Hold your peace forever?

24 10 2015

Some thoughts on the recent student suicides at IIT Madras, and the debate on mental health that followed.


IIT Madras had witnessed two suicides during the last couple of months. Apparently, these unfortunate incidents have no common denominators except the decision to end one’s own life. The shocks from the incidents did incite some serious discussions on mental health within the campus and among the larger stake holders, especially the alumni. As often as they turn out to be, this time too the exchanges in social media and newspaper were filled with bitterness.  I hate to say this on the eve of every major incident from the campus, but the reactions from both sides to me, appear too far fetched, although definitely not in equal terms. I fully concur with the requirement of sensitisation and debate on this matter. As pointed out in the article in ‘The Hindu’ certain gargantuan moralist fossils that have long stayed and become a rigid part of the system should be placed in the museums, from where they could be marvelled by glorious past enthusiasts at a safe distance. But having agreed on these, I do find some of the generalisations in the absence of adequate data problematic. On the other hand, I find  Khap panchayats in favour of preserving the institute honour, who have time and again used this policing tactic to extinguish the scope of the debates  or attempted to put the blame squarely on people who dared to speak out, much more deplorable and offensive.

Do we have a problem?

I have read that during the period of Raj, the designated purpose of an English grammar school was to remove every bit of tenderness from young boys, so as to  prepare them to become foot soldiers for the imperial enterprise. Every other aspect of the imperial education was tied to this aim. Unsurprisingly, even sports. As the eminent writer and historian Ramachandra Guha had pointed out in his LSE lecture:

Cricket, wrote Christopher Douglas, the biographer of the controversial English cricketer Douglas Jardine, is a game that teaches its pupils to be “honest, impervious to physical pain, uncomplaining and civilised”. In the introductory words of Professor Michael Cox- it’s a game that turned “lads into chaps, chaps into men, and men into gentlemen”. These are sensibilities supremely English, and cricket, surely, the supreme English sport.

 The colonial enterprise has long withdrawn from India, but again unsurprisingly, our education system still embeds the ghost from that era. In my opinion the stout refusal to acknowledge the problem of mental health in professional education, and create workable, self evolving systems in place comes from the very idea of “ideal engineer” or “professional” who has no place for “weaknesses”. The question is not whether students of professional courses should be prepared to handle stress – both academic and personal, which all reasonable people would agree that they should be, but the kind of coping mechanisms to be promoted and systems to be put in place.  Unfortunately, the professional institutes in our country, even the elite clubs like IIT’s, have not moved far from the 70’s thinking in the western world. In short, we are at least 40 years behind the world universities in dealing with mental health issues. 

Much worse is the false sense of pride inculcated in the alumni of this exclusive club, who more often than not, are completely privilege blind so much so as to attribute their superhuman qualities to their success, as against a realistic assessment. The problem with the IIT system, in my opinion, is that very often otherwise competent people, who are probably less strong mentally or have different requirements, get crushed under the weight of the system. And since we do not have to talk about them most of the time, all is well and hallelujah! This survivorship bias, unfortunately, has become the hallmark of the dominant discourse, and this is very much a part of the problem.

The Academic part

In my opinion, the root of the problem is not the competitive nature of the programme. Of course, I do believe that relative grading is not a very good idea under most circumstances. Even software companies have started to move away from relative assessment in appraisals. Academic stress for some part is inevitable in any system, although the option for self-paced programmes and giving more electives from the third year onwards can handle some aspects of this. The extraordinary attendance requirement, though not religiously followed by every faculty, in my opinion is a total nonsense. This only helps to protect incompetent faculty members, and never students. This is also a burden shifting, wherein the important duty of an undergraduate teacher to make the subject interesting and engage the students is transferred to the students, who in the process are penalised for having bad teachers.

It is unrealistic to expect every student to perform well in any given course or project. The principle should be to positively reward the ones who do well and put effort.  The disinterested should be allowed to scrape through with an average grade, given that a certain required minimum level of conceptual understanding and/or effort is demonstrated. Very often, this required minimum is not made clear at the outset, and this lack of proper information results in frustration and unnecessary stress. The delays and extensions in the final year project have very often been the reasons for suicides during the past. IIT Madras has taken note of the issue and now has a provision to substitute B.Tech project with courses, which is a good start. In any case, I have felt that there is a certain lack of transparency in some project evaluations. This is not to make any insinuations of personal vendetta or arbitrariness as such from my part, although there have been hearsays of such nature, but only to suggest that it is certainly possible to tell students at the outset as to what is required.

