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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Freedom of Expression

For the last two days, the media and the social media is busy discussing whether IIT Madras administration is right in what it terms as temporary dercognition of an independent student body.

The derecognition has been reported by almost all newspapers, including, Deccan Herald, Financial Express, Business Standard, Firstpost, and Hindustan Times.

Here is what seems to have happened. An anonymous letter is received by MHRD complaining that certain undesirable activities are being conducted by Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC), an independent student group at IIT Madras. The Ministry forwards this letter to IIT Madras for their comments. Soon afterwards IIT Madras temporarily de-recognizes the group for violating guidelines for such groups.

A whole lot of politicians have jumped into the fray, sensing an opportunity to score political points against each other claiming that the Ministry pressurized IIT Madras into banning the group. IIT Madras continues to claim that there is no permanent ban, but only a temporary de-recognition till the beginning of the next semester when the issue can be discussed after all students and faculty are back, and they continue to insist that the ban is not under pressure of MHRD but because of the violation of certain guidelines.

I think the politicization of the event is unfortunate. In these matters, the Dharma of the ministry is to try interfering in an autonomous institution by seeking comments on something that Ministry should not be bothered about. And the Dharma of the Institute is to ignore all such letters. This way a peaceful co-existence can be maintained. The equilibrium gives way to chaos if either side goes beyond its Dharma, that is, either the Ministry sends reminders, uses threatening language, or demands certain actions, or the Institute starts taking such letters seriously and starts taking action on them. In this case, it appears that the action by IITM is not suo moto, but motivated by this letter from MHRD, which only makes them more amenable to interference in the future. So they are causing problems for not their own autonomy but the autonomy of other IITs as well, since such actions become precedents. Even if they wanted to take this action, they should have waited for another event, another time, so that the action can not be easily linked with the MHRD letter. But they seemed to be in a hurry and did not want to wait even for the summer to be over and the Institute to reopen.

I tend to believe (despite the timing and sequence of events) that IIT Madras has taken this action not because they were under pressure from MHRD, but because the administration had a level of discomfort with this group, and the letter from MHRD only acted as a trigger. IIT Madras is quite conservative and has an opinion on what should be allowed and what should not be allowed on things that other Institutes wouldn't care about. That is just the way they are, and poor them, they get into such controversies unnecessarily as a result.

So what are the guidelines for such groups, and which guideline has been violated. The guidelines are available here. The important guideline which seems to have been violated by the group is the second one which says that such entities can not use the name of IIT Madras, or any of its official entities, in any capacity, to publicize their activities or garner support without official permission. And apparently, in their pamphlets, the group had said that they are students at IIT Madras and the event is at IIT Madras.

So what should have been done. The group should have announced that the event will happen in this national institute beside Adyar Cancer Institute, Opposite to C.L.R.I, Sardar Patel Rd, between Guindy and Adyar,Chennai, Tamil Nadu 600036. You see we are not allowed to name the institute in our address. They should have then said that they are the students of the said institute, but can't name it.

How dare they name the institute in their pamphlet. How dare they say that they are students of IIT Madras. For such unpardonable sins, they have to be taught a lesson.

One may, of course, ask, if this is the only independent student group who has mentioned the words "IIT Madras" in their communication. If yes, then the ban is completely justified. If other groups can survive without mentioning IIT Madras in their communications, why does this group want such a huge privilege as to mention its college in a communication. On the other hand, if others too have mentioned IIT Madras in their communications, are they being banned (OK, temporarily de-recognize, such a long word which means the same thing) too. I know the answer, so I won't ask. All of them had sought permission and were granted permission to mention the name of the Institute in their communication. This group did not seek permission.

One may, of course, ask another question whether every student of IIT Madras, when s/he contacts anyone outside IIT Madras for anything, takes permission from Dean of Students to mention in their communication that they are from IIT Madras. If yes, then it is a draconian institute. if no, then one wonders what sin has this group done to deserve such an action.

