The Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) issue that brought IITM into the spotlight recently and became a trending topic on online media, has brought a great many debates to the fore — from freedom of speech on campus, caste discrimination in IITM to the classic ‘Right versus Left’ debate, with national media trying to sensationalize the issue through distorted facts and statements. In what follows, T5E has tried to represent the facts and opinions on the events that have transpired from the derecognition of the APSC by speaking to various stakeholders.
The Issue: The MHRD Notice
APSC was formed as a student body in April last year, with the motto of initiating discussion on “social-political-cultural issues” in the academic fraternity. The group was among the first of its kind to be given recognition as an independent student body with Prof. M. S. Sivakumar — also the Dean (Students) — acting as its Faculty Advisor. Over the past one year, they have conducted many talks, movie screenings and lectures by prominent personalities. Most recently in March, they organised a lecture by Prof. Chaman Lal from Jawaharlal Nehru University. They have condemned what they call the “Brahminical” nature of the institute in celebrating Sanskrit Week, MHRD’s attempts at the creation of segregated vegetarian messes, the usage of Sanskritized name boards for buildings, and its alleged patronage of student groups like Vivekananda Study Circle, which are seen as right-wing by them.
Some of these activities antagonised a section of students, who anonymously sent a letter of complaint to MHRD complaining against the activities of APSC. They stated that the postersused by APSC in their meeting on Ambedkar Jayanti, during a talk by Vivekananda Gopal of Kuppam University were controversial and that these activities alienated SC/ST students from the mainstream and tried to organize them against the MHRD/government. The Under Secretary to the Government of India, Prisca Mathews, forwarded the letter to the Director requesting comments from the Institute.
The Response: “Violation of the code of conduct for Independent Student Bodies”
The Dean of Students acted on this notice by derecognizing APSC on May 24th, adding that they were “welcome to come and explain their stand and actions”.
Responding to the derecognition, APSC claimed that the DoSt did not give valid reasons for the derecognition and this move on his part was unilateral and undemocratic. In a post by ‘Ambedkar Periyar’, the Facebook profile that administers the APSC page, APSC stated that they had been warned in multiple instances against conducting ‘controversial’ activities, whereas they claimed only to facilitate “the healthy discussion on socioeconomic issues on scientific basis to promote the scientific temper among the student which is allowed by the Indian constitution”. Responding strongly to the content of the anonymous complaint received, they also accused the administration of paying heed to right-wing demands, and repressing their freedom of expression.
The DoSt, however, was clear about the reason for derecognizing APSC. Being the Faculty Advisor for the student body, he mentioned that they violated the Institute’s guidelines (applicable to all recognized Institute bodies — see image) by not informing him about their activities, or getting posters and other promotional material approved by him — the Dean pointed out that they had used IITM’s name and logo on publicity materialwithout adequate permission. When these violations were brought to his notice, Prof. Sivakumar decided to derecognize them provisionally on the grounds of ‘misuse of privileges’, thereby denying them access to the usage of the Institute’s resources, until such a time when the status of APSC is decided conclusively by the BoS (Board of Students) once the academic year begins.
“The derecognition was not based on political stances, but was because they did not follow the guidelines for an Institute student body”, said Dr. Sivakumar. He also reiterated the fact that the derecognition was provisional and not a ban or shutdown as portrayed widely by national media and other online blogs. The APSC’s case will have to be presented in a formal hearing before the BoS, the institute body comprising of both faculty and student representatives (SAC Speaker and General Secretary), and will have to explain their actions with appropriate proof justifying they did not violate the aforementioned guideline. Suitable action will then be taken based on the consensus, and will eventually decide whether APSC will be banned or not. In the circumstance that there was indeed a breach of the Code of Conduct by APSC, they may be asked to explain their stand in front of the BoS (Board of Students, comprising of faculty and student representatives) in order for them to continue to be recognized as a student body. “The APSC is a body that has been recognized by the Institute through a particular student channel, and any changes to their status must be passed through the same channel.” said the Dean.
IIT-M’s Official Statement:
IIT-M’s official statement also reflects the same stance that “IIT-M has many student run organisations and student groups wishing to use the resources of the institute, and these have to be recognised and are supposed to follow guidelines set by the Board of Students. IIT-M does not curtail freedom of expression of its students but expects all the student groups to adhere to these set guidelines. As per these guidelines, 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. Normally, on violation of guidelines, the student run body is temporarily de-recognised and they are later allowed to present their stand to the BoS. And, as always, the same procedure is being followed on this issue.”
Statements from Students and Alumni:
Many students and alumni have been actively debating on the actions of the administration concerning APSC over various online fora.
