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On Indefinite Hunger Strike, Students Accuse South Asian University of Apathy

Ronak Chhabra |
Five out of the total eight students saw their blood sugar drop down to “critically low” levels after five days of fasting on Friday. Hundreds of students who have been agitating for close to a month are demanding an increase in stipends.
Students of SAU occupy the lobby of the administration floor at Akbar Bhawan, which currently houses the university. Image courtesy: special arrangement

Students of SAU occupy the lobby of the administration floor at Akbar Bhawan, which currently houses the university. Image courtesy: special arrangement

New Delhi: Agitating students of the South Asian University (SAU) on Friday accused the varsity administration of neglecting the deteriorating health of those who have been on an indefinite hunger strike, as the protest over an increase in stipends under different Masters and PhD scholarship schemes continues.

Five out of eight students, including those hailing from foreign countries, saw their blood sugar drop down to “critically low” levels after five days of fasting, the protesting students told NewsClick. They added that many among the protesters are also now facing anxiety and panic attacks.

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 to enhance learning in the South Asian Community, the SAU has been witnessing a massive agitation by its students since last month, with the latter launching an indefinite sit-in from November 1, occupying the lobby of the administration floor at Akbar Bhawan, which currently houses the university.

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.

Umesh Joshi, a PhD student of sociology, who is among those fasting in protest accused the SAU administration of apathy, further alleging that the latter, instead of addressing the issue at hand, is choosing to “threaten” the agitating students.

“We are told that in case the students don’t call off their protest, the administration is also ready to even shut down the university,” Joshi, who was among those who received an expulsion notice, told NewsClick, adding that, “many students, not only from India but also neighbouring countries are constantly worried about such a possibility, as it will affect their studies”.

The demands raised by the students are “legitimate”, Harshita Dalal, a PhD student of computer science, told NewsClick. These include, among others, an increment in stipend under the freeship scheme for Masters students to Rs. 7,000 per month and an increase in scholarships for PhD students in tandem with Junior Research Fellowships (JRF), which is awarded by the University Grants Commission (UGC) to doctoral scholars.

In addition, adequate student representation in numerous internal committees of SAU including University Complaints Committee (UCC) and Grievance Redressal Committee (GRC) is also demanded.

“For peacefully protesting for these demands, the university administration has resorted to taking arbitrary action against some students – by expelling or rusticating them and putting their future in jeopardy,” Dalal said.

A questionnaire, asking for its response over the ongoing protest, was sent over e-mail to the Acting President, Vice President of SAU, a response to which is awaited.

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.

Asked about it, Dalal underlined that “every major decision” including that of appointing professors, among others, are being taken, without the apparent approval of the university’s governing body, a meeting of which was last held in 2017. “The absence of such approvals, when it comes to our demands, is nothing but a poor excuse,” she said. 

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, accessed by NewsClick, 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, destabilize it further, and jeopardize 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.

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