The banning of a student group on this prestigious campus for being critical of the government has shown how precarious freedom of speech is in our country today
By Ajith Pillai
IT was not quite the dramatic pre-dawn crackdown during Emer-gency that students of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) had to face. Still, 40 years later, a similar drama was enacted in IIT-Madras when the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC), a student’s group, was banned on May 22. Luckily, the story had an all’s-well-that-ends well anti-climax when the otherwise belligerent management of the institute decided to smoke the peace pipe with the APSC and announced on June 7 that its earlier order stood cancelled and that the Study Circle was free to function within the campus.
However, the resolution of the crisis did not happen because the IIT management saw reason. It happened because it was left with no option, given the growing public outrage. Also, much to the embarrassment and chagrin of the BJP, the allegation was gaining ground that the draconian ban had been implemented at the behest of the Union Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD). According to sources, the signal from New Delhi at the end of first week of June was explicit—sort out the problem even if it means a climbdown.
It took only 17 days for the IIT-Madras management to affect a U-turn. It took much longer, 21 months, for Indira Gandhi to call off the Emergency. Former JNU students still recall with a tinge of horror and black humor what happened on the night of July 7-8, 1975. Thousands of armed CRPF personnel surrounded JNU hostels and picked up “suspects” who, they believed, were preparing themselves for an “armed struggle” against the state. Arrests were made on the flimsiest of counts—posters of long-haired rock stars on the walls of hostel rooms were enough for the raiding party to conclude that the occupant was a follower of Che Guevara. A paranoid government under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had even planted informers posing as students in the University to identify suspects.
At IIT-Madras, the APSC was derecognized for holding discussions and distributing pamphlets about such issues as the Sangh Parivar’s ghar wapsi program, labor reforms, the land acquisition bill, the ban on beef and separate vegetarian and non-vegetarian dining areas in IITs. The activities of the group were not in the least covert or underground, but it invited the wrath of the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) because it was anti-government and anti-Modi. In short, its political orientation was undesirable since it was questioning the establishment.
The ban—the IIT management likes to downplay it as de-recognition—had two immediate effects. It was roundly condemned across the country by all those who believe in freedom of expression and democratic values. Organizations such as the Democratic Youth Federation of India, Revolutionary Students Youth Forum and Dalit party VCK (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi) staged protests outside IIT-Madras, while the Left Front, the Congress and the DMK, all criticized the ban. The BJP tried to wash its hands off it by maintaining it was an internal decision of the IIT management.
What upset the government was the news that students from other IITs had set up their own Ambedkar-Periyar circles and forums in protest. Meanwhile, the number of Facebook fans of APSC shot up from 800 to 19,000 at the time of filing the story.
The media was also critical of the ban. An e-mail statement issued by writer-activist Arundhati Roy, which was widely circulated, articulates the sentiment.
To quote: “What is it about a student organization, the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC) that frightened the Dean of Students of the IIT Madras enough for him to unilaterally ‘derecognize’ it?… The reason given is the usual idiotic red herring: ‘They were spreading hatred among communities’. Another reason they were given, the students say, is that the name of their organization was considered to be too ‘political’. The same does not apply obviously to other student organizations such as the Vivekananda Study Circle…. Why has the APSC been derecognized? It is because they have seen through this charade and have put their finger on the most dangerous possible place. They have made the connection between Corporate Globalization and the perpetuation of caste.”
What made the APSC ban all the more suspect was that it followed exactly a day after the MHRD sent a note on May 21 to the director of IIT-M, signed by Prisca Mathew, an undersecretary in the ministry. It had as its subject head: “Distribution of controversial pamphlets in the campus of IIT-Madras and creating hatred atmosphere (sic) among the students by one of the student groups namely Ambedkar Periyar” and concluded with the “request that comments of the Institute may please be sent to this Ministry at an early date”.
The ministry generated this note after it received an anonymous 200-word complaint on April 29. Its content is revealing: “One student group Ambedkar Periyar is trying to de-align the ST/SC students and trying to make them protest against the MHRD and central government. They are creating hatred among students and trying to polarize the ST/SC students. They are also trying to create hatred against the Honourable Prime Minister and Hindus.”
Normally, an unsigned complaint is not taken seriously unless the government wishes to act or has been advised to act. In the latter case, there is some truth in the allegation that the complaint was followed up by people who wield considerable influence in the MHRD in Delhi.
According to a student of IIT-Madras, there are enough indications that the anonymous complaint was sent by pro-Hindutva sympathizers within the campus. In recent years, IIT-M has seen polarization, with right-wing, pro-Hindu supporters at loggerheads with those inclined to the Left.
Vande Mataram and the Vive-kananda Study Circle are pro-Hindu. The former calls itself a “nationalistic” body, which “will work for the betterment of society and hence Bharat with a positive approach and by doing selfless service”. The latter calls itself “independent” in its outlook, although it reportedly courted controversy when it invited N Gopalakrishnan of the Indian Institute of Scientific Heritage to speak at the IIT campus on his self-proclaimed mission to undertake “learning and teaching the ultra-ancient heritage of Bharath using ultra-modern scientific and technological tools”.
On the other side of the spectrum are groups like APSC, Chinta Bar and Quest, which subscribe to a more leftist ideology. Among them, the APSC has invited attention because of its activities, which not only included discussions on the relevance of the Ambedkar-Periyar ideology, but also debates on issues of socio-economic, political and cultural importance.
But the immediate provocation was the pamphlet it circulated on the campus, in which it quoted from the speech of R Vivekananda Gopal of Dravidian University, Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh. Speaking on the “Contemporary Relevance of Dr Ambedkar” at an APSC discussion at IIT on Ambedkar Jayanti, Gopal criticized the Modi government’s pro-corporate policies and accused it of communally polarizing people by introducing a ban on cow slaughter and by covertly supporting the ghar wapsi program.
It is now revealed that the pamphlet was used to settle old scores and put the APSC out of action. According to an APSC statement released following the ban, it “continuously faced threats from right-wing groups inside IIT-M. Even the administration tried to curtail our activities. In June 2014, the Dean of Students, Dr MS Sivakumar, directed us to change our name, stating that the names ‘Ambedkar and Periyar’ are politically motivated and should be renamed with some apolitical titles…. The APSC decided to stick with the same name. We also pointed to the activities of right-wing groups under the banner of the Vivekananda Study Circle, but the Dean of Students (DoS) said they have been using this name for many years. For a second time, in September 2014, he sent a mail for the same reason, stating that the name is polarizing the students….”
The SIT, headed by Justice (retd) MB Shah (above), was impressed
with Chowdary’s work and wanted his services even after retirement.
Interestingly, the IIT management had no objection when Hindutva ideologue S Gurumurthy or a godman like Chinna Jeeyar Swamy were invited to speak at the campus by right-wing student bodies. Nor did it see anything wrong in the vigorous campaigning by students within the IIT for Narendra Modi ahead of the 2014 general elections or Kiran Bedi addressing a student body with an ardent plea to vote for Modi and the BJP. The management, to say the least, cannot claim to be without bias.
In the final analysis, there are a few disturbing questions that the IIT-Madras controversy throws up: Should dissent and debate—considered an integral part of democracy—be banned on our campuses? Does questioning the policies of the government of the day and discussing socio-political and economic issues amount to “spreading hatred”?
More importantly, should we allow various shades of political opinion to be freely expressed by students or should propaganda alone be encouraged?
Those who stand for freedom of speech will go with Voltaire’s dictum—“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”