Amritpal and Damanpreet are the first two names mentioned in the FIR registered on Tuesday against the violence that broke out in Panjab University that day. Both belong to the Students for Society (SFS) outfit. The student group has been the center of attention following the violence that broke out in PU on Tuesday during a shutdown against the fee hike. SFS says there is a witch hunt going on against its members and over 40 SFS-affiliated students are already behind bars.
SFS has not won an election since its formation in 2010, but the party has continued to gain prominence owing to its campaigns on populist issues — both political and student-related. What started as a discussion group of 10-20 students belonging to different departments in 2010 is now seen as a face behind every major protest in the university. “The whole activity for one or two years revolved around organising discussions on various issues, political or whatever was happening here. More students later came out and the mass base was increased,” said a senior member of SFS and a research scholar in the university. “SFS started raising more issues later, but the fee hike has been one constant issue.”
Since 2012 when it started growing into a mass group, the student outfit has not restricted its resistance to fee hike protests but also raised voice against sexual harassment on the campus, unhygienic diet in the hostels and four-wheelers inside campus. The group for the contested elections in 2014 for the first time, for the presidential post in the Panjab University Campus Student Council (PUCSC) elections. It emerged third in the last elections in 2016, clinching 2,494 votes.
Now the group is facing a major challenge as most of the students blamed by the university for Tuesday’s violence in the university are affiliated with the SFS. While the last presidential candidate of the student outfit — Amritpal Singh, a research scholar of history — has already been arrested; its main face and campus president Damanpreet Singh is in hiding to avoid arrest.
“Police first started the lathi-charge and then used water cannon. The stone-pelting started only after two girls fainted. The police and (university) authorities are twisting facts,” Damanpreet said in a live video on SFS’s Facebook page after the protest. “Police had come in a pre-planned manner to suppress the protest and bringing teargas and water cannon inside the university makes it clear.”
SFS members say there is a “deliberate attempt” being made to restrict the voice of students in universities and the action against SFS is part of the same campaign. “If you look at what has happened in JNU, BHU or DU, you will see what is constantly perpetuated is there should be only one organisation in campuses and that is ABVP,” a student of Public Administration and a member of the group said.
“The image of SFS is being tarnished on the issue of stone-pelting and our leaders are being portrayed as criminals but my question is who is creating this situation that students are forced to resort to violence. It was the situation that was created by the police and PU authorities.”
The group was in the news recently for inviting activist Seema Azad despite opposition from both the administration and the Bharatiya Janta Party’s student wing ABVP. The party of late has come to be known as a leftist organisation for its stand on many political issues but the members maintain that the group has no political affiliations. “We have already made clear that we have no political issues. If it means to be a leftist to raise voice for Rohit Vemula, Bastar or Kashmir, then we are,” a senior functionary of the group said.
SFS members allege there is a constant watch on their supporters and the group is facing a tough time right now. “We know this will not stop with the current fee hike issue. The policies that are being implemented want students not to engage in any debate or have any dissent,” they say.