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Derecognition of Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle raised issue of shrinking of democratic space on campuses

By Subhash Gatade*
Whether discussing issues of contemporary concern among students, raising debates around them on the campus – taking inspiration from the ideas of leading social revolutionaries of 20th century – should be construed as an act of creating ‘social disharmony’ or ‘spreading hatred’? Any sane person would rather reject this weird proposal but it appears that the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) think otherwise.
It was evident in the way they acted on an anonymous complaint regarding the activities of a group of students in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras which calls itself ‘Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle’ (APSC) – which comprises mainly of dalit, bahujan andadivasi students.
Perhaps they were worried that the particular students group, has been critical about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policies and has been raising issues of caste, communalism as well as corporate loot of resources and challenging the ‘development’ narrative which is popular these days among a section of people. The impetuosity with which they acted when they wrote to the management of the Institute can also be gauged from the fact that in this process they violated the recommendations of the CVC (Central Vigilance Commission) itself which has ‘barred’ organisations from taking action on such (anonymous) complaints.
As of now the issue of ‘derecognition’ of APSC by the IITM management has snowballed into a major controversy, with issues of curtailment of freedom of expression, infringement of autonomy of educational institutions and dominance of caste in higher education all coming to the fore. There have been demonstrations in Madras/Chennai and other major cities protesting this arbitrary clamping down on a student’s group. There are reports that students from other institutions like Mumbai, Delhi and Kharagpur have come forward to form similar groups on their campuses to express their solidarity with them.
The way this issue has unfolded has also caused unease in the academic world in the west also and one learns that Prof Mumford, president of the International Mathematical Union and a former Harvard University professor, – who has been a regular visitor to the IITM campus – expressed his displeasure over the developments there in a mail. He has reminded the management that
“..[c]ampuses must allow open discussion of divisive issues even when it offends some people so that all its aspects are out in the open. Today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders and one wants them to think deeply about the direction to which we are headed.”
It is true that neither the ministry nor the management had expected that this move would be met with any resistance. Their assessment must have been that this ‘derecognition’ would give a signal to all dissenting voices on different campuses to either fall in line or face consequences. Taken aback by the strong reaction, they do not know how to wriggle themselves out of the situation.
According to reports the Smriti Irani-led MHRD is at pains to explain that it did not try to dictate terms to the management of the IITM, and had nothing to do with this ‘clamping down’. It also wants to assure its detractors that it respects the autonomy of academic institutions. It is a different matter that there are no takers of this ‘line’ in the academic world.
People are aware that the same ministry which felt concerned about activities of APSC has been a silent spectator about the activities of other right-wing Hindutva groups on the same campus, who have been spreading irrational ideas, superstitions and have no qualms in inviting controversial Gurus on the campus, freely using IIT’s name and resources. An idea of the activities such groups take up can be had from Vivekananda Study Circle (VSC) which was founded in late 1990s, which has held talks which advocate Intelligent design and which claim the existence of Quantum Physics in Vedic Sciences. Forget action or censure, such organizations receive complete support of IIT administration.
Of course, it is not for the first time that actions by Irani’s ministry have caused consternation on the campuses. Few months back, acting on representation from a RSS worker in Madhya Pradesh, it had taken the unusual step of policing university campuses to find out what was cooking in their kitchen. The directors of all IITs and IIMs were sent letters seeking details of cooking and catering arrangements in their institutions, and directing them to send “action taken’’ report on RSS swayamsevaks’ demand for separate dining halls for vegetarian and non-vegetarian students on grounds that “these institutes are spreading bad culture from the West (“kusanskar”) and causing grief to the parents’’.
Not some time ago the same ministry again caught itself on wrong foot when the director of IIT Delhi resigned supposedly to express his displeasure over the pressures brought on him allegedly at the behest of the top bosses. It was rumoured that there was pressure on him to ‘allot’ IIT’s playground to a Cricket academy run by someone close to the corridors of power and he had refused to oblige.
Anyone who has closely followed the trajectory of this government which is becoming more and more infamous for violating procedures/processes, bypassing institutions and challenging established norms of governance would not be shocked about the present turn of events in IITM.
And let me admit that it would be ‘unfair’ to single out MHRD for such arbitrary action. This is part of new culture which is being fostered these days. Few days back this same government ‘appointed’ an information officer as director of DD news, asked her to report directly to the IB ministry, completely bypassing the Prasar Bharati, which is the only authorised body to make such appointments and thus signalling that the autonomy of Prasar Bharati under the Modi dispensation can henceforth RIP (rest in peace).
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It is important to emphasise that the ‘derecognition’ of Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle has rightly raised the issue of shrinking of democratic spaces on the campuses, growing attacks on freedom of expression and the Modi led government’s attempts to bulldoze every such voice which is not ready to join the team of its cheerleaders. Interestingly not much attention has been paid to two important related issues: one concerns RSS’s vision of ‘Indianisation’ of education and the prevalence of casteism in higher education.
