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Suspension of SAU Professors and the Growing 'De-politicisation' of Universities

On 16 June, the South Asian University administration suspended four teachers for instigating students to protest.

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The recent suspension of four associate professors of the South Asian University (SAU) -- a post-graduate and research institution set up in August 2010 under an agreement of the eight SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries -- has been a shocking assault on the rights of the academicians who are teaching and guiding the SAU students.

It is pertinent to note that SAU was set up in a bid to advance cooperation, greater understanding and friendship among the eight SAARC countries.

The charges that have been raised against these SAU associate professors would be laughable if they were not so draconian. The main charge is that they, along with 11 other professors (why were these 11 excluded when action was being taken against the four suspended persons?) wrote an appeal to the Acting President of the SAU to open negotiations with the students with regard to their demands relating to the amount and conditions of scholarships and fellowships.

The students were asking for financial parity with the University Grants Commission’s (UGC) Junior Research Fellowship (JRF). On whose advice did the SAU authorities decide to reduce the scholarship amount, then withdraw the move but reject outright the issue of parity with JRF?

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'Faculty Members Charged With Instigating Students' Protest'

The faculty members known to me told me that they felt that the situation should not have been allowed to escalate to the point where students went on an indefinite hunger strike and police was twice called onto the campus to break up the students' protest. In a later appeal, they affirmed that "due process" should be followed in taking any disciplinary action against the students. These apparently reasonable requests from a responsible faculty were judged to be acts of gross “misconduct” by the authorities.

They now further charged first five, and then four, faculty members with “instigating” the students' protest because they “visited” the Primus hospital where a protesting student had to be admitted with severe health problems.

This "misconduct" was supposedly aggravated by their request that the SAU authorities assure the students that his medical bills would be met by the University.

As reported in the media, the "chosen" four, who have been suspended, were also "accused" of assisting in the functioning of a Marxist study circle. For a research university offering courses in the social sciences this is not merely an amazing charge but also shows absolutely no respect for the academic freedom that universities must encourage.

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'Suspension To Deter Students From Raising Demands In Future'

All the charges are largely unsubstantiated and whimsically leveled. This probably accounts for the manner in which the number of those who were finally charged and suspended kept being whittled down. The four professors who are now suspended are obviously being made an example of in order to deter students from raising demands in the future.

According to the press statement issued by various teachers' associations and from someone known to me, the suspended teachers have been asked to immediately vacate their rooms and yet to report on a daily basis in the office of the heads of their departments only confirms the petty and vindictive nature of the punitive action.

The conduct of affairs by the SAU authorities is not merely arbitrary; it is marked by an ad-hocism that is totally non-transparent. The top three administrative positions of the President, Vice-President and Registrar are being held by the present incumbents in an "Acting" capacity for over two years.

The SAU has no established committees for addressing grievances or gender and sexual harassment complaints. Yet the demand that rules and regulations be clearly articulated and followed for the future management of the University has been seen as sufficient cause for stringent disciplinary action.

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'Any Expression of Peaceful Dissent Met With Authoritarian Response'

Unfortunately, such offensives against the academic community, including students and now even faculty members, are becoming more and more frequent across campuses.

The vandalising of the library at the Jamia Milia Islamia and the physical assault by the police on students studying or seeking refuge there is still fresh in one’s memory. Professor Sonya Ghosh of the Jamia Teachers' Association (JTA) has been suspended for issuing a notice convening a meeting of the JTA.

Women students of Banaras Hindu University (BHU) sitting on a dharna outside their hostels protesting inaction from the administration after an alleged molestation case with a first-year student were lathi-charged by the police in September 2017. Delhi University campus routinely has section 144 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) imposed in order to prevent meetings, demonstrations and even lectures and seminars.

Women students have been beaten up and dragged into buses for detention for peacefully observing the birth centenary of Shaheed Bhagat Singh. A male student’s arm was viciously dislocated by the police during a protest. Jawaharlal Nehru University has been a special target with then-JNU Students' Union (JNUSU) President Kanhaiya Kumar and activist Umar Khalid being arrested after a meeting held on campus.

The assault on then JNUSU President Aishe Ghosh by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) students who were illegally allowed entry on campus was captured on CCTV but no further action was taken. Ghosh required stiches on her forehead.

Allahabad University students were brutally assaulted for demanding reversal of a massive fee hike. Aligarh Muslim University students are frequently subjected to police brutality.

