South India: the students of Pondicherry lead an anti-corruption strike

SocialVigil, translated by Rodolphe Leclerc
6 Septembre 2015

Monday, July 27th, 2015 marked the beginning of a strike movement among the students of the University of Pondicherry, who protested against the corruption of the vice-chancellor, Chandra Krishnamurthy. Indian citizens are showing their consciousness of the political and social stakes.

Credit: Lala
Credit: Lala
During the weekend, the town of Pondicherry was agitated by rumors concerning a strike movement which would occur on Monday, July 27th, at the University of the City. The news was not taken very seriously: how would this gigantic campus – where access is limited by registration fees – criticize social order? On this Monday morning, at 8:40 AM, India reveals itself: students are sat down in front of the four gates of the university. Neither employees nor policeman can get through.

The roots of the discontent

The claim of the students is simple: they ask that the vice-chancellor of the university – the number 1 of the institution – departs immediately. The protestors master their rhetoric; arguments fly from every side to explain the reasons for this strike. Suspicions of financial corruption are raised. Though the University had successfully provided funds to build a student residence with a capacity of 2 000 places, the building never saw the light of day and the money has been redistributed in an obscure way.

A few days before, a teacher of the University had told that, a few years ago, transport facilities in the campus consisted of thousands of bicycles - lent to the students - and electric cars. Today, this so-called “soft mobility” has disappeared without a trace. The vice-chancellor’s expenses are also denounced: the renovation of her residence cost five million rupees (which amounts to more than 70 000€), she uses three official cars instead of one, and her travel and phoning bills are extravagant.

Beyond financial excesses, the strikers insist on the bad management. The new buildings are not open to students, getting a diploma certificate can take a year, the new private exams are more expensive than the usual tabletop exam, and the harassment of female students by drunkards in the campus is not even taken seriously by the administration.

Credit: SocialVigil
Credit: SocialVigil
This administration does not concern itself with the well-being of the students. The student residences can only accommodate 40% of the newcomers. And even then, the conditions are tough: four students are assigned to a room planned for two. Some of these residences no longer provide fountains of filtered water, which emphasizes the absence of drinking water in India. Regarding all of the students, university fees have been raised a lot, while no financing has been dedicated to the purchase of books for two years.

Aswin, a student who had to hide his face by fear of retaliations from the police or the administration, talks about scientific frauds committed by the vice-chancellor. He presented some written proofs showing that several of the vice-chancellor’s diplomas come from a university in Sri Lanka which does not exist. Among the three books she claims to have published, two are pure inventions. The ratio is the same for her scientific articles. And it goes on for her false supervision of university thesis: nine listed on her curriculum vitae, just two in reality, as is the case with her university projects.

But one fact must be more serious still: the student’s detailed tract talks about human rights violation and barbarity. A student was insulted and tortured, and many others were muzzled or expelled, if they dared to talk. A striker, who had rather stay anonymous and uses the pseudonym “Sn”, tells that two girls suffered sexual threats from a man. When they met the vice-chancellor, she suspended the girls instead of protecting them.

Political inertia

The charges are heavy and their accuracy could legitimately be questioned, even if the documents printed by the students seem reliable. The tract, which is two pages long, provides an extreme amount of details to support each charge. It also includes a little plasticized book, which refutes the vice-chancellor’s CV point by point to prove the frauds, while providing a copy of the original documents. According to Namy, a student striker, awareness has grown for the last two years, and the organisation of contestations was set up eight months ago: the Indian Union government – responsible for the University - has been mailed.

How can the students access so much data? The answer is simple: a lot of teachers have experienced the management of Chandra Krishnamurthy themselves, and are parts of the strike movement, at least tacitly. This Monday morning, when the policemen threatened to arrest students, the general secretary of the Pondicherry University Teachers’ Association - PUTA - intervened and said: if the police arrest someone, I will be the first. A huge ovation sealed the alliance between teachers and students in their struggle.

Credit: SocialVigil
Credit: SocialVigil
The situation is barely believable. The proofs are overwhelming. There is a high suspicion that the vice-chancellor - who has never been a teacher – got her post because she knew a powerful person in the government. Rumors point out at the Minister of the Interior. Beyond this parachuting, the management of the University is alarming, the financial transactions are dubious, and the students’ well-being and safety are threatened. Given the configuration, this person’s resignation would be logical. The problem is that she has clung to the post for the last two years, and the situation is getting worse. The University of Pondicherry, which was ranked inside the top ten of Indian universities in 2013, has dropped to 61th in 2015. While politicians remain inert, a single answer can be given by those who care for this university, those who love to teach or learn, those who have a certain vision of education: strike.

A brave, peaceful strike

Indian universities are not like French ones. The fees are high, compared to the average income of the country. Moreover, according to the UNESCO in 2002, only 1 child out of 10 reached higher education. The teachers are immensely respected: each time one of them enters and leaves the classroom, all of the students stand up. This is a far cry from the distracted audience of the amphitheaters where students arrive after the beginning of the lesson.

In this respect, hundreds of students sit still to block the doors of the University, in spite of police pressure and academic risks. The slogans we want justice - in English-, or in each alley of the town, we can hear people saying our vice-chancellor is a thief - translated from Hindi, are songs of motivation for the peaceful resistance. The campus assembles Indians and international students, which allows a cultural emulation. Whereas Pondicherry is located in the Tamil linguistic region, the Hindi slogan stands for North India and the English one unifies the insurrection. 

Credit: SocialVigil
Credit: SocialVigil
Several times during the morning, tension has risen. Policemen struck some sitting students with their wooden clubs. The students did not yield to violent blows, threats and moral reproaches from the policemen. Their only answer was a slogan: « Police, help us ». However, an account must be taken of the numerous employees of the University: some of them are very poor. A part of them were keen to enter. A man shouted « this is my place », signifying to the gathering that his job in the University allows his family to eat. Some of these workers were riding motorcycles and tried rolling on the sitting student crowd. There again, the insurgents did not yield. They are courageous and determined to remain peaceful.

In the motherland of Mahatma Gandhi, leader of the non-violent struggle, it is hard to understand these people, equipped with motor vehicles, who think they can smash the cause of the students. Are they defending the vice-chancellor’s assessment? Or do they simply refuse to be disturbed in their predictable habit of going to work, even by ethical considerations? In any case, each time the bikers’ fuming machines roar in front of the courageous, unmovable, sitting students, the picture of Tiananmen Square comes to mind.

As a matter of common sense, the absurd management of the University would require a change of the executive team, beginning with the vice-chancellor. However, none of this seems obvious, and the heavy authority of the police and the administration can obliterate this claim at any time. How could hundreds of students and teachers hold their ground against an obstinate, corrupted state, which strikes them with clubs? As a way to re-establish justice, the media could encourage citizen awareness and the rejection of corruption by each and every one of us.