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Last Friday, the Dean of Students, IITM wrote an email to the Ambedkar–Periyar Study Circle (APSC), IITM stating that due to misuse of their privileges, the student body was being de-recognised. When the students met the Dean on Tuesday, they were told that the reason behind the sudden move was a letter that the institute had received from Ms. Prisca Mathew, the Under Secretary in charge of the IITs at the MHRD. The note referred to an enclosed copy of a complaint letter received by the MHRD from an anonymous source (image below) claiming to be a group of students in IITM. The complaints were against APSC’s activities, which were alleged to be controversial, divisive and mongering hate. The author wishes to analyse each point raised by the complainant. The author claims no domain expertise on this issue; however, having been present during many of the meetings that the APSC group had held, I may be able to throw some objective light on this matter. My own political leanings probably bias me consciously and subconsciously; I can only request the reader to reach an informed opinion.
To begin with, an observation that needs to made is that the IITM considered the activities of the APSC in breach of the guidelines only after the letter from the MHRD was received. The Dean was aware of the activities, if not through direct representation from the APSC, at least through complaints that were sent to the Dean’s office. One may say that the letter contributed to the decision to de-recognise the student group, though such a statement would still be conjecture.
The first point the complainant had raised was that the APSC, through their activities, were fueling hatred and polarising the campus along the lines of caste. However, from what I have observed, the APSC was involved in dissemination of information regarding caste and caste-based discrimination. They had organised meetings, distributed pamphlets and invited speakers from various universities to speak on issues related to caste.
Caste still plays a powerful role in regulating an individual’s access to education, healthcare, loans, land ownership and so on. ,  Powerful social barriers exist because of the exclusionary pressures exerted by the dominant. It is only the State that can intervene to dismantle these barriers. This is the basis for affirmative action (AA). A frequently heard criticism of AA is that organisational efficiency is adversely affected by this policy. However, a recent empirical analysis of the Indian Railways shows that no such trend is observed and in fact, a slight reverse trend, i.e., an increase in organisational efficiency, was noticed. The authors of the study hypothesise that this may be due to the beneficiaries of the quota system having had to work much harder to break the perception that they have been unfairly favoured. 
India today is a country with both the old and new forms of discrimination existing simultaneously. The depressed classes of society have for centuries borne discrimination on the basis of ritual purity and hierarchy. In the modern secular state, it is the secularised  caste affiliations and political power wielded by a group that defines how well the group’s needs are represented. An example to illustrate new forms of discrimination are the tribes of central India who have been rendered homeless by large infrastructure and mining projects and the creation of national parks and sanctuaries.
“…there is a double tragedy at work in tribal India. The first tragedy is that the state has treated its adivasi citizens with contempt and condescension. The second tragedy is that their presumed protectors, the Naxalites, offer no long-term solution either.”
-Ramachandra Guha 
The fact is that caste is a very important issue that needs to be discussed openly. Talking about caste does not vitiate the atmosphere or polarise people. If anything, such discussions help spread awareness and bring people together to fight discrimination.
There have been objections to the adversarial tone of the language used in the pamphlets. One must first situate this in the context in which it exists and see this as a response to the polarising forces that are already operational in the social milieu. However, the author feels that the APSC group could be more inviting to those holding contrarian views by moderating the tone of the language used. Otherwise, they would only be attracting people who are already convinced of their arguments, cutting themselves off from the rest of the campus community and defeating the very purpose of beginning a dialogue.
BJP spokesperson, Mr. Sambit Patra, while appearing on television channels, seemed to be suggesting that the derecognition of the APSC group was legitimate, though he did not say the exact words. He repeatedly quoted a line from one of the printed pamphlets published by the APSC. It would be pertinent here to quote these lines from the pamphlet due to the attention and commentary that it has attracted:
“You must destroy the Religion of the Shrutis and the Smritis. Nothing else will avail”.
“Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors and it must die for caste to vanish”.
– APSC pamphlet quoting Dr. B. R. Ambedkar
One accusation in the TV programs was that these words were never uttered by Dr. Ambedkar, while the truth is that these may be found in his written works. The first quote may be found towards the end of chapter 22 in the Annihilation of Caste, self-published by Ambedkar. He also described Hindu society as “a multi-storied tower with no staircase and no entrance.”  The second quote may be found in the essay What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables (para 2, ch V). A second accusation against the APSC was that these words were quoted out of context. This is not true, the quotes genuinely bring out the spirit of Ambedkar’s views as would become evident through even a casual reading of any of his written works. A third accusation was that these events and ideas of the past have no bearing on the present and such quotes are divisive in nature. Ambedkar’s strong views on ritual pollution, untouchability, endogamy within castes , and the deeply hierarchical nature of society are not irrelevant in the present day as is borne out by the continued existence of caste-based discrimination. Apart from the reference material already quoted which points at the deep biases that are still part of society, here is a quote from a 2014 HRW (Human Rights Watch) report  on manual scavenging:
I clean toilets in 20 houses every day. I use a tin plate and broom to remove the excrement that has collected in the toilet, I collect the excrement in a basket, and then I take it and throw it away. This work is so awful I don’t feel like eating.
