Chandigarh Police were left red-faced Tuesday after they booked 66 students of Panjab University on sedition charges following protests on campus against a fee hike — only for the complainant, a security officer at PU, to say that his complaint had been “misinterpreted”. With the police move triggering an outcry, a senior officer said late in the evening that the charges would be dropped if no “substantial evidence” is found.
Speaking to The Indian Express, the complainant Ashwani Kaul, PU’s chief security officer, said, “On behalf of PU, I lodged a police complaint and stated that the protesters raised slogans against the state. By the word ‘state’, I meant Ministry of Human Resources Development, UGC and PU. The protesters were raising slogans such as ‘PU murdabad, ‘MHRD murdabad’ and ‘UGC murdabad’. Police misinterpreted and slapped sedition charges on them. I have examined CCTV footage and video recordings of the protest and have clarified the situation to Chandigarh Police.”
Eish Singhal, SSP, Chandigarh Police, said, “Police had slapped sedition charges on the students, but the charge shall be dropped if no substantial evidence is found during investigation against those booked”.
The protests left at least 40 people, including 22 policemen, injured — three of them received grievous injuries and were admitted to the PGI Hospital. At least 52 students had been arrested till late in the evening and will be produced before a court Wednesday.
Apart from the sedition charge under 124 A, the students were booked under other sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), including 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon), 149 (unlawful assembly), 332 (causing hurt to deter public servant from performing his duty), 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from performing his duty) and 308 (attempt to commit culpable homicide).
The protests turned violent after the students, who had been agitating for weeks against the fee hike, were prevented from entering the office of Vice-Chancellor Prof Arun Kumar Grover, leading to clashes with police. Grover was away in Delhi to attend a conference, said university officials.
The PU Senate had approved the hike last month for new admissions from the 2017-18 academic session to cope with a financial crunch, said officials. The annual fees for BA and BCom courses, for instance, have been hiked to Rs 10,000 from Rs 2,200. The fee for MPharma is the highest at Rs 1.5 lakh.
On Monday, the protesters called for a “PU bandh” organised by a joint action committee comprising students from various associations such as Students for Society, Panjab University Students Union, National Students Union of India and All India Students Association. The ABVP, which is not a part of the committee, is staging a separate hunger strike.
Even as the agitation turned violent, with students demanding a complete rollback of the hike, classes and administrative function on campus were disrupted. Soon, the protesters started pelting stones and throwing flower pots at police, who retaliated by firing tear-gas shells and using water cannons. Police said a group of 40 students then took refuge inside the campus gurudwara before surrendering .
Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala, a former student and ex-senator of PU, described the police action as “the most brutal attack on students ever in the history of PU”.