Protest by students of Panjab University (PU) against unprecedented fee hike witnessed brutal lathicharge and usage of tear gas as crowd dispersal method leaving 4 students critically injured. Photojournalists covering the protests were attacked by police as well and more than 50 students have been arrested by the local police while 66 students have been charged with rioting, causing damage to public property and sedition which was later dropped.
The massive increase in the fee structure by the University for the Session 2017 – 2018 due to the financial crunch has lead to agitation by the students. The financial crunch is a result of massive cut down in grants by UGC and MHRD to institutions of higher education. The fees for Pharma course, has been raised from Rs 5,080 to Rs 50,000 whereas for Dental, the fees has been increased from Rs 86,400 to Rs 1.50 lakh. Infact, University saw fee hike upto 1100% in one of their courses and as a result, several student organizations within the campus which included Students for Society (SFS), National Students Union of India (NSUI), Panjab University Students Union (PUSU) joined the agitation and gave united call for 'Panjab University Bandh’.
On 11.04.2017, hundreds of students boycotted their classes and assembled for a protest at the office complex of Vice Chancellor Arun Kumar Grover and started sloganeering against MHRD, University Grants Commission (UGC) and Central Government for restricting the access to higher education by surge in fee structure. While students asked the VC to come out of his office and demanded a roll – back of the fee hike, police began using water cannons to disperse the crowd. In response, students hurled stones against the police personnel and then the police fired tear gas shells towards the students. Tear gas shells were even hurled at University hostels. As a consequence several people especially female students were injured and they sought medical assistance but when the same was not provided, students marched towards VC office and were mercilessly lathicharged by the police. During the melee around 22 police officers got injured too. While students dispersed post-lathicharge, police followed and nabbed students and assaulted them in public. Some of the students took refuge in the University’s Gurudwara to save themselves from police’s barbarity.
Police surrounded the Gurudwara and arrested more than 50 students and filed FIR against 66 students under Section 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting with deadly weapons), 149 (unlawful assembly), 332 (causing hurt to public servant to deter him from his duty), 353 (assault/criminal force to deter public servant from his duty), 186 (obstructing public servant in discharge of public function), 308 (attempt to culpable homicide) Indian Penal Code and Section 3, Public Property Damage Act, 1984. In total disregard to the law of the land, seven students have been reported to be tortured in police custody and the arrested students have not been produced before magistrate yet.
Though the charge of sedition has been dropped on the request of the University later but this incident again brings forth the arbitrary use of the colonial law of sedition to silence the dissenters.
Police being present in university campuses and students being brutally beaten up and assaulted when they stand for their just demands and causes have become the new normal. This adds to the organized attack on the students’ voices which has been witnessed earlier in Delhi University, Jawarhlal University, Hyderabad Central University and Allahabad University. The crackdown on the protesting students comes in the backdrop of the systematic attack against higher educational institutions which hits at the students’ right to education. With each passing day, education is becoming a luxury which only the rich can afford. Recently, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai shut down three of its centres due to refusal by UGC to release money allocated for them and Jawaharlal Nehru University witnessed massive seat cuts in their MPhil/PhD courses.
The attack on students of Panjab University has to be seen in the context of the larger fund cuts in higher education by MHRD and UGC. The Budget allocation for the University Grants Commission (UGC) has been cut by almost 55 per cent, from Rs 9315.45 crore in 2015-16 to Rs 4286.94 crore in 2016-17. In fact towards the end of 2015, the UGC failed to allocate any funds to Panjab University. Even back then the MHRD introduced a 25% reduction in grants to higher education, which affected the UGC’s budget. These cuts have led to universities raising funds through internal means including fee hikes, as in the case of Panjab University. Therefore PUDR holds the policies of the government responsible for promoting education driven by profit and depriving needy students from access to higher education.
PUDR unequivocally condemns the attack on the students and media persons and the imposition of charges against students of Panjab University. We demand that
- FIR filed against students of Panjab University be withdrawn and the detained students be released immediately.
- Proposed fee-hike by the University (2017 -18) be rolled back.
- Increase in government funding to institutions of higher education
Cijo Joy and Anushka Singh
12th April, 2017