Varsity leaves students crippled

- March 9, 2023
| By : Ahona Sengupta |

Weeks after expulsion over protests at the South Asian University, a young man suffered two cardiac arrests leading to complete paralysis. Students at the varsity silently fume against institute’s indifference and strong-arm tactics

NOT GIVING UP: "Justice for Ammar" written on the wall of SAU

Twenty-three-year-old Ammar Ahmad has been bed-ridden for the past four months, with both left and right sides paralysed following two back-to-back cardiac arrests and seizures.

Until November 22, Ammar was a voracious reader, who also took up the cause of several international students at the South Asian University to bring parity in scholarships. Today, he is unable to speak and move his limbs.

His family and students at SAU have alleged that Ammar’s situation has resulted from a series of mentally tormenting events during the protests and harassment by the varsity administration that led to panic attacks and eventually cardiac arrests.

“His left side has been adversely affected and the impact of the second seizure was such that all his body’s functions are paralysed,” his physiotherapist told Patriot on condition of anonymity.

BRIGHTER DAYS: A photo of Ammar before his paralysis

Meanwhile, the university has refused to pay for his hospital bills despite promising to do so initially.

Protests broke out in October 2022 as scholarship for Master’s students was reduced from Rs 5,000 to 4,000 and students sought a hike in stipend for all M.A scholarship to 7,000 a month. Besides, they demanded that the support for international PhD students from Rs 25,000 to Rs 31,500 a month, on a par with the Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) as foreigners are not eligible for the entrance exam.

Besides, students were also demanding representation in the forums to deal with sexual harassment.

The university rejected all these demands and expelled several students who actively participated in the protests. One of them was Ammar, who was expelled on November 4. However, following his hospitalisation, the varsity rescinded his expulsion order.

“Soon after he was expelled, the administration began harassing him to vacate the hostel and said that they will take him back only if he writes an apology letter admitting that protests were wrong. This created a wave of emotions in him and he was slowly getting burdened. He began writing depressing posts on social media and evidently was going downhill mentally because the harassment inside the campus never stopped. On November 22, he collapsed in his hostel room and was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit in Primus Super Speciality Hospital, Chanakyapuri. On the same day, he suffered two cardiac attacks in a gap of a few hours,” said Izhan, Ammar’s elder brother.

LOUD AND CLEAR: A graffiti in support of students expelled and rusticated from SAU

“Even before his cardiac arrest, the university administration was intimated about how he was continuously getting panic attacks, but there was zero attention towards that,” said Apoorva YK, one of the expelled students, who is currently staying in a tent that she set up after she was thrown out of her hostel room.

“He was recovering fast and on November 25 he even called his friends from the hospital bed and asked for cranberry juice. When people from the university went to meet him, his trauma recurred and he suffered another seizure, which led to the paralysis. Such was the trauma he suffered,” Izhan exclaimed.

The university, which promised to fund all the expenses of Ammar, paid the initial amount of Rs four lakh and then discontinued. Students crowdfunded Ammar’s remaining bill and got him discharged from Primus Hospital.

“We were denied permission to even meet Ammar until we pay the bill and the university did not feel the need to inform us that they have discontinued the payment. We only came to know after we enquired. Then, we got him released after paying Rs two lakh,” said Izhan.

So far, Ammar’s medical expenses have shot up to Rs 12 lakh.

In response to why the University stopped paying for Ammar’s treatment, the administration told Patriot that he was involved with “narcotics”.

The medical reports have however mentioned no such thing and said the cardiac arrest was caused “due to stress”.

IN THE EYE OF STORM: The entrance gate of the South Asian University

“The University has also tried to portray that whatever happened to Ammar is because of his mental disorders such as Bipolarity and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), but the doctors have ruled out the probability of it,” said Izhan.

Ammar and his brothers are first-generation learners in their family, which hails from Bihar’s Muzaffarpur.

“Our father has been jobless for the last 25 years and we grew up in poverty. Our education has been our only hope. We used to live in a rented apartment in Aligarh, but due to Ammar’s medical condition today, we let go of that house where the parents and other family members were living. The family hurriedly moved to Jamia Nagar to take care of him,” said Izhan, who is a final year M.A. student in the Educational Planning & Administration at the Jamia Millia Islamia.

Izhan was working part-time jobs at a consulting company to meet the expenses. He had to quit because today attending to Ammar is his full-time job. Even though Ammar has shown slight improvement in his responses, he is completely confined to bed with a catheter in place. The family has almost exhausted its savings in Ammar’s treatment and hopes to raise the money for his medical treatment through crowdfunding. However, they have not been successful in the endeavour.

“It’s stressful and heart-breaking to see him like this. He is my younger brother and is extremely talented. During the first and second waves of Covid, he created a group to help people with oxygen cylinders and cremation of those who didn’t have anyone. Ironically, he also led an awareness programme for the importance of physiotherapy. Today, he is in need of it the most,” added Izhan, as his brother Ammar struggled to move his legs that are fitted with Ankle Foot Orthoses (AFO).

