By Akash Kumar, Ramya Vijayram and Isha Bhallamudi
The events of the SLC meeting carried out on 13 October resulted in disciplinary action and were the cause of several heated debates within the GSB on social media. The week following the meeting saw some mainstream media outlets both sensationalize the incident and misrepresent it (as you can see here and here). SLC officially released the minutes of the meeting on 21st October. One week later, having spoken to several stakeholders involved in the event, we bring you a report on what really happened and the debates that followed.
A Summary of the Events
One of the agenda points for the SLC meeting on 13th was a proposal to ban all student organizations from distributing pamphlets. This agenda point had attracted a sizeable number of GSB members to the SLC meeting, most of whom intended to raise a point against a poster on Ravanleela put up by APSC in Himalaya, and demand action against APSC for hurting their sentiments. They also wanted to question the necessity of three ISBs in particular- Chinta Bar, VandeMataram and APSC- and demand that they be banned.
During the discussion, Manish Kumar Singh, a GSB member, began to misbehave and was warned to maintain decorum, as were the other GSB members present. Despite being offered a chance to speak, the group of GSB members (around 15 people according to accounts) continued to behave in an unruly manner. The chair recognized Akhil, one GSB member and allowed him to speak even with the ruckus; as he did not feel comfortable speaking in English, he was allowed to speak in Hindi by the Speaker. A few legislators pointed out that they did not understand Hindi, at which point one GSB member reportedly shouted “Why are you studying here if you don’t know Hindi?” An arrangement for translation was made on the spot.
Akhil pointed out promises made to him by the DoSt and SLC about constituting a committee to look into alleged violations of institute rules and perceived attempts to provoke students by insulting and hurting religious sentiments by some ISBs. He asked why no action had been taken on this front by SLC, to which the Speaker replied with an assertion that the complaints would be looked into. When T5E spoke to the Speaker, he clarified, “After receiving complaints, a committee was formed to look into these bodies’ activities; however no report was submitted. The administration had sent them to SLC.” During this time, the meeting continued to be disrupted by the GSB members present, who began to chant slogans asking for all ISBs to be banned.
Following these events, Manish, despite having already received a warning, began to assault Arjun Jayakumar, a Pampa legislator and APSC member. Swaminathan, another APSC member, tried to defend Arjun but by picking up a standing fan and attempting to assault Manish with it. The SGS and a few other SLC members broke up the fight. The Speaker requested that decorum be maintained and both Swaminathan and Manish were removed from the hall.
At some point during the meeting, a GSB member present allegedly also remarked, “How many people here are Jains? How many people here are brahmins? My intention is not to differentiate based on religious or caste lines, but it is important to recognise that we live in a society where meat and vegetables are not cooked in the same vessel. In such a society, is it wise to state that we shall burn Ram’s effigy?’. Those gathered were shaken enough to recover a decorous atmosphere and the meeting was continued with the approval of all present. The Speaker clarified that the banning of ISBs was not an agenda point. The discussion on banning pamphlets due to environmental considerations continued. Finally, SLC voted to ban ISBs from distributing pamphlets, but this decision was soon revoked and the ban on distribution of pamphlets was extended to include every organization (student or otherwise) in the institute.
Why Did the Altercation Take Place, and Could it Have been Avoided?
“Manish was warned before, told to get out, but he didn’t listen,” said the Speaker, when T5E spoke to him. Arjun, the APSC member who was assaulted, said, “Manish was using (what I was later told was) very offensive language used on me in Hindi. He had caused trouble in an event earlier this semester – Bullets in Peace: Kashmir. Manish was trying to provoke me, I was ignoring him and not responding. Seeing this lack of response, he suddenly pulled my head. My friend Swami was there behind, in defense of me; there was a pedestal fan which he picked up and moved towards him aggressively. Lot of SLC and GSB members joined at that point and pulled them apart.”
Was this an incident that could have been circumvented? “Not really” says the Speaker. “Maybe adjourning the meeting, but you couldn’t do that with a large incensed crowd (how would you get them to disperse and leave quietly?)”. Furthermore, he continued, “The GSB members who came are against political influences in insti… Maybe I should have stepped up and said no discussion on banning of ISBs. But they were incensed in large numbers, and so I let them speak. I can’t enforce discipline, (I) don’t have security guards.” However, action has been taken and both Manish and Swaminathan have been sent to DISCO.
