On November 4, 2022, the administration of South Asian University (SAU) summarily expelled two students, suspended two students for one year, and suspended another student for the rest of the semester for their participation in a protracted protest that began in October.
On October 13, students at SAU, an international university established by member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, began their protest calling for more funding and more time to finish their degree programs. The students joined meetings with university administrators to discuss their demands. Students claimed that administrators declined to advance their demands, while SAU officials told The Indian Express that they had agreed to some unspecified demands, but could not agree to others that they said required the consultation of SAU’s governing board.
By the end of October, students launched a sit-in in the lobby of the university’s administrative floor. University officials claimed that 40-50 students were “camping” near the president’s office, blocking traffic in the lobby, playing loud music, and engaging in “unruly behavior.”
Sources do not provide a clear explanation as to why the five students were disciplined; however, they note that the university did not carry out a formal inquiry or serve students show-cause-notices, a standard due process practice. A copy of the expulsion order, obtained by The Indian Express, reads, “It has come to SAU’s record that since 13th October, 2022, you have been persistently involved in acts of indiscipline inconsistently with the relevant provisions of SAU Rules/Regulations/Bye-laws. You have been consistently advised to adhere to the students’ Code of Conduct, but you have failed to do so. You are therefore expelled from the University with immediate effect. Further, you are, therefore, directed to vacate the hostel immediately; no later than 24 hours from the receipt of this Order.” According to The News Minute, the disciplinary order was issued by a new proctor who began his post that same day, one day after his predecessor declined to issue the order and resigned.
The expulsions and suspensions prompted students to initiate a hunger strike. One of the suspended students who participated in the hunger strike reportedly suffered a seizure and heart attack on November 23 and was hospitalized as a result. Shortly thereafter, the university revised the students’ punishments, reducing the suspensions and replacing the expulsion orders with suspensions.
On November 25, the university issued new expulsion notices to two of the originally disciplined students and issued show-cause-notices to five others who they accused of “forcibly barg[ing]” into the Acting Registrar’s office and demanding the university drop all disciplinary actions against their hospitalized classmate.
Scholars at Risk is concerned by a higher education institution summarily expelling and suspending students, apparently to deter or punish nonviolent expressive activity. Higher education officials should refrain from such actions and should ensure students’ due process rights during all disciplinary proceedings. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, disciplinary actions intended to deter or punish expressive activity, including expression critical of higher education administrations, undermine academic freedom.