Derecognising dissent

Controversy rages over the decision of the Dean of Indian Institute of Technology Madras to derecognise a student group, the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, allegedly for its anti-Modi and anti-Hindutva views.

Published : Jun 10, 2015 12:30 IST

Students of IIT Madras reading B.R. Ambedkar's "Annihilation of Caste" in protest against the derecognition of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in the institute on June 3.

Students of IIT Madras reading B.R. Ambedkar's "Annihilation of Caste" in protest against the derecognition of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in the institute on June 3.

THE management of Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IITM) has found itself at the centre of a raging controversy following its “unilateral” decision to “derecognise” one of the student groups of the institute, the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC), allegedly for its anti-Narendra Modi and anti-Hindutva views.

A mail from the Dean of Students (DoSt) of IITM, Sivakumar M. Srinivasan, on May 22 “derecognised” the study circle after receiving a communiqué from the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), which had received an anonymous complaint in this regard. The reason cited: “Misusing the privileges” given to students by organising meetings and issuing pamphlets that “spread hatred against the present dispensation and its policies”.

The study circle, as its members claim, has against heavy odds managed to create “some space” for IITians to talk about “socially-relevant issues” such as caste and religion on the Chennai campus, which, according to many students that Frontline spoke to, is administered with a rigidity uncharacteristic of an institution of higher learning.

The Dean told the student members in a one-to-one interaction that the study circle was found to have been engaging in “controversial activities” since its formation last year (on April 14, 2014), thus violating the code of conduct independent student bodies on the campus should adhere to. He insisted that its members remove the names of both Dr B.R. Ambedkar and Periyar E.V. Ramasamy from the organisation’s title, as these names, he claimed, “polarise the students on caste lines”.

Further, he reportedly asked them to give an assurance that they would desist from any activities that were considered inimical to the policy of the IIT management and route their activities through his administrative office instead of the usual practice of interacting with the faculty adviser, who, as per norms, serves as the bridge between independent student groups and the management, especially in matters relating to non-academic space.

“This unilateral action against the circle is unprecedented and we have never heard of such things on any other higher education campus,” said Akhil Bharathan, an active member of the study circle and a student of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. “Can a technocrat or a scientist be a wholesome product without having any social responsibility?” he asked.

What surprised him and his fellow students most was the way the IIT management handled the sensitive issue. “That these stringent regulations are not applicable to other student groups such as the Vivekananda Study Circle, which is stridently promoting right-wing ideologies, speaks volumes about the stark partisan attitude of the IIT management,” said a postgraduate student. No wonder, as a student activist pointed out, that Vinayagar Chathurthi processions were organised on the campus.

The students rejected the letter outright as the management was unable to provide them convincing reasons for the derecognition. “IITM considered the APSC activities a breach of guidelines only after the letter it received from the MHRD. The Dean was well aware of the activities. The APSC is involved in the dissemination of information on caste and caste-based discrimination because caste still plays a powerful role in an individual’s access to education. Powerful social barriers still exist because of the exclusionary pressures exerted by the dominant group,” said IIT research scholar Aditya Narayanan.

The present row has more to it than meets the eye. In fact, the APSC has emerged as a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) for those who wish to take up social and political issues that have not been raised in public on the sprawling 100-hectare heavily wooded campus for long. The sole avenue of communication for the liberal minds has been social media. These students use it to their full advantage to spread their ideas and organise activities around them and to interact with the outside world. In fact, the students and the faculty of IITM were taken by surprise by the intensity that the present controversy has assumed in the national media and the debate that it has generated amid academics and scholars.

The IITM management has, for long, been perceived as impervious to the developments that are taking place in the social, cultural and political spheres outside the institute’s walls. Hence, the charge that the IIT handled the controversy clumsily is not entirely wrong. “We, in government colleges, deal with more serious and sensitive issues than this on a day-to-day basis,” said the Principal of a Government Arts and Science College in Chennai.