In fact, one is no longer even surprised by these brutal assaults and arbitrary punitive measures including expulsion, rustication and suspension against students and teachers. There is a sad acceptance that any expression of legitimate and peaceful dissent will be met with an authoritarian response by officials.

Their growing strength is matched by the depletion of the democratic and intellectual rights and liberties of the academic community.

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'Standard Tactic To Blame Jawaharlal Nehru For Everything Wrong In India'

Unions of students and associations of teachers are increasingly being denied space altogether in the structure. The National Education Policy (NEP2020) makes no mention of these important organisations. Perhaps they are now only viewed as targets for the so-called "de-politicisation" of the universities.

It is a standard tactic these days to blame former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for everything that is identified as having gone wrong in India over the past 70 years or more but on this issue we can learn a lot from him. In his 1946 Convocation Address at the Allahabad University, Nehru stated that “if all is well with the universities, then all is well with the nation”. It was a modern approach to building a modern nation.

Unfortunately, today we are going downhill into an abyss where university after university is being accused of being packed with "anti-nationals" and the purpose of administrators and of the rules and regulations being imposed are sought to either contain or oust them.

Without academic autonomy, which should be the central aim of the structure and administration of higher education, and without the right to dissent which makes it both possible and responsible, the future not only of higher education but indeed of India as a democratic nation itself, is faced with dark times.

In the contemporary world, modern intellectual practices and institutions that foster them must be strengthened if India is indeed to ensure its role as a significant contributor to the growing and diverse body of international knowledge.

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Prof. Madhu Prasad is a retired Associate Professor from the Department of Philosophy at Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi. She is a founding member of the All India Forum for Right to Education (AIFRTE), which was established in 2009.

(This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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After two days of publication of this opinion piece, the Public Relations Officer Mr Aheibam Prasad has sent the reaction of SAU by writing an email on grievance@thequint.com, the full contents of which are reproduced below:

Your publication of "a shocking assault on the rights of the academicians who are teaching and guiding the SAU students" is false and prima facie libellous. Your suppression of truth is unfair.

Your publication of "the charges that have been raised against these SAU associate professors" is false and prima facie libellous. Your suppression of truth is unfair.

Your publication that the "main charge is that they... wrote an appeal to the Acting President of the SAU to open negotiations with the students with regard to their demands relating to the amount and conditions of scholarships and fellowships"  is false and prima facie libellous. Your suppression of truth is unfair.

Your publication that "police was twice called onto the campus to break up the students' protest" is false and prima facie libellous. Your suppression of truth is unfair.

Your publication that "[t]hese apparently reasonable requests from a responsible faculty were judged to be acts of gross “misconduct” by the authorities" is false and prima facie libellous. Your suppression of truth is unfair.

Your publication that "[t]hey now further charged first five, and then four, faculty members with “instigating” the students' protest because they “visited” the Primus hospital where a protesting student had to be admitted with severe health problems" is false and prima facie libellous. Your suppression of truth is unfair.

Your publication that "[t]his "misconduct" was supposedly aggravated by their request that the SAU authorities assure the students that his medical bills would be met by the University" is false and prima facie libellous. Your suppression of truth is unfair.

Your publication that "four, who have been suspended, were also "accused" of assisting in the functioning of a Marxist study circle" is false and prima facie libellous. Your suppression of truth is unfair.

Your publication that "[a]ll the charges are largely unsubstantiated and whimsically leveled" is false and prima facie libellous. Your suppression of truth is unfair.

Your publication that "This probably accounts for the manner in which the number of those who were finally charged and suspended kept being whittled down" is false and prima facie libellous. Your suppression of truth is unfair.

Your publication that "[the four professors who are now suspended are obviously being made an example of in order to deter students from raising demands in the future" is false and prima facie libellous. Your suppression of truth is unfair.

Your publication that "the suspended teachers have been asked to immediately vacate their rooms and yet to report on a daily basis" is false and prima facie libellous. Your suppression of truth is unfair.

Your publication that "The conduct of affairs by the SAU authorities is not merely arbitrary; it is marked by an ad-hocism that is totally non-transparent" is false and prima facie libellous. Your suppression of truth is unfair.

Your publication that "The SAU has no established committees for addressing grievances or gender and sexual harassment complaints. is false and prima facie libellous. Your suppression of truth is unfair.

(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   Delhi University   SAARC 

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