It is an anecdote recounted by many an IITian to illustrate a house divided. At the 20th convocation of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, in 1983, in the presence of Giani Zail Singh, the president of India, director PV Indiresan launched a diatribe against the government’s reservation policy. It was lowering the academic standards in institutions of higher learning like the IIT, he said.
“There is a sanctity about the IIT that is missing in most other centres of learning. But now this idyllic situation is being threatened,” Indiresan is quoted as having said. He was pointing to the special treatment extended to students from the scheduled caste (SC) and scheduled tribe backgrounds (ST)—Dalits or former untouchables—as the reason for this.
The Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC), founded at IITM in 2014, owes its birth to the mindset of faculty like Indiresan, the student association’s supporters say. APSC sympathisers often refer to IITM as “Iyer Iyengar Technology”—Iyer and Iyengar being the Brahmin castes of Tamil Nadu where IITM is located. Brahmins occupy the top position in the caste hierarchy that makes up most of Hindu society.
Beginning from within closed hostel rooms in 2012, the informal discussions on the need for social equity on campus as well as outside took a formal shape two years later.
Ever since, APSC has frequently made it to the front pages of Indian newspapers and discussion circles. The latest instance being the fracas between two sets of students over a beef festival organised by one of them.
The event was in response to a central government notification tightening the regulation of cattle trade across the country. Those opposed to it have pointed that the notification makes it extremely difficult to trade in cattle, and, as a corollary, consume beef. The government’s move sparked protests in many parts of the country, and the IITM beef fest was part of this upheaval.
In the violent clash, PhD scholar R Sooraj from the department of aerospace was grievously injured in the eye, while masters degree student Manish Singh from the ocean engineering department fractured his arm.
While both sides have blamed each other for the immediate cause of the May 30 incident, it is a reminder of the socio-political divide in the haloed institution, as symbolised by the APSC’s rise.
“IIT Madras is an educational agraharam of Brahmins,” says A Narayanan, director of Change India, a Chennai-based centre for advocacy and research. An agraharam is a traditional and exclusive housing colony of Brahmins found in southern India. “The thinking among the students and faculty there is in sync with (Narendra) Modi and BJP. Which is why when students of APSC organise a beef fest, it is seen as churning the pot. The attempt to make IIT a socially democratic institution that embraces an alternate way of thinking is not palatable to them.” Their critics often consider Indian prime minister Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the masks for vigilante groups who have in recent years run amok in parts of the country, lynching beef-eaters and cattle traders.
Narayanan’s assertion about IITM being a Brahmin bastion was, indeed, self-evident for several decades. Until 2008, when the quota for other backward castes (OBCs) in Indian institutions of higher learning was implemented, the general category of 77.5% at IITM consisted largely of Tamil Brahmin students, even though Brahmins form only 3% of Tamil Nadu’s population. This has, however, changed over the last decade. But the faculty, even now, is largely upper caste, with 85% of the 500-odd professors coming from the “general category,” 10% from the OBC, and only a handful of Dalits (SC).
So, this is the fertile ground that bred the APSC, a group of Left-oriented, socially concerned students seeking social equity. In fact, IITM is one of the rare Indian institutes of higher technical learning to have such a group.
The APSC is named after two historic personalities who defied Brahminical Hinduism and fuelled the political aspirations of the lowest of castes in 20th century India. BR Ambedkar, who framed India’s constitution, was a Dalit and a fiery critic of the caste system. He converted to Buddhism later in his life to make his point. “Periyar” EV Ramasamy fought against Brahminism and, particularly, what he deemed north Indian hegemony. He created a Dravidian political movement that dominated Tamil Nadu for decades.
“The non-upper castes felt suffocated by the right-wing forces. APSC is an enabling means to create democratic social transformation. The aim is to challenge the idea, not with violence and name-calling but by debate,” says C Lakshmanan, professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, which conducts research on development issues in India, and particularly in Tamil Nadu.
It’s not that there are no other student associations in IITM as a counterpoint to the APSC. The Vivekananda Study Circle has existed since 1997, studying the life and teachings of the venerated Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda. It is, however, perceived as having been co-opted into the traditional Brahminical hegemony at the institution and “backed by status quoist forces.”
While numerically the APSC is not much of a force, it has exposed the faultlines on the campus. Those who sympathise with it are no more than 300 out of the over 5,000 students at IITM. But “APSC is seen as an outfit that dented the hegemony of the upper castes who treated the IIT as their fiefdom,” IIT research scholar Semmalar Selvi said.
However, non-APSC students feel the outfit, with its radical thought process, has muddied the IITM waters.
The APSC is accused of deliberate provocation with slogans like “Beef for us, cow urine for you,” which could be explosive at a time of flared tempers. All the more so when too many external elements, including politicians, are trying to wriggle into the row.
In any case, this is not the first time the APSC has raised the hackles of authorities.
An anonymous complaint to the union human resources ministry in May 2015 said the APSC was instigating students against the central government, “creating hatred among them in the name of caste and against the prime minister (Modi) and Hindus.” When the Modi government inquired about it, an overzealous dean derecognised the APSC, creating a furore. The decision was, however, subsequently revoked.
The APSC believes that move was a hint. “The pamphlet we circulated then was anti-BJP and anti-RSS in content. The message to us was do not talk politics,” says K Swaminathan, APSC coordinator and research scholar in fluid mechanics. “But we have to speak about people.”
Efforts are on now to cool down tempers on the campus. Those familiar with the institute and the curriculum say that academic pressure will ensure that IITM returns to its world of classes, labs, and research papers. But the next bout of volatility could be just around the corner.
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