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.

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