South Asian University Suspends Four Faculty Members for ‘Supporting’ Students’ Agitation

While the administration claimed that the four teaching staff "incited" students against colleagues, one of them told The Wire that they were trying to end the deadlock between the administration and students over a cut in stipends.

Mumbai: Four teaching staff at Delhi’s South Asian University (SAU) have been put under suspension for extending support to the students’ agitation against the sudden stipend cut. The four faculty members have been accused of “inciting students… against colleagues, the administration and against the interest of the University”, which the university claims constitutes misconduct as per rules.  

In September 2022, students of SAU began their agitation against the university’s decision to reduce the monthly stipend for master’s students from Rs 5,000 to Rs 3,000. The students sought an increase in stipend to Rs 7,000 and also sought adequate student representation in certain statutory committees of the university, particularly the committees on gender sensitisation and sexual harassment. 

The protest continued and the university refused to pay any heed. On October 13 that year, the University had even called the Delhi police into the campus to disperse the protesting students from outside the acting president’s office. 

At this point, many teaching staff had intervened. This intervention, one of the four suspended faculty members told The Wire, was primarily to end the deadlock, without taking sides. “We were trying to convince both the students and the university administration to have a dialogue,” one of the suspended faculty members shared. But this was misconstrued as an incitement by the university. 

There were 13 faculty members who had written to the university against the decision to call the police on campus. Again, on November 1, a group of faculty members met the acting president, acting vice president, and acting registrar seeking a mechanism to de-escalate the situation. 

In a few days, instead of a dialogue, the University had decided to put five students under either expulsion, rustication, or suspension. Fifteen faculty members reacted to this decision and wrote a strongly worded letter to the university community expressing their deep concern over these events. Students, meanwhile, started a hunger strike on campus. 

While many faculty members had expressed concern, the university decided to identify only four teaching faculty members and has put them under suspension for their conduct. “The idea”, one of the suspended faculty members says, “is to simply single a few of us out and send a strong message to the others.”

The faculty members who have been suspended are Snehashish Bhattacharya from the Faculty of Economics, Srinivas Burra from the Faculty of Legal Studies, Irfanullah Farooqi from the Faculty of Social Sciences, and Ravi Kumar from the Faculty of Social Sciences. While Farooqi has been teaching at the university for over four years, the others have been around for over a decade. 

Before suspending them, the four of them were issued a show cause notice in December last year. The three-page notice cites six charges against them. The charges begin with “making wild and unsubstantiated allegations against the university administration”. Then, it speaks of the incitement of students, followed by alleged participation in “Aijaz Ahmad Study Circle—A Marxist study circle” run by the students. Study circles are a common phenomenon on university campuses where both students and faculty members participate. However, the SAU treats it to be “illegal” and included it in the show cause notice.

“Neither any ‘Marxist Study Circle’ has been registered with SAU nor has SAU allowed any person to indulge in any illegal activities on the SAU campus,” the show cause notice, signed by deputy registrar Bibhupada Tripathy, claims. Those served with the show cause notice responded to the administration in their individual capacity in January this year. 

Not satisfied with the responses, a “fact-finding committee” was set up by the university to probe the allegations. The faculty members were asked to respond to a long questionnaire by the fact-finding committee. “We were handed over 200-odd questions and asked to sit in one room and submit our responses. Since all of this can be held against us, we had sought time. The questions were not something we could have responded to without having put in our thought and even proper legal guidance,” one of the suspended faculty members shared. He further added that the committee refused to give them a copy of the questions. “We were told if we leave those questions unanswered, it could be used as evidence against us.”

Instead of granting time, on June 16, the four faculty members were put under suspension. This suspension, interestingly, doesn’t mention any charges. It also doesn’t mention the timeline of the suspension or any further action that could be taken against them.