Arjun, on the other hand, remarked, “I prefer to look at it as a part of the rising level of intolerance outside the campus which reflects inside the campus. We cannot react in the same terms as them. Whenever such an incident happens, we send a mail to the DoSt, and send a copy to the APSC fac-ad.”
Another pertinent question is, why did last year’s SAC fail to come up with the ISB Guidelines? Shyam Sundar Sridhar, a 2015 SAC member, explains that “The last SAC had constituted an ad-hoc committee to create ISB Guidelines. The same were placed in front of the Dean (Students) after extensive deliberation by SAC Councillors. The document was however returned with most of the rules struck down and arbitrary power handed over to the Dean. It partly negated the amount of work done by members of the committee, who were quite representative of the ideological makeup of the campus. Students of all hues were upset by the Dean’s actions, and did not wish to press forward unless the Dean engaged with the students and substantiated the edits.”
APSC and GSB: Where Does the Responsibility Lie?
How did the issue even come up? We clarify the background with the Speaker, who explains: “The Vivekananda Study Circle prints calendars to be distributed every year; however the Dean didn’t allow them to print it this year, because it was inviting litter. The APSC, however continued to distribute pamphlets and VSC was not pleased with that. They complained to the Dean, who formed a grievance redressal forum, with professors. SLC’s fac-ad, who is a part of the GRF, came and spoke to me about it. When confronted, the APSC claimed that there was no rule, and that they spoke to the director. On probing the matter, it was found that the director didn’t okay it; he discourages it. But he admitted that there was no officially passed rule. The GRF declared that ISB should come up with some guidelines on the topic; hence the point was raised in SLC.
On the other hand, it has also been alleged that this is not the first time APSC is facing such violence. Shyam Sundar Shridhar, a 2015 SLC member and ex-BC of the HSS department, says, “Some students had conducted a protest march in support of the students of JNU. This was an event sanctioned by the Dean (Students). But the SAC meeting that was conducted after the march saw a bunch of right-wing students who were visibly upset by the protest. They yelled and threatened to beat up Arjun Jayakumar. His crime was that he had forwarded a mail that announced the protest march to the hostel Google group. The students who were angry had to be physically restrained. SAC (had to) constitute a committee to look into the matter.” Similar situations had also arisen at Chinta Bar’s panel discussion on Kashmir earlier this semester.
Purab, the Students’ General Secretary, strongly condemned the violence and shared with T5E his point of view. “I asked some people who were provoking the GSB members present there not to do so. But they failed to listen and continued to do so; upon which the fight started. One of the GSB Members was trying to convey his points but there were repeated interruptions and there were people who were not willing to listen. I saw the poster that was put up at Himalaya lawns and according to my opinion, it was definitely offensive. Due procedure was not followed by APSC before sticking the poster inviting students for an outside event. Also, the original organizers hadn’t taken permission from the police administration to hold the event in the first place. Some media outlets have published extremely biased reports and have manipulated the events that unfolded”.
His sentiments are echoed by a GSB member, Ashwani Gupta, who was present at the meeting, who adds “Without following due procedure, APSC pasted posters of an event that was being organized outside the campus. The poster was very controversial and was put up with the sole intention of hurting religious sentiments of students in the campus. Some ISBs have been breaking the law and decorum of our institute time and again and even after repeated complaints, no action has been taken against them by the administration. I condemn the manhandling and violence that broke out during the meeting but the media coverage of the issue is extremely biased and factually incorrect. It has been sourced solely from the social media handles of these ISBs and the entire issue has been given a divisive caste based political colour under the garb of freedom of speech.”
“It’s not the first time that some particular ISBs have violated the rules”, says Purab. “I am looking forward to Dean of Students and SLC to come up with ISB guidelines and strict provisions for punishment in case of violation of the same. If things go out of hand and GSB demands, I am in favor of banning all the ISBs of political nature but I hope that situation never arises in the first place.”
Shyam agrees with this opinion, saying, “I would personally argue for a complete ban on independent student bodies in the campus. That doesn’t mean that groups of students cannot meet up to discuss certain issues. But they shouldn’t have the permission to stick posters, host talks, or book campus facilities. Whether APSC, ChintaBar or Vande Mataram, neither side should be given institutional permission to continue their activities as they do currently.”
Politics or Environmental Causes? The Case of the Pamphlet Ban
There have been a lot of debates among the student body regarding the motivation behind the pamphlet ban, some arguing that the motivation is a political one intended to stifle ISBs, while others felt that the issue was environmental and was being unnecessarily politicized of by ISBs such as APSC. We bring the views from some of the stakeholders in this issue below.
