The ugly controversy triggered by the decision by the Dean of Students at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras to de-recognise the student body Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle has ended. The Institute director restored its recognition following a spate of protests in numerous cities by students and political parties, and a meeting with APSC members. The conflict’s continuation would have generated protests from the international scientific community and brought more opprobrium to IIT-M.
The episode began with the Union human resources development ministry’s deplorable action in forwarding an anonymous complaint against APSC for “spreading hatred” between Dalits-Adivasis and “the Hindus” and issuing a pamphlet critical of the Modi government. Under official guidelines, such anonymous complaints must be ignored. Yet, cavalierly sacrificing institutional autonomy to the ministry’s pressure, the DoS summarily de-recognised APSC without giving it a hearing, on the ground that it abused its “privileges” by using the IIT-M name. But the pamphlet was issued four days before the privileges were notified.
Now, it’s a well-established principle worldwide that university students and faculty are entitled to hold a range of opinions and express them while identifying themselves as the concerned institutions’ members, as APSC did by saying it’s an “initiative of IIT-M students”. This is perfectly legitimate. Pro-Hindutva groups like the Vivekananda Study Circle and the RSS have been doing this for years in IIT-M. In fact, a highly conservative Brahminical culture prevails at IIT-M, documented in several accounts including a Tehelka article (June 16, 2007), under which right-wing views and organisations are favoured.
The MHRD demonstrated its brazen partisanship on the IIT-M issue through Smriti Irani’s characteristically intemperate tweets. Not to be left behind, the RSS mouthpiece Organiser accused APSC of dressing up a “confirmed” anti-communist like Ambedkar in a “communist garb” and spreading the “anti-Hindu”-unity ideology which Ambedkar would “never have approved of”.
Nothing could be more repulsively false. The very first party Ambedkar formed was the Independent Labour Party, which championed socialism and public ownership of the means of production, like the communists.
Ambedkar’s life was devoted to exploding the myth of “Hindu unity” and struggling against the historic injustices heaped by caste-Hindus upon Dalits. He had his differences with the communists, primarily rooted in their insensitivity to caste and failure to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with the Dalits. But communist-Dalit differences aren’t irreconcilable, and need healing. Ideally, Sitaram Yechury should have been at the IIT-M gate to begin that process and radicalise the APSC’s fight.
Ambedkar’s foundational opposition was directed not just at Hindutva, but at caste-sanctifying Hinduism itself. Periyar’s opposition was even fiercer. “Inequality is the soul of Hinduism,” wrote Ambedkar, and publicly burned the Manusmriti. He struggled for a separate electorate for the Dalits, but was blackmailed by Gandhi’s fast into giving up that demand via the Poona Pact (1932). Had the Pact not happened, India’s history would have been different, with a higher priority for social-economic equality, empowerment of the underprivileged, and social reform, including campaigns against superstition, obscurantism and chauvinist ultra-nationalism, which help the BJP thrive.
The IIT-M episode is yet another contemptible attempt by the Modi government to muzzle dissent, as it’s doing in the media, culture and social life. It also exposes the rank hypocrisy and severe limits of the BJP-RSS’s attempt to appropriate Ambedkar in a year which marks the 125th anniversary of his birth. The BJP’s intention is crass: to garner Dalit votes. But no party other than the BJP is as far removed from, indeed more hostile to, the Constitutional-democratic and pluralist-secular ideals that Ambedkar stood for.
The author is a writer, columnist and social science researcher based in Delhi