IIT-M's slide into saffron: The unjust ban was just one symptom of the rot

The revoking of the de-recognition of a student’s body, the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC), at the IIT Madras is not only an endorsement of political freedom in Indian campuses, but also a body-blow to the increasing institutionalisation of intolerance to free speech in government institutions.

The IIT’s decision to withdraw its bizarre action was out of sheer helplessness because its intemperate ban was neither logical nor legal. The circumstances that led to the ban also smacked of a minor conspiracy because the decision was followed by a Human Resources Ministry enquiry  based on an anonymous letter.

 IIT-Ms slide into saffron: The unjust ban was just one symptom of the rot

Representational Image.

The anonymous letter against the APSC, alleged that the orgnanisation was trying to polarise SC/ST students and spreading hatred against the Prime Minister and the Hindus. The letter also alleged that the group was politically motivated and received “funds and encouragement” from an outside organisation.

What followed was bizarre. The Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) immediately issued a letter to the IIT Director asking for his comments on the complaints and he promptly banned the organisation saying that it violated certain guidelines of the institution. It later turned out that the so called “guidelines” were published four days after the APSC held its contentious meeting. In other words, the entire development was a set-up - the unsigned and unsubstantiated letter of complaints against the APSC, the MHRD’s follow up communique to the IIT director, and the de-recognition.

Perhaps this was the first time after Indira Gandhi’s emergency that an organisation with bonafide credentials, engaged in purely democratic activities, was banned in India because it criticised the Prime Minister and the Union Government. However, given the spate of controversial decisions of the MHRD since Smriti Irani took over, IIT Madras’s overzealousness was not surprising. The conflicts that the director of IIT Delhi; Anil Kakodkar, chairman of the board of governors of IIT-Mumbai; Vice Chancellor of Algarh Muslim University and several officers of the MHRD had with the minister in the recent past did show that there was resistance to Irani’s allegedly overbearing ways. The Madras IIT director too should have resisted; instead he brought disrepute to the institution by de-recognising the organisation.

The ban also bespoke of the growing tendency to keep educational campuses free from progressive political ideas. Indian democracy is in serious need for committed fresh blood and new streams of thought. 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.

When the students organised themselves around the ideas of Ambedkar and Periyar and questioned the twin danger of Hindutva and neo-liberal economic policies, the authorities chose to clamp down on them. In fact, at its meeting in the campus on 14 April, the APSC did raise these issues and quoted from Ambedkar’s seminal essay, “annihilation of caste”. There was nothing inflammatory, illegal or against the rules of the IIT.

An encouraging spinoff of this development, however, is the support that the APSC and free political speech received in Chennai and across the country. It also exposed the apolitical mindset of India’s premier technical education institutions. The climbdown of the IIT authorities was obviously a result of the swelling protest against the move, not only from political parties and student bodies, but also from public intellectuals and academicians.

Of late, IIT Madras, considered among the top engineering and science institutions in India, has been in news for wrong, mostly regressive, reasons. Some time back, the city was shocked to hear that the authorities had enforced a night-curfew for girls in the campus. The move, that cited their safety, irked students because it amounted to curtailing the freedom of girls in the name of their safety. It also painted boys in a wrong light. Then came a letter from an RSS man, forwarded by the MHRD, which wanted the IITs to have separate dining areas for vegetarians and non-vegetarians. The MHRD, in fact, wanted the directors to keep it informed on their decisions on the letter, which meant that the ministry wanted the IITs to act on a third-party letter.

It was then known that IIT Madras already had a separate vegetarian mess. The APSC in 2014 took out a campaign against the move and told the authorities: “wheat or meat, don’t segregate”. In 2012, a Hindu evangelist delivered a lecture under the auspices of Vivekanda Study Circle hailing India’s civilisational and spiritual supremacy over modern science. In fact, reportedly the dean of students himself had communicated about the activities of the Circle. Another student body that’s sufficiently patronised is titled Vande Mataram.

There has been an organised campaign for a few years from Hindutva forces against the  Department of Humanities and Social Sciences for its alleged “Marxist”, “Dravidian” “anti-Hindu” “feminist” pitch. It was thus not surprising that the only organisation that came out strongly in support of the APSC ban was the RSS.

Anyway, yet another effort to saffronise IIT Madras has been defeated by public pressure.

However, the efforts to dismantle the rational architecture of the institution are not going to stop because several influential stakeholders are working hand-in-glove.

Updated Date: Jun 09, 2015 07:23:07 IST



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