1908. The venue is University of California at Berkeley. Christian evangelist J. Lovell Murray who had worked in India is giving a lecture at the University on Awakening of the Orient. Indian students who found the talk offensive because of his comments about Hinduism asked if he would skip the part of his talk that called Hindu priests immoral. He refused. 16 of them led by Girindra Mukerji, who had just obtained his master’s degree at the university, occupied the front row. Mukerjee had been cited as a “role model” for other Indians by the university’s president at his farewell after he defended his thesis. After Murray’s talk, Mukerji asked for the chance to reply and launched into an attack on British rule in India. Half a dozen more of the protesters joined him and the meeting had to be quickly brought to a halt. The January 18, 1908 issue of San Francisco Call ran the headline “Hindu Students Flay Missionary.” Someone commented that whatever his intent, Murray’s talk, ‘Awakening of the Orient’, had certainly lived up to its name. This story is now part of the South Asian Radical History Walking Tour in Berkeley.
Flash forward to 2015. Another reputed institution of higher learning. Another political protest. This time in India. And the headline reads “IIT-Madras bans student group for criticizing PM Modi, his policies.” Girindra Mukerjee feels like a distant dream.
By now the facts are fairly well-known. Someone sent an anonymous complaint to the HRD ministry accusing the Ambedkar Periyar Student Circle at IIT-Madras of spreading “hatred” against the Prime Minister. At issue is a pamphlet reproducing the speech of Dravidian university academic R Vivekananda Gopal on Dr. Ambedkar which accuses the government of a “Hindutva agenda”, “assisting multinational corporates to loot Mother India” and “communally polarizing the people by the ban on cow slaughtering, ghar wapasi program and promoting Vedas”.
These are accusations that you can routinely see debated and discussed in the media. The opposition parties, whether the Left or the Congress, have all gone to town and shouted themselves hoarse on some variant or the other of this. This is hardly “maut ka saudagar” territory.
To think that a university, a place that should actually foster debate, an IIT that is routinely touted as one of India’s crown jewels, wants to squelch debate is just plain shocking. The dean Sivakumar M. Srinivasan has said that the APSC has “broken the code of conduct” and did not follow “certain procedures”. Perhaps there are technical reasons for de-recognizing the APSC that the dean will care to inform the public about later. The APSC is complaining they were not given a fair hearing.
But as it stands now, the message the IIT is sending out is it’s a place to solve engineering problems not discuss social ones. It is a place where students have no right to criticize a government’s policies because that’s just not in the syllabus, kids.
In a way educational institutions have been tiptoeing towards this point for a while. In June 2014, nine students at the Shree Krishna College in Kerala’s Guruvayur district were arrested because of “objectionable and unsavoury” language against Prime Minister Modi as part of a crossword puzzle. TOI reported the magazine used Modi’s nickname NaMo as a clue with the purported solution NAyeente MOn (s** of a b****).
Before that students at a polytechnic and their principal found themselves in the police station because Modi was part of a poster of negative faces alongside Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler, Ajmal Kasab and George W Bush. The Modi-Hitler comparison is hardly anything new. Digvijaya Singh and Abhishek Manu Singhvi have done it and not been charged under IPC Sections 500, 501, 504, 153, 120 and 34.
Just because Narendra Modi was Candidate Modi then and is Prime Minister now does it become a punishable crime to even think of him as a “negative face” in a democracy? Respect for the office of the Prime Minister does not mean that everyone must, by law, now think of him as a “positive face”. Whether those charges are eventually dropped or not they all set precedents in tightening the screw on what’s permissible because what we remember is the student being hauled to the police station.
IIT Madras, a centre for higher learning, lowers the bar further. As far as the sections of the pamphlet published in the media suggest, the criticism has been entirely about the policies of the Modi government. It’s not about Narendra Modi as a person. No one is calling him a “negative face”. Now merely criticizing the policies of a government has become tantamount to spreading “hatred”.
It would not be surprising if this quickly snowballs into a Dalit vs anti-Dalit controversy. It’s tailor-made for identity politics umbrage. But there is another issue very much at stake here that should not get lost in the furore about caste politics – it’s about free speech in an institution of learning. This decision, if it was taken because of the content of the pamphlet, goes against that basic tenet.
It’s a university’s job to produce citizens who learn to think for themselves, not just engineers who can be programmed to follow someone else’s code. While there can be debates about whether political parties have too much say on campuses, if a university cannot be the crucible of free speech and its dean does not see itself as the guardian of that very basic right, then why blame ministers who want to curb it in all kinds of other forums.
It’s surprising that the HRD ministry didn’t just dismiss the complaint out of hand. And it’s even more shocking that IIT, in the words of another BJP leader in another context, chose to crawl when it had been merely asked to bend. The Indian Institute of Technology sounds like the Indian Institute of Timidity today.