IIT-Bombay's latest diktat to students over CAA: 'Apolitical' IIT campuses slowly embracing political discourse, activism amid deepening faultlines

  • The IIT Bombay administration recently issued a circular, warning students against participating in anti-national activities or to distribute posters or leaflets/pamphlets within the campus following protests against the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act

  • Thus it is intriguing that at a time when campuses like JNU, Jamia, Jadavpur University etc have become a hotbed of dissent, such a drastic gag order at India's premier institute didn't create much noise. But then IITs were never known to hold animated political debates.

The IIT-Bombay administration recently issued a circular, warning students against participating in "anti-national activities" or to "distribute posters or leaflets/pamphlets" within the campus following protests against the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act and the violence against students of Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University. Also banned within the IIT-Bombay campus, according to the circular, are any form of speeches, plays and music, even if faculty is part of the gathering, without the prior approval of the Dean of Student Affairs (DoSA).

"Since recently there have been a bit of cooing in the campus with political overtones, I requested all to keep the campus completely apolitical and that no one should use IITB while expressing his or her personal opinion," Director of IIT Bombay wrote in a Facebook post.

It is intriguing, thus, that at a time when campuses like JNU, Jamia, Jadavpur University, Aligarh Muslim University, among others have become a hotbed of dissent, and when movement such as the anti-CAA protests are largely credited to students rather than the Opposition parties, such a drastic gag order by India's premier institute didn't create much noise. But then IITs were never known to hold animated political debates.

 IIT-Bombays latest diktat to students over CAA: Apolitical IIT campuses slowly embracing political discourse, activism amid deepening faultlines

Representational image. News18

Traditionally, unlike other state and centrally-sponsored institutes of higher education, the Indian Institute of Technology had remained immune to the explosive political environment in the nation, but that has begun to change.

The IITs were the premium institutes that gave the impression that students here were barely interested in politics and are too involved in the academic workload to give space to student activism. IITs were relatively quiet even when student politics was on the boil in the rest of the country when a former prime minister imposed National Emergency in 1976.

However, in the last few years, whether it is to protest a ban on student body, or overruling restrictions like ban on eating beef, or to stand in solidarity with students of other varsities, IITians have time and again raised their voice to back a cause. One of the earliest incidents of protests in recent times was from 2015 when IIT Madras de-recognised a student group for using the institution’s name to garner support for its activities despite lacking official permission to do so.

The group, Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, was Dalit students' attempt to organise themselves as a response to the largely upper caste campus. Around 200 protesters were detained and a large police force had to be dispatched in riot gear — a rarity in IIT campuses — as hundreds of slogan-shouting protesters blocked the roads to protest IIT-M's ban against the student group. After a week-long unrelenting protests, the IIT administration

The ban was a result of a knee-jerk reaction by IIT administration to an anonymous complaint forwarded by the HRD ministry alleging that APSC members tried to mobilise backward community students against the NDA government’s policy on Hindi and the ban on beef. The complaint stated that the group was fomenting hatred against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hindus.

However, a week-long relentless protest and considerable media coverage ensured that IIT-M reinstated the body unconditionally. At the time, the APSC had also cited presence of several right-leaning student in the campus, which were recognised and allowed to function inside IIT.

But the controversy only brought the presence of such groups to the fore. Rift across ideological lines weer already present and the rise of such small student issue-based movements had already begun some time ago.

In an article published in The Hindu at the time, members of APSC recognised the absence of political discourse in IITs and claimed that it was primarily because of the upper caste hegemony and their natural affinity to the right-wing. They said they started their group to fill that gap.

Speaking about the reason behind forming the group, APSC members said, "Since most students on their campus were upper castes, a natural alliance seemed to be building between such students and the forces of Hindutva. The Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle was a reaction to such groups. We decided to have a group of our own and question them. We picked Ambedkar and Periyar because both offered a logical and scientific critique of Hinduism," they said.

The second major instance to hit headlines also came from IIT-M in 2017, when the debate over Modi government's attempt to put a blanket ban on cow slaughter and beef consumption was on. A group of around 80 students from APSC decided to hold a beef festival, to register their protest against the Centre's move to ban sale of cattle for the purpose of butchering, thus imposing an indirect beef ban. Later, a group of right wing students assaulted a PhD student R Sooraj was attacked for eating beef . He sustained serious injuries to his eye in the attack, which led to protests from both circles.

The students at IITs, again stood up in protests at a time when the debate on CAA was polarising the national discourse. While IIT Bombay students took out both pro and anti-CAA rallies in campus despite a gag order from the administration, IIT Delhi students had already raised their voice in solidarity with JNU students.

According to reports, around 1,500 students took part in a rally on the eve of Republic Day in order to create awareness about the Constitution, whereas, on Republic Day, another march was held by students and faculty, called 'Reclaiming the Republic'. Several posters in support of women protesting at Delhi's Shaheen Bagh were seen during the march.

On 6 January, at least 300 IIT-Delhi students and faculty members gathered on campus to condemn the violence on JNU campus, a movement which was replicated across IIT campuses in Madras, Bombay, Gandhinagar and Kanpur. In all cases, students chose not to seek prior permission from the campus administration.

This change in the political activity and awareness at the campus is attributed to a gamut of factors.

Firstly, the IITs have become more diverse over the years due to reservation policies and also the increase in the number of campuses across India. Furthermore, the arrival of post graduate students and research scholars, over the years, who have spent time on more politically active campuses, has also resulted in a much more diverse and aware student body.

Otherwise too, the presence of right-wing thinkers and ideologues has directed the conversation and narrative on campus.

As an article on The News Minute pointed out, the IIT campuses have a history of holding talks by "religious talking-heads, self-appointed priests and ‘Vedic science’ experts."

"RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy has delivered several lectures at IIT Bombay,  on India, its glorious history, economics and the need to brand India in a particular way at the global forum. He has also lectured on Vande Mataram and nationalism at IIT Madras. BJP member Subramanian Swamy too has been a regular feature at IIM Bangalore, IIM Ahmedabad and IIT Kanpur talking about subjects such as Indian nationalism and spinelessness of Manmohan Singh, among others."

This shows that even though student bodies affiliated to national parties are absent in the IIT campus, the debate around political issues have always existed on these campuses. It is also not unheard of IIT alumni joining bureaucracy or even politics, later in life. Polarising issues like imposition of Hindi in southern states, government's alleged attempts to homogenise Hindu religion, or a law that many claim tinkers with the basic secular fabric of Constitution, only act as a tipping point.

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Updated Date: Jan 29, 2020 21:35:02 IST