Discussions on issues

The problem can be traced to the APSC’s Ambedkar birth anniversary celebrations which coincided with its first anniversary celebrations, on April 14 this year. It organised a talk on the “Contemporary relevance of Dr Ambedkar” by Prof. Dr R. Vivekananda Gopal, Dravidian University, Kuppam, on the campus, in which he reportedly made certain references to the Hindutva agenda and the “anti-people and anti-labour government of Narendra Modi”. “Much earlier to this, we had also organised discussions on the important issues relating to the land acquisition Bill, labour laws, the ban on beef eating, cow slaughter and ghar wapsi,” pointed out Akhil. It is in this line that the students organised the meeting on Ambedkar too.

But since then they have been kept under watch. For the student coordinators, the April 14 programme looked like yet another event of the type they had organised in the past one year, until the communiqué from Prisca Mathew, Under Secretary, Department of Higher Education of the MHRD, dated May 21, to the IITM Director seeking “comments of the Institute” on the distribution of posters and pamphlets on the campus of IIT Madras on April 13 and 14 and “creating hatred atmosphere among the students by a group namely Ambedkar Periyar”. The letter “forwards [to the Director] a copy of anonymous letter alleging serious complaints received from ‘Students, IIT- Madras’”.

The Ministry’s communiqué contained extracts from the speech of Vivekananda Gopal, besides copies of the pamphlets and posters printed during the Ambedkar birth anniversary programmes by students along with copies of the posters published by members of the Revolutionary Student Youth Front (RSYF), which were found pasted on the walls outside the campus. R. Karthikeyan, RSYF unit secretary, told Frontline that the Front had been highlighting such issues continuously. “The pasting of posters on April 14 coincided with the Ambedkar birth anniversary,” he said.

The anonymous letter, undersigned “Students, IIT Madras”, dated April 29, and addressed to “Madam” (probably addressing HRD Minister Smriti Zubin Irani), accused the APSC of “trying to dealign the S.T. [Scheduled Tribe] and S.C. [Scheduled Caste] students”.

It accused the study circle of creating hatred among students. “They are trying to create hatred against the honourable Prime Minister and Hindus.” The students, it charged, had issued pamphlets criticising the MHRD for its stand on a separate dining place for vegetarians and the use of Hindi in IITs.

The copies of the RSYF’s and students’ posters and pamphlets were also sent to the Ministry, which, based on the letter, despatched a note to IITM seeking clarifications on the issue. However, it must be noted here that the Ministry had not recommended any specific action against any group or individual. But the Dean, without clarifying the issue with the students concerned, derecognised the study circle.

The students, of course, did not refute the claims that they had issued posters and pamphlets containing the extracts of Gopal’s speech and Dr Ambedkar’s quotes such as “Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors” and “You must destroy the religion of shrutis and the smrithis”. “Yes. We have issued pamphlets that are critical of the policies of the Modi government. We do not understand how dissent and criticism of the government’s policy is akin to spreading hatred,” said Krishna, a study circle supporter at the institute. They, however, distanced themselves from the posters that the RSYF published under the heading “Manu Dharma Reigns in IIT Madras”, which accused the IIT of denying social justice by not implementing the reservation system since “it is under the governance of brahminical tyranny”.

Reservation, an issue

Reservation in IIT is an issue indeed. Arun Sudarsan, Project Assistant, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IITM, has sought information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act on the category-wise composition of caste representation in the enrolment of students in M.S. and PhD programmes in IITM. From 2008 to 2015, a total of 142 S.C. and nine S.T. students were admitted to the PhD programmes as against 1,592 under the general category, (“forward caste” groups), and 740 under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category. Just 29 S.C. and three S.T. students were admitted to the M.S. programmes across all departments as against 1,194 under the general category and 429 under the OBC category.

The composition of faculty members based on social category sought by Akhil Bharathan shows that 86.57 per cent (total: 464) of the faculty members are from the general category followed by OBCs in a distant second with 11.01 per cent (59). The S.Cs are an insignificant 2.05 per cent (11) and S.Ts come last with a dismal 0.31 per cent (2) in the total of 536. “Mind you, nearly 90 per cent of the department heads and senior professors are from the upper caste groups,” said a faculty member.

