After the storm

9 06 2015

Some thoughts on the IIT Madras de-recognition controversy and its aftermath

The controversy surrounding de-recognition of Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle is (hopefully) over after the club has been reinstated to its previous status of being an institute recognised independent club. Now that the case is more or less settled, I think there is nothing wrong in posting my comprehensive view on this matter. I did make an earlier post on a related issue and the crux of this controversy – the right to dissent – which you can read from here.

At the outset let me make one thing clear- this is not going to be a neutral opinion. More accurate statement in this connection shall be that there can be no neutral opinions on such contested matters. At least no helpful ones. I intend to look at it as who I am – a rationalist, liberal, someone passionate about freedom of expression, somebody who spent time and effort to understand the discourse surrounding caste privileges and a student of the institute. I did consider viewing things from other vantage points, although I could only sympathetically disagree with many of those takes, and vigorously reject the ones I thought were bigoted. For instance, I consider Dr. Krishna Jagannathan’s article on Quora as a well articulated perspective from a concerned faculty to which I respectfully disagree on many points. At the same time I consider this despicable hate propaganda piece as the epitome of a crazy conspiracy theory, where the author(s) seemed particular that there should be at least one lie in every sentence. For the sake of full disclosure let me also mention that I have not been a member of APSC, but have attended most of the events they had conducted. Some of its active spokespersons happened to be people I know well. I have had email exchanges with student representatives, and informal conversations with a few faculty members to know their perspectives too. Ever since the issue blew up, many of these viewpoints are doing rounds in the social media.

The Story as I saw it

According to their own claims and records, Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle was formed on April 14, 2014 with the stated objective of propagating Ambedkarite views and Rationalistic thoughts of Periyar through initiating discussions on various socio-political issues. According to them, they were asked to change the name of the club many a times by representatives of the IIT Madras administration stating it to be polarising and controversial. If their allegation is true, we need to consider that this happens in a campus with a Vivekanda Study Circle, which has been working with all the blessings from the administration, and still is surprisingly not considered to be polarising or controversial. Personally, I would consider Ambedkar three notches above Vivekananda in any scale of comparison, but that isnot to be discussed here.

The group conducted talks, discussions and distributed pamphlets, on Sanskritisation, beef ban, non-vegetarian food apartheid, Caste discrimination and the economic policies of the Central Govt. Needless to say, many people were uncomfortable or disagreed with the issues they had raised. Some did not like the engagement style, about which my own personal view is that they should make it more inclusive in order to raise the level of discussions. One group of people, who claimed to be students of IIT Madras, wrote an anonymous letter to the Ministry of Human Resource Development complaining about the activities of this group. The complaint was of kindergarten level; a typical madam, I didn’t like the colour of that kid’s ribbon and so please scold her, type (courtesy, Veena Mani). MHRD took this letter seriously, when it was rule-bound by a Central Vigilance Commission instruction to ignore all anonymous or pseudonymous complaints. It sent a letter to the institute Director seeking comments. While one might argue that there is nothing wrong in seeking comments, the speed of this action (in less than a month), the priority it gave to something it should have ignored in the first place, and the fact that even an official instruction to comment by the funding agency on an issue that does not come under its purview, can be construed as a pressure tactic. This puts the whole affair into suspicion.

The institute administration acted immediately upon receiving the letter. If the documents that APSC has put up has to be believed they were de-recognised as the first step before seeking any explanation in this regard. It is unclear how administration concluded that a violation took place before officially asking the group about their position. According to the letter to MHRD, the anonymous had complained to the IIT Madras administration several times, and they chose not to act. Now, it is only a matter of deducing ‘2+2=4’ that whatever be the official response, the letter from MHRD was indeed the trigger. The issue flared up in a couple of days. Articles were published in social and print media. The institute made an official statement describing this as an internal issue and that the group was de-recognised for violating certain existing guidelines with regard to the functioning of independent student bodies. Later news channels took over and it became the talking point. The group explained their stands through a mail to the concerned authority, which was later published here.

What followed was dramatic. There were reactions from various corners of the nation, and even from abroad. The visual media did go overboard on certain occasions. A few media outlets did report some aspects of the issue incorrectly. It was TRP business as usual. Even then, I do not think they were entirely wrong in projecting it as a question of free speech and space for dissent. I shall explain this point in the coming paragraph. Mr. H. Raja of BJP, TamilNadu, added fuel to the fire with a statement to the effect that he had asked the Director to ban this group some time before and was happy that it was done. Political and social organisations took up the issue for various reasons ranging from a chance to dent the image of the ruling front, through concern for silencing dissent, to solidarity with the social justice causes. Meanwhile, MHRD withdrew from the scene to save its face. The front gate of IIT Madras became a battle ground and this did affect the normal life within the campus.

