What is it about the student body in IIT Madras that the Constitution and its provisions have gone unnoticed for the past few years? Has participative student governance failed? Venkataraman Ganesh, third-year M.A. student, Councillor, SAC (2014-15) and Core, SAC Speaker’s Committee (2015-16) raises a few questions.
<This opinion piece is about the student governance in IIT Madras. If you’re confused by the jargon, here’s a guide. You can find the Students’ Constitution here>
The Students’ Constitution of IIT Madras is a document that aims at ‘providing the students opportunities for overall personality development, with emphasis on leadership qualities and the spirit of service’[note]Preamble, the Students’ Constitution of IIT Madras[/note]. Drafted 35 years ago[note]1979-1981[/note] by a small group of students who believed in the ideal of democracy, our Constitution boldly proclaims the ‘General Student Body’ to be ‘the supreme power’ (in the context of Student Self-Governance) and puts the onus on the students to safeguard the privileges that it bestows upon them. The Constitution[note]All mentions of ‘Constitution henceforth refer to the Students’ Constitution, IIT Madras.[/note] beautifully extols this point by quoting Goethe –
“He only deserves freedom and life who conquers them anew.” [note]Preamble, the Students’ Constitution of IIT Madras[/note]
However, the time has now come for us to proclaim the ‘Death of the Students’ Constitution’ due to reasons very similar to the ones that led Nietzsche to proclaim the ‘Death of God’. Our Constitution has become ineffective and no longer wields any sort of substantial influence over the day-to-day affairs of our Institute – the responsibility for which must be shared between the GSB (General Student Body), the SAC (Student Affairs Council) and the Institute Administration. The GSB and the SAC have been afflicted by a malady of apathy and the Institute Administration, as recent events have shown time and again, is indifferent to the Constitution.
Let’s talk about the GSB first. Most students are unaware of the existence of the Students’ Constitution; those who do couldn’t care less about it[note]Students I interviewed for this purpose thought that SAC meant Students’ Activities Centre[/note]. The apathetic attitude of the GSB doesn’t end with the Constitution – it encompasses every aspect of student life that involves any sort of effort on part of the GSB, be it something as easy as filling a Google form or as ‘strenuous’ as attending a Town Hall meeting. Only five percent of the GSB — around 300-odd students — responded to a form sent out by the SAC asking for their opinions on the LAN ban. Less than 10 students attended the Saarang 2015 Town Hall meeting which was conducted to provide members of the GSB the opportunity to address their questions to the organizers of Saarang 2015 — a means to hold them directly accountable.
Consider too, the way in which hostel budgets are passed every year. It is students’ money that we are talking about here — money that is used to fund all hostel activities (including treats). Do the students know that a quorum of 20% of the total strength of the hostel is required to pass the budget? Do the hostels’ GBMs (General Body Meetings) actually fulfil this criterion? What about the Gymkhana fees? Does the GSB know anything at all about the prevailing fee structure – that they pay something called as Gymkhana Fees every semester? Do the students know anything about the purpose for, and the manner in which that money is being used?[note]A Gymkhana Fees of Rs 1000 per semester is levied every semester to fund EW activities. Unfortunately, there is no fixed budget allocated to EW members and hence, no student knows how that money – which runs into crores – is being used. [/note] No. The GSB has failed to safeguard the Constitution, the source of its rights and powers. What about the SAC?