IITM, an autonomous institution, has nearly 650 faculty members and about 8,000 students, besides 3,000-odd non-academic staff and other workers. “It was not a mere coincidence, but part of a planned conspiracy against the implementation of reservation”, says a note from the RSYF. The Senate of the IIT, it further noted, had even passed a resolution in the past against reservation in staff selection. (According to a notification issued in 2008 by the MHRD, the IITs were asked to introduce reservation in teaching positions, which included 15 per cent for S.C., 7.5 per cent for S.T. and 27 per cent for OBC candidates, but IIT managements asked the Ministry to revise it.)

Reservation was one of the issues debated by the APSC often. “The issues of reservation, caste discrimination, vegetarianism, Hindi imposition and anti-rationalism, etc., have been hot subjects of debate and discussion on IITM premises for which the APSC played the role of a facilitator,” said Akhil. The management, according to Akhil, has made feeble attempts to stall such debates. “The action against the APSC has been the toughest one on the campus,” said Aditya Narayanan.

However, through an exhaustive but sharp email response to the Dean, the student activists told him that the IIT had many meetings that discussed the policies and legislative initiatives of the current and previous elected governments and other social issues, among them the reservation policy, which, they claimed, was still to be implemented in letter and spirit in IITM.

They also drew attention to an incident wherein when the reservation notification was issued for IITs, those against it protested in Chennai. They wanted to know whether the management of IITM had initiated any action against those who fought against the government policy on reservation at that time. The administration, the students claimed, was taking refugee under technical and procedural issues to camouflage its hostility to radical thinking.

In fact, media reports on May 25, 2006, claimed that 100 students from IIT Madras and medical colleges in Chennai raised anti-reservation slogans in front of the government guest house at Chepauk in Chennai. A senior faculty member said anti-reservation students in the IIT protested inside the campus.

Meanwhile, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) has sought a detailed report on the present incident in the IITM campus. In 2012, the NCSC’s Chennai office, based on a representation from a few students, had asked the institute management to explain how it implemented the reservation policy in recruiting faculty. Since the management did not come up with a satisfactory response, the Chennai office referred the issue to its parent body in New Delhi on July 30, 2012.

The students wondered how the MHRD and IITM could give any importance to such a “venomous anonymous mail with full of hatred towards the S.Cs, S.Ts and Ambedkar”. “Our pamphlets do not have any material that would surprise a sociological or political scientist. It has been sourced from media, books and journals. Any higher education institute should be a platform where critical thinking and right to dissent ought to be encouraged and where brave new thoughts are to be nurtured. On the contrary, IIT seems to be in a sad state of affairs where scientific temper and social justice are being curtailed,” the mail said.

Criticising the IIT and the Union government for exhibiting an extreme level of paranoia against a “humble” student organisation for its freethinking and secular orientation, its coordinators asked how anybody’s sentiment could have been hurt when the entire discussion was about the right of every individual to decide what they could eat with regard to the controversy over the MHRD circular on vegetarian and non-vegetarian mess halls for students.

The IIT’s website says it at present has 15 men’s hostels and two women’s hostels and six dining halls (messes). Of these messes, one is run by staff members of the Office of Hostel Management, the other five (including one for girl students) are run by private caterers on contract, and there is also a food court. Students claim that there is a separate mess for Jain students. They say that only vegetarian food is served in the mess halls, though students are allowed to bring in non-vegetarian food. “Even this privilege would be withdrawn at any time,” their mail said.

The mail reiterated the essentiality of a group such as the APSC with progressive ideas in an “otherwise retrograde environment”. “If such a trivial freedom such as being able to eat meat in the mess halls is seen as dangerous, then the continued existence of our study group becomes all the more important.” On the imposition of Hindi, they said that as rationalists, they felt that though Sanskrit had valued place as part of the culture and history of certain sections in society, it also was an “instrument in spreading a dominant brahminical narrative”.

‘Stifling dissent’

The recent developments, their mail pointed out, indicated “how dominant the establishment had become when it came to stifling dissent”. The IITM, they said, had rejected many of their moves. They faced stiff resistance when they tried to bring personalities such as Prof. Chaman Lal of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) through the institution’s Extra Mural Lectures (EML), a platform for the IITM campus community to interact with speakers from diverse fields.

