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SAU 'Undertaking', Academic Freedom & Protest: Here's What the Law & History Say

If Arun Jaitley was a present-day student his political career might have been quelled before it began.

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Through the course of a long and illustrious political career, former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley also served as a Minister of Defence, Information and Broadcasting, Law and Justice, and Corporate Affairs.

Decades prior to donning these important hats, he is remembered as having played an instrumental role, as a Delhi University student, in getting all his peers the right to vote in the University elections. Reflecting on his time as a DU student, he also once called himself the “first Satyagrahi” against the Emergency. 

If Jaitley, however, was a present-day student at the South Asian University (SAU) — his Satyagraha would have perhaps been quelled even before it began. His glorious political career stubbed before it could flicker to life.

Why?

In a reported “undertaking” that the university allegedly expects its students to sign, SAU asks its students to "declare" that they would "neither join any agitation or strike nor participate in any activity that has a “tendency to disturb peace and tranquility of academic environment” on the campus.

This undertaking is said to be a part of the admission guidelines for SAU's 2023-24 academic session. What this means is that if you are hoping to join the university this year, you have to promise to not participate in any agitation or strike during your time there. If the word “agitation” is allowed a broad berth of interpretation it would mean any protest, any Satyagraha.

Students in conversation with The Quint have called this undertaking “completely undemocratic” and against their interest.

On Friday, 28 July, The Quint reached out to the Public Relations Office (PRO) of SAU via e-mail, with questions about the reported clause on agitation/strike. However, we received no response. When The Quint reached out to the PRO again on Monday, 31 July, via call, he said that "the University hasn't responded to the questions yet."

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But What Does the Law Say?

Right to peaceful protest is a fundamental right.

Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression.

Article 19(2) allows for reasonable restrictions to this right, which include restrictions imposed in the interests of the security and sovereignty of the country, friendly relations with Foreign States, public order, decency or morality in the relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. 

What they do not include, however, is arbitrary choice by university administration. 

In conversation with The Quint, Advocate Soutik Banerjee explained: 

"Fundamental right to protest can be curbed only with reasonable restrictions. Campus discipline is not one of them. University is performing a public function, as such it becomes amenable to writ jurisdiction even though it may not, strictly speaking, be 'State'."

What does this mean?

If a student of any university within the territorial boundaries of India — regardless of whether it is public or private, run by the government or established by the eight member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (as in the case of SAU) — feels that their fundamental rights have been infringed upon, they can move the High Court under Article 226.

If unsuccessful at this stage, they can also file a Special Leave Petition at the Supreme Court of India.

AND HOW DO OUR COURTS VIEW THIS FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT? 

Our constitutional courts have repeatedly upheld the right to protest. 

In 2012 (In Re: Ramlila Maidan Incident) the apex court held:

“The right to peacefully and lawfully assemble together and to freely express oneself coupled with the right to know about such expression is guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution of India. Such a right is inherent and is also coupled with the right to freedom and liberty which have been conferred under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.’

In Anita Thakur vs State of Jammu & Kashmir, the Supreme Court had said:

If Arun Jaitley was a present-day student his political career might have been quelled before it began.
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The Importance of Protest...

In light of these apex court judgments, it becomes evident that protest, including those by students, form a key component of India’s democratic discourse. But its impact impact isn't limited to India alone. The briefest glimpse at world history is enough to show how protest has birthed reform.

The White Rose movement, initiated by medical students in Nazi Germany, helped shed light to the atrocities committed by the National Socialists. Former US President Richard Nixon had said that the anti-war protests over Vietnam, which began mostly on college campuses, were part of the reason the US eventually withdrew troops

In a video released in 2018, The Wire‘s Raghu Karnad noted: “Our history of protest is part of the reason we still live in a democracy.”

Additionally, student protest is an integral part of university education. It is the student’s first democratic interaction with  forces much more powerful to them, and their first exercise of agency and autonomy. By disallowing them this right, the universities not only move far and further away from constitutional values, but they also disregard a history that is rich with student movements.

It paves way for an exclusionary, intolerant and unilateral discourse. The antithesis of a democracy, and the enemy of reform.

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Not Just an SAU Problem

Earlier this year SAU had also reportedly suspended four faculty members for supporting students who had protested against a reduction in the the monthly stipend for Masters' students and scholarships. But SAU is not the only university that scrunches its nose and wags its fingers at agitating students.

As per the Academic Freedom Index Update 2023, India’s Academic Freedom has only dwindled since 2013. 

In 2017, a private university in Greater Noida reportedly rusticated nine students for protesting against a “debarring fine”. In 2019, twenty three students were expelled from a University in Madhya Pradesh for protesting against controversial tweets by a pair of visiting professors. 

In March this year, two DU students were reportedly debarred for planning to screen the BBC documentary — which focuses on Prime Minister Modi's purported role amid the 2002 Gujarat Riots. Subsequently a single judge of the Delhi High Court called the debarment a “violation of natural justice” and quashed the order. The University then challenged that decision in an appeal. This case will be now be heard on 14 September.

But the university administration is only part of a larger ecosystem that crushes dissent. Many students were arrested in 2019, amid protests against the CAA and the NRC. Some slapped with a stringent anti-terror law that makes grant of bail virtually impossible.

In the backdrop of this, it becomes even more crucial that a university stands by its students and protects her right to agitate as a key component of her education. Because if unabated, not only will this ring the death knell for academic freedom; we will also perhaps never stumble upon an Arun Jaitley again. Lest we forget: today's government was yesterday's protesters.

(With inputs from Hindustan Times, India Today, Livelaw and Outlook.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Education   Academic Freedom 

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