The Hurdled Road to Campus: An Investigation into the Process of Returning

– By Deep Vakil (ASP21), Riddhi Verma (UG22), and Soumil Agarwal (UG23)

Trigger warning: mentions of sexual/physical abuse

When Vice-Chancellor Malabika Sarkar sent an email on 15th December 2020 informing students about the university’s plans to bring certain sections of the student body back on campus, it was the first announcement about returning to campus from the administration’s end. However, another vital yet vague process to bring students back on campus based on undisclosed criteria was already in motion prior to this email, which the administration had not yet officially brought to the notice of students.

When the Edict reached out to VC Sarkar for her comment on this article, she said, “We need to look forward, not back. Much needs to be done in planning our return to a full campus and that is the journey on which all of us need to concentrate just now.” An Edict investigation found that there were alleged irregularities in the process followed to bring students back. It was shrouded in confidentiality, with apparent lapses in transparency, and students who spoke to the Edict described the process as anxiety-inducing.

Exactly 9 months prior, as per VC Sarkar’s email on 15th March 2020, while the mid-semester break was ongoing, the university received an advisory from the Haryana state government to evacuate the campus. Dazed and confused, students were asked to leave the campus as soon as possible. Among those who were on campus during the break, some could not immediately return due to financial and travel-related constraints, but given the level of uncertainty and lack of communication from the administration’s side, most had to oblige. 

According to the 6th SG’s Report for March-May 2020, they “ensured that all students on exceptional financial aid who were making these trips got their tickets reimbursed.” Additionally, the SG said that students who could not return due to a range of reasons — their houses were abroad, or in conflict zones, or in Covid-19 hotspots, or they had immuno-compromized family members — could write to VC Sarkar and the Dean of Student Affairs, Deboshruti Roychowdury, who were reportedly granting permission on a case-by-case basis.

The Edict interviewed Nadia (name changed), an international student, who had to leave following the campus lockdown. Even though international students were allowed to stay on campus, she was not certain that these guidelines would last amidst the rapidly developing situation in the country. For the first couple of months, she had made a temporary arrangement to stay with an Indian friend, because the indefinite halt on all international flights meant that there was no way for her to reach her home country. 

On 3rd July, the Campus Life Ministry rolled out a form seeking responses from students who were “in a position of need and urgency due to various reasons” and therefore wanted to return to campus. Nadia was among more than 200 students who grasped the opportunity to be heard. 

Another email from the Ministry on the same day clarified that “only situations of emergency will be considered” valid reasons to request being back on campus. Students filling the form were urged to explain their circumstances “in as much detail as possible” and promised that their information “will only be shared with the administration, in order to make them understand the urgency of your request.” After seeking explicit consent from those who filled the form, the Ministry shared the responses with VC Sarkar and Registrar Sachin Sharma for their final consideration. 

The House pushed the VC to grant the requests of those students who had internet connectivity issues, and of those who were facing home-learning difficulties due to abusive environments. The earliest mention of these two criteria was in a statement posted by Priavi Joshi, the President of the 6th SG, on the Ashoka Undergraduates Facebook group, on 11th July. The post said, “Keeping in mind infrastructural constraints, [the SG] will be pushing for permission to return to campus for only these two cohorts of students.”

For students facing “home concerns,” the House requested the VC to formulate her own criteria for who can be brought back — criteria that, if they exist at all, are so far known only to her. Responding to a query from the Edict, the VC said, “What the process entailed is known to me, but there are many sensitive issues and in the interest of Ashoka’s students I will maintain confidentiality and will not disclose the details.”

Since the VC “could only call back a limited number of students at a given time period,” she initially planned to only let students facing internet difficulties back on campus, and not those facing home-learning difficulties. In an interview with the Edict, the House mentioned that initially, VC Sarkar was unsure how to let this group of students back on campus, given the subjective nature of deciding whose home circumstances were severe enough, and the low capacity of quarantine facilities, which were limited to Parker at the time. In response, the House insisted VC Sarkar to urgently consider the requests of those facing abuse at home. As per an answer given during the Question Hour on 19th September, the SG defined abuse as “significant physical and emotional harm.”