Once the storm gathered momentum Ambedkar Periyar Study Circles mushroomed from all corners of the country and people including renowned academicians began writing letters to the institute administration. Finally on 7th June 2015 the institute reinstated the organisation, and the de-recognition was lifted unconditionally after an 8 hour long talk with APSC representatives, as per them. The concerned authority clarified that the de-recognition was lifted because the information regarding the rules was disseminated after the event in question had happened. APSC has also made a statement that “IIT Madras administration accepted to modify the guidelines through SAC (Student Affairs Council) and also accepted uniform implementing of these guidelines to all independent student bodies”. So it seems every one is happy and now we can end the story with so they lived happily ever after, or may be quite not so.

Reading Between the Lines

One does not need a sixth sense to understand that the actual reason for de-recognition had very little to do with an ill-thought of guideline. I used the word purposefully because as Dr. Dheeraj Sanghi from IIT Kanpur had pointed out and later put up as a parody possibly by sympathisers of this group, how could any group within the institute avoid using IIT Madras in their communications! If such a rule does exist, I am appalled by the logical faculty of the student representatives who drafted such a guideline. Truly, you must be joking. On the other hand, institute can and should rule that no organisation within should misrepresent itself as the official voice of the administration. Personally, I could not see this club misrepresenting their opinion as IIT Madras’ official view. Also at least three other clubs, one of which enjoys the active patronage of IIT Madras faculties and possibly management given that they have a web space in the institute server, have been using the name IIT Madras and even its logo, even when this event was unfolding. Once the issue got publicity some of these clubs did change their webpages. Clearly, for any person with a minimum common sense, this could not be a simple question of guideline violation. One must admit that technically the administration was right in pointing out a violation. Therefore in my considered view, this was indeed a question of either curtailing dissent or action against a perceived hate speech. It was definitely triggered by the pressure from MHRD.

Freedom to dissent vs Hate speech, debate

Many articles have been written from this angle. Two of them, published by the student run institute news portal -The Fifth Estate -opens up this debate. I tend to agree with Aditya Narayanan’s piece on placing the alleged controversial statements from the pamphlet in their proper context. Of course, there are many who choose to disagree and this is one such view, although I personally found the arguments weak. Essentially it brings down the issue to whether institute has behaved impartially, as it is mandated, in dealing with various perspectives.

At the outset let me say that IIT Madras is not a monstrous place where anybody who disagrees is ruthlessly dealt with. Having said that, from my own experiences I have found instances of preferential behaviour when it comes to supporting certain views, whether it be by accident or design. One of my friends from another independent club ChintaBAR, had once claimed that they were made to run extra yard and often snubbed for conducting programmes that did not go well with some concerned senior faculty members. It is true to a certain extent that there is a certain kind of unwarranted protectionism at operation here. Unpopular (inside institute) yet perfectly legitimate discourses are dealt more cautiously as against the red carpet given to some loony varieties which are neither intellectual nor sensible, like this, this and this.

Free speech and its limits (?) are hotly contested topics everywhere. Was the club well within their rights to criticise Hinduism for the nature of its functioning? My answer would be yes. And I would definitely support if somebody does that to Islam being a non-believer or ex-Muslim (as in the case of atheists from Bangladesh, for instance) or Christianity, which actually have been shredded apart more thoroughly by the works of Nietzsche and Russell. My personal view on this matter notwithstanding, it is a widely recognised that free speech in the context of a university is more than a facilitator, and a mere right. It is the very essence and substance. This is not to say that every opinion is equally valid, or to go for such a post modern claptrap. I merely argue that we must recognise the fact that this is a university and not the public road. Every taboo subject should be allowed to be discussed and fiercely debated, not recognised or officially sanctioned. People who find this problematic too can express their criticism. It suffices to say that sensitivity of an issue should not be the reason for censoring it in any way.