“Since its birth, the EML has been the monopoly of religious right wing to propagate its metaphysical idealist ideology and as a platform for corporate think tanks. When the taxpayers’ money is being spent for propagating anti-people, anti-rational agenda, pro-people, rational groups like APSC have to collect money from the students to conduct its events,” the students claimed in their mail. Chaman Lal, however, addressed the students on the campus in a programme organised through another socially active group, IIT for Society, the students claimed.

Discussions, meetings and pamphlets were meant to kick-start a debate on the campus and among the academic fraternity. “The IITM [an autonomous statutory organisation functioning within the Institutes of Technologies Act 1961, as amended by the Institute of Technology (Amendment) Act, 1963] is a public funded institute whose vision and mission should abide for the upliftment of the common masses. The right to function of any independent student body was not the privilege given by the authority but rather the democratic right of students themselves. We strongly believe that what we stated in our pamphlets and the content of our discussion are correct and as per the Constitution,” the mail contended.

They claimed that there were several students’ organisations active on the premises propagating the views of diverse strands in society. A few of them are elected bodies while other forums of like-minded groups are independent. They can organise programmes of their choice but in close coordination with their respective faculty advisers. But the strongest presence on the campus is right-wing groups such as the Vivekananda Study Circle; the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh) shakha; Hare Rama, Hare Krishna; Vande Mataram; and Dhruva, to name a few.

Dean’s defence

The Dean, however, defended his decision strongly in the present case. He maintained that certain procedures were to be adhered to and that the APSC had violated the code of conduct by misusing its privileges. He informed the media immediately after the study circle’s derecognition that the action was inevitable and taken after a detailed investigation into the allegations against the circle, which were “found to be true”.

IITM (administered centrally by the Council of IITs) did not curtail the freedom of expression but would expect all student groups to adhere to the guidelines, said the Dean, who added that the APSC coordinators did not take his permission for the event that was organised on April 14 to celebrate Ambedkar’s birth anniversary. They did not show him the posters prior to publishing them, he said.

But as the issue began sizzling, the Dean clarified that the derecognition was “not based on political stances”, and reiterated that it was just provisional and not a ban or a shutdown as portrayed widely by the media and other online blogs. (The groups could make use of the campus infrastructure for meetings and programmes after informing the Board of Students (BoS), he said.)

The APSC’s case will have to be presented in a formal hearing before the BoS, the institute body comprising both faculty and student representatives from the Students Affairs Council (SAC). IITM Director Baskar Ramamurthi said that it was not a ban and IITM had only sought an explanation from the APSC on certain issues. “The issue will be sorted out soon,” he said. “But nothing short of a total revocation of derecognition will satisfy us,” said a student activist.

Members of the APSC also alleged that the Dean had assumed the role of their faculty adviser. (Each study circle will have a faculty adviser who guides them in organising events.) They said that they had been interacting with Associate Professor Milind Brahme, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, as their faculty adviser. Brahme told Frontline that he was under the impression that he had been the faculty adviser for the APSC though there was no official communication designating him as one. “But the students of the APSC did contact me and run most of the things through me, although some posters/events might have been missed,” he said.

In fact, IITM has a Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, one of its oldest departments, founded in 1959, which allows students to develop an appreciation for diverse fields—including development studies, economics, English studies, environmental studies, history, international relations, philosophy, political science and sociology—and gives them a multidisciplinary background.

A senior faculty member pointed out that a lot of socially relevant research projects were being undertaken. “Independently and also partnering with prestigious institutions such as the Asian College of Journalism, the Humanities Department has taken up research studies on various issues, including manual scavenging, plantation workers’ plight and the labour movement."

“How can such an institution of a very high repute with social grounding promote a majoritarian ideology?” asked an academic at the University of Madras.

Anonymous complaint

While the role of IITM in this issue is squarely criticised, observers raise a vital question on the legitimacy of the anonymous complaint based on which the action in question was initiated against the student group. A circular from the Central Vigilance Commission dated November 25, 2014, on “Action on anonymous and pseudonymous complaints” categorically instructed all Ministries, departments and organisations that “no action should be taken on the anonymous/pseudonymous complaints”. But the MHRD seems to be blissfully unaware of this. Nor does IITM seem to have known about it.

Chaman Lal recalled the APSC’s invitation to him to deliver a lecture on “Bhagat Singh’s thoughts on India” on March 7.

