At 8 am on Monday, students of the Hidayatullah National Law University in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, launched an indefinite hunger strike. Their demand: the resignation of Vice Chancellor Sukh Pal Singh.

The students went ahead with the protest despite a threat from the administration, delivered in the guise of an “appeal to the students of HNLU” on Sunday, that it “shall be compelled to take appropriate course of action, including closure of the university sine die”. This means “the police will come, our hostels will be cleared and mess halls closed”, a protesting student explained. “This is extremely serious.”

The students refused to back off. Their elected representative body, the Student Bar Association, promptly responded to the threat with an “appeal to the nation” to stand with them “against rampant maladministration, corruption, complete apathy and indifference towards sexual harassment complaints, differently-abled students and overall student welfare”.

Instead of addressing the allegations, the vice chancellor claimed he had taken action by telling a teacher accused of sexual harassment to “mend his behaviour”, further angering the students.

The students association had doctors examine dozens of students on Sunday and select 35 fit enough to sit on an indefinite hunger strike from the next morning. The rest, it was decided, would join in intermittently.

The association’s appeal on Sunday asked the 180 first-year students to leave the protest and write their exams from Monday. The administration, on the other hand, directed all students to return to their classes.

The students, however, did not attend classes on Monday morning, eliciting another appeal from the vice chancellor to “resume your classes etc so as to avoid any step/action which the university may be compelled to take in order to restore normalcy”.

The law university’s students have been protesting intermittently since late August, with the latest round beginning on September 25, triggered by the vice chancellor’s return to the campus.

In August, the Chhattisgarh High Court had “set aside” the extension of Singh’s term for five years, effectively removing him from office. But the order was stayed by the Supreme Court on September 20 and Singh was reinstated five days later. Singh was appointed the vice chancellor in 2011 and his term was extended in 2016.

The students’ allegations against Singh are numerous and longstanding. To list a few, a complaint of sexual harassment filed by a student in July and supported by over 50 of her classmates has not been investigated, funds for a range of student activities such as moot court competitions are inadequate or not disbursed on time, anyone questioning the administration is harassed with notices and threats.

Students used mobile phone flashes to send out a message on September 27. Photo courtesy Student Bar Association

Recurring protests

Once Singh was removed by the High Court, students felt empowered to agitate for similarly pressing concerns: the lifting of hostel curfews to allow them unrestricted movement on the campus and a library that always stays open. They started a protest on August 27, directing their demands at the interim vice chancellor, RS Sharma, who is also Chhattisgarh’s principal secretary for law. By September 7, they had made significant headway. “Our 14 demands were met,” said the protesting student. “There was to be a new complaints committee for sexual harassment, hostel curfews would be relaxed and library timings changed.”

But with Singh’s return, the university hit reset on each of these reforms. “We were back to where we started,” said the student.

So, they launched another round of protests on September 25. Their social media campaign, hashtagged “NotMYVC”, “HNLUKiAzadi” and “SPSOut”, has spread wide, drawing support from groups as diverse as the leftist Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union and the rightist Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s state chapter. The Bar Council of Chhattisgarh expressed support on September 27. Two days later, the Student Bar Association met the Chief Justice of the Chhattisgarh High Court, who is the university’s chancellor, but returned without any assurances.

‘No confidence’

On his first back, Singh held a general body meeting with students. The exchange did not go well and by evening the student body had composed a “letter of no confidence in Sukh Pal Singh’s administration”.

It is six pages of allegations against Singh: he has “dismissed a sexual harassment complaint by terming it an exaggeration”, his administration has stopped funding student activities despite getting money from the state, there is “lack of transparency” as minutes of statutory bodies are not made public, there is “general apathy” towards the quality of education and students’ welfare, the six schools of excellence promoted by the university’s website are all defunct and the child rights centre cleared in 2011 is yet to be set up. The students complain their campus “recruitment prospects” are “limited to Chhattisgarh Mantralaya and ICICI Bank” and accuse Singh of “arbitrary hiring and firing of faculty”.

On September 26, they handed Singh an “ultimatum for resignation”, asking him to quit by 5 pm on September 28. He did not.

Singh finally responded to the allegations contained in the “no confidence letter” on September 30, denying all in a point-by-point rebuttal running into 17 pages. On the financial irregularities, he said there had been delay in funds coming from the state and that a special audit was conducted whose report would be tabled on September 8. On the defunct centres, he blamed procedural delays or “non-availability of eligible candidates”. The teachers he has allegedly fired at will were all ad hoc appointments, Singh claimed, and most records of statutory bodies’ meetings have been made public on the Student Bar Association’s demand.

The Chhattisgarh Bar Council's letter extending support to the protesting students.

‘Told teacher to mend his behaviour’

It is Singh’s response to the allegation of mishandling sexual harassment complaints that has most riled the students. Singh said “some students” did indeed meet him on August 6 to complain about comments made by a teacher in class and “requested” to “ask the teacher to mend his behaviour”. “The vice chancellor asked the students to give their grievance in writing and also informed that he would call the teacher and ask him to mend his behaviour and in case the teacher doesn’t mend his behaviour, necessary action would be taken against him on the basis of written complaint,” Singh added. “Then the vice chancellor called the teacher and told the teacher about the students’ grievance and told him to mend his behaviour. Thereafter, the students did not make any complaint.”

To this, an outraged student replied, “This was a sexual harassment complaint signed by 51 students, not a minor issue that he could simply instruct the teacher not to do it again.”

Those who signed the harassment complaint had said they had “lost faith in the independence of the internal complaints committee” which deals with such allegations. Singh responded that a new committee had been constituted on September 26 – on the Student Bar Association’s demand – and “there has been no interference by the vice chancellor in its functioning”. “However, if the committee members seek guidance in any matter,” he added, “being head of the institution, necessary guidance as per rules is provided.”