At IIT Madras: Of Casteism, Ambedkar, And Our Premier Institutes

Posted on June 1, 2015 in Campus Watch, Staff Picks

By Abhishek Jha:

Ever since the de-recognition of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (a student group from IIT Madras) made it to the news, contesting claims have been forwarded by “insider’s accounts” and “true stories“. The more patronising of those comments have chosen the exact “pragmatic” line of argument that government spokespersons on television debates do. They agree that APSC should have freedom of speech and expression, then exalt IIT-M as a place where there is so much freedom that there is even a surplus, and so on; but then just stop short of offering that freedom to APSC because it allegedly flouted guidelines.

ambedkar periyar study circle

The Guidelines

However, the very beginning of this sequence of events – the anonymous letter – appears to be far from being in accordance with the guidelines. A Central Vigilance Commission guideline from November last year, which can be found on APSC’s Facebook page, says that “no action should be taken on anonymous/pseudonymous complaints by Ministries/Departments/ Organisations.” Moreover, APSC only identifies itself as “an IIT-M students’ initiative“, not as on official mouthpiece of either IIT-M’s elected study body or the administration. And in doing this it has every right to demand of the institute facilities that are used by, say, the Vivekanand Study Circle, one of whose posts is worried about the Hindu Goddess Kali’s complexion and yet identifies itself as “IIT Madras Approved Independent Students’ Body“. This selective approval and disapproval should not need further explanation, one guesses. However, it would perhaps help to inform that in conversation with one of the members of APSC, I was told that the Dean of Students had a problem even with the “names of Ambedkar and Periyar being used in the name of the study circle.

Systematic Technical Silence

No, this “guideline pragmatism” that plagues these criticisms is not practical apprehension against a group that is bent on trouble and (though the institute could even allow that to some extent, they say) and must be chained to ward off mishaps. This is a systematic stunting of the extent of political education that students are allowed at IIT. Ever so often a political thought is bullied into submission by scaring students with disciplinary action, by denying permissions to hold political discussions, or de-recognising such groups. I had a similar experience earlier this year at my own college. If and when they are allowed to do so, it is so blunted in its questioning of the order of things, so purely celebratory and benevolent in nature that it is hardly political at all. As Hartosh Singh Bal aptly noted in the Caravan last week, “Our republic has ensured that the IITs supply a steady stream of technicians—engineers and managers—but very few who are truly creative. We must understand that even technological advances are creative acts and do not originate from those who have settled for the work of a technician.

Of Casteism, Ambedkar, And Our Premier Institutes

Therefore, the problems that the APSC is facing is not because of some guideline oversight by it. It is because it is so unapologetically political. That too in an IIT. The Sangh trolls are after it and the poster that seems to have scandalised them is because it reads Ambedkar in the manner he is supposed to be. Theirs is not an Ambedkar that is co-opted by political parties for electoral gains or who makes it to our high school history books only as someone associated with the drafting of the Indian Constitution. As much as in his call for “Annihilation of Caste” or in his attack against capitalism, texts of Ambedkar or people reading Ambedkar are bound to appear “scandalous” and “inflammatory” to those who perhaps for the first time saw the Ambedkar quote on an APSC poster.

Even without knowing Ambedkar’s unequivocal stand, even in his high school textbook version, many students dislike him in the hallowed institutes for having, after centuries, denied them their privilege by affirmative action. Casteism- to the extent that students have committed suicide- is rampant as reports show. A fellow student once – while saying that he respected Ambedkar – said that he could not help but feel antagonised by him when a bit too many people turned up in his city to filthy it on Ambedkar Jayanti. This disgust, surprisingly, is not directed towards a system that has given Dalits a hard time getting a legislation against manual scavenging (which would be Dalits manually cleaning human excreta, for instance, in manholes or dry latrines), and which still manages to cheat that legislation. The reader would benefit from researching the Safai Karmachari Andolan, which is still an Andolan because casteism- which seems invisible to the upper-caste Hindu – still exists in the country.

However, as I was told by a member of APSC, in Tamil Nadu “Periyar’s influence is still in the air.” And so they do find “rationalist B. Tech and PhD scholars from Tamil Nadu in APSC.” And it is evident that such groups exist all over, from what can be seen in the quick mushrooming of half a dozen Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle pages on Facebook from various campuses across the country. As Arundhati Roy rightly put it, this de-recognition is a recognition of a kind. It is the recognition that APSC is as radical a student group as any in the country and that it means business.

NDTV journalist Ravish Kumar noted on Facebook that APSC “appeared to be a strong group“. It is, he said in relation to its twitter handle, “confronting those who are confronting it. And even confronting those who aren’t confronting it.” Anybody who has read Ambedkar, whose famous exhortation has agitation and organisation immediately following education, cannot shy away from their support for APSC then. Silence or a mewling pragmatism was neither Ambedkar’s and Periyar’s wont, nor can it be the APSC’s.