Identity and ideology enter campus politics
In January this year, as condemnation of the 106th session of the Indian Science Congress swept across India -- there were statements by scientists at the Congress that gravitational waves should be renamed Narendra Modi waves, stem cell technology was used in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, and other such -- a group of students at the Indian Institute of technology, Madras decided to take matters into their hands.
Bothered by what they saw as an erosion of scientific values, the students, along with some professors, formed a group on WhatsApp that quickly transformed into a page on Facebook, and then, a group on campus. On January 25, the group – now called IITM Students Against Pseudo Science – held its first event on the lawns of the main mess hall on campus.
“We reaffirm that any scientific knowledge in the public domain should be verifiable. We uphold the values of systematic questioning and reform as the fundamental principles for the unfolding of true knowledge,” read the literature on the pamphlets distributed before the event, which was attended by about 50 people.
In the following months, the group repeatedly found itself in the news over protests against lectures by prominent speakers, whom the students called proponents of pseudoscience, over statements such as severed fingers that had the potential to grow back by themselves, that astrology affected a person’s personality and that the universe was filled with ether – claims debunked convincingly by science decades ago.
“There’s something wrong in our education system that even after studying science people believe in astrology. And, hence, only supporting science is not enough and pseudoscience needs to be attacked and eliminated. An organised effort is necessary for the same,” explained Yashodharan Manerikar, who’s pursuing a MS in physics.
Other members explained that also at stake was the scientific credibility of an institution that was recently feted by the government as India’s top educational institution.
But this is only one of a crop of new student groups that have mushroomed on the campus in the past five years and transformed student life in the 60-year-institute often considered a gold standard in academics.
Located on the southern fringes of Chennai, the 600-acre IIT-Madras campus houses around 8,000 students and 16 departments across science, engineering, humanities and management. For a sprawling campus, visitors are likely to be struck by how quiet it is.
But underneath the gentle hum of laboratories, the institute is in a state of churn. It has consistently found itself embroiled in controversy since May 2015, when the de-recognition of a student group, the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC), made national headlines.
APSC was formed by a handful of engineering and humanities students on April 14, 2014 – the birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar – as the successor of a more loose and informal cohort of students, many from marginalised castes, who would meet to discuss social issues.
“Ambedkar and Periyar were two people who fought for basic rights and we felt their perspective is important to bring into campus. So we organised lectures, discussion groups on the relevance of their ideologies and anti-caste politics,” explained Arjun, a PhD student of engineering.
The backlash was swift. In a campus that prides itself on academic achievements and where students from scheduled caste or tribe backgrounds often complain of hostility, many saw the APSC as divisive and bringing in political ideology antithetical to scientific excellence.
“Many students are hostile to APSC, and we would get very few members of B Tech, who thought whatever we discussed was bad and unnecessary, especially in bringing up caste,” Arjun added.
In May 2015 APSC was derecognized by the institute following an anonymous complaint that said the group was trying to make students critical of the central government. The administration initially said that the group had flouted norms but after a two-week tussle, revoked its decision.
In June 2017, APSC found itself back in the news again. After the central government banned the sale of cattle for slaughter at animal markets, members of the group participated in a beef festival on campus. The event, attended by around 70 students, deeply polarized the campus and ended in violence, with a PhD student, R Sooraj, thrashed by some engineering students. APSC led the protests and filed a petition in the Madras high court.
Outside campus, the news of the attack quickly snowballed into a political controversy with opposition parties such as the Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam extending support to the event and decrying the violence as an attack on Tamil culture.
This was also a time of unrest in the institute – between September 2015 and July 2016, four students had killed themselves on campus, highlighting a mental health crisis in an intensely competitive environment. A first-generation tribal student who refused to be named because of fear of discrimination noted that students from marginalised backgrounds, who came from villages and regional-medium schools, often found themselves falling behind the class because of rudimentary English language skills, and would withdraw from campus activities and societies owing to subtle biases. “For many of them, campus activism is not a choice because they are struggling to survive,” added the student.
APSC currently has just eight active members, and last December, led a protest against a circular that allegedly called for separate entry-exit points, utensils and washing area for vegetarian and non vegetarian students in the common dining hall. Students said the segregation was reminiscent of the caste system, and the orders were rolled back, with the administration saying that it was done by a private caterer and not by institute policy.
Since it was founded in 1959, IIT-Madras has always seen groups formed on regional lines, but over the past few years campus politics here has been increasingly shaped by political ideology, identities and sexualities.
Formed on the same day as APSC is a far-more popular student body on campus called Chinta Bar, which organizes film festivals and discussions on popular social issues on campus.
The group coalesced around a controversy over activist Teesta Setalvad coming to IIT to deliver an Extra-Mural Lecture ( known as EML in student parlance, a series of lectures organised by the IIT’s official student body) in February 2014.
“If you look at the understanding of engineering students on social issues, it is usually very less. Through Chinta Bar, we tried to raise that level,” said Pratheesh Rani Prakash, a founding member of the body. They started off with a film festival in 2014 and recently, in March, held a lecture on diversity and social justice in education, where academics from other institutes were invited.
The oldest student body in campus is the Vivekananda Study Circle formed in 1997 that says its motto is “nation building through character building”. The group has by far the largest body of student members cutting across undergraduate and postgraduate disciplines, and organizes lectures on spiritual and mental health by prominent lectures, among others.
Then, there is the Vande Mataram student group, formed in 2015, which claims to “go beyond self interest and give importance to the ‘Nation First’ philosophy”. Among the group’s main activities is the Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay Memorial Lecture, which this year is being delivered by Makarand Paranjape, director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies.
Started the same year is Vannam (the spectrum of colour in Tamil), a group for LGTBQ students that has always remained a tight group of seven to 10 students, and has focused on raising awareness on gender and sexuality on campus through film screenings and discussions.
“The group made a huge difference for me. Queer people think they are the only people who are different from others, and feel lonely. It is important that every campus has a queer-friendly group,” explained K Shiva, a member. Shiva, who identifies as a transman, says he transitioned and got his documents changed while living in a hostel, and that he cannot imagine doing this anywhere other than IIT-Madras. “I felt support as a trans person. In the group, we would not talk about queer issues only, we would chat, talk about our lives, it became a safe space.”
Another member, Meera N Paniker, says she joined the group as an ally and that it helped her come to terms with her bisexual orientation. She also is concerned about the endemic gender disparity on campus – most of the leadership positions in campus bodies are filled by men.
In the past year, the institute has found itself in the news over allegations of increased surveillance, growing conservatism and pseudo-science, and vigilance teams barging into student’s rooms. An email and follow-up phone calls to the IIT-M’s communications office elicited no response on this.
A flush of new groups has changed student life, but campus politics on IIT-Madras is very different from any other university, where groups have explicit political affiliation and ideologies. The difference is most stark for students coming from other institutes, such as Dayal Paleri, a PhD student in political science and member of Chinta Bar, who came to IIT from the University of Hyderabad, considered the nerve centre of anti-caste student politics.
“If the kind of suicides or campus vigilance happened elsewhere, there would be huge protests. Earlier, I don’t think people responded to issues like this, or talked about it in public. But now, it is slowly changing.”