Truth vs Lies: Two Interviews with Members of Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle, IIT-M

By Shreela, Venkat, Sathish and Alok,

[Ambedkar-Periyar Study (APSC) circle is an independent student body at IIT Madras which ever since its inception in 2014, has carried out a number of activities aimed at initiating discussions on socio-economic issues. These activities range from organizing seminars, discussions and distribution of Pamphlets. APSC was unilaterally de-recognized by the IITM administration after receiving a letter from MHRD. Following interview is with Akhil, who has been a member of APSC since the beginning and talks to us about a number of issues related to APSC and caste issues on IIT-M campus. Another interview (video) is with Ramesh, a research scholar at IIT-Madras and member of APSC.]


Q : What was the idea behind Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle?

A : For many years IITM has had various student organizations based on Hindutva Ideology. One example is Vivekananda Study circle (VSC) which was founded in late 90’s. They have had talks which advocate Intelligent design and which claim the existence of Quantum Physics in Vedic Sciences. Such organizations have a complete support of IIT administration and they certainly play a role in making the environment in IITM very regressive. There is also little understanding of Caste based discriminations inside the campus. Keeping the dominance of such ideas in the campus in mind we thought of forming a collective which will introduce rationalist thinking in the campus and open up a dialogue on caste based issues which continue to plague Indian society.


Q : Can you tell us a bit about the History of APSC ?

A : APSC was founded in April 2014. In last one year we have conducted seminars on effects of genetically modified seeds on agriculture and environment, on Relevance of Ambedkar in contemporary society, A talk by Prof. Chaman Lal on the relevance of Bhagat singh in today’s society and a seminar on massive coal-bed Mithane Project in Tanjore district. We also held discussions on imposition of Hindi in campus and tried to make students aware about dangers of imposing vegetarianism in our society. I should also perhaps mention how we tried to counter an interference in the IITM campus from the MHRD(ministry of Human Resource and Development) which had sent a letter seeking action report to all the IITs regarding consumption of non-vegetarian food items on campus. We distributed pamphlets against this letter. The average audience in our talks is 30-40 people. We believe that even though our presence is rather limited on the campus, the awareness about our activities have slowly grown in past one year.

Q : Where does the funding of APSC come from?

A : In the initial stages, the members of APSC pooled their own money to start the circle. We now get some funding from other (non-member) students as well. In any case the funding is all completely from within campus. Our expenses are rather limited. Most of the time, our faculty advisor books a hall which is free of charge and we usually get our speakers from within Chennai, so only have to pay his/her commuting charges. By far the most expensive event for us was when we had a speaker from Dravidian University who spoke about Ambedkar and we had to pay his train fare . On this occasion, we even asked the audience for some donation to cover the cost.

Q : Were there any previous standoffs with the administration prior to the current issue?

A : There were no prior issues except that at the time of inception, the Dean of Student Affairs asked us to change the name to something else as he said Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle sounded “too radical”. After a rather lengthy discussion among the members of the circle, we decided to keep the name as APSC.

Q : So why this name?

A : Ambedkar and Periyar are two of the foremost social reformers in Indian History. The issues that they addressed and fought against are relevant even today. By discussing their ideas in the context of contemporary issues we aimed to establish a platform which would resist Hindutva Ideology. Our main aim is to increase the awareness of student population in the campus as regards caste , religious and economic issues.

Q : Can you tell us a bit about the institutional guidelines which student organizations in IITM have to adhere to?

A : Every independent student organization in IITM like APSC have a faculty advisor assigned to them. Every time we organize an event, we go and talk to the advisor. Sometimes he will give an input as to what kind of pamphlet should be prepared or notices be written etc. He then books a hall or auditorium for us.

Q : Where does the Dean of student affairs come in the picture?

A : He doesn’t.

Q : But it has been reported in the press that he was your faculty advisor?

A : No our faculty advisor, was and continues to be a faculty member from Humanities department (name withheld for consent reasons). We have been informing him of our activities and he has guided us on most occasions. Usually he forwards our requests and books the hall for our events. The Dean has appropriated the role merely to lay blame on us for not consulting and taking prior approval from him.

Q : Can you explain a bit about the guidelines which have been talked about in media a lot?

