The decision of IIT Madras to temporarily derecognise a student group on the basis of an anonymous letter is a case of extreme overreaction. The unsigned letter sent to the HRD ministry had accused the group — the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC) — of calling the Narendra Modi government pro-corporate and communal and of fostering caste animosity among students. The derecognition seems to be a panicky response to the HRD ministry’s note, which had sought the IIT’s comments on the letter. The ministry has clarified that it forwarded the letter as a routine administrative matter and that the disciplinary action was the IIT’s choice. The step has divided the student fraternity on campus and outside, and invited the attention of political parties and social outfits. IIT-M has justified its action, claiming that the APSC violated guidelines the institute and student representatives had drawn up for campus activities.
The derecognition would deny the study circle access to IIT-M’s infrastructure for holding its functions, which have in the past included film screenings, seminars on the thought of Ambedkar and Periyar, debates on social, political and cultural issues as well as the social impact of technology. The ideological orientation of the APSC is at variance with that of other groups in the institute. The choice of speakers and subjects in APSC seminars reflect their political preferences, which may have triggered the anonymous complaint. Equally, the emergence of a new stream of thought may have upset a section of the administration. A university campus is sacred space for thought, especially unconventional thought. The IIT administration’s response to the HRD ministry’s query ought to have been in defence of the institution’s responsibility to foster critical thought and the students’ right to question the powerful and challenge conventions. The institution should have stood by its “rebel” students and objected to any attempt by the HRD ministry to intervene in campus affairs. It should have engaged with the students instead of taking disciplinary action. The preservation of campus autonomy, an issue which is often raised by the IITs in the context of appointments, must include protecting free speech on campus and encouraging a diversity of views.
Curiously, one of the violations reportedly cited by the administration was that the APSC used the name of IIT-M. This begs the question: Does the administration hold sole proprietary rights over the campus? Shouldn’t students have a sense of ownership, too? In a truly autonomous campus, which is essential to promoting creative thinking, students partner with teachers to create knowledge. Universities must not be reduced to mere teaching shops where free speech and association are censored.