IIT ban shows free speech in danger

The ban on the activities of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, a students’ group at the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, is alarming for the sheer intolerance that the action reflects. The group, made up of students studying at the prestigious institute, was critical of the Narendra Modi government’s policies including the proposed amendments to the land acquisition bill, the Maharashtra government’s ban on beef and the general rise in Hindutva politics. The group’s views were neither outlandish nor defamatory. On the contrary, it was a kind of criticism that is perfectly acceptable in a practising democracy like India. The intention behind much of the criticism was to trigger debate, the very reason behind the very formation of the group. 

Most higher institutions of learning, especially the well-regarded ones like the various Indian Institutes of Technology, Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Science and Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, to name a few, have historically seen students set up various specialised study circles that are meant to be arenas for free flowing thought,  including what some could characterise as being even radical. This is the case across the world. Students have played a major role in influencing politics and countless top-ranking leaders have had their initial political exposure in the various institutions of study. The Ambedkar Periyar group too was one among these groups that debated, argued and fought over several issues of their choice.

For the Human Resource Development Ministry to take cognisance of an anonymous complaint that the group was spreading “hatred against Hindus” and was engaged in “anti-Modi” activities is shameful. As some reports have suggested, the complaint should have been thrown into the dustbin and the matter left there. Instead, for the ministry to have forwarded the complaint to the authorities at IIT-Madras, was despicable. The very act of forwarding the complaint held an unspoken missive: take action. The Institute dean in charge of students then conducted himself in the most undemocratic manner – derecognising the group on the grounds that they were “misusing their privileges”. In the process, what should have been a non-issue has today come to occupy headlines across the media. What is alarming is that it sends a signal across the country that criticism of the establishment will not be tolerated. This goes against the fundamental ethos of democracy and the right to free speech. If criticism (even if it is severe, perceived to be unfair and has the potential to influence many people) is not allowed, the right to free speech is as good as dead. Lift the ban, now.

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