IIT Madras: The Land of Ambedkar, Periyar and Vande Mataram

Would an anonymous complaint about creeping Hindutva on the campus have been dealt with the same alacrity by the ministry?

ByVinay Aravind
IIT Madras: The Land of Ambedkar, Periyar and Vande Mataram
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“Vande Mataram” is the name of a student organisation, which is part of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, duly recognised by the Board of Students and the Dean. It claims to be a “nationalistic” organisation. On its Facebook page it celebrates “nationalist” icons like Savarkar, Shivaji and Rana Pratap and also has a video of its inaugural lecture by Hindutva ideologue S Gurumurthy.

This is one of the several student bodies that function within IIT Madras, where the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) was recently derecognised, after an anonymous complaint to the Ministry of Human Resource and Development from a group of obviously nationalistic students claimed that the APSC was “trying to create hatred against the honourable prime minister and Hindus”. This complaint was forwarded to the IIT administration, which promptly derecognised the APSC.

The email from the Dean of Students, dated May 22, is terse and does not go into detail:

“This is to inform you that because of the misuse of the privileges given to your study circle (APSC) as an independent student body, your student body is de-recognized by the institute. You are welcome to come and explain your stand and actions.”

According to Akhil Bharathan of the APSC, two members of the APSC visited the Dean in response to this email and the Dean handed over the letter from the ministry along with the anonymous complaint. The Dean, Akhil claims, told them that this was the reason for their derecognition. He asked them to stop engaging in “controversial activities and unnecessarily criticising the government”, and that if they did so, their derecognition would be reversed.

The APSC was set up in April 2014 with the avowed aim of encouraging discussion and debate on the writings of Ambedkar and Periyar, and on social and political issues in general. They have conducted discussions and distributed pamphlets about issues such as Ghar Wapsi, the diktat to separate vegetarian and non-vegetarian dining halls in the institute, genetically-modified crops, the impact of labour law reforms, and so on. The members describe it as a “left-wing, rationalist, anti-caste and anti-capitalist” organisation.

While the APSC categorically denies that it has contacted the media about this derecognition, the newspapers did manage to get wind of it and the story broke on May 29, leading to a firestorm of controversy. Furious protests have erupted since, outside the gates of the IIT by organisations including the Democratic Youth Federation of India, Revolutionary Students Youth Forum, and dalit party VCK (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi). Over 300 police personnel have been posted in and around the campus. Several protesters were detained and forcibly removed from the location. Earlier today some students of the IIT also staged a protest within the campus.

Support for the agitation has poured in from across the country, with students of several other institutions including IIT Bombay and Jadavpur University setting up their own versions of the APSC. The number of fans of the APSC’s Facebook page has shot up from roughly 800 before this controversy broke, to over 18,000 in the span of a few days.

Ever since the controversy reached the press and the public, the IIT administration has been backpedalling awkwardly. The first official statement put out by the IIT on May 29 says: “As per the guidelines in force, the student bodies cannot use the name of IIT Madras or its official entities in any capacity, to publicise its activities or garner support, without official permission. APSC has violated the guidelines while conducting their meetings.”

Subsequently, the director of the IIT, Bhaskar Ramamurthi, has claimed that they had only sought an explanation from the students and that it was not a ban.

While the administration itself has weaselled out of its original position and now claims only a violation of guidelines, its vociferous backers within the campus (intriguingly, all anonymous), still claim that the ban had something to do with the content of the APSC’s discussions and pamphlets.  If the administration’s current stand is to be evaluated at face value, it suffers from a couple of glaring infirmities.

Firstly, the timeline. The APSC has functioned since April 2014, and has organised events where they have said they are “an initiative of students of IIT Madras” as far back as October 2014.

The anonymous complaint was sent on April 29, 2015. This letter was forwarded by the ministry on May 15, and received by the IIT on May 21. On May 22, the APSC was derecognised.

If the administration had a problem with the use of the name that has been going on since October 2014, it’s a most unfortunate coincidence that the letter from the anonymous students, endorsed by the ministry, was received one day before the de-recognition.

Secondly, the alleged offence itself is a bit of a stretch. The APSC maintains that, like Vande Mataram and the Vivekananda Study Circle, they have used the words “an initiative by students of IIT Madras” in their material, and it is hard to see how the institution could construe this (entirely factual) description as unauthorised used of the name of IIT Madras.

This would suggest that the official position of the IIT administration is merely a hastily fashioned dissimulation to conceal the actual reason for the action — which is an obvious discomfort with the existence of an organisation within its doors that questions, among other things, the caste composition of the institute itself, and the institute’s activities, including its sanskritised signboards, and the proposed separation of vegetarians and non-vegetarians.

The administration of the IIT is known to be overwhelmingly Hindu and upper caste. The Vivekananda Study Circle has existed for some years with the full support of the administration. Several other groups including Vande Mataram and Hare Rama Hare Krishna, have been functioning within the institute. All these groups (including the APSC) have faculty advisers who attend the events.

The institute has been happy to host lectures by Hindutva ideologues like Gurumurthy and N Gopalakrishnan and even godmen like Chinna Jeeyar Swamy. Akhil of APSC says that Kiran Bedi addressed the student body prior to the General Elections and wrapped up her speech with an exhortation to vote for Modi, and that vociferous campaigning for Narendra Modi was a regular feature on the campus in the run-up to the general elections in 2014.

This suggests that the IIT administration is happy with a certain type of politics, presumably one that aligns with their views and values. When an organisation comes up that questions their politics, it evidently invites opprobrium. “The dean has asked us many times to change the name of the APSC and to avoid the names Ambedkar and Periyar because it is too political,” claims Akhil.

This evident discomfort was compounded when the MHRD forwarded the anonymous complaint. One wonders if an anonymous complaint about creeping Hindutva on the campus would have been dealt with the same alacrity by the ministry. Those arguing that this derecognition is somehow insignificant because it does not amount to a ban are indulging in semantics. The mere fact that an institution chose to censure an organisation putting forward a political viewpoint, on the basis of an absurd technicality, is worthy of condemnation as an assault on freedom of expression.

In his lecture to the Vande Mataram group, Gurumurthy, said: “The greatest gift of India to the world is the capacity to debate, the capacity to face up to nonsense, the capacity to hear nonsense. Unless you have the capacity to hear nonsense, you cannot produce peace in the world. If you think the other man is talking nonsense and he has no right to exist, then there is violence, this is what the rest of the world has taught.”

At least if those listening had taken this highly dubious claim to heart, perhaps this violence could have been avoided.

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