Groundxero | 30 June, 2023
On June 16, 2023, the South Asian University (SAU), Delhi, suspended four teachers — Snehashish Bhattacharya (Faculty of Economics), Srinivas Burra (Faculty of Legal Studies), Irfanullah Farooqi (Faculty of Social Sciences), and Ravi Kumar (Faculty of Social Sciences) — in connection with the 2022 student protests that rocked the university. The four faculty members were singled out and accused of “instigating” the students to protest against the university administration and were suspended over “allegations of misconduct” and violation of the code of conduct of the University. At a press conference held at the Press Club of India in New Delhi on 28 June, 2023, speakers representing various all-India bodies of teachers and other democratic voices in the country raised their concern at the creeping process of autocratisation in the institutions of higher learning in India, and in particular, brought to attention the shocking events in South Asian University (SAU).
Teachers affiliated to different unions, who addressed the press meet last Wednesday, denounced the suspension of four faculty members at SAU and termed it “illegal and an assault on academic freedom”. In a Press Statement they pointed out that the suspension order by the SAU administration, accusing the faculty members of “instigating” students’ protest in the university, must be seen as a part of the larger thrust to further curb the space for ideas that militate for democratization of society, challenge authoritarianism, and uphold economic and social justice. The statement said that the arbitrary, authoritarian, and vindictive actions of the university administration appear to be a necessary complement of the commercialisation and saffronisation of higher education, and are a part of the efforts to terrorize and stultify the intelligentsia into submission.
The full copy of the statement is given below :
JUNE 28, 2023
Why this Press Conference?
To bring to your attention and to the rest of the country the shocking events in South Asian University (SAU), New Delhi, and to save the proud history of SAU as a unique South Asian institution of higher learning. We, the concerned scholars and academics, are deeply troubled by events at SAU. At the heart of our concern about what is happening in SAU is the punitive approach adopted by the university authorities towards both students and faculty. On June 16, 2023, New Delhi’s South Asian University (SAU) administration suspended Dr Snehashish Bhattacharya (Faculty of Economics), Dr Srinivas Burra (Faculty of Legal Studies), Dr Irfanullah Farooqi and Dr Ravi Kumar (Department of Sociology). The four faculty members have been directed by the SAU 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 and, as a height of illegal brazenness, mark their presence every day in the offices of the Deans of their respective faculties.
What happened in SAU immediately before these suspensions?
On December 30, 2022, these faculty members received notices from the university administration asking them to respond to several charges, including writing letters to the university community; instigating students to protest; failure to perform appropriate duties and to follow university rules, regulations, etc.; and visiting one of the five students, who were expelled/ rusticated on November 4, 2022, in the hospital after he suffered a cardiac arrest/stroke. Later, on May 19, 2023, the four faculty members were summoned before a “fact finding” committee that asked them to provide answers to anywhere between 132 and 246 questions using pen and paper sitting in the room in the presence of the committee members within the same day. The four teachers rightly rejected this travesty of due process. The request of the four teachers to provide these questions by email along with reasonable time to answer them was refused. A similar appeal by the four teachers to the Acting President of South Asian University remains unanswered.
To understand the present suspension of faculty members, the events in SAU that unfolded between September and November 2022 are of significance. In September 2022, students of SAU initiated a protest against the downward revision of monthly stipends for Master’s students, and demanded that instead of being reduced, the stipends should rather be increased. They also demanded adequate student representation in certain statutory committees of the university, particularly the committees on gender sensitisation and sexual harassment. The administration of South Asian University failed to pay heed to these protests and instead sought to brazenly crush them. A wide cross section of faculty members of South Asian University wrote a letter to their administration asking for a constructive solution to this crisis. However, instead of paying heed to this practical counsel, the administration began to target the four faculty members by accusing them of “instigating” students. In order to maximise the impact of this autocratic attack, the four faculty members were selectively targetted to undermine the democratic rights of teachers.
How do we understand these actions?
As far as we know, the methods used by the students did not go beyond protest meetings, gheraos and an indefinite hunger strike – all of which are the usual forms of peaceful protest. The many faculty members who wrote and spoke to the administrative authorities urging a different course of action that might reconcile students and win back their trust, have similarly acted well within democratic norms. To selectively single out five students and four faculty members for disciplinary action – even as the protests were dying down after the move to the new campus – seems to be arbitrary and authoritarian, and surely a vindictive policy for a university administration. These measures are also in plain violation of SAU’s own rules and regulations.
At this press conference Speakers representing various all-India bodies of teachers and other democratic voices in the country raise their concern at the creeping process of autocratisation in the institutions of higher learning in India. Given the magnitude and severity of the attack, it is even difficult to fully comprehend what the South Asian University has been witnessing in the recent months. In levelling these charges against the faculty, those sitting in top administrative positions at the University have exhibited a regrettable lack of comprehension of a university’s function, the nature of the learning / teaching process, and the responsibilities of the students, teachers and administration at institutions of higher learning towards each other. Given the lack of any due process or any logical reasoning provided by the SAU administration for these suspensions, it makes a compelling case for us to see these suspension orders of faculty members as part of the larger thrust to further curb the space for ideas that militate for democratization of society, challenge authoritarianism, and uphold economic and social justice. These suspensions are part of the efforts to terrorize and stultify the intelligentsia into submission. In addition, these events and actions appear to be a necessary complement of the commercialisation and saffronisation of higher education and the undermining of the South Asian character of the university.
What we seek?
Through this press conference, we call upon the different bodies of academicians and intellectuals at large, as well as all concerned citizens, to support the faculty and students of SAU in this hour of need. We seek that the suspension of the faculty members be revoked and the continuous trend of expulsion/rustication of students be halted. We urge the Chair of SAU’s highest decision-making body, the Governing Board, as well as all other members of the Board, to prevent the lasting damage to the proud history of SAU as a unique South Asian institution of higher learning. The bunch of ‘Actors’ (Acting President, Acting Vice-President and Acting Registrar) who are presently ruling the roost at SAU should be replaced with academics of repute and integrity capable of steering the university towards achieving its cherished goals.
JFME, FEDCUTA, AIRFTE, IAFN, JANHASTAKSHEP, AIPF, JNUTA
Joint Forum for Movement on Education (JFME), Federation of Central Universities Teachers’ Associations (EEDCUTA), All India Forum for Right to Education (AIFRTE), India Academic Freedom Network (IAFN), Janhastakshep, All India People’s Forum (AIPF), Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association (JNUTA)