The ban on a student group by IIT Madras, allegedly after an anonymous complaint to the Central government, has ignited a political storm all over India, targeting HRD Minister Smriti Irani. The Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, a group of around 20 students, was accused in the complaint of trying to “spread hatred” towards PM Narendra Modi through provocative pamphlets and posters. The group, which organises debates and guest lectures, has been barred from using the institute’s auditorium, email and notice board.
In a rather feeble defence, IIT Madras has claimed that the group was “temporarily de-recognised” for using IIT’s name without permission after the institute received a letter from the HRD ministry on May 15. Irani emphatically denied any role in the ban. “IIT Madras is an autonomous institution which takes its own steps,” she said, as Congress’ student activists protested outside her home in Delhi and accused her of bullying academic institutions.
While the truth about the minister’s tall claim about the autonomy of IITs has been exposed by recent resignation of Anil Kakodkar, Chairman of IIT Bombay’s Board of Governors, from the panel constituted for selection of IIT directors, the incident has to be looked at in view of similar recent incidents. In June 2014, nine students at the Shree Krishna College in Kerala’s Guruvayur district were arrested because of “objectionable and unsavoury” language against Modi as part of a crossword puzzle. Before that, students at a polytechnic and their principal found themselves in the police station because Modi was part of a poster of negative faces alongside Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler and George W Bush.
Clearly, educational institutions have been tiptoeing towards this point for a while. IIT Madras, a centre for higher learning, has lowered the bar further.
In this case, the complaint to the HRD ministry by anonymous “Students, IIT Madras” alleged that the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle is “creating hatred among students in the name of caste” and also trying to “create hatred against the honourable Prime Minister and Hindus”. The issue was a pamphlet reproducing the speech of Dravidian university academic R Vivekananda Gopal on Dr Ambedkar, which accused the government of a “Hindutva agenda”, “assisting multinational corporates to loot Mother India” and “communally polarising the people by the ban on cow slaughtering, Ghar Wapsi programme and promoting Vedas”.
Sections of the pamphlet published in the media show that the criticism has been entirely about the policies of the Modi government and not targeted against Modi as a person. Such accusations are not uncommon and the opposition parties have shouted themselves hoarse on some variant or the other of this. One doesn’t have to subscribe to such views, but in a democracy, the government in general and persons holding high public offices in particular, have to be open to criticism.
Though the issue has the potential of snowballing into a Dalit vs anti-Dalit polemic, the central issue that should not be lost sight of is the value of free speech in an institution of learning. Institutes of higher education and research like the IITs are supposed to produce citizens who learn to think for themselves, not just engineers who can be programmed to follow someone else’s code. The campus of a university should be the crucible of free speech and its authorities should act as the guardian of that very basic right. Academia can’t truly function without free and open debate; it should host fiercest proponents of unrestricted free speech even if some of it is unpalatable.