On October 9, Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya in Wardha, Maharashtra, expelled six students for organising an event where their fellow students wrote postcards to Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing concern over Assam’s National Register of Citizens, the lockdown in Kashmir, and the growing incidence of mob lynching. They were reinstated four days later, after the district collector intervened.
Bizarrely, one of the expelled students, has already graduated. More bizarrely still, the university invoked the Model Code of Conduct in place for the Maharashtra Assembly election, due on October 21, as the grounds for expulsion. But as Vivek Bhimanwar, the district collector of Wardha, explained while directing the university to revoke the expulsion, the institution had no authority to invoke the model code.
The controversy only intensified when the expelled students alleged that the university had singled them out because of their caste. They claimed that over 100 students participated in the programme but only six of them — Chandan Saroj, Neeraj Kumar, Rajneesh Ambedkar, Pankaj Veila, Vaibhav Piplinkar, and the alumnus Rajesh Sarthi, all from Dalit and Other Backward Classes communities — were punished.
So, what exactly happened? Newslaundry spoke to some students at the university and constructed a timeline:
The students announce the protest on social media. The same day, they ask the administration for permission but are denied for not mentioning the date of the protest in their application.
Chandan Saroj, an activist with the All India Students Federation, says, “If our letter did not have a date then how did they know it was on October 9? It is not a legitimate reason for declining our application. Moreover, they never mentioned anything about the code of conduct.”
In the meantime, after the protest was announced, the university issued a notice referring to an older order that states, “As per Central Civil Services Conduct Rules 1964, all kinds of protests and demonstrations were banned inside the campus of the university and failure to comply with the same would result in the university taking suitable action.”
The students go ahead with the protest without permission, combining the postcard writing programme with an event honouring Bahujan Samaj Party founder Kanshi Ram on his death anniversary. The administration locks the gates leading to the statue of Mahatma Gandhi where the protest was to be held. The students sit on a dharna. Acting Vice Chancellor KK Singh and Proctor Manoj Kumar arrive at around 9 pm and allegedly engage in an argument with the protestors.
“They spoke to us in a rude manner and threatened us. We kept insisting there wasn’t anything unconstitutional about what we were doing, and that there can be no election code of conduct on the campus. But they did not listen,” said Rajesh Sarthi.
A few hours later, the administration posts an order on the university’s website expelling six students, without so much as sending them a notice or giving them a chance for explanation as is the norm across educational institutions.
Surprisingly, the order named Sarthi, who is an alumnus rather than a student. “I am an ex-student and was on the campus to collect my year-old migration certificate,” he said, explaining that this showed the administration took such “grave measures” with haste. “Being a proactive student, when I saw the event happening, I just joined out of habit. The university did not even have time to differentiate between ex-students and regular students which shows their careless attitude.”
The administration claims the six students were leading the protest. The students counter that the administration selectively targeted Dalit and OBC students even though students from all other caste backgrounds attended the event.
October 10 & 11
Students send the postcards to the prime minister. The expelled students and scholars approach the media and student groups for support.
The matter receives media attention.
A Congress delegation meets Maharashtra’s chief electoral officer, files a complaint, and demands action.
Another circular in Hindi is posted on the university’s website which roughly translates to, “Certain elements are spreading misinformation and malice that civil rights are being curtailed within the university, which is untrue…this aims to create indiscipline and pollute the academic environment of the university and does not go well with the stature of the institution.”
The chief electoral officer and the Wardha collector take cognizance of the matter and explain that the university does not have the power to invoke the model code. The collector directs the university to revoke the expulsion.
The administration denies having received such a directive and refuses to revoke the expulsion, claiming indiscipline on the campus was the central reason for their decision.
An order issued by the acting registrar of the university is published on the website. It states that the expulsion notice stands nullified due to “technical anomalies” and to provide “natural justice” to the students.
The acting vice chancellor told The Indian Express: “Action was taken in view of the prohibition in force against protests in groups during the period of Model Code of Conduct for the Maharashtra assembly election. Our letter is very clear on the matter.”
Commenting on his expulsion, Chandan Saroj says, “I don’t understand how the administration’s order is rational. Why should we, as students, need permission to celebrate Kanshi Ram and write to our own PM? The administration’s move is unconstitutional not ours. They issued us expulsion notices without giving us a show-cause notice to let us explain our grounds.”
The All India Students Association condemned what transpired at the university through a Facebook post and a series of messages circulated on social media.
“The suspension letters come in the backdrop of thousands of writers, artists and activists writing open letter to the PM in solidarity with the 49 of their colleagues who faced sedition for writing to the PM,” the Facebook post reads. “As waves of voices in the country started saying Punish Us All Because We Will Speak out, the FIR against 49 artists and activists have been withdrawn. But the BJP led central government and its stooge administrations in different universities have decided to continue with the silencing tactics against all those who will continue to speak for the rights of Indian People.”