Free speech & campus politics

Free speech & campus politics

Free speech & campus politics. The de-recognition of a student body, ‘Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle,’ at IIT-Madras by its management has turned into a big inter-party conflict going beyond the campus. Its echo is heard on the streets of the capital and in other metropolitan cities.

The de-recognition of a student body, ‘Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle,’ at IIT-Madras by its management has turned into a big inter-party conflict going beyond the campus. Its echo is heard on the streets of the capital and in other metropolitan cities. Fortunately, Parliament is not in session as it would provide yet another chance to the opposition to stall proceedings.

Two big issues are hidden in this episode – one is political rivalry consequent to the big change that has taken place in national politics, and the other is the simmering discontent surrounding the politics of reservation ready to burst at a short notice. The ban has not clipped the wings of the student body. Instead, it has encouraged more such student organisations to the embarrassment of the management.

Students from IIT-Bombay have formed the Ambedkar-Periyar-Phule Study Circle and staged their first protest on the campus. So also have the students of JNU and Kolkata’s Jadavpur University. These developments are perceived as yet another controversy over the freedom of speech and to form association – located this time within an academic campus.

It raises emotions and voices even in the absence of full and accurate information on the facts of the situation, the circumstances, and the background. Political parties – regional and national - have readily jumped into the fray to champion the cause of fundamental rights and to convert and portray a disciplinary action in an educational institution into an instance of curtailment of freedom of speech.

The reason for this drastic action on the part of the IIT management is stated to be “misuse of privileges” and failure to follow the code of conduct adopted for student bodies. The code prescribes that all activities of student bodies should be taken with the knowledge of the Dean. The announcement of de-recognition follows an anonymous complaint that the affected student body was instigating protests against the Centre’s policies and creating “hatred” against the PM and polarise students on caste lines.

It is said that the group has been circulating pamphlets and has put posters reiterating some of the thoughts of Periyar EVR and Ambedkar. The Institute’s Director has denied that de-recognition is in response to any anonymous letter, but states that the student body, which has not followed guidelines in conducting their activities has been asked to explain its action.

Incidentally, information on the life and works of Ambedkar and Periyar EVR and their thoughts which concern every aspect of life in a society are openly available in many forms. Biographies depicting their lives and research work on their ideologies and actions are published in many languages; and study circles actively keep alive their contributions.

The “canutish” attitude of banning a student body promoting the ideas of these two leaders is indeed laughable. It also amounts to misinterpretation of the thoughts of these two great leaders as spreading hatred against the government. The members of this student organisation explain they were engaged in propagating the thoughts of Ambedkar and Periyar EVR to help people realise the evil of caste-based discrimination taking place in modern India and to expose the ideology functioning behind such discrimination.

Anti-caste propaganda is not prohibited, but linking casteism with politics is. Several political parties, barring the BJP which is believed to be the target for the group, have immediately condemned the incident as suppression of freedom of speech. The DMK President has sought the intervention of Modi to lift the ban. In his opinion, this is “unilateral and autocratic decision” of PM’s cabinet colleagues which would destroy free thinking of the youth as well as peace in the country.

Not only regional parties in Tamil Nadu like the MDMK, the PMK, Viduthalai Siruthai Katchi, and Thanthai Periyar Dravida Kazhagam, but national parties in the State like the CPI, the CPM, and the TNCC staged protests in Chennai. Student wings of some political parties – Democratic Youth Federation of India, All India Student Federation, and Revolutionary Students Youth Front- promptly held protest processions. A forum called All Student Movements has demanded removal of the ban. This way, the incident within a campus is politicised.

Whether students can indulge in politics or not is no longer a topic for debate. Voting age being 18 years, it coincides with a student’s entry into an institution of higher education. College students are voters and considered mature enough to understand political and public issues and cannot be prevented from discussing politics peacefully. In many universities, student unions are outfits of political parties and contest union elections.

Within the IIT (M), several student groups are functioning and are known for their rightist and leftist leanings. Rationalist thoughts questioning superstitious beliefs and rituals, hierarchical order in the caste system, and primacy of some castes and degradation of some others are openly propagated in Tamil Nadu for over a century without creating any law and order problem. Periyar himself had many Brahmin friends and supporters despite his bitter opposition to “Brahmanism”.

However, student politics within the campus is altogether a different issue. Allowing student bodies to conduct discussions and debates should not facilitate political party propaganda or caste and communal divisions through these bodies. The ban can be justified only if it is a strategy for cleansing it of politics and not for silencing debates. Even radical thoughts have a place in society as long as they do not encourage violence and militancy.

At the same time, student bodies must work within their limits and conform to the norms and guard against falling in the trap of political parties ever present to extend their sphere of influence. It means that students, while discussing even hot politics in the campus, should keep cool and steer clear of party animosities and social disparities, and assume an academic interest and posture. The debates should promote political education, and exchange of views, and not drive a wedge within the student community.

Recall in May 2003, a Division Bench of the Kerala High Court upheld the right of a college management to prohibit political activities within the campus and to forbid students from organising or attending meetings other than official ones. It held that the ban would not violate freedom of speech or freedom to form association guaranteed in the Constitution.

In December 2006, the High Court again banned all forms of campus politics and ruled that student unions have no place at all in academic campuses. In April 2014, the Kerala government informed the Kerala High Court that it proposed to ban political activities altogether in colleges and also student unions without the permission of the Principal.

Yes. Colleges should have the power to permit and regulate the activities of student bodies. All over the world, there is an awakening particularly among youth to local, regional, national, and global situations. It is neither possible nor desirable to stifle any opinion or activity that is non-violent. Student bodies must be allowed as long as they do not harm the academic atmosphere and intrude into the space of fellow students and the staff.

Traditionally, students of science and technology and professional courses are said to be averse to extra-academic activities unlike students of arts and humanities. But, this is no longer true. Students do form a community but sharply divided on political thinking. In this atmosphere, student activities can only be regulated and not banned.

By Dr S Saraswathi

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