The second meeting of the SAC (Student Affairs Council) for the year 2015-16 saw some delicate issues being brought to the table at the IC&SR main auditorium this Tuesday. The discussions were a continuation of the previous session’s agenda points, with a spectrum of opinions and dissensions making it difficult to reach a consensus.
Out of the total of 49 councilors elected to SAC, 41 were in attendance, with 9 councilors being present by proxy (i.e. another student representing their electorate). Of the Executive Wing (EW), four of the nine Institute secretaries were present, actively participating in the meeting (though the EW is not allowed to vote).
There were enough vocal and articulate Councillors – including, surprisingly, a few proxies — to make the session meaningful, though there was still the odd member surreptitiously tapping away at her/his phone.
The two documents drafted by the SAC whose provisions were being debated were a Schedule of Penalties for Violation of Hostel Rules and Regulations, and a draft of Guidelines for Registered Independent Student Collectives in the institute. The latter is the object of much scrutiny, with the Board of Students declaring the existing set of guidelines void as a result of APSC’s (Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle) contention over ‘derecognition’. There are also allegations of the existing set of guidelines having been passed arbitrarily by the administration, without requisite approval from the SAC. Before the meeting, apart from the usual call to the GSB (General Student Body) to suggest agenda points for the meeting, and to let their respective Councillors know of the issues they wish brought up at the session, the Speaker also invited a representative each from current or prospective Registered Independent Collectives that wished to give their recommendations to the SAC. Each representative was to be allotted five minutes on the floor. Consequently, there were representatives from ChintaBAR, QUEST and APSC, apart from a few members of the GSB (who are allowed to attend the meeting, but can only present their views with the Speaker’s prior permission).
Schedule of Penalties for Violation of Hostel Rules and Regulations:
The list of penalties included offences that ranged from the consumption of illegal substances and alcohol, sexual harassment (defined according to the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2013) and smoking to illegal sub-letting of hostel rooms and leaving lights and other appliances switched on when not in use. Penalties included fines, letters to parents/guardians and direct referral to the Institute Disciplinary Committee. Some of the offences were graded internally, with first, second and third offences having different penalties.
Objections were raised about the value of the fines – some Councillors felt that the amounts levied were arbitrary and needed to be decided based on a set of considerations. The General Secretary pointed out that the penalties offered no flexibility to the Hostel Disciplinary Committees to decide penalties on a case-by-case basis, whereas the Speaker contended that the very purpose of the Schedule was to reduce the arbitrariness in deciding upon penalties for offences and chances for discrimination.
At the end of various rounds of discussions, it was passed that a sub-committee would be set up to look into all the issues brought up, and present its draft in the SAC session after the next one. It was also passed on the floor that letters from parents/guardian would not be made part of the penalty for first-time offenders who are not minors (for smoking) or below legal age (for alcohol consumption).
Guidelines for Registered Independent Student Collectives:
Before the SAC Councillors were asked to speak on the Guidelines for Registered Independent Student Collectives, each of the representatives present were allowed to present their views. This was a session that led to interesting debates, with various contentions — practical and conceptual — being raised. One of the fundamental suggestions for amendment was raised by Ayyappadas, representing QUEST: the guidelines did not provide the criterion by which groups were to be approved or rejected by the SAC and the Dean (Students). He argued that accusations like ‘tarnishing the reputation of the Institute’ were highly subjective and perspectival, and could be used to suppress groups that were against the majority. He argued for evolving a clear set of standards by which SAC members could subject groups to impartial scrutiny.
Another point that was raised by the representatives was that of streamlining the process of registration. Whereas groups were required to submit ‘clearly-defined objective(s), by-law and a list of 3 authorized students to communicate with the Administration’ within seven days of approval, the SAC and Dean (Students) were allowed 30 days for approval. A month of suspending activities could disrupt the group’s functioning, they argued, and approval should not take more than a week.
In response to representatives’ queries, it was clarified by the Speaker that the Institute ‘spaces’ that Independent student bodies needed permission to use were defined as those facilities that required pre-booking and that a month would be given as transition period after the Guidelines were passed.
The role of the faculty adviser was another point of discussion. One Councillor suggested that the group come up with three nominees for faculty adviser, from which the Dean (Students) will have to choose one. The Speaker pointed out that a Faculty Adviser is held fully accountable for the group’s activities by the Institute, and acts as a link between the Institute and the group. In such a case, the Institute’s right to choose such a point of contact cannot be curtailed. On the other hand, each group should be able to choose a Faculty Adviser who agrees to the group’s ideology and ethos.
The clause ‘The student collective or representatives speaking on its behalf, shall not, under any circumstance, approach the Media or the Press without authorization from the Dean(Students). Failure to comply with this shall lead to the immediate de-recognition of the group’ led to a lot of contention on the floor. Group representatives saw this as a restriction of their rights, and questioned the label of ‘independent’ student bodies while such provisions existed. The Speaker and a Core Member of the Speaker’s Committee clarified that the group was free to contact media without using the name of IIT Madras. The representatives argued that media bodies would use the tag, whether the group itself used it or not. The Speaker clarified that Registered Independent Collectives did not have the right to use IITM’s name, and had to take explicit measures to ensure that the media does not use IITM’s tag for the group. A councillor raised the question of whether social media was included under the rule, in response to which the Speaker clarified that only the group’s official profiles on social forums would come under its ambit. Exactly how these are to be regulated is yet to be defined.
Finally, a sub-committee was formed by the SAC to look into the guidelines in detail, taking into account all the points raised.
The final point on the agenda was the ratification of various committees and SAC Approved bodies that were constituted this year. This included the editorial Board of The Fifth Estate, and the Constitution Re-drafting Committee. Whereas the former was passed unanimously, objections were raised by an MS Councillor on behalf of his electorate against the inclusion of a certain student in the Constitution Redrafting Committee, citing his involvement in the APSC issue as a reason. This motion was questioned by many Councillors who felt that the contention was not based on any violation of criteria. Soon enough, it was decided that debating such a matter on the floor in the presence of the student in question was indecorous, with the SAC deciding to have an online discussion, and the Councilor who brought up the issue being asked to furnish concrete data against the student’s selection, if any, on the online forum. Ratification of the Constitution Re-drafting Committee is to be deferred until the matter is settled.Other bodies that were ratified unanimously were the Policy Advice Committee and the Constitution Re-drafting Committee Selection Panel.
What this session demonstrated was the difficulty inherent in coming up with uniform legislation for a body of students of varying legal statuses, backgrounds and perspectives. At the risk of speaking too early, the new SAC, headed by the Speaker, seems to be capable of negotiating the enormity of the task with enthusiasm and integrity — one saw members with opposing viewpoints actively trying to reach a consensus through reasoning, despite the few times the Speaker had to call the house to order. Let’s hope that the enthusiasm does not flag, and as a faculty member recently wrote, ‘…that ~550 faculty and ~7500 students have sufficient collective wisdom, resourcefulness, and social conscience to keep pushing the bar higher, while still noisily disagreeing on specific issues.’
Picture Courtesy: Student Affairs Council, IIT Madras