The controversy surrounding IIT Madras’s decision to ‘derecognize’ a student group is so unwarranted that nothing can explain its proportion but the intervention of vested political interests. Political leaders are fishing in troubled waters for short term gains and the students involved also seem to be making most of the publicity.
By describing IIT’s action as a ‘ban’ and ‘restriction of free speech’, some sections of the media have also contributed significantly in blowing this controversy out of proportion. It needs to be made very clear that nobody has been banned and nobody has been stopped from saying anything he/she wishes.
The Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) was approved as an “Independent Student Body” by IITM’s Dean of Students a little more than a year ago and such approval was conditional upon the group following the prescribed code of conduct. Incidentally, the Dean of Students, who has now taken the decision to withdraw the approval, apparently was also the Faculty Advisor of APSC.
The approval allows such groups to use IITM’s infrastructure to organise activities. It does not allow them to use IITM’s name or funds without the Dean’s permission. Therefore withdrawal of approval only means the group cannot use institutional facilities, including the internal email network to espouse its views. To put it simply, there is no ban on free speech.
In all the noise and heat generated by APSC’s pungent views and controversial pamphlets one has failed to notice the basic premise of IITM’s action. The Dean is quoted to have given only one reason for the withdrawal of approval - “they (APSC) did not follow the guidelines for an Institute student body”.
It is believed that the APSC specifically violated two of the seven guidelines - ‘not informing the faculty advisor about their activities, or getting posters and other promotional material approved by him and using IITM’s name and logo on publicity material without adequate permission’.
IIT M’s official statement on the issue reads: “the student groups cannot use the name of IITM or its official entities for their activities without official permission. APSC has violated this particular rule.” More importantly IITM has clarified that this de-recognition is only provisional and a final decision will only be taken by a representative body of students after giving the APSC an opportunity to justify itself. A clear conspectus of these events leading to withdrawal of APSC’s approval can be found on the website of IITM’s campus magazine The Fifth Estate.
It is amazing to see some sections of media and political leaders converting this simple matter of an educational institution enforcing campus discipline into a political war between ideologies. This is not only unfair to an institution that has always prided itself on progressive ideals but poses a serious threat to amity in campus life.
APSC members and sympathizers were all over TV channels fully exploiting the misplaced outrage against ‘violation of their freedom of speech and expression’, instead of caring to defend IITM’s charges on code of conduct violations. The veracity of their pamphlets’ contents and the justness of their views unnecessarily took centre stage.
If one were to look at the rights such a group of students are legally entitled to, it is amusing that there should be so much controversy surrounding this issue. In a famous case concerning the right of a student to take part in campus politics, the Kerala High Court held that “once students are admitted to an educational institution they are bound by the code of conduct laid down by the educational institutions through the prospectus or college calendar and it is implicit that they should observe the code of conduct necessary for the proper administration and management of the institution…wisdom of laying down those restrictions cannot be challenged by the student after getting admitted to the educational institution. The right to admission not being absolute there could be regulatory measures for ensuring educational standards and maintaining excellence in education.”
The court went on to add that students have no right to organise or attend “meetings other than the official ones within the college campus and such a restriction would not violate Article 19(1)(a) or (c) of the Constitution of India.”
The approval and the consequent right to use institutional facilities were therefore only privileges, which IITM gave to these groups. They cannot be claimed as a matter of right and certainly have nothing to with one’s freedom of speech and expression.
IITM’s actions should be seen strictly from the perspective of the institution’s right to enforce campus discipline. But the larger issue of whether students should be allowed to promote overtly casteist and communal views within campus should be seriously considered.
The pamphlets and lectures circulated by APSC target specific communities. One pamphlet posted by APSC online accuses IITM of being “under brahmincal tyranny” and another calls for “fight towards liberating the mass from the clutches of Hinduism”. Should an institution willingly lend its resources for aiding the dissemination of such divisive thoughts?
One IITM student has reacted to the whole controversy on his Facebook page by bringing to light the general disrepute, which APSC appears to have carried in campus: “They have been very notorious from the day of …inception. When other groups in the campus publicize their events adhering to the regulations…these guys like to call for road-side debate(s).”
The anonymous letter sent by IITM students to the Central government goes further than just accusing the APSC of spreading communal propaganda. It says the group was receiving funds and support from external organisations. In fact, one pamphlet circulated by APSC on social networking sites was actually published by the radical left wing outfit Revolutionary Students Youth Front. Was IITM not justified in taking a serious view of the matter?
A section of the media is trying to obfuscate the larger issue of campus discipline by referring to MHRD’s letter to IITM. It must be noted that the MHRD’s letter only calls for an explanation on the issues raised in the anonymous letter.
Even assuming IITM decided to take action only after the MHRD letter, how can that justify any violations committed by APSC in conducting its activities? Where is the need for political leaders to voice opinion on this issue? If it can be pointed out that there are other ideological groups on the campus that have also flouted norms like APSC and that IITM has not acted, then there may be a case of discrimination. Otherwise this should be treated entirely as an internal matter of IITM, which does not warrant any attention from outside.
(The author is an advocate practising in the Madras High Court)