The Human part

Living inside a huge campus, especially during the most vibrant as well as impressionable years of one’s life brings in the question of dealing with human relations. It is an inescapable fact that campus dwellers exist in a web of relationships from platonic friendships to romantic love of hetero or/and homo varieties. This is exactly where the system in place is so fragile and conservative. Even when there are many aware and compassionate faculty members and supportive peers, the culture of frowning and refusal to acknowledge continues. The prevailing  conservatism is  often suffocating to someone who might not have any relationship issues at all, as I have felt many a times while listening to some younger friends. Of course, IITM is still three notches above the private colleges in South, by and large, in this regard. But the more relevant question is whether one would like a national institute to be compared with pathetic moral policing ones from the state, in the same breath. I have heard from friends that the counselling and guidance unit, for all the good work they do, lack a non-judgemental approach towards relationship issues. This simple fact, if true, alienates many a people who need real help.  The alleged use of students as some sort of information gatherers or even spies, can only make things worse. In my opinion, such moves are reprehensible and displays a kind of colonial hangover.

On top of the relationship questions, there is the issue of perceptions. This is the way-too-dangerous-zone which is almost unmanageable. Particularly vulnerable are the perceptions about caste and gender. The general perception about most Dalit students by the upper caste ones is pathetically prejudiced, not to mention completely wrong. The language in which it comes out is often very covert, but the under tones are easily distinguishable. I have had personal encounters with these prejudices as a teaching assistant in a basic engineering course. The same goes about gender relations. Young men generally believe that women have it easy, quite unreasonably,  and are so cocksure about their superiority. The question of LGBT is frowned up on, and some, both from students and faculty, are openly hostile.

Personally, I know the dynamics that goes on only too well. Having graduated from an NIT (or Regional Engineering College, as it were when we had joined) a decade ago, which too had a similar mix of population and a highly skewed sex ratio, I understand the popular perceptions in such a high testosterone campus. Trust me, they are far from reality by any yard stick of reasonability! It took me a few years to realise the mistake in perceptions about gender relations and even the elephant inside the room- caste. This is as much applicable to faculty as students. I believe that given the situation, sensitisation is the only way forward. But a systematic mechanism should be in place to make sure that this is done along with the academic orientation during the first weeks of the class. In fact, it is high time that we think about coming up with a systematic regime for sensitising on  gender, sexuality and caste prejudices.

Way forward..?

To be frank, we do not, as yet, know the extend of the problem. It is beyond me to speculate about any all weather solution too. But if anything, the discussions should begin. The naysayers and honour brigade might go on with their usual businesses of personal attacks and questioning intend, but it is also important to bring them to the table. It is absolutely unfortunate that some otherwise well meaning people have interpreted the debate, to put it mildly, as a mere perception difference between Humanities students and Engineering students. Not only is this kind of tagging ludicrous, but it does show a certain inability to engage with ideas and confuse them for people. As far as I have seen, this is a peculiar IIT Madras problem, where many engineering or science students (even faculty) have an unwarranted sense of intellectual supremacy. In fact, most these supremacists do not have any clue about the questions they address any more than a commonsensical grasp, which too is often wrong.

In any case, if you ask me, the first step in the right direction is to come with a speak out campaign. As a student and while inside the institution, nobody, for no reason, should be made to hold his/her peace forever. The institutions which are supposed to handle such issues should be asked to adhere to a completely non-judgemental approach. And we certainly do not need more moral policing, even if disguised in the security and safety jargon. Every student should realise that there is no worth in suffering in silence.





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.





Who is afraid of Teesta Setalvad?

