Shocking ban

Freedom of thought and expression becomes the first victim of political parties when their interests have to be maintained.

It is shocking to hear that the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle, consisting primarily of Dalit and tribal students, with a clear focus on increasing social consciousness, has been banned in the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras after a note from  the Human Resource Development Ministry.

To the government in power that is keen to maintain and strengthen the existing social order, any conversation on Ambedkar and social reformer Jyotirao Phule is anathema. It disturbs the Hindu psyche and the establishment seems determined to maintain the existing social order.

A ban on a student group that is becoming more and more conscious of their social oppression and working for a change in the prestigious IIT is surely a matter of great concern. In a democracy, such groups should have been not only encouraged but provided support and assistance so that ideas of equality, fraternity and justice – the essence of our constitutional philosophy – is imbibed by students hailing from subaltern communities and transmitted to the others. 

Freedom of thought and expression becomes the first victim of political parties when their interests have to be maintained. The BJP with its agenda of Hindutva has been uncomfortable and uneasy with subaltern groups that have questioned the core of their ideology of caste and varna. The anger against Ambedkar and Periyar is because both of them have been vehement opponents of the ideology of Hindutva. 

As a protest against caste and inequalities, Ambedkar had converted to Buddhism and inspired the modern Buddhist movement and campaigned against social discrimination. An intellectual giant and peerless social reformer, he had fiercely fought Hinduism till his death. To co-opt him, the BJP-led government has lined up a series of programmes to celebrate his 125 years of birth. His birthday on April 14 will be celebrated as “National Amity and Brotherhood Day”.

The government has decided to issue a commemorative postal stamp and a coin on him, set up Ambedkar memorial at a cost of Rs 99 crore in Delhi etc. Such co-option is unlikely to succeed given the fact that Dalits and other subaltern are becoming more and more conscious of the legacy of Ambedkar and his opposition to Hindutva politics.   

If Ambedkar is looked upon as a hero by the Dalit communities, social activist Periyar E V Ramasamy inspires the backward classes. No less a critic of Hinduism, he opposed the exploitation and marginalisation of the non-Brahmin Dravidians and fought for eradication of caste. His work has greatly revolutionised the Tamil society and significantly removed caste-based discrimination.

Described as the prophet of the new age, father of social reform movement and arch enemy of ignorance, superstitions, meaningless customs and base manners, Periyar was a proponent of rationality against beliefs and superstitions. Both he and Ambedkar were anchored in their uncompromising opposition to Hinduism, particularly the practice of caste or “varnashram”. 

Behind the ban on the organisation is the ideology of the group that disturbs the Central government and the IIT. The Institute, like others of the kind, has not been friendly to the subaltern communities. The Institute’s faculty is predominantly from the general category. To an RTI application filed by Akhil Bharathan on the composition of the faculty in the IIT-Madras, on December 29, 2014, the Public Information Officer of the Institute has stated that out of the 536 members of the teaching faculty 464, are from the general category. There are eleven SCs and two STs. The OBCs are 59.

It is sad that the institute has not followed the reservation policy in spite of being funded from the Central government. It is no surprise at the attitude of the administration against the Ambedkar-Periyar study group.

Vision of freedom
For Ambedkar, if the nation had to be free, it had to be free at the level of the mind with respect and equality towards all. Once mind is freed from biases and prejudiced, social organisations can become free from rigid social barriers. The Ambedkar-Periyar group’s objective is the same. When they carry on that mission they have been told that they are spreading hatred among communities. 

When untouchability thrives and the discrimination is carried on in the name of god and religion, it is unfortunately not considered as hate. It is only when subalterns make claim for equality, they are told that their discourse is one of hate. The students have been told that the name of the organisation is too ‘political’. The group was banned following an anonymous complaint that it had criticised the Central government’s policies, mobilised SCs/STs against the use of Hindi and ban on beef and spread “hatred” against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hindus. The Institute has said that the group has not adhered to certain guidelines. Can an institute of such prestige take action based on an anonymous letter?

The charges have not only vitiated freedom of expression but attacked the very premises of the objectives of higher education. Higher education is aimed at the education of the mind. Discussions, debates and dissent are its soul. There is no higher education if students do not discuss socio-economic issues, governance and ideology on scientific basis to promote scientific temper.

In the context of Hindu revivalism, one must surely appreciate the efforts made by the students to expose the evils of caste based discrimination and the ideology functioning behind such discriminations.

(The writer is Principal, St Aloysius Degree College, Bengaluru)

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