Suspended SAU professors say order ‘illegal’; ponder moving court

South Asian University has suspended 4 professors. They had opposed SAU’s calling the police to break up a student protest in October.

SAU is an international university established by eight members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) (Image: sau.int)SAU is an international university established by eight members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) (Image: sau.int)

Atul Krishna | June 21, 2023 | 01:34 PM IST

NEW DELHI: The South Asian University (SAU) suspended four faculty members on “allegations of misconduct” on June 16 and now they are considering challenging the suspension orders in court. The four teachers found themselves in the crosshairs for signing a letter to the SAU administration written against its decision to call the police to break up a student protest in October and subsequently suspending five students.

Although the letter to the South Asian University administration had 15 signatories, initially five and later four members were singled out for action.

The faculty members alleged that the suspension notice against them was “targeted” and “illegal”. They wrote to the SAU saying as much on June 19 and have sought meetings with the university acting president, Ranjan Kumar Mohanty, but have received no response. They are now considering moving court against the suspension orders. Before coming to SAU, Mohanty was with Delhi University’s department of mathematics.

The SAU is an international university established by eight members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) which includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

South Asian University: Protests, suspensions

The current conflict has its roots in a student protest in September last year.

In September 2022, SAU students had launched a protest against the university’s reducing monthly stipends. They had sought an increase instead along with representation in statutory bodies, particularly those on gender sensitisation and sexual harassment. In October 2022, as the protests turned into a hunger strike, the university administration called in the Delhi Police to disband the student protestors.

Thirteen faculty members had written to the university administration condemning this move. Following this, in November 2022, the university administration also revoked the admission of five students. One of the rusticated students, Ammar Ahmad suffered cardiac arrest and had to be revived through cardio-pulmonary resuscitation(CPR).

It was during this period that 15 faculty members wrote to the administration, asking it to not involve the police and calling the suspension of the five students a “violation of proctorial rule”.

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At first, just five, and then, four faced action. The suspended faculty members alleged that the four of them were “targeted”.

“The letter was written by 15 faculty members. We were also baffled as to why four were targeted. Our conclusion is that there is a very intentional targeting of these four people and it might be because, and I’m speculating here, we were questioning the administration. But we were not even questioning. All our letters were very suggestive in nature, and they were requesting,” said a faculty member on the condition of anonymity. “We were saying, “Don’t call the police because it’s not good for an academic institution and that it will have ramifications on an international university”. We also requested [them] to withdraw the actions taken against the five students because it violated the proctorial rule, and other rules and regulations of the university. And we were suggesting that these be resolved amicably and internally,” said the faculty member.

The administration is acting in a “fit of power” and “arrogance” against anyone who questioned their decisions, they alleged.

SAU’s fact-finding committee ‘prejudiced’

On December 30, five of the 15 faculty members received notifications from the administration with charges of “instigating students to protest” and “failure to perform duties”. One of them allegedly apologised and escaped further scrutiny. On May 19, four remaining teachers were asked to appear before a newly-formed fact-finding committee.

Faculty members alleged that the fact-finding committee asked a lot of “prejudiced” and “accusatory” questions.

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“Instead of asking “How did this happen?” they started asking questions like “Why did you instigate this particular student?”. This means they had already decided that we have instigated although it is their duty to find out whether there was instigation or not. Most of the questions were accusatory in nature. It appeared as if we were suspect of everything every student in the university had done. For instance, the students used to send letters to different faculty heads during the protests, and then I was asked whether I was associated with this,” said the faculty member who did not wish to be named.

Faculty members also alleged that they were asked “weird” questions like whether they were associated with the Marxist Study Circle of the university and whether they were funded by it or were themselves funding it.

Each was asked over a 100 questions, often replete with legal jargon. The teachers sought time to reply but got no response to the request. Their request to meet the president, Ranjan Kumar Mohanty – also received no response.

On June 16, all four received suspension orders. The faculty members said that they were pondering moving the court as they deem the suspensions “illegal”.

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