Arguments out of ignorance and arrogance

One lesser discussed aspect of this issue is that, whether we agree or disagree with them,APSC has raised questions on sociological issues. A good percentage of the institute’s science and technology community displays a certain amount of smugness in dealing with sociological questions. Especially if they are connected to caste, gender, sexuality, religion and politics. Although most students and faculty members are highly competent in their own domains they somehow assume, without bothering to read and understand the underlying issues, that their opinions are as correct and valid in such sociological questions. I am sure that I would protest if a pastor who has not worked in fluid dynamics shows the audacity to claim that Navier Stokes Equations are rubbish, because of some arcane theological reason or because his observations suggest so. This is often the case with many undergraduates, research scholars and even faculty from science or engineering background when it comes to discussing caste or gender. Of course, this ignorance could well be mutual, if and when the Humanities and Social Science students or faculty discusses scientific or technological questions. But being a predominately technological institute the balance is loaded in favour of the engineering departments. And trust me, the highly vitriolic attacks targeting HSS is not just a coincidence but a combination of ignorance and arrogance on sociological issues.

Where should we stand?

Now that the issue has subdued, it is important that we, the IIT Madras community, do an introspection. I suggest that the question should be, what do we hope to become – protectionist campus, where status-quo is always held sacred, or a vibrant one where ideas are contested? It is in this context that I disagree with many well intended people who have argued that institute does have that ample dissenting space and it was all about a few fringe groups making unnecessary issues.I would rather stand with this statement by a Masters student, I came across in social media: “the ‘liberal spaces’ in our campus are interstitial in nature. They exist because they are not policed. And not because the institute in general is ‘liberal’” . As a liberal, an ardent advocate of free expression (even unpopular ones that I detest of), I believe that. If not for anything else, the institute should at least take into account of the changing society. There is a democratisation process at work and this is reflected in the composition of student body and their perspectives. Most importantly it should not let down a future society by curbing discourses on socio-political issues today, in any form- even the most unpopular ones.

When universal adult franchise was introduced in an utterly poor and illiterate country which had just received its self rule, in 1950, virtually the whole world called it the greatest gamble in history. All of us are products of that gamble and I believe it has fared well and gave rich dividends for all the faults it still has. The trust deficit between the administration and some students, when it comes to giving full rights to expression and dissent is centred around such an apprehension. Will they overdo it? Will there be fights and media uproars? I believe that this is misplaced. In my opinion, we care far too much about culture, traditions and etiquettes than for understanding ideas. Culture is a relative and subjective term. We will acquire maturity only when we give freedoms and responsibilities that are not curtailed by touchy-vouchy sensitivities. I dream of the campus which is mature, vibrant and engaging rather than just being cultured and polite. While I do not advocate usage of vulgar language or hate speech, maturity is in ignoring such expressions with the contempt it deserves and discussing the underpinning ideas, if any.

The future of dissent: My take on the IIT Madras controversy

4 06 2015

For the uninitiated, IIT Madras de-recognised a student forum called Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, after a group of anonymous people send a letter to MHRD which resulted in MHRD seeking comments from the Director about the allegations raised in the anonymous letter. This created a huge controversy, the waves of which are still in the air as I write this. The student body of IIT Madras, created a survey seeking opinions of the General Student Body (consisting of all IIT Madras students and research scholars) on this matter. This is an edited version of a letter I had send to a responsible student body member after the survey was delayered. I am publishing this to declare my stand on the issue.

I am writing to you in the capacity of an IITM research scholar as well as an active member of an independent club/forum – QUEST.I would like to register a strong note of dissent and protest against the survey being conducted to seek opinions on APSC and the issues related to that.

At the outset let me give a brief description of the independent forum that I claim to be a member of. QUEST is an association of students, faculty, alumni and people associated in various other capacities with the institute, for promoting scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform, in accordance with the Article 51A(h) of the Constitution of India. We are a group of Atheists, Agnostics, Rationalists, Skeptics, Humanists and other free thinkers, who have resolved to come to a common platform in order to defend secular values. Our major priorities shall be to encourage informed debates, question superstition and irrationality wherever it produces harm and to enhance our own understanding about both the material universe and the world of ideas. As an association we shall remain politically non-partisan, although our individual members shall have every right to support political or social ideologies they choose in their personal capacities. You can read more about our views and some of the events from this not-yet-complete webpage/blog.

I would not like to make comments about the institute’s decision with regard to ‘de-recognising’ APSC and the technicalities involved in it. Having said that, the manner in which the issue has panned out worries me a lot. It is in this context that I find your survey questionnaire extremely inappropriate and a setting a dangerous precedent. Let me try to explain, why I think so.

I am sure that you are aware that there is a major difference between a liberal democracy and majoritarianism. Nobody can, or should,legislate up on fundamental rights of a group or individual. Think about it, will you allow a mob to lynch a person or few people,accused to have committed some crime, just because 95 out of the 100 people present over there agrees with it? What is the difference between IIT Madras SAC and a Khap panchayat, if we are to follow this kind of a mob justice?

