On April 11, 2017, police officers violently clashed with students protesting tuition fee hikes at Panjab University (PU), resulting in injuries to at least two dozen people, including students, journalists, and police officers. 52 students were arrested and charged with sedition.
On March 26, PU’s Senate, allegedly facing pressure from India’s Ministry of Human Resources Department (MHRD) and the University Grants Commission (UGC), voted to raise tuition fees for the 2017-2018 academic year. Student organizations began organizing protests, including a chain hunger strike, in response to the increased fees, which for some departments rose as much as 300%.
On April 11, PU student organizations formed an all-university “PU Bandh,” a collaborative strike movement, and gathered outside of Vice Chancellor Arun Kumar Grover’s office in an attempt to engage in discussions on the fee hike. VC Grover was off campus, however, and students unaware of this reportedly attempted to approach his office by jumping police barricades.
Local police reportedly attempted to prevent students from approaching the VC’s office by using water cannons, tear gas, and batons. The students reportedly responded by throwing stones at the officers before seeking refuge in the university’s gurudwara (a Sikh worship hall). After several hours, more than 40 students surrendered to the police outside the gurudwara.
By the end of the protest, several students and journalists, as well as 22 police officers, were reportedly injured. 52 students were arrested and charged with sedition for allegedly holding politically offensive signs during the protest, which included calls for “death to” PU, MHRD and UGC. In addition, several of the arrested students were also charged with rioting and damaging university property.
Authorities subsequently dropped the sedition charges based on a lack of evidence. PU student organizations and local government officials have called for investigations into alleged mistreatment of detainees, and a review of the university’s plan to increase tuition fees.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about reports of violence, arrests, and the use of force against students during a campus protest. While authorities have a legitimate interest in maintaining order, they must do so in ways that are proportional to the situation, minimize the risk of physical injury, and otherwise respect institutional autonomy, academic freedom, and other applicable human rights standards. Use of excessive force in response to campus unrest threatens the well-being of higher education community members, and undermines academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Likewise, while students have the right to free expression, that right must be exercised in a manner that is consistent with university values including non-violence and social responsibility.