On December 17, 2021, Pondicherry University issued an order debarring 11 students for a period of five years and fining them 10,000 rupees (roughly $134 USD) in response to their participation in peaceful protests held in early 2020.
On February 6, 2020, over 100 students at Pondicherry University marched to the administration block to demand the reversal of a massive fee hike across academic programs and staged a sit-in protest there that continued for 33 days. The “Fee must fall” protest, as it was referred to, reflected student protests across India at the time.
In the months leading up to December 2021, the university reportedly sent notices to 11 students, who had been identified as leaders of the protests, asking them why they should not be punished for their participation in the protests. According to Times of India, the students replied to the notices and received no further communication from the university; however the Times did not report what was said within the students’ replies.
Then, nearly two years after the protests occurred, the university’s administration issued an order to the 11 students on December 17 debarring them for five years and fining them 10,000 rupees. As a result, the students are banned from enrolling in any courses at the university and entering campus for the five-year period. The group of students – which includes the president of the university’s student council, Parichay Yadav – is composed of ten master’s students and one student in an integrated BA-MA program. According to The Telegraph India, four of the students are still enrolled and now fear they will be unable to obtain their degrees until after the five-year ban. The other seven students have passed their final examinations but have not yet received their degrees from the university; the university’s deputy registrar told Times of India that the degrees will not be issued until the 10,000 rupees fine is paid.
Although unable to reach the offices of the university’s vice-chancellor and registrar, The Indian Express spoke with a top source familiar with the action who said the order had been issued following the examination of footage and recordings from the protest. The source claimed that the footage and recordings captured “violent, abusive and destructive” activity, including students using “highly insulting” slogans against the vice-chancellor, Gurmeet Singh, and attempting “to manhandle him, preventing his movement.” However, in a letter urging the vice-chancellor to revoke the order, the Pondicherry University Non-teaching Staff Welfare Association stated that the protests were never violent nor irresponsible.
Local political parties and student groups have protested the university’s decision to debar and fine the students. Speaking with Times of India, leaders in the Students’ Federation of India called the order “a clear attempt to threaten the students from involvement in any democratic protests.” The 11 students have reportedly requested a meeting with the vice-chancellor to seek clarification over the order, but have not been granted one. According to The Indian Express, the students have also raised the order with the Madras High Court.
Scholars at Risk is concerned by a university fining and debarring students in retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and assembly – conduct which is 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, debarring and fining students in retaliation for their expressive activity undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.