13 02 2014

The sane report

Teesta Setalvad gave a talk at Central Lecture Theatre (CLT), Indian Institute of Technology Madras, on February 10, 2014, between 5:30 and 7:00 PM. The question and answer session that followed was a pandemonium. A few people, probably with a Hindu right-wing background, tried to disrupt the programme by not allowing her to complete her answers. Their behaviour was not just indecent, but also highly undemocratic in denying any opposing view a space. The whole idea behind the drama was disruption rather than rational engagement to prove her wrong. Once they did not succeed, they have started a cry baby online petition urging the director to stop inviting people like Teesta. This is my account of things that happened there. I am not taking a position that there cannot be anything wrong on Teesta’s side with respect to the allegations levelled against her, for there is no way of knowing the facts for sure. But if we are to boycott people who have an otherwise long-standing proven track record, more than 90% of the politicians should never give a lecture in a university. None of the industrial giants or media mavericks can be eligible by that count. Therefore, my own position is that rather than censuring people or disrupting an engagement, people should learn to participate in a battle of ideas, no matter what the political inclinations are.

The insane report or who is afraid of Teesta Setalvad

Disclaimer:  Factual details are correct to the best of my knowledge and belief, while the interpretations and comments are matters of opinion. There is no intention to personally insult any individual and therefore I have refrained from taking names. But if the comments have somehow hurt the convictions or ideologies of any person or group, it is entirely intentional.

I live at a place where (for many) vanity level in the blood shoots up the moment you join. I’m not talking just about the garden variety vanity that usually comes from the privileged class or caste background or ideological hegemony. This is unique in the sense that a notion of intellectual superiority against and within the group, is so systematically cultivated, that many are fond of being pampered as the cream of the nation and a few among them take it seriously for no apparent reason. While, it is possible (and very likely to be true) that by and large IITians might have better technical skills, high ambition and confidence, the intellectual superiority if anything is a humbug. But then, as engineers we have every right to ask proof and so it should be. I welcome you to battle ground CLT. The match was between, the ones I would like to call as Self-proclaimed Samskaric Spartans (SSS), a well organised team of 15-20 angry young IIT men (and women*), and Teesta Setalvad, who I believe do not need an introduction. It was an uneven match. I mean, to be fair these hyper masculine alphas (and female comrades, if at all any) will not be a match to this lone crusader woman activist, even if they were 100 in number and much more samskaric, just  short of being athi-samskaric, i.e manhandling.

The Spartans, i.e. SSS, who do not have any connection with an entirely cultural organisation which has the last two letters in common with them, came to the venue early enough and spread out. Their punctuality is admirable should I say. The second thing which gave rest of us goosebumps was the perfect discipline that they maintained through out. After asking a question, they swarmed like bees pestering and making loud, often irrelevant and false, comments at will without letting the speaker complete her answer. Intimidation and bullying was the name of the game. These self-appointed generals of the king-to-be-crowned in what we were not aware till then as a court marshal room, was so sure about themselves, and apparently thought  that their superior sense of knowledge and justice, not to forget sanskar, was the only thing worthy of being shouted at will. After all, her answers are irrelevant!  She is only an extra mural lecture speaker, an invited guest, and how dare she question their convictions so openly and triumphantly? And yeah, Modi is an entirely non-partisan, champion of development (whatever that means) and even a democrat!

There was something really interesting going on. All of them had come up with a few specific questions on many points which were continuously used against her, presumably by her opponents. That was fair enough. But when she replied to each of their questions up to the point, the anger of the cream of the  nation just went up. I think these were some of the genuine questions going on in their minds.

  • Despite our best efforts, how dare you not get intimidated by our bullying?
  • How dare you answer our questions head on? Aren’t you a woman? As per Bharateeya samskriti, women should not counter question men!
  •  How dare you ask questions about our Bhagawan Modiji? Of course, we can ask any question about you and consider you shit!
  • We being the majority, should have the right to dictate terms in every engagement. If not, that is foul even if we are wrong. Actually, especially if we are wrong! How dare you challenge this status quo?

The match, as it turned out, was no match at all. The woman beat a bunch of hooligans like a cake walk. She did have crowd support, but would have done just as well without that. The behaviour of the SSS was so amazing that some of the senior professors pleaded to behave in a civilised manner. Well, actually not all of them. One did comment that  it seemed not all of us were civilised. And I’ll tell you that he was not referring to Teesta or the majority which maintained decorum and cheered her for the sharp rebuttals.

