administration against the act of calling police into the campus to disperse protesting students and to resolve internal issues. The letter further stated that “given the international character of the university and possible negative ramifications of such action, this should be carefully avoided irrespective of contingent impulses.” On November 1, 2022, several faculty members met the Acting President, Acting Vice President, and Acting Registrar and requested them to initiate mechanisms to de-escalate the situation.


The University had responded to the protests by announcing expulsion, rustication or suspension of 5 students on November 4, 2022, terming their conduct as an act of indiscipline. On 5 November, 15 faculty members of the University wrote an email to the university community expressing their deep concern regarding these arbitrary actions of the university administration which “were taken without following any due process”. Moreover, the administration was requested to begin a process of sincere dialogue with students to discuss their demands.


On November 5, 2022, the students began a mass hunger strike, which turned into an indefinite hunger strike from November 7, 2022.  Over the days, several students who took part in the indefinite hunger strike fell ill and quite a few students had to be admitted to hospital on emergency basis to revive their physical condition. Some of the faculty members made efforts to mediate between the university administration and the students and also tried to talk to the Acting President to find an amicable solution. However, as the university administration officials did not take into consideration the faculty’s requests, the impasse continued.

Hunger strike by SAU students in November 2022

One of the five students who were expelled/rusticated/suspended on November 4, 2022, Ammar Ahmad (MA Sociology, Ist semester), collapsed on the night of November 22, 2022 and had to be admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of Primus Hospital, Chanakyapuri. Later that night Ammar had a cardiac arrest and could only be revived after being administered cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) for approximately six minutes. Ammar remained admitted at Primus till December 17, 2022. Due to the persistent demands made by the protesting students asking the university to take care of the expenses of Ammar’s treatment, the university officials finally made a payment covering a part of the expenses incurred at Primus. From Primus, Ammar was shifted to Al-Shifa hospital, Abul Fazal Enclave, Okhla, from where he was finally discharged on January 17, 2023.


Till date Ammar’s speech remains severely affected, he cannot walk on his own, has a severe infection in his left eye that will require a surgery, and remains fully dependent on care-givers for his daily functioning. According to Ammar’s friends, family and other fellow students, given Ammar’s already fragile mental health, the initial collapse was brought about due to mental agony and emotional distress caused by the unjustified rustication and his inability to convince the administrators regarding his innocence despite several attempts.


Ammar’s situation, and the lack of sensitivity on part of the university officials, sharply agitated the students. On November 23, 2022, the protesting students went to the Acting Registrar’s office to demand that the university officials should visit Ammar in the hospital, oversee his treatment, and take care of the medical expenses. The university administration again called in the Delhi Police to disperse the students. The students continued with the hunger strike, now specifically demanding that the university take care of Ammar’s medical needs and associated expenses.


Given the backdrop of Ammar’s hospitalisation, the university administration withdrew the earlier office orders regarding expulsion/suspension/rustication of students (that were issued without following any due process) and issued fresh show cause notices to several students on November 26, 2022. These notices were also in relation to the students entering the Acting Registrar’s office on November 23, 2022. Further, two students, Umesh Joshi (doctoral research scholar, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences) and Bhimraj M (doctoral research scholar, Faculty of Legal Studies), were summarily expelled from the university on November 25, 2022.


The student agitation finally ended in December 2022 on the commencement of the winter vacation and with the beginning of the process of shifting the university campus from Chanakyapuri to Maidangarhi.


Selective targeting of the faculty members


However instead of paying heed to the counsel of the faculty members, the administration had since then begun to selectively target a few faculty members by accusing them of “instigating” the students.  Although the letter to the University administration had 15 signatories, initially five and later four faculty members were singled out for disciplinary action.


On December 30, 2022, five faculty members received notices from the university administration asking them to respond to several charges, including: writing letters to the university community regarding certain administrative decisions in relation to the student protests. These faculty members individually responded to the notice on January 16, 2023.


On May 16, 2023, the four faculty members received an email stating the following: “The Fact Finding Committee (FFC) constituted by the Competent Authority would like to interact with you on Friday, 19 May 2023, at 11 am in the President’s Committee Room (ES 402). Kindly make it convenient to attend.”


During the interaction with the FFC on May 19, 2023, the faculty members were asked to provide answers to between 132 and 246 questions in writing by the end of the working day, using pen and paper and sitting in front of the committee members. The faculty members were told that if they choose to leave some questions unanswered, it is possible that it may be used as evidence against them in the future. The questions included fresh (though unsubstantiated) allegations and accusations that were not part of the communication from the administration dated December 30, 2022, or the responses submitted on January 16, 2023.


This way of conducting a fact-finding inquiry is unheard of in academia. The faculty members felt extremely humiliated and insulted by this entire experience, which appeared to be the intent of the committee in any case. Given the accusatory nature of a large number of questions, the committee appeared to be prejudiced from the very outset. Moreover, several questions were in nature, which appeared to have been framed with the purpose of implicating the respondents. The sole motive of the entire exercise appeared to be to create grounds to retaliate against the faculty members and punish them.


The four faculty members did not respond to the sets of questions on May 19, 2023, but instead submitted a written request to the committee to share the questions with the faculty members electronically, to allow them to respond by email, and to give them more time. They also wrote to the Acting President on May 25, 2023, urging him to initiate appropriate steps to redress the deep humiliation that the faculty members were subjected to by the FFC, and requesting a meeting with him to discuss the issue and to provide any clarification that may be needed. However, they have not heard back from the committee or from the Acting President yet in this regard.


On June 16, 2023, orders were issued placing the four faculty members under suspension with immediate effect, stating that “there are allegations of misconduct” and violation of the code of conduct of the University, “which need to be investigated.” The four faculty members have been directed by the administration to not leave Delhi without prior permission, vacate their offices in the university premises, return their office computers as well as their official identity cards. Besides, the four teachers have been asked to mark their presence on all working days in the offices of their respective deans.


Teachers Associations Stand in Solidarity


Meanwhile, calling the suspension of the four faculty members of SAU as a “shockingly illegal move” the Federation Of Central Universities Teachers’ Associations (FEDCUTA) has urged the administration of the South Asian University to unconditionally rollback all these illegal steps. The body termed the university order to the four suspended teachers to mark their presence every day in the offices of the Deans of their respective schools as “height of illegal brazenness”. It said if the suspension of the four teachers on legally untenable grounds of ostensible misconduct is not withdrawn, the democratic movement of teachers from all over the country will use all constitutional means to attain justice.


The Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers Association (JNUTA) has strongly condemned the arbitrary suspension of four faculty by the South Asian University administration. The JNUTA in a statement said that it sees this act as unacceptable, unjust, and an attempt to intimidate and spread fear among those in the teaching community who raise their voices against the arbitrary and authoritarian actions of the administration. The statement asserted that JNUTA stands in complete solidarity with the faculty of SAU in defending their rights to speak truth to power and demanded that the suspension orders of SAU faculty and rustication/expulsion order of SAU students be immediately revoked and the administration start a dialogue to discuss the demands for an agreeable resolution at the earliest.



The faculty members have called the suspension notice against them as “targeted” and “illegal” and said that it should be revoked as it is a violation of the university rules, regulations and by-laws. They added that they have been requesting the administration to resolve matters within the university and amicably, and have committed this to the university administration and have sought meetings with the university acting president, Ranjan Kumar Mohanty, but have received no response. The faculty members are now considering moving to court against the suspension orders. 



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