Venkatraman Ganesh, SLC Speaker: “I am still for ban on pamphlets out of consideration for environmental conditions. I don’t feel it changes/effects the freedom of expression. One can always use a Facebook page or other online media (which is probably more popular – APSC’s page has about five times the number of likes of SLC’s!) If all organizations are agreeing on it, I think it should be accepted. You’re a part of the institute, after all. You have to accept the Dean’s word at times, unless it is very offensive and you really feel the need to speak up.
Rather than the content of the poster, I was more offended by the fact the APSC members didn’t follow procedure on the poster. This event didn’t have police permission. The faculty advisor didn’t know about it (the event or the poster). Five organizers were arrested – had any student of the institute gone, they would have got into serious and unnecessary trouble. Is it wrong of them to promote the people? Well, I feel politics should be used only for education, and not for inciting people.
If I had to ask them about why they did it, I would ask this: Why promote it, when it is not your event? Why didn’t you get permission? If they wanted to educate students, there are better ways to do it. If they wanted to make a point, the culture of IITM is not to support making this kind of point.”
Arjun, APSC member and SLC legislator: “The logic that SLC has tried to apply is that it is causing litter. You can’t stop people from causing litter; you have to stop the source. I do not agree. I feel it’s similar to the logic applied regarding allowing girls to go outside after 8 because boys might do something. Stopping the girls, not the boys.
Regarding litter, the litter seen on campus is not because of the pamphlets, which only happens once a month. Mostly paper cups, aluminum plates, tobacco products. They cause major litter and may degrade the environment. I feel banning the pamphlets isn’t very effective in the larger scheme of environmental degradation.
I do not think there is any issue on the poster. Only a few people chose to be unruly about it. I do not see the logic in taking action because people’s sentiments is being hurt.”
Swathi, GSB member (excerpts from a note sourced through Facebook): “It was a shocker for me to realize that IIT Madras, a campus comprising of almost 250 hectors (sic), has almost no spaces for the student community to come together and exchange ideas! There is the one Himalaya lawns where students gather once in a while, but something like a common square, vibrant with discussions and debates is unheard of.
Why I talk about such spaces is to stress on the importance of such spaces in making the public sphere more effective. These spaces are platforms for people to engage in rational arguments; they increase participation of the community in negotiating with power and help in shaping and reshaping ideas. This makes the public sphere more vibrant and in an educational institution it influences epistemology itself.
At this point it will be handy to examine the space that IIT M is. Go around the campus, you see no trace of chairs or benches at random places for people to sit around and engage in conversations, except the small benches which don’t accommodate more than 2 people next to a bus stop. The food joints are the only spaces which allow some kind of a social interaction, but definitely that isn’t enough for the development of an academic space. The very architecture of IIT M doesn’t seem quite conducive for the development of a vibrant public sphere.
It is in such a campus that one wakes up to the news of the pamphlet ban! The reason stated is environmental concern, to stop littering. Here, where paper cups, Dominos pizza bags and what not compete in its share of litter, banning pamphlets seems to be the solution for littering! In such a situation the ban of pamphlets is to be seen as a very serious political gesture. Pamphlets are one of those rare means by which the student community of IIT M could converse with each other. It is a platform for a dialogue between differing thoughts and ideas.A ban on it is the oppression of the voice of the other. Marginalization begins with the denial of space for the other in the public sphere. Historically, it is the woman, marginal communities etc who were denied access to the public sphere.
Using platforms like the internet may not be the solution to banning pamphlets, as pamphlets reach a different audience as compared to the new media. Of course internet is a great means for social mobilization and discussions, but does it really replace the pamphlet is the question. The very act of pamphlets being passed by hand, people reading, discussing and debating it in the public creates an organic atmosphere. Such social interactions I believe are creative. It is as important to education as are the interactions generated in the classrooms. Reading the printed word in pamphlets is different from reading it through other sources. The attack is on a certain type of reading and meaning making as well.
The fact that the ban is imposed by an education institution is alarming. Serious thought should be given to the kind of knowledge such spaces would produce. As Terry Eagleton says, “we have been witnessing the death of universities as centers of critique, since Margaret Thatcher, the role of academia has been to serve the status quo, not challenge it in the name of justice, tradition, imagination, and human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative vision of the future. .. We will change it by insisting that a critical reflection on human values and principles should be central to everything that goes on in the universities, not just study Rembrandt or Rimbaud.”
