In the last couple of months, IIT Bombay has witnessed a series of marches and protest sit-ins for various reasons including the MTech fee hike, suicide of Fathima Latheef at IIT Madras, CAA and pan-India NRC and, violence in academic spaces. The protests have stirred the campus so much, that recently an open forum was called with Director and Deans. But, there are some questions which are relevant beyond the context of IIT Bombay.
The first question is regarding the changing character of IIT Bombay as an institution. I have written here in detail about the transition which is going on at IIT-B. It is no longer, if I may use the word, a fiefdom of engineering and technology. The establishment of interdisciplinary centres at IIT Bombay has brought in faculty members and students on campus who are trained to critically think and write about society, politics, philosophical worldviews, etc.
It’s a welcome change and requires constant conversation among students and faculty members for the future of research, teaching, learning and the overall academic environment on campus.
The second question is regarding the formation of various students’ groups around various political worldviews. One may outrightly discard them by naming those groups as political. However, in my opinion, that is the consequence of uniformed and ill-informed thinking.
The demography of IIT Bombay has changed. First of all, postgraduate students now outnumber the undergraduate students. This brings diversity to the campus in all respects – economic, social, political.
Those coming for postgraduate degrees have studied at different universities before coming to IIT Bombay. They have grown up as adults have their own social and political experiences. They are going to mobilise and organise themselves.
The problem arises when these groups, read as political worldviews, become some sort of turfs to be protected or fought for. Albeit the purpose should be to have debates and conversations. The groups will not cease to exist. But, if dealt with heavy-handedly or by smear campaigns, polarisation is bound to get reinforced. And, the purpose of academic freedom is bound to get defeated.
The third question is regarding the access to spaces of higher education. The truth is that most of the higher education spaces in India do not reflect the reality of our society. Even a simple survey on social composition of such spaces – faculty members, students, non-teaching staff, contract workers, etc. will bring out the truth on our face.
In such a context, the attempts to de facto commercialise the public universities, are bound to face resistance.
The three questions regarding (i) transition from a technology focused institute to interdisciplinary world-class university; (ii) changing demography due to more and more inclusion; (iii) access to higher education and changing national policies in this regard are not limited to IIT Bombay alone.
They can be used as a framework in context of any other institutes/universities as well. Therefore, the political/apolitical debate is farcical. Because, the questions before us are deeply political. The right debate is to ask what kind of politics, for whom, and to what end.