IIT Madras Bans Dalit Studies Group Following Anonymous Letter To HRD Ministry

29/05/2015 1:36 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

The Indian Institute of Technology, Madras is witnessing a raging controversy after the elite engineering college banned ("de-recognized) the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC), a student association devoted to teachings and politics of the two Dalit icons, on the grounds that it was trying to "spread hatred" against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The institute acted after Smriti Irani's ministry of human resources development forwarded an anonymous complaint that stated that the group was spreading "hatred against the honourable Prime Minister and the Hindus". The ministry had sought the institute's comments on the issue and IITM promptly de-recognized the student body, accusing it of misusing privileges and violating applicable guidelines.

Read Also: Dissent Is Not Akin To Spreading Hatred: Banned Group's Response To IIT Madras Dean

In a statement, the student body said it has not even been given a chance to defend itself and the ban was unilateral.

We, the Ambedkar – Periyar Study Circle (APSC), an independent student body of IIT Madras (IITM) have been derecognised by the Dean of Students (DoS), on 22 May 2015 stating that we have misused the privileges given by IITM. We were later informed that this move is based on a letter from the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development.

The Ambedkar – Periyar Study Circle was created as an independent student body on 14 April 2014 by a group of students from IITM to promote Ambedkar – Periyar thoughts and to initiate debates on socio-economic-political and cultural [issues] which affect the common mass within the academic fraternity… IITM has a long history of being a platform for right-wing groups alone to propagate their own ideology and train young minds for their intellectual wings through the Vivekananda Study Circle, RSS shakha, etc…

In the past one year, we organised hall meets, movie screenings and pamphlet distribution among students and ignited debates on issues like: agriculture under threat, the Coal bed Methane project, GM Crops – Impact on Agriculture, the Industrial Disputes Act amendment, language politics in India: past and present based on Sanskrit week celebrations, the MHRD’s overt attempt to have a separate vegetarian mess halls in IITs and IIMs and the IITM administration’s move in replacing the name board of the faculties and laboratories with Sanskritised Hindi. We celebrated the birthdays of Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar and organised talks on ‘Understanding Bhagat Singh’ and the Contemporary relevance of Dr. Ambedkar’.

Through the platform, we created a space for the students of IITM to discuss and debate issues directly affecting peasants, labour and the common mass. APSC continuously faced threats from rightwing groups inside IITM. Even the administration tried to curtail the activities of APSC. In June 2014, the DoS Dr.M.S.Sivakumar directed us to change our name, stating that the names ‘Ambedkar and Periyar’ are politically motivated and thus the study circle should be renamed with some apolitical titles without any personality’s name. The APSC took a stubborn decision to stick with the same title. We also indicated, the activities of right wing groups under the banner of Vivekananda Study Circle, but the Dean of Student’s said they have been using the name (Vivekananda) for many years. For a second time in September 2014, he sent a mail for the same reason stating that the name is polarising the students. We clearly explained to him the motto of the study circle and the relevance of Ambedkar and Periyar’s name.

In this scenario, the APSC celebrated Ambedkar’s birth anniversary and its first anniversary in April 2015 by organising a talk on the “contemporary relevance of Dr. Ambedkar”. Pamphlets were issued how communalism and corporatism are two sides of a single coin which is tossed by the present government against the common mass. The pamphlet’s contents were drawn from leading magazines, newspapers and the writings of Ambedkar.

After this event, on 22 May, we received mail from the Dean stating that “because of the misuse of the privileges” given to your study circle (Ambedkar-Periyar study circle) as an independent student body, your student body “is de-recognized by the institute.” However, his mail did not contain any details regarding the privileges misused by the APSC.

When we met the Dean, Students he gave us a letter from the MHRD with the subject matter

“Distribution of controversial posters and pamphlets in the campus and creating hatred atmosphere [sic] among the students by one of the student group [sic] namely Ambedkar Periyar”

and which forwarded a copy of the complaint sent anonymously by [right-wing] in IIT. The complaint letter – as mentioned by the MHRD official states that the “APSC is trying to de-align the ST, SC students and trying to make them to protest against MHRD and Central government and trying to create hatred against honorable prime minister and Hindus”. Based on this complaint and the MHRD letter, the Dean of students charged the APSC with misusing the privileges given by them and derecognised APSC.

We resent the fact that the Dean has derecognised our study circle unilaterally without giving us a fair hearing and an opportunity to represent ourselves. In our face to face interaction with the Dean of Students, we have been told that our study circle engages in “controversial activities” and violated the code of conduct of independent student bodies. We are clear on the stand that we have not misused any privileges given by the institute. So far our activities have involved healthy discussion on socio-economic issues on a scientific basis to promote the scientific temper among the students, which is allowed by the Indian Constitution. We have not been given a satisfactory definition of what entails “controversial”.

Further, we were asked to give assurances that we shall desist from such activities in the future before the Dean (Students) can allow us to restart our activities. We have also been asked to route all our activities through the Dean’s office rather than the usual practice of routing all our discussions, plan of activities and pamphlets through our faculty adviser. This excessive scrutiny is unprecedented and does not apply to any other students’ organisation. This clearly shows that only opinions put forth by the right-wing groups will get consent to see the light of the day, while the voices and opinion of democratic students like us will be curtailed hereafter.

Our discussions, meetings and pamphlets are meant to kickstart a discussion within the campus among the academic fraternity. The issues that we discuss are very important and define the way we live our lives. IITM is a publicly funded higher education institute, whose vision and mission should contribute to the upliftment of the common masses, who are the taxpayers. Rather, the move from DoS, IITM says there is no space for such opinions and discussions.

We strongly believe that what we stated in our pamphlets and in the content of our discussions is correct as per the Constitution. Therefore, action against the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle by the DoS, IITM is undemocratic and unilateral and against the interest of the common mass for whom the Institute itself is indebted; hence we are not accepting this decision taken by the Institute.

Voltaire said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” We need a democratic space within the academic fraternity to debate matters that affect the common mass.

The development will doubtless become a political issue in Tamil Nadu, where both the reigning Dravidian parties--the DMK and AIADMK--are descendants of Periyar's ideology and politics.

The issue will also raise the question of the government's interference with IITs, which are meant to be autonomous institutions. APSC had also protested against the human resources ministry's directive last year to ensure separate dining halls for vegetarian and non-vegetarian students after a grain trader complained to the ministry that mixed dining halls were luring vegetarian students into non-vegetarianism.

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APSC's pamphlets had criticised many policies of the Modi government. They also reproduced parts of a speech by Dravidian University professor RV Gopal that accused the NDA government of favouring big business and criticised several bills.

IIT Madras has issued a statement saying the student group has been banned for violating applicable guidelines. It does not, however, say how the group has violated these guidelines.

“Student groups desiring to use the institute’s resources are required to be recognized and they are to follow guidelines prescribed by the Board of Students which consists of all the elected student representatives.

While IIT Madras does not curtail freedom of expression of the students, it is expected that student groups adhere to these guidelines while conducting their activities… The Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle has violated the guidelines while conducting their meeting."

The institute said the group would have a chance to defend themselves at the next meeting of the Board of Students.

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