In turn, the VC asked the House to identify how many such students there are. The House obliged and, by consensus, tasked the President, the Campus Life Minister, and three other House members, one of whom was from the opposition, to look through the CLM’s 3rd July form for responses in which any kind of abuse was stated or implied. 

Subsequently, the five House members undertook what was an emotionally arduous endeavor to read the students’ accounts — some of which were deeply harrowing — to identify students who VC Sarkar should revert to at the earliest. If a student even remotely mentioned abuse in the CLM’s form, the House said it pushed the VC to promptly revert to them. For students who directly emailed the administration requesting to be back on campus, if they had mentioned any form of abuse in their email, and had cc’d the SG, the House said it pushed the VC to promptly revert to them as well. 

“It was just a pressure tactic on our part,” said the House. “We really wanted this to be on top of her mind. These people deserved answers, in our opinion. Even if it was a rejection, they had to be at least replied to.”

The House believed that “all we were doing was bringing it to the top of [VC Sarkar’s] inbox” and hastening her replies to these students. When students sent emails cc’ing the SG, the House, on the same thread, nudged the VC to reply to them “on a priority basis.” But for the student who had filled the CLM’s form, the House saw “no purpose” in informing them whether or not their request had gotten the House’s priority nudge. Rather, they saw doing so as giving that student “an empty promise,” because getting the House’s push still did not guarantee that the VC would look upon that student’s request favorably.

Since Nadia only had temporary accommodation, and she could not return to her country, she had tried writing to Dean Roychowdhury twice, describing her situation and requesting to be back on campus. She also tried to get this information across to the administration by filling a detailed response to the CLM’s form. Neither of the attempts received a positive response. The administration seemed to remain unfazed by her pleas to be allowed back on campus.

After filling the CLM’s form, Nadia said that she did not hear much from the SG again. She even considered writing a more in-depth and moving plea to the Dean, but held back because of past instances she knew when sensitive emails from students had been forwarded by the Dean to their parents without their consent. 

For its part, the House said that they themselves had no further knowledge about the status of individual requests, and so they expected VC Sarkar to directly revert to these students. As of the answer during Question Hour on 19th September, students were not being informed about their request being denied by the VC, let alone being allowed to appeal that decision. The House said they had asked VC Sarkar “to respond to all the students who were denied, or to be given a timeline of when they could expect a response” and would not have known if “there might have been communication directly between the VC and the students concerned.”

Due to the administration’s non-response, Nadia decided to leave for her home country upon the resumption of international flights. In July, while at the airport, she heard over the grapevine that some students were being let back on campus. A private conversation with a House member confirmed that VC Sarkar was maintaining a running list of students who were being brought back in phases. However, this knowledge proved to be too little, too late, and she flew back home.

The student body was previously unaware of the House’s involvement in identifying students whose requests are to be considered “on a priority basis.” A UG20 student, speaking to the Edict on the condition of anonymity, said that he had learnt this information from a well-placed source in the SG, which prompted the Edict to further investigate the matter. This UG20 student had also repeatedly urged the SG, through his source, to disclose this information to the student body.

After preliminary fact-finding, the Edict sent a list of allegations to the SG for their confirmation or denial on 9th January at 6pm. The same day, at around 11pm, the House emailed a public statement, with the subject: “Note: HoR and CLM’s role in students coming back to campus”, disclosing their involvement in the process and confirming some of the allegations that the Edict had earlier sent to the SG. However, the House had already passed a version of this statement at 4:30pm, before the Edict sent its email to the SG.

In this 9th January statement by the SG, the House said that it “pushed for students facing physical and sexual abuse at home to be called back on a priority basis.” The UG20 student, who anonymously spoke to the Edict, said that a source in the SG had told him, that at some point after the CLM’s form was sent out, the House was in a position where, due to a shortage of isolation quarters, they had to make a priority push for students facing physical and sexual abuse over other kinds of abuse. 

In an interview with the Edict, the House contradicted this claim, and asserted that the “omission” of any kinds of abuse other than physical or sexual from the SG’s 9th January statement did not reflect the House’s actions at the time, stating that the House treated all forms of abuse at par. The House also said they could not consult any mental health professionals or social workers before dealing with such a great deal of sensitive information, since they only had one week to review all the form responses. 

