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'How can dissent on government's policy be seen as spreading hatred?'

June 01, 2015 14:42 IST

'The problem is that we present a very strong critique of this government'

'The issues that we discuss are very important and define the way we live our lives'

'We have the same freedom to express ourselves, why do they want to curtail just our freedom?'

A member of IIT-Madras's Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle, which has been derecognised for 'violating guidelines', speaks to S Saraswathi.

Embroiled in an ugly controversy, IIT Madras faced even more trouble over the weekend with several student bodies, political parties, social activists and left-wing groups coming out in support of the banned Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle.  

Even as hundreds of police officials swarmed the area surrounding the campus since early Saturday morning, several groups like the Democratic Youth Federation of India, the Radical Students' Youth Front and the Thanthai Periyar Dravida Kazhagam staged a protest outside the gates of the campus. 

Over a hundred students were detained and released later in the day.

It all started on May 22, when IIT-M's dean sent a mail to the members of the APSC stating that their study circle was now derecognised because of violation of code of conduct and misuse of privileges.

This strong action was taken following a directive from the human resource development ministry, which received an anonymous letter complaining against the group's activities within the IIT campus.

The students claim to have been given no opportunity to explain themselves, and refuse to accept this unilateral and "undemocratic decision" of the administration. 

On the condition of anonymity, a student representative of the APSC talked to Rediff.com contributor S Saraswathi explaining their side of the story.

You have been charged with misusing the privileges of an individual student body. What do you have to say?

The institute claims that there is a guideline and that the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle violated this guideline. We are positive that there is no guideline for an independent student body inside the campus, approved by the student committee. 

All student-related issues that are to be implemented, has to pass through the Students Affairs Council.

The elected members, councilors and the students themselves have the right to debate on these issues; it is a parliamentary system.

They have to put forth their guidelines, there will be a debate over it and only then a decision will be taken.

So far, there are no set guidelines inside the campus. This is just the official language they are using to defend themselves. They may have formulated some guidelines, but it has not yet been recognised by the SAC. 

The institute already knows about all activities of the APSC. There are a number of CCTV cameras inside the campus and student representatives are monitoring the activities. All mails regarding the group's activities have to pass through the dean's office. So he is aware of our activities at all times.

Not just our group, they know about every activity of every student group within the Institution. 

So why pretend to be angry now? They decided to act only after the specific mail directed by the HRD ministry, which insists that the institution somehow stop all the activities of the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle.

They just don't want to reveal the real motive behind this arbitrary decision. The code of conduct, misuse of privileges and violation of guidelines are just official terms that they are using to justify themselves.

Was the anonymous letter sent by a section of students from within the IIT campus?

The letter was sent from the IIT campus, but we are not sure if it was a section of students or an individual. But one thing is very clear; this is definitely the work of a pro-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh group.

Since a very long time, they have been active inside the campus. They won't allow anyone to criticise their beliefs. The IIT-M has a long history of being a platform for right-wing groups to propagate their ideology.

What exactly did this controversial pamphlet that you circulated contain? 

There was nothing objectionable in the pamphlet. The whole idea behind creating the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle was to promote Ambedkar-Periyar thoughts and to initiate debates on various political, economic and social issues relevant to contemporary society. 

As part of our Ambedkar's birth anniversary celebrations in April this year, we issued pamphlets with a brief on how communalism and corporatism are the two sides of a single coin, being tossed by the present government against the common masses.

We also included a couple of Ambedkar's famous quotes, which probably antagonised them. 

But this is available on the public domain to everyone. 

It is a well-known fact that Ambedkar was against social discrimination. Why raise such a huge hue and cry over an issue that has been in debate for decades?

The study circle has been accused of spreading hatred among students in the name of caste and also trying to create hatred against the prime minister and Hindus?

This is actually a baseless, absurd and a completely false statement, propagated by the pro-RSS and the Bharatiya Janata Party working within the campus. 

The APSC stands for issues relating to the common people and are not focused on supporting only the Dalits. We are opposed to the widespread caste-based discrimination and the Hindutva ideology. But they want to divert the entire issue. The HRD ministry and the present government are very keen on stopping the social activities of our organisation, especially that of criticising the present government. 

We are a small group of students who are actively engaged in discussing the contemporary socio-economic issues. We are also critical of the corporate-oriented policy of the present government. Unfortunately, the Hindutva-aligned groups of students inside the campus who are unable to digest this criticism complained to the HRD ministry. 

However, we do not understand how dissent and criticism of the government's policy is akin to "spreading hatred".

