India: University Could Reduce Punishment of Students on Hunger Strike

Akash Vashishtha
New Delhi
2016-04-29
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160429-IN-jnu-strike-620.JPG Some students at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi are waging a hunger strike over fines and punishments tied to a protest on campus, April 29, 2016.
Akash Vashishtha/BenarNews

A group of students at a university in New Delhi who face fines and suspensions for their roles in an on-campus rally on Feb. 9 entered the second full day of a hunger strike on Friday.

Administrators at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) indicated on Friday that they might consider some of the students’ demands but would not dismiss their punishments.

The strikers include Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of JNU’s student union and two other students who were arrested and charged with sedition after the rally. The case has grabbed national headlines and raised questions about free speech in the world’s most populous democracy under the leadership of a Hindu nationalist-led coalition.

Nineteen students went on a hunger strike Wednesday night following a report released Monday by a High-Level Enquiry Committee (HLEC) into alleged anti-national sloganeering by students on Feb. 9, as they marked the anniversary of the execution of Afzal Guru in 2013 for an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001.

“We are ready to consider their demands if they come to us and ask for something. They are our students, after all. They were served notices for what they had done,” JNU Chief Proctor A.P. Dimri told BenarNews.

Litany of fines

Clarifying the university’s stance, Dimri said the level of punishment may be reviewed and reduced, but would not be rolled back entirely.

Kumar, a doctoral candidate at JNU’s School of International Studies, was arrested following the protest and released on bail days later. He was fined 10,000 rupees (U.S. $150) on grounds of indiscipline and misconduct.

Umar Khalid, a doctoral candidate at the School of Social Sciences, was suspended for a semester and fined 20,000 rupees (U.S. $300). Another student, Anirban Bhattacharya, was suspended until July 15 and barred from taking any course or participating in any activity for five years. PhD student Mujeeb Gattoo was suspended for two semesters.

And a fifth student, Saurabh Sharma, the student union’s joint secretary and the only member of the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), an affiliate of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was also fined Rs. 10,000.

The university issued fines of Rs. 10,000 to 20,000 against 14 students and barred two former students from entering campus. The fines are to be paid by May 13. Kumar, Khalid and Bhattacharya were freed on bail after being arrested and charged with sedition over the Feb. 9 event.

‘Gross deficiencies’

Rejecting the HLEC report, 19 students began their hunger strike on Wednesday night. The strikers claimed to have the support of the JNU Teachers’ Association.

Officials and the students did not have any formal communication, according to Kumar, who said he did not expect any response from the university.

“The HLEC had no representation of women, minorities, SC/ST/OBC (Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes), who could have different perspectives and make it transparent. How can it probe issues against students belonging to the deprived classes? It had its own favorite members,” Kumar told BenarNews.

“The report itself has gross deficiencies and the fines are arbitrary. It fines 14 students, but the fines are different for each. The HLEC was rejected by the student council but was passed in the university’s general body meeting,” he said.

Labelling the HLEC as undemocratic, Khalid called the report farcical, prejudicial and biased.

“It was only meant to punish us and not investigate. They have deliberately chosen to come out with report at a time when students have exams, thinking there would be less resentment,” he said. “We would neither pay fine nor go out of the campus.”

ABVP member Saurabh Sharma began his hunger strike Wednesday morning.

“The report says we acted illegally. We fail to understand whether stopping someone from shouting anti-national slogans or blocking them is illegal. The whole administration is acting under the influence of Congress and Left parties,” he said.

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