Is SAARC's university losing its glory?
The South Asian University (SAU) in New Delhi is not only a point of pride for India but also for all South Asian countries. So far, SAU has been the most successful initiative of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries. The institute started its journey in 2010 at a temporary campus in New Delhi's Chanakyapuri (a diplomatic zone) as part of an agreement among the SAARC nations.
SAARC nations established this university to ensure quality education for all eight countries' students. But in the last few years, the SAU admins seem to have moved away from the right track.
Currently, the number of students in the university is around 600, including 60 to 70 Bangladeshi students.
Since 2010, many students from the eight countries have completed their Master's and PhD degrees in various disciplines from SAU and contributed to many national and international sectors. Students from less developed countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Afghanistan, and Bhutan get a rare opportunity to study in a diverse and vibrant academic environment at SAU.
Sitting in Delhi, students from the eight countries are learning about the history, sciences, tradition, politics, economy, state policy, lifestyle, and the cultures of various South Asian countries. As a result, a mutual understanding is built up among students to then further the mutual interests of the entire region. The university's slogan is "Knowledge beyond borders," which creates a common sense of identity among students.
As a versatile academia, SAU is accumulating, generating, and disseminating knowledge from a common platform for the socio-economic development of the region.
However, on November 4, the SAU admins issued suspension letters to five students. The proctorial committee expelled (rusticated) two students, suspended two students for the current academic year and suspended Sudeepto Das, a Bangladeshi PhD scholar of the economics department, for the current semester.
The admins claimed that these students were involved in acts of indiscipline and had violated the university's code of conduct.
But what really was the fault of the students? In reality, they have been suspended because, since October 13, they began a peaceful movement demanding the increase of stipends and merit scholarships for SAU students.
To quell the students' movement, the administration called the police to the campus, violating the SAU Act, 2016. The authorities also kept a prison van parked outside SAU premises, students told many international media outlets.
After the university administration took this harsh decision, the students intensified their agitation. On November 7, eight students from four countries went on an indefinite hunger strike outside the administration rooms on the fourth floor of the Akbar Bhawan. Meanwhile, two students from Bangladesh and one each from India and Sri Lanka fell sick and were treated in hospital.
Till the evening of November 11, four more students from different countries joined the hunger strike, but even that did not sway the administration. The university's vice president threatened to expel more students.
Meanwhile, many faculty members have urged the acting president, acting vice president, and acting registrar to revoke the expulsion orders, but to no avail.
On November 11, 54 Bangladeshi students who are currently studying at the SAU wrote to the Bangladesh High Commission in New Delhi about the current status of their university. They also informed the Bangladeshi HC of the arbitrary suspension of Sudeepto Das.
The scholarships, stipends, and financial aid given to a few students, based on their merit and financial status, are not nearly enough, especially given the ongoing global inflation. Photocopying books and research journals costs a lot of money per month for every student. The university only gives out scholarships, stipends, or financial aid of INR 5,000 to INR 7,000, and only to international Master's students.
As a former student of the SAU myself, I had found that many faculty members used to pay mess fees (bills for buying food) on behalf of many needy students from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
During the recent hunger strike, I spoke to many faculty members, students, and staff members from different countries and found that there is a kind of dissatisfaction that has grown inside everyone. Many reported various irregularities in the administration. Many teachers are worried about the future of the institution.
The arts faculty members, who were always vocal about students' rights, are being undermined every day. Professor Sasanka Perera, dean of the social science department, and Professor Ravi Kumar, chairman of the same faculty, resigned from their posts earlier this year due to the various irregularities and general arbitrariness of the administration.
At present, there are no non-Indian members in any of the administrative positions, even though 50 percent of the posts are supposed to be held by non-Indians, as per the founding agreement of the SAU.
Inside sources say that, in 2019, an empowered committee was constituted to look into the scholarship demands of students and it recommended that scholarships should be increased. But this was never implemented.
Some faculty members claim that the acting president has illegitimately taken out a massive sum of money as transport allowance. The salaries for faculty members, which were frozen before, have also been revised to reflect current realities. But when it comes to students, the SAU authorities remain insensitive.
Moreover, the South Asian University is not an Indian university. It is a specialised institution of the SAARC countries. Foreign students studying at this university are even given a special category visa. By law, it is an international organisation. But the university administration seems to have forgotten that and is treating it like a local institution.
After the recent arbitrary suspensions, I am afraid that many foreign students will no longer be interested in SAU.
The bottom line is that SAU is an international university that has been jointly established and financed by the eight SAARC nations. It has earned dignity and a good reputation within a short span of time. Now, when the university admins seem to be going in an undesirable direction, it is representatives from these eight nations who must come together to get SAU back on track.
Mostafa Shabuj is a former student of the South Asian University (SAU) in New Delhi, and the Bogura correspondent of The Daily Star.