A : On 28th January, 2015 there was a set of guidelines passed by the SAC (Students Affairs Committee) , which however was amended by Dean of student affairs as he is also chairman of BOS (board of students) and it is within his rights to amend the guidelines. These amendments were proposed sometime in February.

Q : IITM has had student organizations for a long time, then what was the need to introduce guidelines in 2015?

A : Prior to 2015 the prerogative of recognizing or banning an organization was completely with the Dean. It was up to him to allow or disallow a student organization. However in 2014, when Chinta-bar (which is not a recognized student’s collective) organized a kiss of love event in the campus, the institute decided to introduce certain guidelines to keep various recognized organizations in check.

Q : So which among this amended guidelines is an issue according to IIT?

A : Dean of student affairs claim that we have used Institute’s name in one of our pamphlets which violates one of the guidelines.

Q : And what is your response to this accusation?

A : We reject this accusation on two counts. One, we have never used IIT’s name in any of our events. During the event under spotlight (in which it is claimed that we used IIT’s name) one of the lines in our pamphlet was that we are an initiative of IITM students. It is not clear to us how this implies we used IIT’s name to promote the event. I mean this is just trivially true! More importantly, organizations like Santhulan even used IIT logo in one their pamphlets (which was incidentally about a talk that opposed evolution and promoted idea of intelligent design). Even Vivekananda Study Circle hosts their site on IITM domain and also use IITM logo. However these organizations have not been de-recognised. Thus we do not think this accusation stands on any firm ground.

Secondly, after we got the mail from the Dean of student affairs which informed us that APSC was temporarily derecognised, two of our members, Ramesh and Swaminathan went to see the Dean. They were told nothing about the guidelines issue and were just shown a letter from MHRD which asked what action was being taken against APSC for criticizing Modi government. Thus initially we were de-recognised due to the MHRD letter. It is only after MHRD denying any involvement in the issue, that IIT is now accusing us of not sticking to the guidelines.

Q : What is your understanding of this de-recognition and MHRD’s letter?

A : In our opinion, IITM has long been comfortable with presence of organizations which promote Hindutva Ideologies. Now we have a group which democratically protests against the importance of Sanskrit etc. The right wing organizations are increasingly uncomfortable. As far as MHRD’s letter is concerned I think it shows their paranoia. We are such a small group in one Institute and our membership count is below fifty, hence it is remarkable MHRD is concerned with our activities which are by the way completely democratic.

Q : Is this a de-recognition or a ban?

A : First of all I would like to say that this de-recognition is unjust and biased
as I explained in the answer to the question above. Secondly, de-recognition means we cannot use Intra-net servers like Smail to invite students to an event. We cannot use notice boards to put up our notices, and we cannot book auditorium for any event. Hence it severely constrains our activities and is effectively a ban.

Q : How do you plan to oppose this de-recognition?

A : We do not even accept it! As I just said it is unjust and biased and based on an assertion which has no grounding. Thus we know that the de-recognition is to stifle any sort of dissent and critical discussions on the existing policies of the central government. We are demanding the following from the institute. An Immediate re-recognition of APSC, an unconditional apology from the Dean of student affairs for misuse of official powers, an unconditional apology from MHRD for it’s biased move and overturn the undemocratic code of conduct which is against article 19(A) of the constitution. We are also demanding that a commission be set up which investigate the use of IIT Madras funds which promote Hindutva activities inside campus.

Q : What has been the response of the student community on the campus?

A : Student community is highly divided on this issue. On one hand many students have approached us and expressed their solidarity but on the other hand the right wing organizations have been very vocal in their opposition ever since the issue flared up.

Q : Is there a caste problem on IIT campus?

A : When we started APSC, we received a number of hate messages on our Facebook page, written by students of IITM some of them stating Dalits should not even be there on campus. So yes I would say there is a serious caste issue on the campus.

If we even look at the caste composition of the institute at various levels. According to a recent RTI, 87 percent of faculties are from forward caste. In last seven years only 3 ST students have been admitted to the MS program. I think this clearly shows the magnitude of the problem.

Q : What is the future of APSC?

A : Once we fight off this de-recognition, our aim in near future will be increase the number of activities in a given semester and increase the membership. Most importantly, we would like to keep the public discourse and debate alive on caste, communal and socio-economic issues.

For another interview click here.