Crisis in South Asian University (SAU) escalates, first students now academics targeted

An initiative of eight SAARC countries, the South Asian University (SAU) situated in the prestigious Chanakyapuri area is mired in nepotism, slashing student scholarships and now targeting academics

Last year, in November 2022, the South Asian University (SAU) has rusticated, expelled or suspended five students for ‘unruly behaviour’ during an on-going protest by the students of the university.  There was a sit in on the fourth floor. The students had been demanding an increase in stipends under the freeship scheme from October 13. SAU was established through an agreement between SAARC nations (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) to provide quality education to its students. The suspended students included a Bangladeshi citizen who studies in the economics department of the university.

The demands of the students in this prestigious university was parity in stipend (scholarships, parity with Junior Research Scholarships-JRF), release of PHD scholarship extensions and fair and transparent functioning. Students have alleged that there is no financial transparency claiming high monies being paid to President and high travel allowances. There has been no Governing Board.

2023, now academics targeted

During the interaction with the FFC on May 19, 2023, faculty members were asked to provide answers of 132 to 246 questions in writing by the end of the working day, using pen and paper and sitting in front of the committee members. They were told that their responses might be used as evidence to decide on further proceedings against them, teachers have stated. As of June 16, 2023 they have been suspended.

Thereafter, the committee refused repeated appeals to share the questions with the faculty members electronically, to allow them to respond by email, and to give them more time (these requests were made to the committee during the interaction orally as well as in writing).

Providing response to most questions would have required extensive research as well as legal advice, which was not possible given the guidelines laid down by the committee. 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 say the affected teachers. Academics are objecting to the manner and fashion in which the fact-finding inquiry has been conducted which was humiliating and without process.

Instead of responding to the sets of questions on May 19, 2023, the four faculty members submitted response in writing. They also wrote to the Acting President on May 25, 2023, drawing his attention to points 13 to 15 above, 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. Thereafter, five days back, on June 16, 2023, office orders were reportedly issued placing the four faculty members under suspension with immediate effect, given that “there are allegations of misconduct” and violation of the code of conduct of the University, “which need to be investigated.” The faculty members have been directed not to leave station without permission, vacate their offices, return their office computers and identity cards, and register their attendance on all working days in the offices of their respective deans.

Chronological Summary of the Recent Incidents at South Asian University (SAU)

The following is a chronological summary of the incidents that have happened in SAU since September 2022.

  1. In September 2022, students of SAU initiated a protest against the downward revision of monthly stipends for Masters 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 harrassment.
  1. 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 (marking a copy to faculty members and students) 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.”
  1. 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.
  1. On November 4, 2022, the university administration issued office orders announcing expulsion, rustication or suspension of 5 students. On November 5, 2022, fifteen faculty members 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. They are in gross violation of proctorial rules as well as other SAU rules, regulations, and bye-laws, and are in contravention of principles of natural justice”.

The letter noted: “[T]he arbitrary actions of the administration over the past few days have 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, destabilize it further, and jeopardize the future of all the stakeholders.” Moreover, the administration was requested to “[b]egin a process of sincere dialogue with students to discuss their demands without imposing preconditions; and institute confidence-building mechanisms to address the students’ trust deficit in the administration given their past and present experiences. As suggested by several faculty members during their meeting with the administration on 1 November 2022, such mechanism/process may involve constituting an empowered committee with administration, faculty and student representatives from all departments/faculties to look into and discuss the demands, and come to a resolution at the earliest.”

  1. Students began a mass hunger strike on November 5, 2022, 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 many of them registered alarmingly low levels of blood sugar and blood pressure. Quite a few students had to be admitted to hospital on emergency basis to revive their physical condition. In response to an email sent out by the Acting Vice President on November 7, 2022, some of the faculty members made efforts to mediate between the university administration and 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 made via email as well as in person, the impasse continued.
  1. One of the five students who were expelled/rusticated/suspended on November 4, 2022, Ammar Ahmad (MA Sociology, first 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 demand 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.

