Leading Indian university U-turns on student sit-ins ban

Educational institutions ‘should not act as correction agencies, but be centres of human flourishing’, scholar says

March 9, 2023
Jadavpur University student protest
Source: iStock

A leading Indian institution has recalled a contentious decision to ban student sit-ins following criticism by academics and students.

Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) came under fire when its executive council passed the “rules of discipline and proper conduct” – which were revoked just over a month later.

Known for its vibrant, left-leaning student culture, JNU has long been a hotbed of political debate, producing political leaders of all stripes, with several alumni appointed to high positions in India’s conservative government under prime minister Narendra Modi.

But recently, a mainstay of student protest – the dharna, or sit-in – came close to being expunged from campus life.

In late January, the university came under scrutiny for its actions around a student-led screening of the banned BBC documentary India: The Modi Question, when administrators “firmly advised” students to cancel the event, threatening them with “strict disciplinary action”.

On 3 February, new rules went into effect that would have made it easier to deter students from protesting, allowing the university to fine students up to Rs20,000 (£206) for holding dharnas, national media reported.

Administrators would also have been able to cancel students’ admission or fine them up to Rs30,000 for what they deemed violent behaviour, including gheraos – a tactic to prevent administrators from leaving their offices until demands are met – according to reports.

But in March, the university withdrew the document, and its vice-chancellor, Santishree Pandit, claimed that she was not aware it had been released.

Ashok Kumbamu, an assistant professor of biomedical ethics at the Mayo Clinic and an advocate for academic freedom in India, said it was “very uncommon” for Indian universities to impose such restrictive rules, which he believes would have violated the right of peaceful assembly under the country’s constitution.

“If there are any violent incidents or conflicts on the campus, the university seeks help from the police to get the situation under control. But in the JNU case, the administration itself acted as a police and judiciary,” he said.

While he thought it was “highly unpredictable” whether other institutions might try to impose similar bans – and that if they did, students across the country would “protest in a big way” – the incident left him worried.

“Educational institutions should not act as correction agencies, but rather centres of human flourishing,” he said.

One JNU academic, who preferred not to be named, expressed dismay that “this was thought of at all”.

“Universities should provide liberal space for diverse points of view and a civilised debate on various issues,” he said. “Imposing heavy fines and other forms of penalty for questioning the status quo and expressing dissent peacefully cannot be in the best interest of anyone in a university.”


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