We must tread carefully over this line. I request you to use your best judgement, be fiercely independent and think about all dimensions before concluding, for such is the weight of responsibility up on your shoulders. Please ask yourself a 100 times before succumbing to opinions or pressures. The group in question is very likely to be not the favourite of the IITM GSB. But you must ask yourself why it is so? Is the GSB being analytical and objective in coming to that conclusion? Does its caste and class composition have a major impact on this?

You must understand that Ambedkar is a hero, and for good reasons,for Dalits and marginalised communities who are thoroughly under-represented even in our institute. When the majority, including a person like me, are from privileged castes and classes, do we really expect people to take a fair view on the ideals or functioning of this club? Add to this the fact that Dalits are discriminated in several ways inside this campus, and most of us are unaware of many subtle forms of discriminations. We can disagree with them on the language they chose or some of their ideals. But would you really blame them for having a shrill voice? The point is that, we hardly think from their shoes, and greater responsibility lies with the dominant and privileged mass.

As a non-believer and secular humanist, I and many members of our group often fall in such situations. If you were to ask whether skeptics such as us should function within this institute, what answer do you expect from the GSB? Forget us, do you think people will use their fair and rational sense if the question were to be whether Muslims should pray inside the Institute? Remember we are an institute with three functioning temples and people conduct poojas all time.Still in a politically charged atmosphere do you think the majority of these people might consider it fair game for a different set of people? You might very well be disappointed, if you were to believe so. We as a group are highly critical of religions, but we would not dream about discriminating religious people for what they are or them speaking their minds out. We might disagree but never wish to silence them. Unfortunately, we have not been accorded this courtesy most of the times. I would not like elaborate up on this further. I wish you understand that unpopular opinions too are opinions. If people are to judge the validity of opinions by sentimental engagements we are doomed as an institution.

Given the context, I am surprised as to what do you intend to show with an IITM GSB survey? Have you thought about the fall out of this precedent? Tomorrow, if another issue happens will you just ask the GSB again whether the new group in question should function? Will you ask which festivals should be allowed to be celebrated in our public spaces? And what next tomorrow?

I am sure that you must have gone through Field Medalist and Harvard Professor, Dr.David Mumford’s letter to the Director of our institute. Although I wouldn’t even dream to compare, let me just mention that I too stand by those words. More so, because this has got definite implications on the future of free expression inside our institute. All of us find unpleasant and disagreeable things in our surroundings. It is important how we go about dealing with such things. It is a historical fact that bans or silencing of ideas does not really work. Take this incident itself, it was the action taken by the institute that gave this group wide publicity through out the nation. As a professor from one of our neighbouring institutes remarked, “thanks to IITM, (E. V. Ramaswamy) Periyar is famous all over India“.

As a representative it is your duty to ensure that our institute has a space to dissent, and fearlessly dissent. There is no freedom in allowing expressions which all of us agree to or are comfortable with. It is the dissenting speech that needs protection. We are a university. And please make sure that as a student’s representative, we act like one. The very idea of a university is to allow every kind of blasphemous speech . Otherwise it ceases to be one. Every bit of expression which is not prima facially harm intended or against the law of the land, should be protected. This is to remind you that future legislations in the SAC or BoS should reflect this mature attitude. I request you to be not a party to any present or future attempt to build walls and artificial comfort zones for expression, in which there are selected and privileged ones.

Let me narrate you an incident. During the last programme we had conducted, which happened to be an open panel debate on ‘Is secularism in India a failure?’, a member of the audience made quite a few bigoted comments targeting Muslims. The same person wanted us to conduct a discussion on ‘Reservations and Merit’, with a clear statement that he thought reservations are against merit. Almost the entire audience found this person’s words tending to hate speech and definitely bigoted, but nobody used cat calls and hoots to silence him. Many engaged with him. Being the moderator, my only concern was that people should back up their claims and should not make declarative statements out of thin air. Not even once did it turn into a chaotic guerilla war. The ability to discuss ideas, even reprehensible and prejudiced ones, is what makes us qualify to be a place of higher education. I do believe that we have that capacity, even if there might be a few rotten apples.

To conclude, my request to you is to not use such a survey as an argument or even evidence for the appropriateness or the lack of it, of any club or forum. This is a lynch mob justice. What we need is a well thought, coherent and consistent set of guidelines for the functioning of clubs. The existing guidelines are unfortunately too narrowly interpreted. It should reflect the spirit of university that we aspire to be. It should allow fearless dissent and promote a culture of debate. I look forward to you to stand up as a voice of reason, and healthy democracy.