The university has been accused of closing all doors of communication with students and their families because of the stir against the administration over their demands.
“Foreign students have been threatened with withdrawal of our visa and a lot of money has been deducted from our scholarship as punishment for participating in the protests. Even professors who were sympathetic towards our demands have been issued warnings,” said an international student who wished to remain anonymous.

Meanwhile, students have filed a police complaint against the administration over harassment and mental torture that have endangered Ammar’s life. However, the police have allegedly refused to convert the complaint into an FIR on the pretext of SAU administration’s functional immunity from Indian Penal Code (IPC).

Officials at the Chanakyapuri police station are yet to reply to Patriot’s queries.

The students said that the university administration has been evading responsibility saying that it is an inter-governmental body out of the jurisdiction of Indian courts.

“The professors were provided immunity as per the convention on the privileges and immunities of the United Nations to defend their right of freedom of expression and prevent them from being policed. Whereas, we are seeing a clear misuse of powers. Apart from students, teachers and non-teaching staff too have been served show cause notices. Our professors had issued statements condemning the entry of the Indian police into the campus, asking for due process of investigation into protests and exercising Article 29 of the Constitution of India for students of the university. This is a dangerous precedent for upcoming international universities on Indian soil,” said Apoorva.

Recently, Apoorva’s tent was forcibly removed from the gate and shifted to the muddy surface.

AGAINST ALL ODDS: Apoorva rests outside her tent that she set up in protest against her expulsion

“I am not even allowed to enter the campus to use the washroom and have to urinate here in the open, leave aside going to the admin block. It’s embarrassing, but what else do I do? Nowadays, admin people randomly take my photographs without my consent just to humiliate me. At some point, we have to register our protest against the kind of treatment meted out to students,” said Apoorva, who suffers from gastroesophageal reflux disease.

Regarding the scope of “functional immunity”, advocate Neeleshwar Pavani of the Delhi High Court explained that it is only restricted to the management of the institute such as appointment of professors, deciding on semesters among others and certainly not on cognizable offences of the IPC.

“Any institute that is functioning on Indian soil can be held accountable for actions that cause havoc on students. Besides, Indian students enjoy their constitutional rights that cannot be taken away from them. Police is infamous for not filing FIRs to avoid investigation. In that case, a letter needs to be shot to the magistrate to launch fair investigation,” he said.

Citing IPC sections, he said that there are enough sections that address actions that cause hurt and endanger a person’s life (like in Ammar’s case) and breach of privacy in Apoorva’s matter.

“No functional immunity applies to that. But for that to be decided, the case needs to land in court and the first step for that is the FIR,” he added.

Explaining the cost of survival at the university, another student said, “Most of us pay the mess bill, which is close to Rs 5,000, from our scholarship. What is left after that? We have to travel and venture in Delhi for our dissertation and travelling in the capital costs money. So, how can we survive on the scholarship assigned for us? How is our demand unjust? Many of us women students put up a fight in our homes to pursue higher education. The university does not bother to consider any of this.”

On February 17, Apoorva and Procheta M were expelled on recommendation of the High-Powered Committee and Keshav Sawarn and Rohit Kumar were rusticated for a year.

On February 25, the university authorities enforced the expulsion/rustication orders and forced the students to vacate their hostel rooms. Apoorva began an indefinite sit-in outside the campus gate until the administration revoked all the arbitrary disciplinary actions.

“Last week, a cobra was found near Apoorva’s tent. You can hear foxes howl all night because it’s a jungle,” said a student, sitting beside Apoorva.

The South Asian University is located on Rajpur road near Chhatarpur, in the middle of Aravali Hills.

Inside the university, students largely remain disheartened over the incidents that took place in the course of the past 6 months.

“We are constantly living in fear and don’t even utter the word protest anywhere in the open and have to discuss such things in closed networks because everyone is being slapped with show-cause notices and threatened with expulsion. Plus, the admin takes sadistic pleasure in the fact that they have functional immunity. It’s like we are continuously under watch,” a second-year Sociology student said.

Back in December, during the winter session of the Parliament, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had said, “Since SAU is an international university, it is not the policy of the government of India to interfere in the workings of an international university. Some of the countries have not made the payments they were required to make. So, the university is going through a period of very severe financial stress. Beyond that, there are issues of management and academic freedom.”

Patriot contacted the administration for more responses regarding the allegations. However, there were no replies from SAU’s end.

As for Ammar, the family is slowly losing hope of a brighter future and a way out of financial desperation.

“With Ammar in bed and a looming threat over his degree, all we can feel around us is darkness. Plus, there is no accountability for it and my fit and healthy brother is paralysed today,” said Izhan.