The SAC, for its part, has become increasingly ineffective over the years. Nobody knows when it started, but many of the provisions of the Constitution lie forgotten by consecutive SACs. Consider the case of SAC Ratifications. Every policy made by an Executive Wing Member, the Constitution stipulates, must be ratified by the SAC to become the official policy of the GSB. Appointment of Editors to Campus Publications must be ratified too. So too, must any changes made to the Cultural Affairs Secretary Rulebook which, if it exists, supposedly contains all the ‘rules and details of selection process, organization hierarchy, duties and responsibilities of each person in Saarang.’[note]pg 21,Students’ Constitution [/note] When did these ratifications last happen? Are records of SAC proceedings maintained?[note]There is no archive of SAC Minutes and decisions available. The minutes are sent out through smail. [/note]
The source of the collective amnesia that has afflicted the SAC can be traced to the inexperience and apathy of the SAC Councillors in SAC-related activities. Most Councillors do not have any idea about how legislation works because they are not elected to legislate — most, anyway, don’t care. For them, attending SAC meetings is a question of attendance[note]SAC has an attendance criteria for Councillors – Councillors must attend 2/3rd of the SAC meetings failing which they face expulsion from the SAC.[/note] — being part of SAC is a PoR (position of responsibility) to be put in their CV. Most Councillors complain about the long duration of SAC meetings and try to avoid lengthy discussions on sensitive issues. Collective pride in the SAC and in the Constitution is non-existent. Where else, except in IIT Madras, will one find a body like the SAC silent when one of its pet policies (I am referring to online campaigning on Facebook during institute elections), is unceremoniously axed by the administration — an act that is against the spirit of the Constitution? And let’s not even get started with the latest controversy that has rocked our institute (IITM Administration versus APSC)! Has the Emergency Council[note]Please do not confuse this with the emergency meeting of the BoS. The Constitution provides for the SAC to form an emergency council to look into emergencies during vacations.[/note] convened to discuss the issue? Does the Emergency Council even exist? What is the SAC’s stance on this issue?
The blame for this situation doesn’t rest with the GSB and the SAC alone. Fundamental problems in the conception of the Students’ Constitution and its relation vis-a vis the Institute Administration have rendered it ineffective. Let’s ask some questions. If the SAC is the legislature, the Executive Wing the executive, where is the judiciary? Was that void supposed to be filled by the Institute administration?[note]Yes, says Prof. L.S Ganesh – a member of the original Drafting Committee.[/note] What role did the Constitution envisage for the Institute administration in the grand scheme of things? How was the SAC supposed to function as the ‘apex policy making representative body’[note]Ch.2, Students’ Constitution[/note] if the Senate didn’t devolve the necessary powers to the SAC?
Currently, all decisions made by SAC need to be ratified by Senate Sub-Committees like the Board of Students, the Board of Academic Courses and the Board of Academic Research. The exact compositions of these committees are unknown; for instance, in the case of the Board of Students, the Students’ Constitution specifies that the EW members along with the SAC Speaker and two other students nominated by the GS shall be the student representatives. Who are the professors in the BoS?[note]The composition of the BoS can be found in the 264th Senate minutes.[/note] How are decisions taken in this committee? Is it only through ‘consensus’ rather than voting, as the incumbent DoSt interprets it? Or are there guidelines prescribed by the Senate which govern the functioning of these committees? Is there something like a Senate’s Constitution which guides the Senate?[note]The guidelines for the Senate can be found in the Act of Parliament which created the IIT’s (as available on the IIT Council portal). The Act authorises each IIT to come up with Statues specific to its functions, and consequently, the statutes governing IIT Kanpur, Kharagpur, Delhi, Guwahati and Bombay are available online, though not of IITM.[/note] Is the Senate duty-bound to consider the advice tendered by the SAC?[note]No, according Prof. L.S Ganesh, former DoSt and Member of the Original Constitution Drafting Committee.[/note] Or is it that the Chairman of the Senate can just veto a SAC resolution before it has even been taken up for discussion in the floor of the Senate?[note]This happened in the case of the SAC 2014-15 voting for some sort of remuneration for SAC Councillors. [/note]
Let us take up the issue of APSC again. APSC is an Independent Student Body – which means it directly falls under the jurisdiction of the Board of Students. Yet, when APSC mailed the Administration stating that it would not appear before the Board of Students to plead its case, the Administration capitulated without second thought. The Board of Students meeting that was convened on the 7th of June lasted all of 15 minutes. There was no discussion — the Student representatives were asked if they had any issues with the deal that had been struck between APSC and the administration as a matter of courtesy. The Press Statement was read out, the mail sent by the DoSt was shown and the students were informed that the SAC shall revisit the guidelines. Was the administration’s conduct right? Should it have conducted discussions without the knowledge of Senate-approved bodies like the BoS? Should it have accepted a demand that violated the spirit of the Students’ Constitution for its own convenience?