The criteria of facing abuse, and any sub-categories it may have entailed, was not publicly announced before the SG’s 9th January email for reasons of confidentiality and to prevent conjecture about the private lives of students who were moving in. In fact, for identical reasons, the House revealed that only the five House members tasked with this work were privy to, and by extension, involved in deciding, this criteria. 

“When students are coming back to campus in twos and threes, and if you know this is the criteria, you can very easily try and conjecture somebody’s personal home environment,” said the House. The House decided to announce their criteria only after they were sufficiently assured that it will not compromise the privacy of students who are back on campus, or the process of bringing more of them back.

Once she arrived at home, Nadia faced the double jeopardy of difficulties in home-learning and unstable internet due to power outages. Meanwhile, at a slow and steady pace, students whose requests had been greenlighted by the VC were trickling into campus. At once, she wrote to the VC seeking to know why her request was not considered even as others were returning to campus. She did not get an answer.

The SG was learning from scattered sources that VC Sarkar was looking at a multitude of factors in deciding whether to approve any request. These factors included prior OAA and OSL records, recommendations from faculty members, and at times, from a persuasive Founder. According to the House, due to the variety of factors behind the VC’s decisions, the extent to which the House’s priority push influenced her decisions was indeterminable. Consequently, they tried to inform anyone who personally reached out to the SG about returning to campus that there were other avenues that they could explore.

That’s how Nadia learnt, just as she was making herself comfortable at home, that all her doors were not yet closed. She had even come to hear of instances where simple one-liner emails secured students a position on campus, while she had spent months flooding VC Sarkar’s inbox, lobbying along the way with the SG to build up her case. Nadia decided to make one final attempt. She asked a professor for support, and that faculty member sent an email to the administration vouching for her situation. She also contacted the SG President and got her to send an email to the VC urging that Nadia be brought back on campus. 

A reply from VC Sarkar informed Nadia that she was in fact already on the list of students who were slated to be brought back. Only one thing had gone wrong: she was not informed about it until now — after she had been compelled to share “parts of my personal life which I didn’t want to share with complete strangers,” after her emails had been ghosted by the administration for months at a stretch, after the SG had turned up no new answers to her persistent queries, and after she had made international travel to her home country. 

Once VC Sarkar confirmed Nadia’s place on the list, all she had to do was wait for her visa troubles to subside, travel internationally for a second time during a global pandemic, and coordinate with Dean Roychowdhury about the logistics and protocols surrounding her arrival on campus. She eventually managed to cross all those hurdles and, and gave her interview to the Edict from campus. 

In response to our request for comment, the VC said, “The process of bringing students back to campus gradually in the midst of this pandemic has not been easy, because of multiple factors beyond our control, but we were committed to it.”

During the Edict’s interview for this article, the House was asked if they thought the process was comprehensive enough for making a decision about who should return to campus, or that there could have been a better, more standardized process. The House acknowledged that the process was difficult, messy, and complicated, but given the legal and time constraints, they did not know what a more comprehensive process would have looked like. Asked at the Question Hour on 19th September about the scope of escalating matters, a House member had said, “We are not pushing for protests or mobilization on this. We do not think it will work in this circumstance.” 

“I wish I knew who I should be talking to,” said Nadia, recounting her experience during the entire ordeal. “I would’ve accepted it if I wasn’t being allowed back, but I didn’t know. The anxiety was the worst, I was completely in the dark.”

Authors’ Bio: Deep Vakil is fourth-year Politics and Society major who is doing a concentration in Environmental Studies and Media Studies in ASP. He was a member of two Houses (2018-20), the first Minister of Parliamentary Affairs in the 4th House, and the President of the 5th House. He was formerly affiliated with Prakrit, and currently, is the Interim Editor of the Edict’s Student Politics Newsdesk. Riddhi Verma is a second-year PPE major and Creative Writing minor. Soumil Agarwal is a first-year Economics major and prospective CS/Math minor. Both, Riddhi and Soumil, have no prior party affiliations or SG experience.

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