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RGNUL VC Jaswal says he’s listening, as long-running discontent tips into 5th day of protests • Students reiterate demands, respond [UPDATE-3]

The grievances alleged by students are symptoms of problems at many NLUs, but the biggest problem may be a lack of an SBA

Students remain worried by admin’s response and escalating police presence on campus, though riot vans have now departed
Students remain worried by admin’s response and escalating police presence on campus, though riot vans have now departed

RGNUL Patiala students have now held a peaceful protest for the fourth night in a row since Friday, after a series of long-standing grievances had remained unaddressed by the administration, coming to a head over the suspension of six students.

Police has been present on campus and a riot van filled with police made a temporary appearance outside the campus earlier today, as a large number of students have continued their strike.

RGNUL vice chancellor (VC) Prof Paramjit Jaswal explained police presence on campus had primarily been there because of “protocol”, during the visits of high court judges to campus, and that he was “not aware of the fact” that riot vans were outside of campus today. “I never called a riot force,” he said. Jaswal added, however, that with 400 odd-students protesting on campus, at one point, he did request police assistance to protect the official VC residence, worried for his wife’s safety who was alone at the time, but ultimately “alumni came and dispersed the students”.

Students also boycotted attending the mid-semester exams, which had started today, although some fourth- and fifth-year students sat exams, according to campus sources.

Update 21:59: One student told us that fifth year students and 14 fourth-year students out of a total of 680 students had sat for exams, wearing black. [CORRECTED 19 March]

According to a statement from students, on Saturday, 16 March, the students unofficially started a student body - the “RGNUL Students Association” - to “organize collectively and to represent the interests of the students before the administration in a democratic manner”:

Challenging the administration, this Student Association submitted a Representation to the authorities which in addition to the appeal for revocation of the penalty imposed against our six students, highlighted other key issues, viz. lack of transparency, discriminatory in-timings for girls and consociate rampant sexism by the Administrative Officer, and misuse of university resources.

We have reached out to RGNUL vice chancellor Prof Paramjit Jaswal since Saturday, who referred us to a press statement made by the administration, in respect of the suspension of six students’. [Update 21:35: The story has now been updated with responses from Jaswal]

The university’s statement primarily concerned the issue around the suspension of students and students’ unwillingness to call off the protests.

One student we have spoken to, said that students were in the process of “issuing a categorical denial” of the administration’s version of events, which were “false” (we will update this story with the students’ rebuttal, once we receive it).

Update 19 March 2019, 16:13: Students have issued an eight-page response to the administration (with 10 pages of annexures).

When we spoke to Jaswal this evening, he said that the suspension of students was only one issue currently aggrieving the students, with a total of four demands that he was currently aware of.

Update 22:44: We have included parts of students’ responses and demands to Jaswal’s comments below.

The proximate cause (and first demand)

The immediate trigger for the protests was the suspension of six students, who had protested against the quality of food in the mess on 13 March by banging steel utensils against tables, with students having allegedly been sick after eating the mess food.

On 15 March, those six students were suspended by the administration as an “interim measure subject to the outcome of final inquiry” after a hearing held the previous day, having been “identified after observing the video clips supplied to the committee by certain informers”, according to the administration’s statement.

The admin alleged that those students had “banged the plates against the mess tables to the extent of damaging the university property”.

The revocation of the suspension of those six students had been the first demand of students.

The administration, according to Jaswal and students, has allowed the six suspended students back into hostels for now, pending the inquiry. The suspension was “no more in existence in practical sense”, he told us by phone this evening.

The second demand: An allegedly sexist AO

The second demand by students in their protest, was calling for the sacking of an “administrative officer” (AO), whom they have accused of “rampant sexism” (with some apparent documentary evidence and student’s oral accounts of his having used offensive language).

Jaswal said that while students wanted an assurance of the dismissal of the AO, that was not within his power. “The honourable judges have made the announcements - he is not seen on the campus, and has been sent on long leave till further order.”

“But without holding a hearing how can I dismiss? I can’t write that he will be removed after inquiry. That means I have announced the [outcome before the hearing],” he argued.

