CHENNAI, Tamil Nadu — On Christmas last year, the administration of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, or IIT-M, boarded up a narrow gate to the institute’s sprawling 630-acre campus triggering a protest that has revived persistent conversation about caste, privilege, and the debt that India’s premier public-funded engineering institutions owe to their neighbouring communities.
Krishna Gate, as the entrance that serves as a conduit between IIT-M and Velachery is called, was closed by the IIT-M administration on December 25 2019. In a subsequent email, IIT-M director Bhaskar Ramamurthy claimed the gate was shut due to a “heightened security threat” from “undesirable elements” who hangout near the gate, and to prevent the sale of “banned substances” and “assault on women” students.
The residents of Velachery, many of whom are Adi Dravidar Dalits, see the closure of the gate as the betrayal of a 60-year-old agreement between IIT-M and their ancestors whose lands were acquired for the institute’s campus, and a clear instance of caste-based discrimination. Protests against the closure of the gate have acquired such momentum that the matter was recently raised on the floor of Tamil Nadu’s Legislative Assembly.
Residents say the Adi Dravidar community lost at least 76 acres of land in the deal that was struck after deliberations between the sarpanchs of Velachery, Taramani, and Kanagam on the one hand, and K Kamaraj, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Dr. A Lakshmanaswamy, the first chairman of the IIT board of governors, and Dr. B Sengupto the first director of IIT-Madras.
In return for their lands, residents were promised access to the campus through Krishna gate, employment on campus and the right to worship at their temple, Peeliamman Kovil which also fell on IIT lands after the acquisition. Over the next decades, children born in the area were also promised preferential enrollment in schools located inside the campus, residents said, adding that close to 500 students from the locality now study at the Vanavani and Kendriya Vidyalaya schools on campus.
The sudden and arbitrary closure of the gate has broken this decades-long pact, prompting the question of how institutions like the IITs see their place in Indian society: As open campuses fostering a culture of engagement; or as elite, isolated enclaves where nerdy students prep feverishly for high-paying corporate jobs, while justifying their publicly subsidised education under the guise of nation-building.
“Who are they to stop us?” asked Manimaran, a resident of Velachary at a public meeting held on January 19 under a tamarind tree close to the now-shuttered Krishna Gate.
“Under this tamarind tree generations of our people have been gathering to settle issues of the community,” Manimaran continued. “This land belongs to us and we gave them some of it for development. We will reclaim the gate and our right to enter IIT no matter what.”
Residents said the administration only seems to have perceived a threat to student safety from Krishna Gate — which opens out into a predominantly Dalit settlement. Taramani Gate, which opens out into a Brahmin and Other Backward Classes neighbourhood, had been kept open.
“Scheduled Caste people live in this area. By issuing the explanation about “undesirable elements”, the IIT director has wounded us. This is an insult,” said K. Rajendran, a retired IIT-Madras employee who got a job because his mother gave up her land for the institute.
Assistant Commissioner of Police PK Ravi confirmed that the police had recently arrested a few men selling marijuana near Krishna gate, but added the problem wasn’t restricted to a particular community or neighbourhood. “We had arrested some anti-social elements who were peddling banned substances near the Krishna gate six months ago,” Ravi said. “The problem persists even near Taramani gate of the institute”.
Thol Thirumavalavan, the Member of Parliament for Chidambaram constituency too had made his concerns explicit in a letter to the IIT administration.
“While all gates including those designated for other communities are open and accessible, the IIT management has shut the gate for Adi Dravidar people with the ill intention of untouchability,” Thirumavalavan said. “This act has not only destroyed the livelihood of AD people but it is also unlawful caste discrimination”.
V. Prabhu was six years old when his family’s lands were acquired by IIT-Madras in 1959.
“We used to live where the women’s hostels now stand,” said Prabhu, who is now 60. The family had 11 cows and used to supply milk to nearby households, and also ran a cycle stand with 21 bicycles that they rented out to residents.
When their land was acquired, Prabhu said, the family faced hard times. Initially, there was little demand for milk as the land had been cleared, and only a few IIT officers, staff and students were on campus; the cycle business shut down as well.
The family eagerly awaited the promised jobs on campus. But few, if any promises of jobs, employment and development were coded into the land acquisition contracts signed with the villagers in 1959. The only land acquisition document that villagers could share with HuffPost India, lists 27 names of owners most of whom had sold the land where their “huts” once stood.
They were paid government land rates ranging between Rs. 6 to Rs. 65. The document signed on 2 December 1964 by a Revenue Division Officer, also notes that the government had paid a total of Rs. 672.50 to 27 families at the time.
In 1972, Prabhu was offered a temporary job in the electricity and maintenance wing but he soon quit because the pay was too low.
“I took up business and started earning better,” he said. His children, now in their 20s, had studied in IIT-M’s Vanavani school in their teens by availing the preferential admission process which has since been phased out. As Prabhu’s business picked up, he moved out of Velachery.
So why was he still part of the Krishna gate protests?
“When my father was alive, he used to go for walks into the IIT campus. He used to fight security personnel if they stopped him because he was convinced that he still had claim over the land which the government took,” Prabhu said. “Our sweat and blood is part of this land. The closure has hurt the pride of all our people.”
In this context, the closure of the Krishna gate appears to have triggered deep social memories of exclusion. Since the gate was shut in December 2019, the only way to reach Velachary from campus is via a 3 km detour.
As a consequence, several small shops and businesses set up to cater to IIT’s student population have suffered: Photocopy centres, eateries, bike repair shops and even the local housing market.
S. Kumareshan, a mechanic, said he has been out of work for three weeks.
“The owner of the bike repair shop is thinking of taking his business elsewhere if the gate remains shut,” Kumareshan said. Students who have rented apartments in the vicinity too may move out soon, landowners said, expressing fear over a drop in rent rates and real estate prices.
Retired IIT employees who have been using banking and medical services on campus are hit by the gate closure because they are now forced to travel much further to avail the facilities, residents said.
“I am a heart patient,” said Rajendran, the former IIT employee. “If I suffer cardiac arrest or any other ailment I will now be forced to go to a private hospital located about six kilometres away instead of availing the pensioner’s medical health benefits at the IIT hospital”.
“IITs were conceived with a vision to mould engineers and researchers who could contribute to the process of nation building... The move to isolate us from the population outside is in direct conflict with this goal”.
Women students for Krishna gate
The decision to close Krishna gate, IIT’s administration has claimed, was partly out of concerns for the safety of women students. Yet the institute’s women students appear unconvinced. 1,500 students — many of them women — have submitted a petition to the IIT administration demanding that the gate be reopened.
“The director is misleading the public,” said K. Fabitha, a research associate at IIT-Madras who has participated in the protests. “I have been using the gate to go back home late at night. I have never come across the presence of any unsafe elements there.”
While the IIT administration had claimed that a woman student was assaulted near Krishna gate, Fabitha said the assault had actually occurred elsewhere. The Krishna gate, she said, served as a vital conduit between the institute and the Velachery neighbourhood.
“There is an emotional connection with the people and the place near Krishna gate,” Fabitha said. “They have always been a good memory attached to life in the institute. We could never differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’”.
“IITs were conceived with a vision to mould engineers and researchers who could contribute to the process of nation-building,” said a member of ChintaBAR, an independent student body in IIT Madras, seeking anonymity as they feared they might be targeted by the administration. “The move to isolate us from the population outside is in direct conflict with this goal”.
HuffPost India has reached out to the institute’s administration. This article will be updated when they respond.