The IITM Students have an official reaction on their publication, "The Fifth Estate." The APSC students have criticized the ban and have written this letter. They have also questioned on their facebook page whether the guidelines were formally approved by an appropriate authority of the Institute, but others on the same page have said that the guidelines were indeed approved.

On the face of it, it seems that the group has indeed violated the guidelines, and therefore, IIT Madras can justify its action in a legal sort of way. But in my view, the guidelines are typical of control mindset and I am sure have been breached by many people in the past. You want to control everything and everyone, so you create guidelines which allow you unlimited power. At the time of passing the guidelines, either people don't realize that unlimited power is being granted, or they are assured that this will be used in the rarest of rare cases. But once those guidelines are approved, you know that they will be used against anyone with whom the administration is uncomfortable with. And frankly, I can not possibly support ban for violating such guidelines. Unless some new information comes to light, I would consider this ban as an unnecessary restriction on freedom of expression that our constitution guarantees to all its citizens.

Any constituent of IIT Madras should be able to claim that they are part of IIT Madras. What they shouldn't be able to do is to claim that they represent the institute, or their opinions are official views of the Institute, and things of that nature. IITM certainly needs to come up with a better excuse for the ban (they apparently spread hate, for example).

Having such controversies in sister institutions actually do a a lot of good for other institutions. Today, sitting in IIT Kanpur, I realize what paradise I am living in.  Thanks to the culture set up by our founding Director, Prof. Kelkar and the american influence that we had due to support by Kanpur Indo-American Program (KIAP), the campus is very liberal and tolerant of all sorts of views and allows all kinds of debates.
By the way, Telegraph has as always covered the issues very nicely in their multiple reports. These reports are here, here, here, and here.

Times of India has reported that many student groups in IIT Madras have opposed this ban.


Sriram in the comments below has said that the student groups mentioned in ToI report are not from IIT Madras.

The Fifth Estate, the students official newssite, has many more articles on this issue now.


Abhimanyu Chandra said...

This is the most illuminating bit of writing on the whole issue. Thanks for sharing!

Dilip K Kainikkara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Dilip, I am quite surprised by your comment. They can not get any meeting room or lecture room or any other facility in IIT Madras. They can not even say in any communication that they are students of IIT Madras. How can they still do any activity. What can they do which they wouldn't be able to do in case of a ban.

And yet, I am writing in my blog that IIT Madras administration is distinguishing between temporary de-recognition and a ban. So I am writing their version and then disagreeing with their version.

Nitesh Bhandari said...

While we have the "Anonymous letter" and the "replies", where is the pamphlet. What is Indian media doing?

Sushil Kumar said...

Appreciate your critical analysis. Very clearly and nicely done!

iitmsriram said...

Dheeraj, I think you have missed one (in my view, crucial) point. The group has not simply stated that they are students at IIT Madras or that the event is being held at IIT Madras. The letter announcing the April event carries the heading "Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, IIT Madras" - the things about being students at IIT Madras and the event being held at IIT Madras come below this in the text. I think there is a difference between an organization identifying itself in this fashion and an organization that simply holds events on campus, maybe you don't think there is a difference.

And, BTW, you are misquoting the ToI report - the student groups opposing the "ban" are not from IITM, they are ALL from outside IITM. And, I would suggest linking to the t5e publication in its entirely instead of a single article - there are several articles there.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

Sriram, As you rightly guessed, I wouldn't consider "APSC, IITM" as a serious enough offence to warrant a ban. The basic issue to me will be whether "APSC, IITM" would make people believe that they are spokespersons of IITM or that they are representing the entire IITM or a significant stake holder like all students. I don't think that has happened. Indeed, till they were banned, no one seemed to know or care about them even within IITM.

I have added your clarification about the ToI report to the main article. And I am soon going to link t5e site also from the blog. Thanks a lot for your comments.

Nasiruddin haider Khan said...

बहुत अच्छी टिप्पणी। तर्कसंगत। बधाई।

Akhilesh Godi said...

