IIT-Madras beef row: Extreme Right-Left divide leaves no room for dialogue; IIT's silence makes things worse

Let me make this clear at the onset — I unequivocally condemn the violence that occurred on the 30 May and wish for the perpetrators to be brought to book after the due process has been followed. There is no two ways of looking at this issue. That said, this article is an attempt to articulate what many of the people whom I have spoken to feel about politics within our institute — Indian Institute of Technology-Madras (IIT-Madras).

Politics in an Ideal University

An institute of national importance, like IIT-Madras, by its very nature, is a melange of different cultures which brings together students from different parts of the country. Students, who speak variety of languages, celebrate different festivals and practice a number of different customs, are brought together under one umbrella, bound by a common goal of studying a discipline and excelling in the same.

 IIT-Madras beef row: Extreme Right-Left divide leaves no room for dialogue; IITs silence makes things worse

Student of IIT-Madras, Sooraj, was allegedly beaten up by a gang of students in Chennai. A section of students from IIT-Madras had held a beef festival on the campus to protest the ban on Sunday. PTI

But that is not all. An ideal university, which an institute of national importance strives very hard to be, is a place where students grow together, learn life-lessons together. It's a place where students are given the freedom to explore what the world has to offer, a place where they are given the opportunity to try new things without the fear of being judged. Institutes, like IIT, are places where students are given the time to reflect on the happenings in the world and allowed to form opinions. The ultimate objective of such institutes is the creation of a reflective citizenry who can make the nation a better place to live, and insofar as an activity helps in achieving this, institutes should encourage students to pursue that activity, be it art, music, sports, or even politics.

Let’s accept it — it is impossible for a melting pot of different languages, cultures and customs to be apolitical. Tensions are omnipresent between different groups of people, and negotiating between these tensions is what politics is all about. Politics is the art of negotiating the different ‘I(s)’ to achieve a common ‘We’ and in this sense, is inherently educating and fulfills the objective of creating a reflective citizenry. Shouldn’t such politics then be encouraged? IIT believes in the affirmative.

IIT's belief in allowing students to experience politics has been tempered by an understanding that student politics, like the one found in colleges throughout India, may prove to be counter-productive. To strike a balance between these competing interests, IIT administration actively encouraged students to write their own Students' Constitution back in the 1980s and had it redrafted last year by students again, and that document has been the guiding light for all political activities on campus.

‘Politics for the sake of education’ one can say, is the unofficial motto behind politics within IIT-Madras campus.

What’s the beef with the beef party?

In light of the above, let us evaluate the beef party that was organised in the campus recently. One cannot question the right of the students to organise the protest or eat beef at Himalaya Lawns. What one can question, however, is the appropriateness of eating beef as a sign of protest. Activities inside the campus must help students learn and grow, and if the intention was to educate students about why the newly-notified rules were flawed, would eating beef further that aim?

Will joking about how they are eating "gau mata" as they relish beef enable discussions between those who oppose eating beef and those who don’t? Will calling people who oppose organising the beef fest “sanghis” and “right-wing fascists”, further the space for a constructive dialogue in campus?

No. And therein lies the problem.

I do not doubt the legality of holding a beef party. I question the intention behind the same. If the intention was to hold a discussion on the merits and demerits of the new rules in a bid to educate students as the organisers claimed, the beef party was not the appropriate thing to do. I have informed the organisers of the beef party and the members of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle and other left-leaning organisations time and again that while their activities are legally correct, the way they go about organising their activities is destroying space for dialogue on campus. Posting posters calling for burning Ram’s effigy and pasting satirical posters of Purohits with the head of a cow with the caption "Mein Calf" is borderline incitement and hurtful to religious sensibilities. My pleas, however, have fallen on deaf ears.

The North – South Divide between the Right and the Left

Some of the students who were present when Manish and Sooraj fought, are people who I describe as the right-leaning students. While the left-leaning students can be encapsulated in APSC et al, the right-leaning student group does not have formal organisation that can be used to describe it.

Rather interestingly, there is a rough regional divide between the right and left leaning student groups – the left leaning students are mostly from South India, especially from Kerala, while the right leaning students are mostly from North India. Sooraj, for instance, is from Kerala while Manish is from Bihar. The right-leaning students have repeatedly shown complete disregard to any spirit of accommodation – they are not tolerant at all. Intimidating behaviour is their way of expressing their frustration against the left-wing students and despite repeated appeals to them to desist from unruly behaviour, there has been no positive change.

These students disrupted two meetings of the Student Legislative Council, which is IIT Madras’ apex student body, the second time seeing a fight between the left and the right. Talking to some of them revealed that many of them, like Manish, are from rural areas and have been brought in a manner that makes them find acts like eating beef unpardonable. That, coupled with their steadfast unwillingness to accept that differences that are inherent in people destroys space for dialogue and blocks the possibility of peaceful resolution of any problem.

To conclude, the prevailing atmosphere in the campus is not one that is suitable for dialogue. Both groups of students do not see eye to eye and a feeling of biased coverage by the media impacts students on the campus. This being the case, it is important for the institute administration to come forward and hold a frank dialogue with these students and impress upon them the need to maintain civility within the campus. Braving out the story and then trying to sweep things under the carpet — IIT Madras' administration’s tactic till date — has only aggravated problems and I hope that this time around, the administration doesn’t do the same.

The author is a final year student pursuing his integrated M.A in Development Studies at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Madras. Opinions are personal

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Updated Date: Jun 01, 2017 19:01:23 IST