This was one direct encounter with fascism. I mean, if you could expect this from the so-called cream of the nation, why complaint about the behaviour of some monkey army or trisul dharis. But in the end, it also served as an eye opener for a few confused people. Yes, we really got a glimpse of how things might be done in the reign of their Bhagwan. Shutting down dissent, intimidation, ideology on steroids and absolute lack of rational capacity to engage.

After the battle, our Spartans were visibly tired but nonetheless whining non-stop. One of the stalwarts commented that he did not accept our definition of minority. I thought about it for a while. Now I understood, what his problem was. I wish, an MA student should have replied

What if we don’t agree with your Navier-Stokes equations? Does it make any less correct? Who gives a damn whether you agree with the definition of minority? Are you even qualified or well read to make an alternative yet intelligent definition? When you have loads of presumptions and nonsense drilled into brain through propaganda, no matter where you get your degree from, you are just an idiot. At least, show some capacity to engage in a dialogue.”

For the day’s game it was Teesta – 10, Hooligans (SSS)  – 0. But, I’m more interested in the message she passed on.  Never stop the resistance. If we do, it is not just us but the future generations which will die out of this cancer of communalism. And ever since the events unfolded, I have been asking this question- who is afraid of Teesta Setalvad?

*- Women supporter/s were present according to some, but disputed by others. Not sure.





IITs and higher education- It is not all about money, honey!

7 06 2013

The mood at IIT Madras is by and large pensive. Some of the students are agitated and everybody is concerned about their future. The hostel seat rent, gymkhana fee and the medical insurance fee have all gone up. The effective fee hike (tuition + living expenses)for PG students and research scholars comes to 40% and the new B.Tech’s will have to pay Rs. 90K as annual tuition fee in place of Rs. 50K. The increase is applicable to all courses in more or less the same proportions. But there are more reasons for apprehension than a one time fee hike. The officials have categorically told that the hostel seat rent will be further increased in the coming semesters. The Kakodkar committee report titled ‘Taking IITs to Excellence and Greater Relevance’, has proposed to raise the UG fee to the level of Rs. 2.5 lakhs per annum, while there is a lot of ambiguity with respect to the post-graduate fee and support. Further more, the case of economically backward students, which by the way are people who cannot afford to raise approx. 12 lakhs over the four years for an education (that would be more than 95% of Indians), is addressed with wishful thinking, assurances and in my opinion, a dangerous idea of involving banks, loans and debt.

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Scenes from the protest march conducted by IITM students against fee-hike and privatization of higher education.

A panel discussion on the broader issue of privatization of higher education was held on 6th June, 2013 with Dr. Rahul Sidharthan from IMSc, Chennai, Dr. Venkitesh Artreya, former HoD Economics, Bharatidasan university (also an IIT alumnus from the 64′-69′ batch) and Mr. Jimraj Milton, lawyer and social activist. I was fortunate enough to be the moderator, whose role was limited to explaining the context of the discussion, introducing the speakers and laying down the guidelines for the discussion. Rahul Sidharthan has given a more or less fair summary of the discussion along with his views in his blog. I thank him for initiating such a discussion in the cyber space. Barring a few emotional responses, rhetoric and out of context statements (which were to be expected given that students were very much concerned), it was an open exchange of views. In deed, we need more of such exchanges touching up on various aspects of education (both basic and higher), health, science and technology policy etc. It is especially relevant given that we live at a time when Parliamentary discussions are considered nuisance by the executive and all important policy discussions are imposed without a proper debate. It is a hope against hope to be able to challenge this manufactured consensus. But one has to try.

The level of sympathy for IIT students in issues like fee-hikes among the public is quite low. It is understandable given the picture painted about these holy cows, and even justifiable to the extend that many, if not all, get a free ride for their life because of the IIT tag and many among them apparently do not contribute to the society that gave them these riches. This is not a new question either. The term brain drain has been there in vocabulary since a long time. Given the nature of people at large, moving to greener pastures are to be expected in any given system for idealists will always be a small percentage. But one should not confuse between issues here; making IITs self-financed and more dependent on the forces of capital is neither the solution to the problem of so-called brain drain nor going to bring excellence. It is this aspect that I would like to highlight through this post, which hopefully will be one of the many posts to be published about this issue.

