Last week has been terrible at IIT Kanpur. (For account of just one incident, read this blogpost.) I am constantly hearing of students being referred to as criminals and thieves (by those responsible for security policies on campus) and it pains me. I was a student here myself a few decades ago. I can't imagine that boy who lives in the room in which I lived to be very different from me. What has gone wrong?
To understand what has gone wrong, one has to look at the annual reports of our disciplinary committee (SSAC), particularly since 2006. For many of the years, you would find that SSAC (Senate Student Affairs Committee) did not have to recommend any punishment other than a warning to any student at all, and in some years, you may find 1-2 students being punished mildly. In some instance, if Senate took a harsh stand in one meeting, it reconsidered that decision a few meetings later. These annual reports are telling us that we have a fantastic student body, and even though we may have 6000 students on campus, not even 6 of them did anything wrong of serious nature.
If our students are so well disciplined, how come the narrative of security establishment is so different.
What has really happened is that SSAC has acted irresponsibly all these years, and not given appropriate punishments (or given no punishments in most serious cases). Take an example of copying in exams. Any student in the Institute will tell you that copying is a serious problem in IIT Kanpur. Most faculty members also believe the same, though many of them would argue that checking for copying isn't their duty. Fair enough. But what about cases in which someone is caught red handed.
Since faculty cannot really wash its hands off from this, many of them come up with different strategies for "preventing" copying. It is said that unless we have done enough on prevention, we have no business punishing anyone. How do you prevent? Well, let there be CCTV cameras in all lecture halls. Let the number of invigilators be increased. Let the question paper consists of questions whose answers will be difficult to find by searching on Google through the hidden mobile phone. We should use jammers and disconnect WiFi access points during the exams. There should be a security guard outside each toilet who should ensure that only one person goes in at a time. And many more. Basically convert the campus into a police zone for the duration of the exams.
If you did all this, would you reduce copying, and would you be able to dismantle the security apparatus after the exam. Of course, not. If a student knows that the chances of his getting caught have gone up slightly, but he also knows that even if he is caught, there will be no action, the copying isn't going to reduce at all. Prevention can work only in conjunction with a justice system.
If we have a complaint of a girl of a boy misbehaving with her, and you are able to catch the boy, establish the incident and yet give him just the warning, what signal are you sending. Now, prevention would mean that you place cameras at every intersection, in every lane, in every floor of every building. The number of guards is increased. But does it reduce harassment. Of course, not. You have only increased the probability of catching the boy. But if he knows that nothing will ever happen to him even if caught, what does prevention strategy achieve.
The problem with this strategy is that we are putting most of our eggs in one basket - the security forces.
Since we have "prevention" as the only strategy, we start criticizing security the moment some incident happens. What does an average guard do in response. Well, as soon as there is slightest suspicion, he calls the control room and asks for additional security. When two security persons go out to the location, the guard on the location has to exaggerate the situation to justify why he called the control room, and the situation goes out of hand from there.
Also, the security guards are typically illiterate. They are not able to or willing to argue with students or community members. Whenever someone argues, their only option is to inform the control room and bring more forces. Arguing has now become a crime for which you will be taken to the control room, abused, threatened, asked to write a letter of apology which the security establishment can later show as a proof that the student was indeed a "criminal." Who wouldn't write such a letter after being in solitary confinement for a couple of hours.
There is a relatively recent rule that you need to show an I-card to enter a hostel. If someone has forgotten one, he is harassed. I asked a security committee member, if we can have a more humane approach. Can we not let some other student identify this student. Can we not have some small fine for this. Can we not have a biometric based entry system if someone loses the I card. (By asking this, I am not supporting the rule to carry I card all the time, nor do I want a large scale collection of biometrics, which has its own privacy implications.) And the response was that none of this is security's business. Security will only do what is easy to implement. And what is easy to implement is that if a student does not have an I-card, abuse him for an hour or two.
Why has Security Raj become more visible in the last few months. Well, it is a reaction to the student agitation of August 2016. A weak administration can not find out if there were students who crossed a line, and punish them. Even if you believe that it was a very emotional period and everything that happened was due to emotional outbursts, a weak person can not forget and forgive. So if you don't have guts to punish administratively, and if you are not strong enough to forgive, what will you do. Well, when the new security committee came about, you would put those who are well known for their harsh attitudes and let them take a revenge on the students. Again, a proper investigation, and a proportionate punishment against a few specific students who put Institute property on fire would have been far better than harassing a much larger number of students who have done very little (like forgetting an I card).
Establishment of security raj on IIT Kanpur campus has followed the destruction of administrative mechanisms of maintaining discipline. And the only way to dismantle this Raj is to strengthen the civil administration. The civilian processes are more democratic. The disciplinary committee that I mentioned above has students as almost half the members and has representation of women and other groups. There is much greater trust in such a system, and if someone is punished by this system, it acts as a deterrent for many others. But when the security Raj punishes anyone harshly, it is seen as unfair and arbitrary. It can lead to more people fearing security in general, but it does not lead to a linkage between the crime and punishment in people's mind. And in that sense, it does not act as a deterrent for that specific act.
In those rare instances where, primarily due to community pressure, SSAC has recommended some punishment, students have generally opposed any punishment. They are so used to SSAC being ineffective for so long. But they don't realize that their opposition to SSAC recommendations is leading to security Raj in the campus which is worse for them and everyone else in the community. The security Raj is loved by the Director. For any administrative mechanism, the buck stops with him. He does not want to be seen as approving any recommendation of SSAC which gives a real punishment. On the other hand, in cases of harassment by security, no one believes that Director could have prevented it. So he can continue to present an image of a student-friendly Director, while at the same time, ensuring harassment for all "criminal" students.
So while we can all criticize the specific examples of excessive use of force, and we must ask for heads to roll when such things happen, but we must not lose sight of the reasons why Security Raj has come about on the campus, and we must strengthen democratic administrative processes for ensuring discipline, something the last two directors have undermined.