Bhimraj M, a student expelled from Delhi’s South Asia University six months ago, has been given admission to Oxford University with a scholarship. This news, which found a place on the front page of a national publication, is cause for cheer. It is heartening that the bright young scholar did not lose hope after he was expelled.

The news of Bhimraj’s scholarship is also a reminder that four teachers from the same university were suspended more than a week ago in an action related to Bhimraj’s expulsion. Their suspension was reported by online media and even in some newspapers. But the incident was not exciting enough to qualify for a follow-up story. It is futile to expect the television channels to even consider it. It will not even register on the consciousness of other campuses across India.

Despite this media apathy, it should be a matter of concern that teachers are being punished for asking the authorities at South Asia University to adopt a humane attitude towards their students. It was only a request, but the university administration considered it an act of inciting students against the administration.

A timeline of events is useful to recall in order to understand why the teachers were forced to say something to the administration on behalf of the students. The students had been agitating since September against the sudden cut in their scholarships. They wanted it to be increased to take rising inflation into account. Instead, the sum was reduced.

Along with this, they were demanding that students be represented on the statutory committees of the university, especially those dealing with gender and sexual harassment. Other public universities have students on at least these two committees.

When their voices were not heeded, the students decided to start pickets and gheraos. On the evening of October 13, the administration called the police. The next day, 13 teachers wrote to the administration noting that they should have refrained from calling the police to campus to deal with the student agitation – more so because the university’s character is international.

After that, many teachers met with university officials in an attempt to diffuse the situation. But instead of listening to them, the administration punished five students in various ways, ranging from suspension to canceling their admissions. The teachers met the administration again on November 1 to urge them to start a dialogue with the students. When nothing happened, the students on November 5 began a fast, which later turned into a fast unto death.

Credit: South Asian University official website.

Some of them became very ill. One, Ammar, had to be hospitalised several times. Angered by his deteriorating condition, the students went to the registrar and demanded that the administration should visit him. They also said that arrangements should be made for his treatment. The hunger strike continued.

The administration withdrew its order punishing the students but issued fresh show-cause notices to them on November 26. In addition, two students, Umesh Joshi and Bhimraj were expelled from the university.

Bhimraj is the one who is now making news for having been selected by Oxford University. He had been penalised for demanding an increase in the scholarship amount. Now, he has been given a full scholarship by the UK university to pursue a research programme

The agitation ended in December, but at the end of the month the administration issued show-cause notices to five teachers . They were accused of supporting the students’ agitation, instigating them, visiting sick Ammar in the hospital, writing letters to the administration. It was also alleged that some of them had links with a Marxist study circle on the campus.

A high-level fact-finding committee was constituted and these teachers asked to appear before it. When they reached the room, each was given a booklet containing questions they needed to answer. The booklets contained between 132 and 246 questions. The teachers were ordered to sit there and fill out the answers with a pen. This method of fact finding shocked them. They naturally felt humiliated.

They objected to this method of ascertaining facts and said that it would not be possible for them to proceed this way. They asked for the questions to be sent to them electronically. The committee refused to do so. It even said that refusal to sit there and answer all the questions would also be treated as evidence against the teachers.

A protest against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and the attack on the students and teachers at the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, in New Delhi in January 2020. Credit: Reuters.

The committee had senior teachers as members but they did not hesitate to behave in this manner with their colleagues. The teachers did not respond and wrote to the chief of the university against this insult. In response, the administration suspended Snehasish Bhattacharya, Srinivas Burra, Irfanullah Farooqi and Ravi Kumar.

These teachers did what they felt was their duty. The university rests on the reciprocity between teachers and students. It is easy for teachers to keep lecturing in class, ignoring the physical and psychological condition of their students. But is it appropriate? Is is possible for us to know that injustice is being done to our students by the authorities and yet we go on teaching Nirala’s poem “Ram Ki Shakti Puja” about the liberation of Sita without discussing the pact between shakti (power) and anyaya (injustice)?

What could be more ironic than a class lecture on the relationship between power and injustice when students are sitting on fast unto death demanding justice for themselves.

The tendency to discipline teachers is getting strong in India. As I write this, I read that Presidency University in Kolkata has issued a code of conduct for teachers and students. The Bharatiya Janata Party does not rule West Bengal. Even before that, many central universities have implemented codes of conduct to restrain teachers by imposing the civil services code of conduct for them. Through this, efforts are being made to outlaw their speech, writing and public activism. Notices have been sent to teachers for writing articles, threatening action against them.

Forty-eight teachers of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi are fighting a legal battle against similar disciplinary action for the last several years. Professor Sonya Surbhi Gupta of Jamia Millia Islamia has been suspended for her involvement in the teachers union. There is no public memory of these acts.

Universities draw their life from teachers and students. But here, efforts are being made to reduce teachers to the status of mere government employees. It is expected to consider themselves as subordinates of the administration and obey their orders.

After the action against the students and teachers in South Asia University, it has become necessary once again to discuss the relationship between university, students and teachers. Our indifference will mean death for independent voices on India’s campuses.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.