In January 2015, the SAC passed a set of guidelines for recognition of groups as official Student Bodies and forwarded the same to the BoS for approval. In the Board of Students meeting, the Board outright rejected the draft made by the SAC[note]Minutes of BoS Meeting held on 13th Feb 2015[/note] and in its place, proposed a version made by the Dean (Students) which differed from the one made by SAC considerably. SAC Councillors were not informed of this change until a few hours before the Senate meeting held a month later, effectively preventing all discussion on the issue. The SAC’s original version of the guidelines, prepared after months of discussion, were not circulated among the GSB as part of SAC meeting minutes, nor was the GSB informed of the changes made.
Why is this important? The current constitution provides no safeguards against SAC being unilaterally overridden by the Boards or the administration. This means that changes can be made to policies impacting the GSB without consulting their representatives, or even informing the GSB. This issue, like the online campaigning one, did not raise any protest from the SAC either.
Arun Sudarsan, ex-SAC councillor, sees this as a violation. “The Constitution doesn’t explicitly mention anything regarding the relationship between SAC and the BoS,” he says. “However, by reading together several provisions[note]Chapter 3, 1(A); Chapter 8, 1(B); Chapter 8, 2(D); Chapter 8, 4.[/note] of the Constitution, it can be inferred that if BoS and Senate recommends changes, it has to necessarily come back to the SAC, because only SAC can amend the constitution or pass policies as per the Student Constitution. The minutes of any proceeding that has representation from the student community must be circulated among the GSB.”
To be fair, it is unrealistic to expect the original drafters to have foreseen the above mentioned problem. The Original Constitution was written at a completely different time for a completely different purpose. The original drafters were trying to put in place a democratic system of self governance at a time when it didn’t exist at all. For them, something was better than nothing. Also, with an extremely supportive administration behind it, the drafters wouldn’t have felt the need to create safeguards against perceived interference from the Administration. Things have changed now – and it isn’t just the political context that I am talking about here. The current Constitution was written for a 2500-strong GSB (including 70-odd girls)[note]According to Prof. LSG[/note] which was predominantly composed of undergraduates. Today however, the situation is completely different. The GSB strength is nudging 9000, there are three separate hostels for girls and the ratio between PG and UG students is 3:2. Furthermore, the number of departments and the courses offered has increased drastically. Has our Constitution evolved and accommodated these changes? No. For example, despite constituting nearly a fifth of the GSB today, the number of women in the SAC has always been limited to the General Secretaries of the Girls Hostels plus a few others who miraculously manage to become Branch Councillors. Similarly, the PG representation in the SAC doesn’t reflect their strength in the GSB, with only about half of the Councillors being PG What is the solution to all these problems?
The only way to resolve these problems is to completely rewrite the Students’ Constitution — to conquer freedom anew — something that the Constitution Re-drafting Committee is doing. Fundamental changes to the structure of the SAC (for example, giving the SAC partial control over student finances) and its relation vis-a vis the Institute Administration need to be made. The SAC needs to have more teeth and must decisively show that it is the apex policy-making body – that’s the only way the GSB will take interest in SAC proceedings. Wasn’t the SAC able to handle the Saarang Misappropriation Scandal? Didn’t it respond with alacrity when there was an attempt to ban Ice Cream Nights in Hostels? Did it not play a major role in revoking the LAN timings restriction? That is what the SAC needs to do consistently to remain relevant — something that it can’t do right now because of reasons mentioned above. And it cannot do this unless it has the support and participation of ‘the supreme power’ — the General Student Body. Us.
GSB members interested in being a part of the Constitution Re-drafting Committee are requested to mail their applications to [email protected].You can find the link to the application here.
Note: I must mention my thanks to Prof. L.S Ganesh and Arun Sudarshan, alumnus and Councillor SAC(2013-14) for their valuable contributions to this article. I would also like to thank Shilpa Menon (Editor, T5E 2014-15) for her contributions to this article. This article couldn’t have been written without her guidance and support.