The RSS mouthpiece ‘Organiser’ has in its latest editorial tried to lay down afresh its vision of ‘Transforming Education’ where it emphasises Indianising education ‘based on our socio-cultural roots is the only way to transform India’s population into a human development hub’. Blaming the British for imparting an education which was a ‘design’ to uproot Indians from their traditional knowledge system, it says:
“The system they created was mainly to run the state machinery as per their convenience..The corollary of this British legacy is, we lost the treasure and technique of our knowledge, creation and application.”
The editorial adds, the Indian education system is “neither here and there” As a result, the graduates are “not productive in applied world” and the high performing professionals are “socially and morally disconnected”.
Anybody who has a faint acquaintance with India’s history would know how under the traditional system of knowledge, education was denied to a large majority of people belonging to the depressed castes and even women and was a preserve of the upper castes only and this system was sanctified by religion.
The Hindu edict ‘Manusmriti’ had even enacted strict penalties for someone who violated such stipulations. And it is a fact of history that only after the advent of Britishers, the traditional system started cracking up and with the adoption of Constitution by independent India when discriminations of various kinds were abolished and affirmative action programmes were launched for providing opportunities to the socially oppressed castes in education and employment, one witnessed qualitative change in the situation of such sections.
The fascination of RSS with the ‘traditional system of education’ and ‘treasure of our knowledge and creation’ is nothing new. In fact there is enough documentary evidence to prove that it consistently opposed adoption of modern constitution based on one wo/man and one vote and had wanted the same Manusmriti as its substitute. Golwalkar Guruji, the then Supremo of RSS and Savarkar, pioneer of the ‘Hindutva’ idea both had opposed this process of making a new constitution and had ‘glorified’ virtues of Manusmriti then.
Looking back one can see that if RSS would have been strong enough then and founders of the Constitution could have been persuaded to stick to the RSS plan, the situation of the socially oppressed sections would have remained as it is. There would have been hardly any dalit, adivasi or bahujan or women in all these elite institutions.
RSS needs to ask itself whether it wants to revert to similar mode and legitimise the denial of opportunities to these sections.
It is important to raise this question because despite sixty plus year of affirmative action programme at various levels, the issue of caste related exclusions and related discriminations still persists in our daily lives and ironically on the campuses of the elite institutions like the IITs, IIMs or AIIMS. And IITM happens to be worst performers as far as implementing policies of reservation is concerned.
Few years back ‘Tehelka’ had done a story on ‘Caste in Campus: Dalits not Welcome in IIT Madras’ which had provided details about the ‘[h]andful of Dalit students and faculty members at the elite institute, but they face widespread discrimination and harassment.”According to the report:
"[i]nstitute like IIT Madras has parted with only a fraction of the 22.5 percent quota for students belonging to the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and the Scheduled Tribes (STs). According to information provided by the institute’s deputy registrar, Dr K. Panchalan, in September 2005, Dalits accounted for only 11.9 percent of the number of students. They were even fewer in the higher courses — 2.3 percent in ms (Research) and 5.8 percent in Ph.D. Out of a total of 4,687 students, Dalits made up only 559.Activists who have been fighting for proper implementation of reservations for Dalits describe IIT Madras as a modern day agraharam — a Brahmin enclave.”
The same denial was evident in the field of jobs also.
Another serious charge against the institute is that successive directors have flouted rules in appointing faculty members, and do not advertise vacancies in newspapers.
It also told ‘how the majority of the 460 faculty members and students here are Brahmins.’ Vasantha Kandasamy, assistant professor in the Mathematics department, had then told the reporter that there were just four Dalits among the institute’s entire faculty, a meagre 0.86 percent of the total faculty strength.Interestingly, this startling exposure and also news of similar situation in other IITs did not cause any uproar. The news just died down.
If we look at IITM today, one notices that there has not been any qualitative change in the situation. In an interview to IndiaResists one of the members of the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle explains the dominance of caste in the IITM. According to him as per a recent RTI, 87 percent of faculties are from forward caste. In last seven years only 3 ST students have been admitted to the MS programme.
Could it be then said that the vengeance with which the IIITM clamped down on the activities of APSC has something to do with the synergy which exists between people with Varna mindset and peddlers of the exclusionary ideology of Hindutva? Could it be then said that it just reflects the ‘anger’ of the dominant sections towards every act of assertion from the subaltern sections?
Looking back, cheerleaders of the Modi brigade would surmise that the effective banning of a group of students which takes inspiration from Ambedkar and Periyar, has come up at a wrong time. It has not only put a spanner in the ‘celebrations of one year of Acche Din‘ but has also punctured the careful attempts by Sangh Parivar and its affiliated organisations to appropriate Ambedkar by portraying him as a Hindu Social Reformer.
This episode has also witnessed a coming together of Ambedkarite, Periyarist and leftists of various hues along with people, formations fighting for deepening of democracy and strengthening of secularism in this country. And it would not be an exaggeration to state that emergence of such a rainbow coalition is a warning signal for this ‘Suit boot ki Sarkar’.
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*New Socialist Initiative (NSI) activist. Author of 'Godse's Children: Hindutva Terror in India' , 'The Saffron Condition: The Politics of Repression and Exclusion in Neoliberal India', and 'The Ambedkar Question in 20th Century' (in Hindi). Courtesy: http://nsi-delhi.blogspot.in/

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