The dining hall protests were just an expression of much longer-running student discontent, which are sadly typical and in some cases identical of complaints of deficiencies at a majority of NLUs.

The root causes: Demand 3 for a student body

In late February, a document written by an anonymous RGNUL student, entitled “A Report on the Inefficiency of the Administration at RGNUL, Punjab”, went viral amongst the NLU’s students on social media. The letter was diligently footnoted with linked RTI replies and other evidence, and stated: “In order to break this tyranny in the name of building RGNUL as ‘one of the best National Law Universities’ in the eyes of the outside world, while the students inside suffer, at the hands of maladministration. You are urged to open your eyes to the maladministration by the University.”

Issues raised and alleged in the document were several, but also included two demands now made by students in their protest.

The third demand of students, is that they want an official student representative body. Jaswal told us today that since 1987 student associations had been banned in the state of Punjab.

But in the words of the anonymous letter, “as per orders of the Punjab Government, Student bodies are allowed in Punjab from next session i.e 2019-20 in accordance with the approved Lyngdoh Committee recommendations by the Supreme Court”.

Jaswal responded: “That is absolutely correct. The CM [of Punjab] made the announcement, revoking the law and implementing the new one.”

But until this announcement was actually passed as a law by the assembly, it was outside of his powers to allow student elections. “If it is changed, we are the first ones to implement it,” he said. “One of the reasons of the crisis is, there are no designated leaders of the students, everybody speaks on their own agenda.”

Demand 4: Discriminatory hostel timings

According to the anonymous student letter from February, there were:

  • discriminatory hostel timings, in contravention of UGC Gudelines - “This rule has time and again been violated by the Administration, and is still being violated as Hostel in timings of boys is 1 am, whereas girls’ in timings are 9 pm”, claimed the letter.

Jaswal responded: “This [equal hostel opening times] should be allowed, I have no objection to that, but the honourable chancellor through the honourable judges have conveyed, and within 1 week will work out how.”

“And we’ll have to take concern of the parents also. If parents ask me, ‘why did you allow my girl to be outside to 1am’", he would have to have a satisfactory response, explained Jaiswal.

While de facto, hostel timings may currently be the same for men and women, Jaswal said that the reason the male students were generally out until 1am was because technically they were breaking hostel curfew of 9pm, which applied to both genders.

Other complaints from the letter

The letter also raised the following issues (we did not manage to raise all of these with Jaswal before our call was cut short, but have annotated below these as applicable):

  • “sub-standard” faculty and “widespread nepotism in the selection of teachers”, according to a formal complaint that had been filed with the administration in respect of a teacher recruitment round held in June 2017.
  • Academic output at RGNUL, stood at “zero” according to the letter, with only one research centre having utilised any funds.
  • a failure by RGNUL to comply with its obligations under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, in particular with respect to responding satisfactorily to RTI requests seeking information on the allocation of funds.

In respect of the RTI obligations and a lack of financial transparency, Jaswal said that he had invited the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) to audit the university’s accounts for the past three years, and not a single “financial irregularity” had been pointed out (although some minor procedural irregularities did exist).

And while the CAG had initially responded with 18 paragraphs of objection, that was reduced to 5 paragraphs after explanations offered by the university, and eventually to only one objection after further settlement and explanation by the university.

Publishing those reports, for instance, could result in “interpretation” that “can be changed evilly”, Jaswal said.

When asked why not just publish the full financial statements proactively on the university’s website, in compliance with RTI rules, he said that it “we would also be doing it, no problem”, but that digitisation was currently an issue.

Sex harassment issues?

The anonymous letter also raised:

  • the university’s failure to deal adequately with a sexual harassment complaints, with an apparent informal student survey (the methodology or accuracy of which we could not verify) seeing possibly 86% of 203 students express that the administration was not “effective and swift in dealing” with sexual harassment cases.

An informal survey by an RGNUL student from February (results or data not verifiable)
An informal survey by an RGNUL student from February (results or data not verifiable)

Evidencing the problem of sexual harassment on campus, one faculty member had alleged harassment by another but filed a writ petition before the local high court early this year. She had complained that RGNUL’s sexual harassment committee did not include a member from an NGO, as required under law.

