South Asian University Students On Hunger Strike
This is not the first time that the university has seen such large protests
Students at South Asian University (SAU) entered the 12th day of their indefinite hunger strike on Friday. The protest over an increase in stipends under different Masters and PhD scholarship schemes continues.
The students also accused the varsity administration of neglecting the deteriorating health of those who have been on an indefinite hunger strike. No classes have been held since October13. The students are on protest demanding higher stipends and adequate representation for social sciences faculty among other things.
The students who held a press conference about the ongoing issue on Tuesday said that many students had to be taken to the hospital for emergencies, wherein the hospital authorities also refused to take them in.
"Blood sugar of at least five students dropped down to a critical level during the hunger strike but the administration has not even come to discuss the matter with us. Not only that, even the hospitals have refused to admit due to some process," Umesh Joshi, a PhD student of sociology said during the press conference.
While the eight students have been on an indefinite hunger strike, hundreds of university students have been a part of the ongoing protest.
Established and governed by the eight South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, to enhance learning in the South Asian Community, the SAU has been witnessing a massive agitation by its students since last month.
Since October 13, students of SAU have been sitting in protest demanding an increase in Masters and PhD scholarships. On November 1, they began an indefinite sit-in, occupying the lobby of the administration floor at Akbar Bhawan, which currently houses the university.
Explaining the reasons for the protest, Joshi said, "We want an increment in our scholarships in tandem with JRF, keeping in mind the rate of inflation, to facilitate and support our research. Additionally, we want a policy-level paid extension for PhD students who were affected by Covid as it resulted in delay in the progress of the research."
According to SAU authorities, after several days of protest, the administration agreed to some demands but stated that all demands cannot be met as they have to be decided on by the university's governing body. Authorities stated that 40-50 students have been camping near the SAU president's office, blocking entry and exit to it and engaging in "unruly behaviour".
Earlier last week, in response to the protests, the SAU administration rusticated, expelled or suspended five students for misconduct, prompting a section among those protesting to go on an indefinite hunger strike.
The students are demanding the revocation of the said "unilateral" action, post which, they say that the negotiation process over the formers' charter of demands can be initiated. To be sure, multiple rounds of talks, held earlier between the university officials and The General Body of Students at SAU, have failed to end the stalemate.
"At 1:00 pm, members of the administration, including the Acting President, Vice President and Registrar visited the students at the protest site for the first time. Students insisted that expulsion letters be withdrawn before initiating the negotiation process," said the students' body in a statement on Thursday.
The statement added that in the wee hours of the same day two fasting students were required to be hospitalised, as they took ill after the "prolonged starvation", even as all the eight students resolved to continue with the hunger strike until the action notices by the university administration are revoked.
On Friday, the university's proctor issued expulsion orders to two protesting students, an MA student and a Doctoral Scholar. "It has come to SAU's record that since 13th October, 2022, you have been persistently involved in acts of indiscipline inconsistently with the relevant provisions of SAU Rules/Regulations/Bye-laws.
"You have been consistently advised to adhere to the students' Code of Conduct, but you have failed to do so. You are therefore expelled from the University with immediate effect. Further, you are, therefore, directed to vacate the hostel immediately; no later than 24 hours from the receipt of this Order," read the expulsion orders.
Two other students have been rusticated from the University "till the end of the current academic year" citing the same reasons. One more student has been suspended till the end of the current semester.
Sahil, a Masters student pursuing International Course from the university is one of the students to be expelled. Speaking to The Citizen said, "I did not get any show cause notice or anything else. We did not get a chance to defend ourselves. My parents got a notice saying I have been expelled and my mother is worried. These are tense times. We have not broken any law."
He explained that after going through some data, many students realised that they were passing the economic criteria for a scholarship. "So, we sent a charter of demands to the vice-president and they did not agree. After a lot of negotiations, they agreed on October 13 for a meeting," he added.
He added that on-going to the meeting, they were hostile and when the students demanded that they meet the president, they were refused. "The situation became tense after that and there was a deadlock. Administration was also not ready to listen to us. We tried to stop the president," he said.
Sahil added that a GBM meeting was supposed to take place for these decisions. "But no GBM meeting has taken place since 2017," he said, adding that the living expenses are high and it is difficult for students to survive in such a small amount.
The governing body meeting of the university has not been held since 2017 due to 'unavoidable circumstances' and 'logistical issues', according to a SAU statement. The Ministry of External Affairs has the power to set up the meeting.
The delay in the meeting has also left the university without a president, a vice-president and a registrar, since these appointments can only be made by the governing body. The university has an acting president and vice-president at the moment.
In an email, accessed by The Citizen, sent by the acting vice-president Dr. Senthil Venugopal of the varsity, the students, who have been suspended and expelled, have been asked to send an apology/review application.
"Your wellbeing and academic success are of utmost importance to us… During a conversation with students, the Acting President expressed his willingness to look into your apology/review application. However, none of you have yet submitted such an apology/review," it stated.
The email further told students that the "meeting can occur if you fulfil the aforementioned requirements."
