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02 June, 2015

Academia’s meek surrender

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Political opposition and civil society have raised their voice against a perceived attempt by the Narendra Modi regime to impose its Hindutva ideology on institutions of higher learning. The real issue is academia’s readiness to surrender meekly to political masters.

The cause of the uproar is the decision of the elite Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (Chennai), to derecognise the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, a year-old campus forum that upholds the principle of social justice.

The action followed a complaint sent to the central government by casteist elements operating surreptitiously.

APSC bears the names of national Dalit icon BR Ambedkar (1891-1956) and Dravidian ideologue Periyar EV Ramaswamy (1879-1973), the foremost advocates of social justice in the last century. Additionally, Ambedkar is revered as the Father of the Indian Constitution.

After APSC marked its first anniversary in April with a lecture by a distinguished speaker on the contemporary relevance of Ambedkar, the Union Human Resources Development Ministry received an anonymous complaint levelling a number of allegations against it, including “trying to create hatred against the Honourable Prime Minister and Hindus”. An Under Secretary forwarded the complaint to the Director of IIT-M and sought his comments.

A week later the Dean of Students informed APSC that it had been derecognised and would not be allowed to use campus facilities for its activities.

Political parties condemned the action as a wanton attack on free debate in the campus. They pinned the blame squarely on the government. Demonstrations were held outside the residence of Human Resources Minister Smriti Irani in Delhi and near the IIT campus in Chennai.

IITs, set up under a scheme initiated by Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s, are supposed to be autonomous institutions. Their governing councils are headed by eminent persons. However, those in charge of the day-to-day administration look upon themselves as minions who must pay heed to the ministry’s wishes.

Customarily the government ignores anonymous communications. The complaint against APSC received attention because its contents were in tune with the thinking of the ruling establishment. Yet there was no directive to act against APSC. All that the government did was to seek the Director’s views on the complaint.

The IIT authorities used the occasion to demonstrate their loyalty to the masters in Delhi. They took punitive action against APSC without even giving it an opportunity to reply to the charges.

The views propagated by APSC are those that were articulated by Ambedkar and Periyar in their lifelong campaigns against casteism in Hindu society.

The move against APSC needs to be viewed against long-standing complaints of caste-based discrimination in the IITs.

IIT Delhi expelled 12 Dalit students in 2008 on grounds of low academic performance. Following the intervention of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, it revoked the expulsion of two students, making some relaxation in grade requirements, and appointed a committee to look into complaints of discrimination. The IIT later claimed the students did not place before the committee any case of discrimination, but the students said the committee did not entertain their complaints.

In a survey conducted among students of IIT Bombay, following the death of a Dalit student in mysterious circumstances last September, more than half of the Adivasi, Dalit and other backward classes respondents said they experienced discreet discrimination and were subjected to higher academic pressure than other students.

Ten years ago, IIT Madras had a faculty of 480 staff members, of whom 462 belonged to the advanced communities, prompting activists to characterise it as a Brahmin enclave. Ten Dalits, one Adivasi and seven OBC members made up the rest. In 2008, the government ordered reservation of 15 per cent of the faculty positions for Dalits, 7.5 per cent for Adivasis and 27 per cent for OBCs. The staff strength has now risen to over 500 but the reservation targets remain a distant goal.

MS Ananth, who became its Director in 2001, quit in 2011 following allegations of caste bias and corruption. Dr E Muraleedharan, an alumnus, said Ananth had denied him a teaching post because of caste bias. Dr WB Vasantha Kandasamy of the Mathematics department, who belongs to a backward caste, vigorously pursued the case of a Dalit candidate, SR Kannan, and foiled the bid to deny him a staff position.

In the process, Vasantha Kandasamy invited the ire of her superiors. She secured overdue promotions as Associate Professor and Professor only after a court battle that lasted 16 years. While deciding the case in her favour, the Madras high court ordered a CBI probe to determine the legality of all appointments made in IIT Madras between 1995 and 2000. The authorities appealed and got a stay on the probe order. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 2, 2015.

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