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.