On March 10, 2023, University of Delhi (DU) officials debarred two students from taking exams for one year in connection with the screening of a banned BBC documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The two students included PhD candidate Lokesh Chugh, national secretary of the National Students’ Union of India, and Ravinder Singh, a master’s degree student in the Department of Philosophy, recent graduate of DU’s law faculty, and member of the left-wing group Bhagat Singh Chatra Ekta Manch. In addition to debarring the two students, DU also required that six other students write letters to the university apologizing for their actions and stating that they would not repeat them.
The banned documentary, titled “India: The Modi Question” analyzes Prime Minister Modi’s handling of riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002, when he was then Chief Minister of the aforementioned state. Following its January 17 release, Prime Minister Modi’s government ordered it banned on YouTube and Twitter. The NSUI held a screening of the documentary on January 27, which police shut down, detaining 24 students in the process (see report). According to Singh, he was among the students detained.
In its March 10 order, DU alleged that Chugh was responsible for the situation. Chugh, who denies being at the documentary screening, appealed DU’s decision at the Delhi high court. In an order issued on April 27, the Delhi high court set aside DU’s order, holding that the university had failed to afford Chugh the opportunity to respond to the decision to debar him. DU continued to deny Chugh the opportunity to submit his PhD thesis, and later challenged the high court’s ruling. The case was set to be heard in September 2023.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about administrative punishment for the nonviolent exercise of the right to freedom of expression and association on campus, and the failure to afford the subject of such punishment due process in response. Even where they are ultimately reversed in court, such actions are inconsistent with established human rights principles, costly and burdensome for the subjects, and chill the exercise of academic freedom. University authorities should take available measures to protect academic freedom, including by ensuring – and, at a minimum, refraining from punishing – the nonviolent exercise of the right to free expression on campus.