  1. 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 police personnel behaved responsibly and attempted to diffuse the situation.] The students continued with the hunger strike, now specifically demanding that the university take care of Ammar’s medical needs and associated expenses.
  1. 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 Socialogy, Faculty of Social Sciences) and Bhimraj M (doctoral research scholar, Faculty of Legal Studies), were summarily expelled from the university on November 25, 2022. Umesh and Bhimraj have subsequently challenged their expulsion orders in Delhi High Court and the case is being actively pursued in court.
  1. 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.
  1. 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 questioning certain administrative decisions in relation to the student protests (as noted above in points 2 and 4 above, as well as certain other communications); instigating students to protest; failure to perform appropriate duties and to follow university rules, regulations, etc.; association with a Marxist study circle; visiting Ammar in hospital; etc. The faculty members include: Dr. Snehashish Bhattacharya (Faculty of Economics), Dr. Srinivas Burra (Faculty of Legal Studies), Dr. Irfanullah Farooqi (Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences), and Dr. Ravi Kumar (Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences). These faculty members individually responded to the notice on January 16, 2023.
  1. The university administration set up a ‘high-powered committee’ comprising the deans of the university that considered the responses given by the students who were served show cause notices earlier (as mentioned in point 8 above), interviewed some of the students, and suggested disciplinary actions. The recommended actions were initiated by the university. This included an expulsion order against Apoorva Y K (MA second year student, Faculty of Legal Studies), and a year-long rustication order against Kumar Rohit (doctoral research scholar, Faculty of Economics), issued on February 17, 2023. Apoorva was forcefully evicted from the university hostel, following which she commenced an indefinite sit-in on her own in front of the main gate of the university on February 26, 2023. On March 5, 2023, while still continuing the sit-in, she collapsed in a public road due to severe dehydration and exhaustion and had to be hospitalised on a emergency basis. Given her precarious health situation, she was forced to withdraw from the sit-in protest.
  1. On May 16, 2023, the four faculty members mentioned above (point 10) received an email notice 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.” On request from two faculty members, a notification dated March 29, 2023, was shared with them, which announced the formation of the FFC “for consideration of responses received from certain faculty members on l6 January 2023 and for ascertainment of the facts as per the SAARC Intergovernmental Agreement, Rules, Regulations and Bye Laws.” The committee comprised of Professor Sanjay Chaturvedi, chairperson (Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences); Professor Deepa Sinha (Dean, Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Sciences); and Professor Ravindra Pratap (Dean, Faculty of Legal Studies).

Newsclick reported in May 2022, how the SAU, one of the leading learning centres in the South Asian region  witnessed a dropout of 20 students in the current academic session after the university introduced changes in its scholarship land freeship policy. The students allege that the situation for Indian students and those coming from neighbouring countries became precarious after domestic conditions turned volatile due to the economic crisis, war, and financial uncertainty driven by the pandemic.

The university offers four types of financial aid in the form of scholarships and freeships to its students enrolled in the master’s programme; President’s Scholarship, SAARC India Silver Jubilee Scholarships for Least Developed Countries (LDCs ), also known as SJS scholarships, SAU Merit Scholarships and Freeships.

SJS scholarships constitute the biggest chunk of financial aid. It is awarded to 75 students and remains largely funded through the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. The students allege that the university did not award scholarships to needy students even when original awardees left the university for other options.

However, the biggest issue remains the appointment of a permanent President who can make policy decisions. The teacher said, “When we approached the caretaker president, he expressed his inability to take any steps. Many of our committees are working in an ad-hoc capacity. As per the SAU charter, It is India’s turn to appoint President and the MEA has to take the decision. The primary reason I see over the late appointment is linked with SAARC and it has not met once in the last two years. So, the appointment of permanent President is must to ensure that the university runs smoothly without any hassle.”

Rudrendra Tandon, Additional Secretary, BIMSTEC And SAARC division at the Ministry of External Affairs, did not reply to email queries about the delay in the appointment of permanent President.



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