Protesting fee hike is sedition? Student protests in Panjab University: Navprit Kaur

Guest post by NAVPRIT KAUR\

Chandigarh  is an expensive city to live in. It is more so for Buta Singh, a student belonging to a poor family in Punjab and pursuing a BA degree course in the evening studies department of the university. To meet his expenses, Buta at times stands on one of the many labour chowks as he searches  for  work as daily wager to survive in the city. He works as a newspaper vendor also. On April 11th 2017 Buta Singh was so brutally beaten by the police that he could not walk. He was arrested by the police on many charges including sedition. His crime is that he was one of the hundreds of students  protesting against the massive fee hike (600-1100 percent) by the university. On April 11, thousands of students of Panjab University and its affiliated colleges were boycotting the classes on a bandh call given by Panjab University Students’ Joint Action Committee against fee hike. The PUSJAC consists of all the major student organizations except ABVP, such as Students for Society (SFS), NSUI, PUSU, SOI, AISA, PSU (Lalkaar). The protest against recent fee hike has been going on in the university and its affiliated colleges for last many days. Minor scuffles had been  happening between the protesting students and police over last some days.

However, Tuesday 11th April was unprecedented in the history of Panjab University for the kind of violence that was unleashed on the students inside the campus by the police. Police was right inside the campus chasing students everywhere with lathis and tear shells – inside departments, hostels (including women’s hostels), parking lots, the Student Centre, in front of the university library.

It all started at around 11 am on Tuesday as the protesting students went around the university departments to halt the teaching work. After some time, the university market was also closed. The police was already present on the campus in heavy numbers. Sensing trouble, the authorities had already barricaded the entrance of the VC office a day before the protest. After some time, the protesting students started gathering in front of the office of the university Vice Chancellor. They were joined by many others. According to one estimate, there were around 2000 students at one point in time in front of the VC office. The students wanted to speak to the VC  in order to put their demands before him and also to press for an early senate meeting for roll back of the increased fees. They were told that the vice-chancellor is out of station. They asked to meet the representatives of the VC. The students waited but no one from the university administration came out to speak to them. By this time, the agitated and restless students decide to cross the barricades. The police started using water cannons to disperse them. Tear gas was also used by the police resulting in injuries to some of the students. After police action, the students dispersed. However, after some time, they started to gather again. Angered by the apathy of university authorities and violence by the police, the students started throwing stones and flower pots in front of the heavily barricaded VC office. The police started lathi-charge on the students indiscriminately. Protesting students were chased by the police everywhere on the campus. The students ran in all directions on the campus with police chasing them with lathis and tear gas shells. Scuffles broke out between police and protestors and some police personnel were also injured. Even the non-protesting students going about their daily business on campus became the target of  lathi-charge by the police. Manmeet and Kunal are two of the many such unsuspecting victims. Both are preparing for competitive examination for judicial services and had come out of the university library for a break. They were arrested by the police during the indiscriminate violence unleashed by the police on campus. Police entered the hostel premises (including women’s hostels) while chasing the students and used tear gas shells inside the hostel premises.Tear gas shells landed in university classrooms. According to various estimates more than 60 students were arrested by the police. Mediapersons and lawyers were also not spared by the police. The police manhandled some of the lawyers who went to meet the arrested students. They were not allowed to meet the students in sector 11 Police Station. According to the arrest memo (FIR 42), students were arrested under various sections of IPC  ( 147, 148, 308, 186, 353, 332 ) including the 124 A (sedition charges).

There was so much violence that around 38 students ran to escape the police repression and took shelter in the university Gurudwara located at the far end of the campus. However, they were not spared. Around 200 policemen entered the Gurudwara premises and stood outside  the central sanctum sanctorum of the Gurudwara as the students holed themselves up inside it. For three hours, the students sat inside the sanctum sanctorum under conditions of house arrest. Many of the students needed water and needed to use washrooms. However, the policemen stood outside for three hours. Finally, Jagjeet Kaur, a student from department of Music came out to use the washroom in Gurudwara premises and was immediately arrested by the police waiting outside. Then the members of Gurudwara Committee and senior advocate Amar Singh Chahal spoke to the students sitting inside the Gurudwara, and the students decided to surrender together to the police. These students were arrested and taken to the Police Station in Sector 24.

Panjab University, one of the oldest universities in India is reeling under a huge financial crisis for almost one year. It is neither a central university nor a fully state university but gets its funds from the central government and the Panjab government. Last year, the University Grants Commission stopped its grants amounting to more than 300 crores to the university. The Panjab and Haryana High court took a suo-moto notice of the VC’s statement that the university will be closed in two months if the UGC does not release the grant money. UGC went to Supreme Court against the order of the high court asking the UGC to release the grant. The UGC argued that since the university is not a centrally funded university, it is under no obligation to release the money to the university. With no money for salaries of its employees and teaching staff, the Senate of the university took the  decision to raise the fees and generate money for running the university.

However, the crisis of the Panjab University is also the crisis of higher education in India. The state on the one hand is unleashing unprecedented repression on progressive, pro-Dalit, pro-poor, pro-women voices within the university campuses. On the other hand, by starving the well-established universities like PU of financial grants the state is ensuring the death of the public university system in India. This was the system that somehow ensured that the young and bright men and women from economically weaker sections could hope to access the higher education system in this country.

By physically beating these students black and blue, and putting sedition charges on them for protesting fee hike, the ruling regimes have failed the young and poor men and women of this country. Under the very recent trance of their electoral victories, these regimes are ruling in a state of amnesia. Not choosing to hear the pained and angered cries of the young brutalized bodies of its Buta Singhs, they are playing with fire.

As history tells us, these unheard cries do turn into roars of the repressed. And Indian electoral history has shown us that when dictatorial regimes masked by the rhetoric of democracy and mad drunk on power ignore the pain of the brutalized bodies of its people, they are rewarded suitably by being thrown off their thrones.

It is just a matter of time.

Navprit Kaur is a researcher who works in the areas of caste, gender and contemporary politics in India. She lives in the Panjab University campus. This piece is partly based on a long conversation that she had on the night of April 11 with Ankit, a lawyer at Panjab and Haryana High Court.  Ankit was present in front of university gurudwara.  He is one of the lawyers of the protesting students.






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