The Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, issued show cause notices on 15 May to two dozen students, who have been part of the ongoing protests over the issue of scholarships for Scheduled Caste (ST) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) students.
Since February, students have been protesting against the institute’s decision that SC and ST students receiving the Government of India – Post Matriculation Scholarship (GoI-PMS) would need to pay the entire fees upfront from the 2017-18 academic year onwards. The institute also announced a disproportionately steep hike in the fees.
The 24 students who were served notices have “engaged in various acts of indiscipline and misconduct”, alleges the TISS administration. It has accused the students of having trespassed into the registrar’s office and blocking the administrative office, thus disrupting officials from performing their duties. Further, the students are accused of “violating property rights vested in the institute” by placing banners and painting slogans on the walls.
On 17 May, however, the Scheduled Castes Commission had intervened to prevent the institution from taking action against these students. Out of the 24 students, 5 are from the SC category, 4 from the ST category, 2 from the Nomadic Tribes (NT) category, 6 from the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category and 2 from the minority community. Students allege that the administration is attempting to target students from vulnerable backgrounds instead of actually resolving the issue of scholarships.
The move by the administration comes more than six weeks after the institution had taken six protesting students to court over the same allegations. In the hearing on 28 March, the Bombay High Court had said the students could continue with peaceful protest and had scheduled the next hearing in June.
Students have also alleged that the serving of show cause notices by the administration is an “act of intimidation and aggression against the petitioners who have appealed to commissions to get justice”. Instead of dialogue, the administration is using intimidation to deal with the issue, say students.
Although an independent committee had been set up by the governing board of the institute to look into the issue, students say the committee members have not had any concrete interaction with the students. They accuse the administration of going against the very idea of an independent committee by taking action of its own accord.
The move by the administration to initiate disciplinary action comes less than two weeks after the convocation ceremony on 8 May. Many students who had been unable to pay their full fees — a majority of them under the SC/ST scholarships — were handed over pieces of cardboard within the envelopes that should have contained their degree certificates.
Nine students had also refused to accept their degree certificates in protest of the institute’s decision to withdraw the hostel and dining hall fee waiver.
In response, the administration has been quoted as saying, “If someone isn’t paying their fees, it means that they don't value the degree.”
The protests by TISS students have completed 87 days. The events unfolding at the institution, a publicly funded deemed university, are a worrying sign for the future of higher education in India. The students are raising fundamental questions related to the access to education for those from socially and economically marginalised backgrounds.