Deepak Johnson, ex-Students’ General Secretary and an active supporter of the circle, feels that the “discussion around caste and the policies of the government cannot be at all compared to spreading hatred as cited in the anonymous letter. As the APSC has been proactive in taking up issues of casteism in the campus, de-recognising them is an attack on the democratic rights of the citizens of our country.The connivance of the right-wing forces on the campus has resulted in this act and the administration along with the MHRD were biased against the student body.” He acerbically adds that “the surprisingly fast and lopsided decision is a shame to the institute.”
He points out that “APSC was a Dean approved student body (their letter of formation was signed by the Dean) with himself as the faculty advisor. The event on Contemporary Relevance of Dr. Ambedkar was conducted a month ago and none of these agencies stopped the organization back then. The important question is about whether there was a claim about Hinduism and was it hurtful to some. If we can recognize and respect Ambedkar as the constitution builder and respect him, why is it too difficult for us to digest his views on caste and Hinduism? It just shows our hypocrisy about the whole issue and as someone pointed out, unravels the inherent casteism present in many of our minds – especially that of our administration.”
Veena Mani, PhD scholar, condemned the MHRD’s move to intervene in the name of an anonymous letter: “We should not let any anonymous letter decide our ways of organizational activities.This is clearly a suppression of spaces for dissent. I have attended APSC programmes and they were very critical of many central government policies. But how is that spreading hate? If we, educated students, should not discuss politics, then who do they expect to speak up?”
However, other students strongly disagree by pointing out that the derecognition was not a result of the student body’s propaganda but of their inability to adhere to the stipulated guidelines for independent student bodies. Some of them have even questioned the motives of APSC and its opportunistic behaviour in distorting this issue as a left wing vs. right wing debate in national media, and others have blamed it for divisive politics and raking up false issues. U. Mahesh Kurup, MS Councillor in SAC 2014-15, points out that the “APSC did not raise any grievances in the SAC, the BoS, the Senate or any other institute body, before raising it on the social media. As a result, the autonomy of the institute may be undermined from the resulting external and political interference.” Raghav Tandon, alumnus, sees opportunism at play: “I was proud that our generation didn’t think of caste as a barrier. It turned out to be an illusion. With the way its [sic] being used to reap political dividends by notorious student groups, I don’t see this divide going away because of their constant disguised efforts to break the society into castes and then using ‘Freedom of speech’ in their defence. I advocate a zero tolerance attitude against such groups for polluting minds for their selfish interests.”
Siddharth Dialani, ex- Co-Curricular Affairs Secretary, also opines that the discussion has delineated from its original roots. He unequivocally states that “there is complete freedom of expression at IIT Madras. Students are treated as independent adults, which is why bodies like APSC exist in the first place. There are no restrictions on the kind of bodies that students can form, as long as they abide to Institute code of conduct.” He is aggrieved that “the media has not cross-checked its facts and has gone on to question the existence of freedom of speech on the campus.”
On the whole, the APSC issue has brought out a variety of dissenting voices in a campus widely perceived to be far more politically neutral than other national educational institutions. Whether this is an example of sectarian forces hijacking an issue to their political ends, or one where the insidious majoritarian forces working in even the most secluded of ‘ivory towers’ are marginalising the minorities, or the government’s failure to tolerate free speech, is still being debated all over national media.
- When contacted, APSC maintained that they had not produced and printed the pamphlet “Manu Dharma Reign’s IIT Madras”, and had only shared the content on online media on May 13th, after one of their members found the pamphlets being distributed at the IITM Main Gate. The pamphlet was in fact by a group named RSYF (Revolutionary Student Youth Front), from outside the campus., – These statements/links were modified after the comments we received from APSC.
1:00 AM, 30 May 2015.
T5E had contacted the APSC to confirm DoSt’s claim about being their faculty advsior. However, they responded only after this article was put up, informing us that Prof. Milind Brahme from the HSS Department is their faculty advisor. When contacted, Prof. Brahme told T5E that “So far I have been under the impression that I was the fac-ad, whom the group consulted before organizing any lecture/discussion. However, I must clarify that there is no official communication designating/ appointing me as their fac-ad. But the students of APSC did run most of the things through me, although some posters/events might have been missed.” When T5E asked him if he verified the poster that has been at the centre of this issue, he stated the “I did not verify this particular pamphlet, although I got to read it just before the event which I attended.”
4:00 PM, 30 May 2015
The article has been modified to address some inaccuracies pointed out by APSC in its public response. We have removed the example of APSC’s misuse of IIT-M’s logo, which was cited incorrectly. It has been replaced with an instance of misuse that occurred after the rule requiring permission to use IIT-M logo/name was established. In addition, we had wrongly cited “Manu Dharma Reign’s IIT Madras” as the pamphlet attached with the complaint. This has been removed.
APSC: Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle
BoS: Board of Students
SAC: Student Affairs Council.
GSB: General Students Body
DoSt: Dean of Students
MHRD: Ministry of Human Resource and Development