Saving IIT from Chetan Bhagat

The institute I remember is more on the lines celebrated in Mr Bhagat’s debut novel, one where most of life took place outside the classroom.

 |  4-minute read |   07-03-2017
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Unlike many friends, I have long been an admirer of Chetan Bhagat for not only keeping reading alive during very difficult times for the print industry but also expanding the reading habit manifold. But the recent account of his almost concentration camp-like IIT experience so jarred with my own that I am moved to disagree with him.

Spending early adulthood in the late noughties in a town known only for having the longest railway platform in the world, to us, IIT Delhi was always the “cool IIT” with coffee shop chains right across the road in addition to countless malls and multiplexes.

In an institution with ever fewer young women than your average IIT-in-the-metro, we were envious too of their proximity to DU and JNU; many a legend spread about IIT boys and LSR girls. Despite the high rainfall in West Midnapore, the proverbial grass was definitely greener in Delhi and, if Mr Bhagat is to be believed, greener outside IIT Delhi than within.

Setting aside juvenile obsessions and inter-IIT rivalries, I am perplexed by Mr Bhagat’s description of the gruelling academic demands at IIT Delhi. My institution too had a culture of emphasis on attendance and constant evaluation.

Yet grades were mostly made (or destroyed) by the ability to stay up (and focus) for a week every semester and most people spent their time indulging in some combination of getting wasted, extracurricular activities and administrative politics (both out of passion and just to fill up resumes), watching films (how I miss the excellent collection on the LAN!) or playing Counter-Strike/Age of Empires.

Drunken town-and-gown brawls were not unknown, and on one occasion the director’s home was occupied and vandalised; an incident which seen-it-all old timers on campus barely yawned at. The IIT I remember is more on the lines celebrated in Mr Bhagat’s debut novel; one where most of life took place outside of the classroom.

Most alumni reminisces would share this view; indeed much of the criticism of IITs rests on the argument that formal education during the four years spent on campus does not play a strong enough role in the celebrated success of IIT graduates.

chetan-embed_030717073219.jpg The filth in the little politics there was at IIT went way beyond what Mr Bhagat calls “cute horse-trading”. Photo: India Today

Coming to politics, I remember “hall pacts”, not very different from the caste arithmetic which supposedly dominates politics in India; complete with tick marks on hostel notice boards next to the names of the (often unheard-of) candidate we were all supposed to vote for.

Armies of juniors were roped in knock on doors literally every 15 minutes; when told that I chose not to vote, one of them actually asked me to give him my ID card so he could vote for the “hall pact candidate”. 

Today I see the same individuals making Facebook posts demanding that the uneducated who vote on “irrational considerations” should be disenfranchised. They, like me, must have surely evolved since their time at IIT, but it must be emphasised that the filth in the little politics there was at IIT went way beyond what Mr Bhagat calls “cute horse-trading”; borderline voter intimidation, impersonation and fraud was more like it.

The object of this piece is not to besmirch the reputations of IITs. All institutions where young people learn to balance the new found freedom from parental authority with the demands of the “system” are bound to have issues and one hopes that all institutions will evolve creative ways of dealing with the same.

It is appalling though that Mr Bhagat compares a military institution like the NDA with our universities with the obvious implication that the latter must be subject to military-grade discipline.

In any case, Mr Bhagat’s “IIT model” (if there is such a thing) might well be infeasible to extend beyond those tiny pampered institutions. For regular tests, excellent labs and libraries etc. in institutions with student number orders-of-magnitude higher than the IITs will demand substantially greater resources than (current and previous) governments are willing to spend on higher education.

Also read: Does Chetan Bhagat want DU students to read only his books?


Kapil Subramanian

The writer is a historian.

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