Manish Kumar Singh, GSB Member: I strongly support freedom of speech and the environment of healthy debating but a section of students use their freedom of speech in order to hurt and provoke sentiments in the campus. Their only intention is to create enmity among the student community and they are intolerant to any view which is opposed to theirs. They refuse to come on a common platform to discuss and debate issues of public interest. They don’t have any representation from the groups that they claim to represent and there is a resentment among students from those communities who feel that their name is being used solely for political gains.
What happened in the SLC meeting on 13th October was very unfortunate and my actions can’t be justified by any means. It was a frustration that had built up in the last two years coupled with the provocation given earlier in the day by some APSC members that led to this incident. But, the administration should understand that it has failed in maintaining harmony in the campus and should introspect on the same.
What Does this Mean for the Institute?
Shyam brings in a broad perspective, arguing: “Well, obviously what happened was wrong. Over my five years in Insti, I saw the polarization of the campus on the rise, and it was a scary situation. It did not help that my five years coincided with the five most polarizing years of Indian politics in the past decade. Such a polarization in Indian politics in general will definitely create similar polarization within the campus. Both the left and the right are guilty of this polarization in our country and our campus. Without dialogue, the only other instruments available are protests and physical assault. It’s no wonder we’ve been seeing more of these in the past few years both in India and in the campus. This tells you that these are symptoms of a larger problem.”
It is true that student politics in the campus have been taking increasingly divisive turns. Spaces for open dialogue, as Swathi pointed out, are limited. In this context the role of SLC in encouraging a more positive atmosphere also becomes important. As Shyam says, “It is important to rethink how we conduct our politics in general. Students face a million problems in the campus, and it is incumbent on us to listen to their concerns and see how they can be addressed. It is our duty as leaders to create an atmosphere where a healthy discussion can be created, where students feel like their voice actually matters, where students can come out of their shells and gain confidence in themselves and in the system, and where students come together as friends despite disagreements. Unless such an atmosphere is created, there is no way to change the way our politics is conducted.”
Ending on a Hopeful Note
We end this article with a suggestion for a start towards just such an atmosphere. This is a post written by Ayyappadas Girija Rajan, a GSB Member not present at the meeting and sourced from Facebook, which we have reproduced here.
“The incidents which had happened during the Student Legislative Council (SLC) meeting at IIT Madras, its background and the ongoing repercussions are really unfortunate. The whole student body should be concerned about the streak of events, and more importantly, the kind of uninformed and often misinformed, partisanship which has gradually taken root within IIT Madras. As ‘thinking students’ of a prestigious national institute, we should be concerned about these, whatever opinions we have about the issues themselves. In this context, some of us belonging to diverse ideological inclinations and maintaining different, often contrasting, positions on issues that we are dealing with, have a proposal. How about a grand debate for rigorous, but friendly exchange of ideas and perspectives? The essential idea is to build bridges where it is possible, but in any case try to understand where each other stands, even if we do not agree. Such an exchange should include the multiple voices present inside the campus, be free (within the limits law, avoiding intentional harm and personal abuses), in good spirit and maintaining respect for every individual’s right to think and choose.
The Speaker of SLC has gladly agreed to this proposal and is giving full support to ensure a meaningful exchange. We are thinking of a strictly moderated exchange(but not following the worst examples from national media ), with time limits applicable to all speakers. General rules of a Parliamentary debate shall be enforced, and no overstepping shall be allowed under any circumstances. A panel consisting of a maximum of two members from the each of the different interest groups, including various Independent Student Bodies (ISB), Institute Clubs, Student representatives, members of General Student Body (GSB) or a combination of one or more, would start off the proceedings. The audience too will be given ample and fair chance to raise questions and comments within strict time limits. The language of interaction shall be English and people who wish to present views in any other language should arrange for simultaneous translators all by themselves. We also shall have senior faculty members present among the audience, strictly in the capacity of observers. The moderator shall have discretionary powers to allow or censor opinions, but which also shall be subjected to the condition of fair conduct and maintaining objectivity. There will be a feedback mechanism and handling of complaints, so far as the mode of conduct goes.
We believe that it is in the interest of everyone, wherever we stand on issues, to be better informed and engage with people subscribing to different views in a healthy manner. Towards that end, we would like to request the support, participation and suggestions from students and concerned individuals affiliated with IIT Madras.”
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