What is really surprising is that within 15 days of receiving the letter, the HRD ministry has responded. Whereas there are several issues pending before them for months together. The government has stopped allotting sufficient funds for research projects that have previously been approved by them.

Even some of the faculty members have raised this issue. There are many such concerns that the HRD ministry needs to look into. That they have chosen to react so sharply and promptly on this issue alone just reeks of a political motivation.

What about the allegations of getting funds from outside organisations?

If we want to conduct a programme, all we need is about Rs 3000 to Rs 4000.  For this meager amount, why do we need to go to some outside organisations? It is completely illogical. 

As I mentioned, we are a small group and our programmes are conducted collecting the money from the student themselves. 

The institution is also very aware of this fact. We collected the money in front of the mess halls and there are CCTV cameras placed outside every mess. 

Where is the logic in the statement?

Were your protests against the imposition of Sanskrit and the beef ban a reason behind this ban?

Yes, we did protest and issue pamphlets against the imposition of Sanskrit and the beef ban. Our discussions, meetings and pamphlets are meant to kick start a healthy discussion within the campus among the academic fraternity.

The issues that we discuss are very important and define the way we live our lives.  

Ours is not just a random protest, we have done a complete analysis on the matter before making an informed choice. Our approach is purely scientific.

We have strong evidence for every statement we make. We are research scholars, trained to do research in a very scientific way. We apply the same method for social issues too. The problem is that we present a very strong critique of the present government. 

During both these issues, we did face strong opposition from the right-wing supporters. The main issue is that when the institute has absolutely no qualms about the right wing groups openly propagating Hindutva within the campus, then why are we not given the same rights. 

We have the same freedom to express ourselves, why do they want to curtail just our freedom? The institute seems to be favouring only the right-wing.

Are you talking about the Vivekananda Study Circle...

Not just the Vivekananda Study Circle, there is also the RSS Shakha, and the Hare Rama Hare Krishna group, which conducts bhajans every week inside the campus. 

All these groups have a separate hall, a separate library, room in the hostel, a domain on the institute server and lot of other provisions. But we don't get anything; the only room that we have got is from the faculty support. 

We also faced a lot of trouble from the administration. Initially, the DoS insisted that we change the name of the group, stating that Ambedkar and Periyar are politically-motivated names. But at the same time they allow the Vivekananda Study Circle, which has been functioning for over 15 years. 

We understand the strong opposition of the student groups, we even welcome it.

After all, any debate between the student community is a healthy sign, whether we agree or not. Why should the government unnecessarily take a keen interest on this?

But now even your group seems to have attracted a lot of outside support from political parties, student unions and other left-wing groups.  

But this happened only after the issue came to light. Two days after we created headlines, people all over India came to support us and that too on their own accord. 

Several social activists, democratic groups and left-wing student organisations came forward to support us as they believed in our right to freedom of opinion and expression.

The issue is with the administration, they are unable to digest our views.

Without any explanation from our side, how can they take such a unilateral decision?

But were you not promised a hearing once the college reopened?

IIT-M is a public-funded higher education institute whose vision and mission should stand for the uplift of the common masses.  Instead, this directive from DoS, IIT-M clearly reveals that there is no space for such opinions and discussions within the campus. 

We strongly believe that what we stated in our pamphlets and the content of our discussion is correct as per the Constitution.

We resent the fact that the dean has derecognised our study circle without giving us an opportunity to represent ourselves.

The administration says that after the vacation they will take a step. We don't know what action they will take in the future. 

But the point is, when they are allowed to speak their mind, we also have a right to question them. Why does the government want to stop that and why is the administration supporting them? 

We believe that the action against the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle by the DoS, IIT-M, is undemocratic; hence, we are not accepting the institute's decision.

You keep repeating that yours is a very small organisation. Then why do you believe that the RSS or the government feels threatened by your opinions?

It could be the content that we are discussing in this group and not the number of members that make our group. It seems as if the present government is very keen to curtail all freedom of expression. 

The whole issue got out of hand mainly because of the government's attitude; it is not our activities that caused such a huge outcry.

They wanted to do away with us quietly, but this decision seems to have backfired on them.

The whole issue has turned into an ugly controversy now. We did not believe that we would get such an overwhelming support from outside the institution.

Image: Police detain Democratic Youth Federation of India activists during a protest against HRD Minister Smriti Irani and IIT-Madras outside the IIT Madras campus in Chennai. Photograph: PTI Photo.

S Saraswathi in Chennai