In addition, adequate student representation in numerous internal committees of SAU including University Complaints Committee (UCC) and Grievance Redressal Committee (GRC) is also demanded.
In the past, the administration has, however, defended its actions, maintaining that the students had revised the demands that had been met and the new demands could not be addressed without the approval of the governing body, according to a report published by The Telegraph. As per it, the administration has also said that the existing committees had been set up in keeping with the bylaws.
Meanwhile, as the agitation over stipend continues, solidarity has poured in for the protesting students at SAU during this period not just from its faculty members and alumni but also from student organisations and unions at other Central Universities in the country.
In a signed statement earlier this week, the faculty members of SAU expressed their deep concern over the "arbitrary actions" of the administration, which has "sharply worsened the situation in the university."
"These actions have succeeded in making internal issues public and in drawing attention of the press for all the wrong reasons. This will have severe negative repercussions for the future of the university, destabilise it further, and jeopardise the future of all the stakeholders," said the statement.
Likewise, a number of alumni of SAU, in a joint statement, too condemned the university administration, saying: "Those charged with the duty of maintaining a harmonious system and enlightenment of the student body are incriminating themselves by their diabolical and high-handed attempts at running the institution."
Student organisations like the Students' Federation of India (SFI) and the All-India Students' Association (AISA) have also extended their support to the protesting students of SAU. Similar statements of solidarity have also been issued by student bodies at Jawaharlal Nehru University and the University of Hyderabad, among others.
Meanwhile, the campus will be shut from December 15 and the campus is supposed to shift to a different location.
Apoorva, a Masters of Law student at the university and currently on the hunger strike said, "Many students are going to face issues due to the shift as we have been asked to vacate the hostel. The Ministry of External Affairs will shift to Jawahar Bhawan and we will be shifted to Maidan Gari, which is not fully prepared for human inhabitation."
She added that it will be difficult for foreign students to change location, especially with the money they have. "No one can afford to go back. The Sri Lankan students have no way of going back home. The Afghan and Pakistani students have visa issues, how are they all going to manage?" she asked.
The university was supposed to shift base in 2018 to a new renovated campus, but no development has happened ever since.
Meanwhile, a Bhutanese student, upset with the treatment of students from his country, joined the protest demanding an increase in PhD scholarships. "All the international students are toppers from their countries and fancy words are written on the university brochure. We are told how this is going to help South Asian integrity and harmony. But we are treated with disdain and are accused of trying to make money off the scholarships," he told The Citizen.
The student added that he has sent many letters to the administration on the matter as Bhutanese students were facing this issue vehemently. "Most of the students have the whole idea of understanding the institution. We are not doing any kind of political protest here. We do not even have a student association like other universities. What we have is genuine demand," he said.
On asking whether he approached the embassy with his grievances, he said that the administration from SAU reached out to the embassy before and said that there are only few students who are part of the process, who are trying to create a nuisance inside the campus.
"I have written two to three letters, but all of them have been ignored. I have tried to knock on all doors and have not received any reply," he said.
The students are also demanding extending the Silver Jubilee Scholarship to those from Sri Lanka. The scholarship is currently offered to Master's and Doctoral students from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Nepal.
From mismanagement of funds to demand for scholarships, the students have said they will not stop protesting, despite the administration's apathy.
Meanwhile, a student collapsed and had to be hospitalised after he collapsed during the protest.
Ammar Ahmed, a student of MA Sociology, collapsed and was hospitalised on the night of Tuesday, 22 November.
"This is all due to the apathy of the administration. How much more do they want the students to suffer?" a student who had been protesting said.
The student was taken to Primus Hospital in Chanakyapuri. Already suffering from health ailments, one of the students said that he was in ICU and not in a stable condition. Ahmed was actively participating in the agitation, and was one of the students who was sent a rustication notice in light of his demands.
On 17 October, Ahmed expressed that he could not survive on the stipend of ₹4,000 a month in a meeting with the varsity administration. "He narrated the situation of his family, about the ailments of his mother and father.... However, on 4 November, he was sent a rustication notice from the office of the proctor without any due procedure or show cause notice," a press release by the student's body indicated.
The students have alleged that the university is being unresponsive to their grievances, and the administration is "abusing the power of their office and also threatening other students with expulsions."
This has left the students depressed who are still protesting. Meanwhile, two students who were expelled five days ago took to social media to flag this and tagged Congress MP Shashi Tharoor who promptly assured help.
"Shocked to hear this. Please do write the full details in a letter to office[at]http://tharoor.in and I will take the matter up with the authorities," he tweeted.
The students have also claimed that the acting president has illegitimately taken out a massive sum of money as transport allowance. The salaries for faculty members, which were frozen before, have also been revised to reflect current realities. But when it comes to students, the SAU authorities remain insensitive, the protesting students said.
This is not the first time that the university has seen such protests. In 2021, several students from SAU 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.
The issue of scholarship has stirred dissent in other campuses as well. In August, this year Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) protested on scholarships not being disbursed on time.