Jaswal said: “Till date only one [sexual harassment] complaint has been received, and that’s from faculty. Not received before that any email or complaint before that.”

In respect of the faculty’s complaint, he effectively said that the objection was mostly procedural, and that the university fundamentally complied with the law and UGC regulations on sexual harassment committees.

The student’s letter also cited some questionable decisions made at the university, such as alleged non-utilisation of “Rs 1 crore worth of student welfare fund”.

The anonymous letter also mentioned that:

The Administration in an Executive Council meeting of 2018, passed a rule according to which, the leftover funds allotted in an event would go to the teachers involved in the event, and not in the University coffers. (If Rs. 1,00,000 have been earmarked for an event and Rs. 60,000 are utilized, Rs.40,000 will be distributed among the teachers).

Jaswal explained that this was a misunderstanding of the rule, and said that event organising teachers would only be entitled to 40% of the leftover event funds “where university will not contribute a single paisa”, and all the funds were procured from external sources. The idea was to incentivise teachers to organise and fundraise for events. And of those leftover funds, 60% would in any case go to the university.

Furthermore, the document alleged that the legal aid clinic was all but inactive and healthcare services provided to students were deficient.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the document bemoaned a problem that quite a few NLUs with opaque administrations face: RGNUL does not allow students to have a student body.

If it did, perhaps things may not have got to the stage that they have reached now.

Stalemate or a way out?

The situation on campus appears to be at a bit of a stalemate now.

“We submit that though many assurances have been made, we have little faith in Committees and the like as the same have been formulated in the past to dissuade the students from protesting but have yielded no results,” the students stated in their open letter calling for solidarity from other NLUs:

As protests in other NLUs have evinced, the student fraternity needs to stand united in support of movements against dictatorial administration. NLUs, and many other educational institutions are plagued by similar problems, and it is imperative that in this struggle against injustice in places where justice dispensation is taught, students stand in solidarity with the protestors, for this is fight against a system which has been constructed against us.

We beg not for charity, but demand our legal rights. To that extent, we hope that you stand in solidarity with us. The students of RGNUL have been out on the campus streets hungry, tired, and sleep deprived and the support of our fellows means the world to us. Support us, for we stand for principles which are espoused in our Constitution. Support us because this is a long struggle. But mostly, support us so that we can finally rid our educational institutions of maladministration and focus on the motive for our presence in them – quality education.

From our conversation with Jaswal this evening, at least, he appears willing to talk to the students and is ready to meet demands.

Note 21:34: This story was updated with comments from vice chancellor Prof Paramjit Jaswal, after initial publication.

Students offer way out

Update 23:18: We have spoken to several students and included their responses to some of Jaswal’s points.

In a nutshell, students’ primary objection is that they do not want to call off the protests until the administration has agreed at least to some of their demands in writing, on RGNUL’s official letterhead.

Notably, their demands remain (with some variation depending on whom you speak to):

1. The hostel in-timings should be 1 am for all students in force from today.

2. Constitution of committee for inquiry into the complaints & grievances against the Administrative Officer.

a) In Verbatim Minutes of the meeting to be made public.

b) Constitution of Committee without conflict of interest.

3. Definitive assurance of Constitution of democratically elected student body.

4. Unconditional revocation of suspension of six students.

Regarding to fourth point, many students feel that the suspension of the six students over the mess-hall incident was unfair, since up to 200 other students were also banging plates in the mess hall, and one of the six students was basically suspended for recording the protest on their camera phone.

“It is now day five of the protests, but all is peaceful,” said one student at the end of our conversation, sighing deeply, settling in for another long night.

One thing is clear: as much as the administration, students too would like this episode to conclude so they can sleep on a soft bed.

But students are also not ready to concede, having finally won the ear of the administration, with some expressing doubts whether the university would actually keep promises and accede to students without backtracking, sweeping things under the carpet or future reprisals from faculty.

Tomorrow, the state advocate general has promised to visit the protesting students on campus and to mediate.

But one thing that may need to be fixed more urgently than simply a series of demands, is for the administration and faculty to rebuild the trust of students that they have lost.

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