In his tweet, he said: “I was told by the students then that the IIT management is more in favour of rightist student groups on campus in comparison to Dalit and leftist student groups. I wonder how the Ministry of HRD took notice of an anonymous letter. One wonders whether this is the first step towards acting against other universities like JNU, D.U. [Delhi University] and Jamia Millia and leftist student groups like AISA [All India Students Association] and SFI [Students’ Federation of India]. Is this the beginning of ‘achhe din’ for higher education in India?”

The row in its entirety kicked up an intense national debate among intellectuals and civil rights advocates on the critical issues relating to the freedom of expression that attempt to define the role and responsibility of students of any higher education institution in this context. Dissent can never be construed as defiance, the academics say. Students have gone on social media against the derecognition, inviting the views of all. On the first day of its posting, in the last week of May, it received 600 supporters and their number is growing.

The writer and activist Arundhati Roy, in a statement, says that at a time when Hindutva organisations and media outlets are outrageously celebrating Ambedkar, the man who publicly denounced Hinduism, as though he is their very own man; at a time when the Hindu nationalists’ campaign of ghar wapsi (a revamped programme of the Arya Samaj’s “Shuddhi” programme) has been launched to get Dalits to return to the Hindu fold, why is that when Ambedkar’s real followers use the name or likeness of Ambedkar they get murdered like Surekha Bhotmange’s family in Khairlanji? Why is it that if a Dalit man has a ringtone on his phone with a song about Ambedkar he gets beaten to death? Why has the APSC been derecognised?

“It is because they have seen through this charade and have put their finger on the most dangerous possible place. They have made the connection between corporate globalisation and the perpetuation of caste. There is hardly anything more threatening to this present ruling establishment than doing what APSC did—celebrating both Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar. This is what has brought them into the line of fire. This is what is sought to be quashed. The APSC derecognition is a recognition of a kind,” she said.

The Kerala-based Indian English Dalit poet S. Chandramohan points out that the resurgent Hindutva since the 2014 general elections has been rolling back the ongoing reconstruction of India along the democratic and egalitarian ideals of Jyotirao Phule, Periyar and Ambedkar. “The APSC’s rising against such right-wing forces is a welcome sign of the democratisation and egalitarian student participation in nation-building,” he said.

Besides Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and HRD Minister Smriti Irani’s spat on the issue on Twitter, various political and social groups except the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu reacted sharply to the issue. One of the alumni, Deepak Johnson, former students’ general secretary, called the action of the Dean a “shame to the institute”.

Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), says the banning of the APSC “appears part of the larger design of the RSS’ ideological project of transforming the secular democratic Indian Republic into their version of an intolerant fascistic ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Such a ban strikes at the very root of our constitutional guarantees, negating the spirit of an ‘adventure of ideas’ in institutions of higher education and replacing our syncretic civilisational history with Hindu mythology.”

A surprise support to the APSC came from the noted American mathematician David Bryant Mumford who, in his letter to IITM Director Baskar Ramamurthi, posted by the students on the social media, has expressed his deep shock over its derecognition. “I believe campuses must allow open discussions of divisive issues even when it offends some people so that all aspects of an issue are out in the open,” he wrote.

Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam MP, was the first woman politician to condemn the derecognition. She asked its Director to allow free speech inside the IIT campus.

Dravidar Kazhagam leader K. Veeramani criticised the attempt to stifle progressive voices among the youth. “Their agenda is Hindutva and it should be defeated,” he pointed out. Though a group of students and the majority of the faculty have accused the APSC of “whipping up a frenzied campaign” against the IITM management, the majority of the students and their groups on the campus have extended their solidarity to it. “The APSC could moderate the tone of its language used. The argument that IITM being an autonomous body can formulate its own guidelines to regulate the students’ activities can only hold if such guidelines are not against the constitutional spirit of the nation,” felt Aditya Narayanan, who is doing his research in ocean engineering.

The students are overwhelmingly euphoric over the support they have garnered. But they are also apprehensive about a backlash. IITM’s graduation pledge says: “We shall devote all our energies to promote the unity and secular ideal of our country and utilise our knowledge in the service of our nation and society.” They hope that the IITM management will live up to this pledge.

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