On August 23, 2021, Visva Bharati University administration rusticated three postgraduate students from campus for a period of three years for allegedly participating in a protest against the university’s Vice Chancellor.
Somnath Sow, Falguni Pan, and Rupa Chakraborty are master’s degree students at Visva Bharati University – Sow and Pan in economics and Chakraborty in music – as well as leaders of the student organization, VB Student’s Unity. On January 9, 2021, the three students allegedly participated in an on-campus protest against the university’s Vice Chancellor (VC), Bidyut Chakrabarty. According to Outlook India, VC Chakrabarty has received pushback from students and staff for using his authority to advance Hindu-nationalist views and policies since he assumed the VC role in 2018. The primary focus of the January 9 protest was the suspension of an economics professor, Sudipta Bhattacharya, apparently due to disagreements with the VC.
All three students were suspended for their participation in the protest on January 14, and at least Sow was initially accused of breaking a lock on a professor’s office, although he firmly denied his involvement in the incident. The university inquiry committee tasked with reviewing the students’ activities wrote in its final report that the three students “gathered on [January 9, 2021] morning at Chhatimtala with definite ill-motive to create disturbance and vitiate the calm ambience of Visva-Bharati.” The report further alleges that the students intended “to besmirch the university’s administrative decisions and universal high reputation of the University” and had been identified by witnesses and photographic evidence from that day as “taking lead roles in the incident of utter chaos and vandalism.”
Due to these findings, the three students received a letter from the varsity proctor on August 23 informing them that they had been rusticated for three years for “alleged acts of gross indiscipline and misconduct in the Department of Economics and Politics.” The Indian Express reported that two professors were also suspended on August 23 for similar misconduct charges, bringing the total number of suspended university staff to 20. The decision prompted protests by both university students and faculty, including a sit-in outside of the VC’s on-campus residence, during which protesters called for the revocation of the rustication order and the removal of VC Chakrabarty. In response, the VC filed a writ petition with the Calcutta High Court that resulted in an interim court order banning student protests within 50 meters of academic buildings at the university.
On September 8, 2021, the Calcutta High Court issued an interim order ruling that the students’ rustication was unjustified and ordering the university to allow them to immediately return to class. The court also ordered the student protests to end and for barricades to be removed. Further, the court stated that the suspended professors “may institute appropriate proceedings challenging the orders of suspension in accordance with law.” After all three students sent messages to university authorities urging them to fulfill the court’s order, they were notified that the rustication order was no longer being implemented; it is unclear if the order has been fully revoked. According to The Wire, students, including Chakraborty and Sow, intend to continue protesting the VC and “other alleged irregularities within the university.”
Scholars at Risk is concerned by an attempt to arbitrarily expel students and suspend staff for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly – conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party. University authorities have an obligation to refrain from restricting or retaliating against expressive activities and assemblies so long as they are peaceful and responsible. In addition to harm to the immediate victims, expulsions and suspensions in response to peaceful student and faculty expression undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.