—Manisha, Mainpuri district, Uttar Pradesh, January 2014
As a society with a conscience, could we still say that Ambedkar’s strong views are irrelevant today? Periyar too, as a rationalist, took a strong stance against the Hindu religious beliefs. There have been atheists within the vedic “Hindu” fold as well as renegades outside the fold throughout history who have held strong ideological positions opposing the dominant ideologies of their times. Some of them were persecuted, while others were given the space to exist and disseminate their ideas. In the modern Indian state, such a space for dissent must be provided. One cannot cherry-pick certain aspects of Hinduism and present it as the only legitimate form of the religion while disregarding all criticism of those parts that one deems as not the “official” religion. Unfortunately, there are many unsavoury elements that are also a part of the religion, caste being one of them. Had criticism of religion been disallowed in the past, we would never have had the Widow Remarriage Act, 1855, the laws banning untouchability, the laws providing for women’s right to ancestral property, the land redistribution laws enacted against feudalism and so on.
Which brings us to the next accusation, that had any group taken a strongly critical stance against any other (other than Hindu) religion, there would not have been as much sympathy or support from the media and advocates of free speech. Firstly, this is not a justification for stifling criticism of the Hindu religion. Secondly, there have been many dissenting movements in all the major religions of the world including Islam and Christianity. There are rationalists and atheists who speak out against the ills in many religions. There are such organisations and groups within India as well. While the constitution provides the freedom of worship, it also enjoins upon us, through Article 51A(h) to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”. Science and the spirit of inquiry requires the ability to question the status quo, to nurture critical thinking and free thought. As Harsh Mander reminds us, “the Constitution establishes a higher morality than all our respective faiths, prejudices and beliefs, and this higher morality is binding on us all even if it conflicts with our personal beliefs.”
Coming back to the letter, the complainant’s next point is that the APSC created “hatred” against the Prime Minister and the Hindus. This seems to be a complaint against two separate but related issues. The first one being the anti-establishment views espoused by the APSC with regard to the economic policies and legislations favouring industrial capital. The second being the anti-hindutva stance taken by the APSC in some of their meetings.
Again, the author’s observation remains that none of the meetings or written material show any intent to hurt or create hatred. APSC has been strongly critical of certain policies of the current NDA as well as the previous UPA Government. To dissent is a right that everyone in this democracy enjoys. Freedom of expression is a constitutionally guaranteed right with certain reasonable restrictions.
“The majority of its [Indian Constitution] provisions are either directly aimed at furthering the goals of the social revolution or attempts to foster this revolution by establishing the conditions necessary for its establishment… These are the conscience of the Constitution”
– Granville Austin, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation
The foundational spirit of the constitution calls for a social revolution and directs the State to make the conditions favourable to foster such revolution. Article 19 of the constitution provides for the freedom of speech and expression. The spirit of the constitution is liberal and aims to create the space for the peaceful coexistence of various diverse views. The argument that the IITM being an autonomous body can formulate its own guidelines to regulate the activities of its students can only hold if such guidelines are not against the constitutional spirit of the nation.
The complainant lists the other allegedly objectionable activities of the APSC group. One being about their meeting that was critical of the MHRD letter to the IITs seeking an “action taken” report on the creation of separate mess halls for vegetarian and non-vegetarian food while also forwarding a letter from a member of the RSS who claimed that consumption of non-vegetarian, ‘tamsic’, food was a bad habit that children acquire under the influence of Western culture. Another meeting was critical of the primacy given to the Hindi language by the central government. Again, none of these meetings had anything that could be termed as objectionable. What seems to be objectionable to the complainant are the very ideas behind the meetings. They seem to be chagrined that people with diametrically opposite views to their own exist, and further, go on to express their annoyance at their complaints not being taken seriously by the IITM administration. They have also complained that the APSC group may enjoy the support of some higher authorities of the institute. While it is not clear what there is to complain about in this instance, it can be said that the APSC has had a difficult time since its inception last year and has had to deal with scrutiny and resistance in their operations.
This brings us to the final complaint that the APSC had received funding and moral support from the outside. While it is not true that funding was received from outside organisations or individuals, it may be true that the APSC was influenced by ideas that were generated outside the premises of the IITM campus. The author does not recall Ambedkar or Periyar being involved with the IITM.
The issue boils down to that of tolerance of critical, provocative, academic thinking and free speech. As Faiz Ahmed Faiz once said:
“Bol ke lab azad hai tere… Jism o zabaan ki maut se pehle; Bol ke sach zinda hai ab tak; Bol, jo kuch kehna hai keh le!”
(“Speak for your lips are free… Until there is life in body and tongue; Speak, for Truth is yet alive; Speak whatever must be said!”)
Speak now or forever rue the silence that shackled you!
Aditya Narayanan is a Ph.D. scholar in the Ocean Engineering department, IIT Madras.