From Economic and Political Weekly, epw.in
Vol. 1. No. 23, June 06, 2015
In the Name of Ambedkar
The IITM students have triggered an important debate on free speech.
If you want to know how to kill an ant with a sledgehammer, ask the Dean of Students at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IITM). By an unintended sleight of hand, he has successfully elevated a modest student enterprise to generate debate and discussion on political and social issues into a nationwide controversy about freedom of speech. Not just that, he has also ensured that the efforts of this handful of IITM students get replicated at several other institutions around the country.
On 22 May, the Dean of Students of IITM announced that the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) had been “derecognised.” Few outside the institution knew about this group. Yet within days, the APSC literally went “viral,” inadvertently provoking much-needed debate on the rights of students to discuss contemporary political and social issues on their campuses. That the IITM authorities failed to understand the absence of barriers and walls in this age of communication illustrates the time warp in which they seem to operate.
The sequence of events also speaks to the increasing interference by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) in the running of autonomous institutions like the IITs, the Indian Institutes of Management, and others. Ever since the Modi government took office last year, there has been a steady effort to erode the autonomy of many such institutions. In the case of IITM, the MHRD did not have to push very hard; a gentle nudge was enough. Thus, responding to an anonymous complaint about the activities of the APSC, which was accused of creating “hatred against the honourable Prime Minister and Hindus,” the MHRD sent a letter to the institution on 15 May asking it to “comment” on the matter. Why the MHRD responded to an anonymous complaint, although the rules clearly state that such complaints should be ignored, is evident; it gave the ministry a chance to interfere without appearing to do so. Instead of sending the required “comments,” the IITM responded with extraordinary alacrity by “derecognising” the APSC without giving the students a chance to explain their case. What appears on the surface to be a matter between a group of students and the institution where they study clearly has wider ramifications on the space for open debate in a democracy.
The APSC was established by a small group of IITM students last year on 14 April, B R Ambedkar’s birth anniversary. The group of around 50 members organised discussions and talks on a range of subjects including agriculture, genetically-modified foods, the Industrial Disputes Act, language politics, etc, that attracted modest attendance. The group also opposed the MHRD’s suggestion of separate canteens for vegetarians in all IITs. And it organised celebrations around the birth anniversaries of Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh. None of this can be considered heretic or outside the boundaries of democratic activities.
Yet, even the use of the names of Ambedkar and Periyar was something of a red rag for the Dean of Students who urged the students to change the name of their group. His advice was rejected. The APSC argued that if other study circles like the right-wing Vivekananda Study Circle could exist on campus, so could one carrying the names of Ambedkar and Periyar. Of course, it is not the name that bothered the authorities of IITM; it was the politics of the group, one that was critical of the Modi government and also of Indian society that continues to tolerate the scourge of casteism.
While the stand-off between the APSC and the IITM authorities appears to be a limited problem, it could be viewed as the first of more such attempts to control the space for politics within educational establishments. Historically, the world over, student communities have been the crucibles of revolutionary thought and action. India has been no exception. Unfortunately, since the 1990s student activism had subsided, possibly doused by the pressures of the job market and growing consumerism as well as the restrictions placed by many universities on student unions and elections. This has begun to change in recent years even if much of the activism appears sporadic and uncoordinated. The ease of communication has contributed to solidarities being built across India within a short period of time on issues ranging from personal choice and freedom, such as the “Kiss of Love” or sexual preferences, to political and social issues like Dalit rights. Efforts by the state or educational establishments to squash these eruptions have only consolidated them. So the IITM episode might just be the first act in a longer play.
In the meantime, one has to note the irony of an institute of modern science and technology encouraging a study circle like the Vivekananda Study Circle that promotes religious dogma while curbing the APSC that provokes debate on caste and class and promotes a scientific temper. And the other irony of politicians of all hues rushing around singing the praises of a man they did not honour in his lifetime while young people, who recognise the wisdom of Ambedkar being told they are out of line.