Prof. Dheeraj, as Prof. Sriram pointed out - I feel there are a lot of points that you have missed. The point that IIT Madras administration is probably a bit conservative when compared to the others maybe? - I might agree. The Dean of Students in the institute has not been a "friend" or "DoSt" is something that might be a popular opinion in the institute. Students of the institute might agree that the situation could have been handled in a better way by the Dean. But having said that...

Many external political organizations have been allegedly using clubs like APSC (or for the matter VSC - which is alleged to be a right-wing group by the APSC group which is pro-communist) to polarize the students of the institute. The question would now be, is it right on the part of the institute to allow political influence to take place in the institute with two diverse ideological groups, backed by political organizations fighting out unhealthy debates (read: wars where there is intolerance towards other ideologies) and bringing in unwarranted external influence making the institute a war-zone. Yes, debates are good as long as they are healthy and both these groups have their freedom of expression. The heavy polarization within the institute has happened only in the last two years. Should IIT Madras or any other IIT administration have any say in controlling external political groups to start their student-wings within campus which probably spew venom against each other is the question that needs to be asked. Should IITs be allowed to become like JNU? In the next few years it might go to the extent where there may be an NSUI leader, an SFI leader, an ABVP leader standing for elections for the positions of Student General secretary and so on. The institute administration and concerned students/alumni from the student body think that the reputation of the institute is affected when external political organizations start to have a say on the happenings on campus. Now what is debatable is - Should the administration be okay with it and not involve itself when independent student organizations are almost being used in the way I have mentioned? I'd love to hear your opinion on this and how it would have probably been handled at IIT Kanpur. I'm not sure why the institute does not want to site these as reasons or probably that the group is allegedly spreading hatred and wants to use "guidelines". Perhaps because it is easier to get away while not having to face backlash from external political groups for stating that as a reason.

I would also like to link you to the T5E articles -

Here's the entire story -

Despite the two extreme ideological groups present on campus, IIT Madras also has a very liberal crowd and the institute has been supportive, getting more liberal. This can be seen in the fact that we have a Colloquium group that discusses controversial topics and debates on these healthily, an EML (Extra Mural Lecture) group which organizes lectures by imminent personalities irrespective of their ideologies, an LGBTQ support group named Vannam, and lots of other groups which are progressive in nature.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Akhilesh, IITM administration has botched it up really badly. As I have said, I am not supporting APSC's agenda. I don't even know enough about them. I don't know what happened in their meetings. But IITM administration should not have given an impression that it is being done because of MHRD's letter. By doing so, they have allowed political interference, and allowed an issue to be politicized so badly. And this is when I suspect that they had no agenda to please the masters. So timing was completely wrong.

Second, and this is the main point of this blog, they should be honest. If the problem is that the group is spreading hate, or is indulging in political activity or doing something which is undesirable, have the guts to stand up and say that this is not in the interest of the Institute. And if they did not have sufficient proof of wrong doing, then they have to tolerate the activities. But hiding behind some absolutely stupid guidelines is such a dishonest thing to do that they have lost all credibility. It has resulted in the issue becoming much bigger than it really should have been.

IITM action will actually cause more politics on campus and not less, and that is what I am afraid about.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Akhilesh, I missed the part about how IITK would have handled. First of all, we too would not want to have any external political groups to be active on our campus by proxy. Second, we would be far more tolerant of the kind of posters and other material that has been put up as a proof of APSC's wrongdoing, and not ban them. (And this is another thing. I see so many supporters of IITM administration saying, oh, they are not banned. They are only disallowed to use IITM facilities, name, email, etc. Why is everyone so afraid of calling a spade a spade.) Third, IITK would have looked at guidelines, figured that they are quite stupid, changed the guidelines to make them more clear about what can be done and what can not be done, and then if the group's future events are inconsistent with the guidelines, then they will be hauled up. Even then, we will not ban a group just through an email. We will set up a committee, who will seek opinions from all sides and then recommend action. This may delay the action a bit, but then a delayed action in such cases does not really hurt. It is not as if they are doing extremely negative events every day. We will also involve Students Gymkhana in any such decision. They will be in the committee. Dean would not normally take such important decisions without consulting Gymkhana. And if a decision has to be taken in the summer, we will involve the acting functionaries of the student, and not say that a suo moto action is being taken now to be reviewed when students come back in August.