As often said, houses are more than bricks and mortar, institutions are more than the money invested. If it were, as Dr. Rahul Sidharthan himself pointed out in his blog, private universities must have out smarted any centrally funded Indian universities all of which are pygmies by any international yard stick, by now. The reputation of institutions are built by its faculty, alumni and intellectual contributions. If IITs retain a reputation, however meagre or far from desirable, it is because they are by and large the only technological institutes in the country which have made headway in delivering quality education. If the aim of the Kakodkar committee report was to increase quality, increased fee from students does not make any sense since it will definitely discourage most people from the lower middle class and everyone from the working class. The mushrooming of expensive IIT coaching institutes is definitely an issue that need to be tackled and it is long due by now. This is a major issue both from the point of equity – i.e. only those who are able to afford an expensive coaching is likely to get into IIT – as well as quality – coached students have a better chance to make into IITs, over several naturally intelligent people with good aptitude. But how do we do it- by asking people to pay more?

Let us just look at the scenario logically. After such drastic fee-hikes, the people with more than, say, Rs. 10 lakh per annum will still send their wards to those expensive coaching centers. Their business might be affected, but only marginally. The dreamy middle classers will work harder and mostly perish. The ones who go for coaching will face a double jeopardy. Unless the pattern of exams changes drastically so that coaching will hardly help, the people who end up in IITs would  have spend as much money on coaching, but the parental income range of the incoming students will have a sharp upward shift. So we will have an exclusive club of elite Indians with very few lower middle class and virtually no one from the working class. It is argued that IIT UG’s come mostly from elite and upper middle class families and now, they will be much more exclusive.

Undergraduate education at IIT has a huge market for sure. But I doubt whether the committee or the people who support such astronomical fee-structures in a country where the per-capita income is Rs. 53K (which even by purchasing power parity calculation is less than 1/13 th of USA) have thought about the access to education question. Let us take a comparison between the proposed IIT fee structure and in-state fees charged by much superior state universities in US – University of California, Berkeley & Purdue university.

IITs

UCB

Purdue

Tuition fee

$13,213*

$12,946

$11,792

State PCI

$3608

$22,711

$28,783

* The value arrived at a conversion rate of Rs. 56 per dollar and considering the fact that PCI of $1219 translates to $3608 in purchasing power parity terms.

Note that we have not taken into account the superior quality of education that UCB and Purdue provides. If I just move to the European continent, the picture itself changes drastically. We have countries like Germany where higher education is virtually free. One might argue that many US universities give cross subsidy by charging more up on out-of-state and international students. Even then, the fee as fraction of income level is much lower than the IIT scenario. Thus, even by the capitalist economy standards this is an abnormally excessive fee. Much more than that, the writing on the wall is clear- the elite institution should be exclusively for the elite Indians!

Does increasing fee and being “self-sufficient” in operational expenditures help improve quality? Remember, inside the institution we still have the same people doing same things. Attitudes and abilities does not change with source of funding and there is no incentive for the “fee paying” students to demand more since they have already reached what is believed to be the pinnacle of excellence in Indian system. If the argument is that foreign universities will come up with campuses in India and that will create competition, it should be worth while to see how well the satellite campuses of international universities have performed. Most of them thrive only based on the reputation of their main campus- i.e. the value of the brand name and nothing else. There is no incentive to do advanced university research in India primarily because of the lack of a strong industrial R&D, which is not going to emerge any time soon. In every country, fundamental research is mostly funded by the government and unless that funding goes up, we are nowhere in picture.

Most importantly, this is not a mere question of money, it is a question of principle. How do we value education? Is it a private good or a public good? While we can and should find ways to avoid free riders, increasing the fee is not the way forward. It is unfortunate that people suggest ‘soft loans’ or ‘super loans’ as solutions. As Prof. Milind Brahme opined during the panel discussion , you are coercing people into a system that most people morally detest. This is not just entrapping future generations of students, but clipping their imagination and creativity for ever. More over, going by the Indian experience, this is just the tip of the iceberg. If government is ready to divorce IITs, the situation in none of the state or centrally funded universities is going to be different in times to come.

To be continued …..