"IIT Madras is an apolitical institute." This is what a circular, which aims at banning all political activities in the institute, said. The circular comes less than a year after IIT Madras banned a Dalit students' movement. Last week's undertaking, dated 31 January, was allegedly issued by the hostel authorities, and had rules asking first year students to not do anything that would tarnish the institute's image and keep away from political activities inside the campus.
According to The Indian Express, authorities at the IIT Madras said they had no knowledge of such a circular being passed around. Others admitted it was a mistake. Students, however, could not help but wonder at the timing of the circular, which comes soon after student rebellion across the nation over Rohith Vemula's death in Hyderabad.
"Even in the absence of such undertaking, student activities are under constant surveillance. This undertaking would help administration take action against any student for anything under the tag of 'tarnishing the image of IITM'…. This is to silence dissenting voices and crucify independent student bodies," a statement by Chinta Bar, an independent students' movement in IIT Madras said.
IIT Madras and its Director Bhaskar Ramamurthi faced immense flak for his decision to ban a Dalit students' group for criticising the central government’s economic policies. It was only after mass agitation by students and people all over the country that that ban was revoked. Two students, who had raised slogans against Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he went to address the convocation of Ambedkar University in Lucknow on 22 January 2015, were ejected from the institutes' hostel by the authorities.
The latest 'circular' is a body-blow to the increasing clamp down on free speech in government institutions. The revoking of the de-recognition of a student’s body, the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC), at the IIT Madras was an endorsement of political freedom in Indian campuses.
To think that a premiere institute like IIT Madras, which should foster healthy debate and is routinely touted as one of India’s crown jewels, wants to smother deliberation is simply shocking. But what is worse is the authorities' half-baked theories negating that such squelching is, in fact, happening.
Speaking to The News Minute, K Sethupathi, chairman, council of wardens at IIT Madras termed the whole issue as a "clerical error." “In 2015 similar clauses was included and then withdrawn after student protests. The rejected documents got included in the application this time and that is the reason for the confusion,” Sethupathi told The News Minute. Sivakumar Srinivasan, dean of students, who was blamed for the decision to ban Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC) in May 2015 based on an anonymous complaint forwarded by the Union HRD ministry, told The Indian Express: "May be (it was) a mistake if such clauses are added in the list…or it may be something done by the hostel authorities."
After feigning ignorance in the beginning, Ramamurthi also claimed that it could have been a mistake by his colleagues. "Officials must have used those papers again. Anyway, I have no intention to impose such rules," Ramamurthi said.
Like G Pramod Kumar of Firstpost writes in this article: "Unfortunately, students at learning places such as the IITs, tend to overlook socio-political issues outside their campuses and use their time only for furthering their careers. If at all they intervene in social issues, it usually happens in a piecemeal project-basis that is devoid of an overall political thought."
A university, as esteemed as IIT Madras, is expected to raise citizens who are more than just engineers who can be programmed to follow someone else's code.