HYDERABAD, Telangana — On January 5, Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi) student Nimish Joseph stayed up all night, watching videos of the violence unfolding on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)’s campus. As a mob of masked men and women, some of whom have been identified as members of the BJP-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, attacked hapless students, Joseph’s Whatsapp beeped with updates from friends at JNU who had barricaded themselves into their hostel rooms to escape the fury of the mob.
As he watched visuals of JNU’s student president Aishe Ghosh pleading for help as she bled copiously from an open gash on her forehead, Joseph decided to hold a demonstration in IIT-Delhi the next day. His fellow IITians readily agreed.
The following day, at least 300 IIT-Delhi students and faculty members gathered on campus to condemn the violence on JNU campus. The demonstrators also asked students across the country to “reclaim campuses” and “save the constitution” — a gesture towards the the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAA) which makes religion as a criterion for citizenship in India. Students also sang Iqbal Bano’s rendition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem Hum Dekhenge which had raked up a controversy in IIT-Kanpur just two weeks ago.
The IIT-Delhi protest was mirrored by similar demonstrations at IIT-Madras, IIT-Bombay, IIT-Gandhinagar and IIT-Kanpur. In all cases, students chose not to seek prior permission from the campus administration.
India’s premier IIT engineering institutions have long had a reputation for insularity, often to the point of indifference, to the social and political issues raging around their gated campuses. In the past, IITs have invariably mobilised only to protect what some upper-caste students call ‘merit’, which is invariably a euphemism for elite caste privilege. This privilege has been visible in the opposition of some student groups to reservations for students from historically marginalised communities like Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes.
Now, that may be changing. Over the years, the arrival of post graduate students and research scholars, who have spent time on more politically active campuses, has resulted in a much more diverse and aware student body. Besides, protests in other campuses in the country and administrative crackdown on independent student bodies in IITs, have prompted even undergraduate students to mobilise, student leaders of IITs said. As a consequence, student politics on their campuses was becoming more outward looking. The passage of the controversial CAA, the possible implementation of the National Register of Citizens, and the violence meted out to JNU, Jamia, and AMU students this winter could serve as a tipping point.
“We have been telling students that Albert Einstein took a stand against Nazi reign in Germany. If such a stalwart can take a political stand why not the students?” Joseph said. “Premier technological institutes, including Harvard University, have been protesting against CAA. Then why not the IITs?”
“Many students who may not have been political in the way the students organisations have joined the protests,” said a student of IIT Bombay. “Most students turned up because of the immediacy and urgency which they have started feeling after the Union government made it clear that a NRC will be implemented across the country.”
The student protesters were also moved because their counterparts were beaten up brutally in other institutes, she added.
“Taking a stand on CAA is being seen as urgent,” she said, explaining why IIT-B also witnessed a 200 member strong rally in support of CAA.
Yes Vivekananda, No Periyar
Most IITs follow an honour code and a student constitution that prevents students from joining political parties and their student outfits. The rules, however, do not deny them the right to launch independent student bodies which the institutes may later recognise.
In IIT-Madras for instance, Vivekananda Study Circle, an independent student body founded in 1997 to study the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, has since been functioning with the institute’s blessings. Then in 2014, a group of students set up Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle which had as its core a leftist, anti-caste ethos.
Close on its heels, another outfit Chintabar with leftist leanings was launched. A year later, in 2015, IIT-Madras derecognised the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle for allegedly criticising the BJP government which had come to power in the Centre. This summary derecognition sparked a wave of student protests.
“Both APSC and Chintabar were established soon after the Modi-led BJP government came to power in the Centre for the first time. Though there were protests against fee hikes in the campus earlier, what started the protest culture in IIT-Madras was the derecognition of APSC because a lot of support started coming our way,” said Azhar Moideen, a student leader associated with Chintabar. “Soon after we organised a protest against ban on cattle slaughter by staging a beef festival.”
The same year, in other institutions including IIT-Bombay and Jadavpur University, Calcutta namesakes of APSC were launched to mark solidarity thereby creating a larger collective of like-minded students. In IIT-Bombay the outfit established in 2015 was called Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC). The founding of APPSC was followed by the launch of North East Collective, Ambedkarite Students Collective and Charcha Vedi to voice varied concerns of students.
But the momentum of student protests never really picked up in the premier institutes thanks to administrative sanctions imposed on them. For instance, IIT-Bombay never recognised any of these student outfits, rendering their protests small and local till recently.
“When we organise protests we are not allowed to use the IIT’s facilities as we are not recognised. The institute also takes down our posters and prevent talks as we are not recognised,” a student associated with APPSC said.
Restrictions notwithstanding, the anti-CAA protests have prompted students unaffiliated to existing student bodies to join protests in good numbers.
“If you ask the administration for permission they will deny it. So we started organizing protests informally with the support of faculty members,” a student leader of IIT-Bombay’s APPSC said.
IIT-B has witnessed three such informal gatherings since the CAA was passed, including one on January 6 that was attended by faculty members. As many as 141 faculty members of IIT-B have also signed a statement stating that the attack on JNU students was part of a pattern of “systematic attacks on all institutions in the country including academic ones. We have watched with dismay the failure of universities and other academic institutes to protect their members…we reassert the right to debate dissent and protest democratically and peacefully within academic campuses as well as outside.”
Joseph, the IIT-Delhi research scholar, said the diversity of the student base has also brought in students with experience in organising political events.
“Such students are active in organising events because they have had experience doing so in other campuses which are more lenient,” said Joseph, who is a management research scholar in IIT-Delhi. Good organisers apart, defiance has also sprung from a collective need to react to trying challenges posed by imposition of CAA, others said.
Students have come up with clever ways to work around the constraints imposed by the university administration.
For instance, the students’ rulebook in IIT-M requires administrative permission for public demonstrations, but does not prohibit casual gatherings which do not use the institute’s facilities. In IIT-Gandhinagar, the students said they were organising “vigils”, rather than “protests” — which could have incurred the wrath of the administration. Students also held a Question and Answer session on January 4 to discuss the CAA and NRC.
“The administration did not prevent this and the faculty members supported it. We had around 300 students joining in for this session,” a student leader and organiser of IIT-Gandhinagar’s collective for justice said.
In IIT-Gandhinagar efforts are on to strike a conversation over the right to dissent, students said. “We have been running several awareness drives to educate fellow students about the need to oppose unjust laws. When a law like CAA strikes at the very heart of secularism as inscribed in our constitution as students of premier institutes we should oppose it, we believe,” a student of IIT-G said.
The politicisation of IIT campuses is gradually laying bare rifts within the student community. Anti-CAA rallies in IIT-M have been opposed by students who say they support the new law. The university administrations at IIT-M has already asked its students to maintain restraint. In IIT-Gandhinagar, students themselves seemed worried about the outcome of their protests. “We have asked the administration to offer security and prevent untoward incidents from taking place,” a student leader of IIT-G said.
The Whatsapp groups and Facebook chats have, however, been swelling in numbers in these institutes.
“When we enter the IIT we do not surrender our right to protest or express dissent,” said Moideen, a student leader of IIT-M. Many more poetry sessions, sloganeering and rallies are likely in the offing.