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Why IITs are scared of any student rebellion

Decades of treating students like cattle made them forget that sometimes, it's preferable to have an honest discussion on an equal footing.

 |  4-minute read |   01-06-2015
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Yesterday, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras administration banned a students' study group for what it termed as "spreading hatred". The group has been barred from using the institute auditorium, notice board or email ID. The group was named "Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle" and as the name suggests, it was a group committed to studying and promoting the views of these two thinkers who wanted a casteless society. In typical official doublespeak, the administration has released a longish statement for the media that, unfortunately, is as inscrutable as some professors at IIT (I speak from personal experience, but we'll come to that later). It's true that the political views of the ousted group cannot be a coincidence. It's also true that a Hindutva-apologist group called Vivekananda Study Circle (VSC) went unmolested for years: indeed, it was presided over by the dean of student affairs. Dr N Gopalakrishnan, a scientist and, on evidence of his speeches, a delusional Hindu evangelist, was invited to speak at a 2012 VSC meet. He proceeded to bad-mouth other countries and religions throughout his lecture, claiming India deserved credit for gravity, aerodynamics, the discovery of the evolution process… Even Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

However, what most commentators have missed here is that the suppression of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle can be explained via an unwritten, "Don't ask, don't tell" rule followed by all IITs: thou shalt not politic. The IITs were founded on this very principle: to create "islands" where an apolitical, apathetic breed of technocrats could immerse themselves in matters of science and technology, with scant knowledge or care about the society they were, in theory, supposed to benefit. Every single IIT administration in this country is scared shitless at the slightest hint of student politics and lashes out like a cornered beast.

During my time at IIT Kharagpur, it became obvious to me that the gross imbalance of power between students and professors would not change anytime soon, precisely because of the absence of a real students' body (there was one present in name, of course, but it was as toothless as they come). Professors held the key to a student's entire future, and they gloated in the knowledge that they could inflict immense damage with the stroke of a pen. It was a vicious cycle: no student would dare broach this subject, fearing censure. And thus another year of holding students to ransom would go by.

I'll tell you a small story to illustrate the evils of having thousands of voiceless, disenfranchised students on a constricted, "island" campus like IIT Kharagpur. On March 23, 2009, a third-year student called Rohit Kumar sustained a head injury when he fell, head first, from a rickshaw while returning to his hostel. He was taken to the BC Roy Hospital on campus, then a woefully understaffed and ill-equipped hospital: it had no MRI, no CAT scan, not even a 24-hour pharmacy. Worst of all, it had 25 beds for the seven thousand students on campus. After waiting a longish time to make up their minds, the folks at BC Roy decided to send Rohit to Midnapore, the district headquarters, in an ambulance. There was no doctor accompanying him, just an orderly.

Rohit died on the way, and by noon, the news spread like wildfire on the campus. The students were angry and there was talk of mobilising people from every hostel to demand answers from the director of the institute.

But just then, the administration did what it does best: it lashed out, and severed the internet connections of all the hostels, as if such a move could realistically curb whatever it was they were fearing. Within a couple of hours, an angry mob of students, numbering around 1,500-two thousand by some accounts, assembled at the director's bungalow and began destroying stuff.

The first to go were the windows of the bungalow, assaulted by bricks, stones, even flowerpots. A group of students went inside his drawing room and destroyed everything they could lay their hands on: TV, music system, glass-top table and so on. One of them peed in his kitchen. The director locked himself up inside a room while his shaken wife tried to negotiate with the intruders. Meanwhile, the appetite for mayhem reached a peak outside; the director's car was smashed to bits: The expression "totalled" comes to mind. The director was eventually forced to "resign" then and there: Of course, he later rescinded said resignation and continued to reign for quite some time afterwards.

In a parallel universe, student representatives would have found a way to convey anger and indignation to the administration in a humane and just manner. But the paranoiac IIT system does not allow for such a scenario. Decades of treating students like cattle made them forget that sometimes, it's preferable to have an honest discussion on an equal footing, rather than have the cattle storm the barn doors open.

To be sure, the Brahmin-dominated administration at IIT Madras may have enjoyed the opportunity to score a point over an upstart Ambedkarite organisation. But for my money, they would have been equally ruthless (though maybe not as swift) with, say, a communist outfit. Student politics is taboo at IIT, and this will continue to hurt as a nation in the future.

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Aditya Mani Jha Aditya Mani Jha @aditya_mani_jha

Writer works at Penguin Random House India. The views expressed here are his own.

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