I know of much more serious letters from MHRD to our previous Director (Prof. Dhande) which were not acted upon (though unfortunately the current Director seems to take such letters more seriously).

Akhilesh Godi said...

Prof. Dheeraj, thank you so much for your response. I really hope IITM too has a more tolerant administration.

In my view too, de-recognizing them (temporarily) especially now (soon after the letter from MHRD) was a bad move but the need for the de-recognition is being supported by a majority in the institute contrary to earlier cases where there has been dissent with the administration. Interestingly the APSC group has started a protest now with your idea by using "students from '12.9915° N, 80.2336° E and within the 620 acres surrounding".

Roopesh Mathur said...

Prof.Dheeraj, thank you for a cogent and rational response. As an alumnus of IITM, it is disconcerting and painful to see this issue blow up in the national media and the administration and student body painted in a not so flattering light. IITM has always been highly liberal and open to all as far as the student body, general faculty and activities on campus are concerned. It has a thriving campus culture that promotes a life of the mind and critical thinking, not unlike IITK.

But parts of the administration and some faculty have a conservative and old world outlook, which leads to a stodgy and unimaginative response to hot button issues that is technically by the book, clamps down on any troublemakers but misses the bigger picture by miles. In the historical context with Tamil Nadu, Caste, reservations and Periyar especially, are perhaps the biggest hot button issues you can find.

It might have worked in the past, but not in the age of social media and 24 hour media coverage, where controversy and conflict sell. In today's day and age, no group or point of view can be really banned or "de-recognized". The concerned student group and it's external supporters, have successfully exploited both the administration's stodginess and the media's hunger for conflict to promote it's agenda and put it on the national stage, discrediting the institute in the process.

The correct response at this time is for the student and faculty government bodies on campus to debate the issue and come to a resolution. An external reviewer, such as yourself, should be asked to provide additional inputs and make recommendations. These recommendations should be implemented immediately as a new set of guidelines and followed up with actual actions.

Skand Bhargava said...

I agree with most part of your blog. However I think if MHRD was right in its letter, taking action after some time would be playing politics. "Guts" and "Honesty" would be in acting on it ASAP and not delay just to show the world "oh, we don't get pressurized by MHRD".

iitmsriram said...

Of interest on this thread.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Sriram, Thanks for the link. As I have said above, anyone who says that guidelines were violated without mentioning which guidelines (and, of course, I do not even want to get into the controversy of when those guidelines were approved and by whom) is trying to whitewash and frankly not being honest. Also, another defense which gives away the fake attempt at justification is this was not a ban not even a derecognition, but a temporary derecognition, a temporary withdrawal of privileges. Aren't all actions temporary. Even if IITM had said that it was a permanent ban, couldn't IITM be forced to withdraw that ban. Why was a temporary derecognition necessary. Was there any reason to believe that if they were allowed to continue till the next BoS meeting, may be with some stricter requirement of prior notice, they would have caused bigger havoc on the campus (compared to what happened anyway).

Frankly, after reading that note on quora, I would have changed my mind, and thought of this controversy not as something seriously mishandled by a conservative IITM administration, but as a serious assault on freedom of expression. But then as he himself said that I don't represent views of IIT Kanpur, and I hope he does not represent views of IIT Madras.

Ayyappadas said...

Thank you for this piece Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi. In my opinion, the technical issues raised by the administration were really silly, as you rightly pointed out. The level to which this issue got flared up was unfortunate, although I do believe that this was about restricting certain unpopular or deemed-to-be polarising views. The group in question should have been called on to defend the views, rather than taking the route it did. I wrote an opinion piece on the same, where I took the liberty to quote your point on the silliness of the rule.