Since 2004, there have been 64 suicides at the 16 Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). While certainly not all, at least a few of these deaths have been attributed to caste-based discrimination. Earlier this year, the IITs and Indian Institutes of Management were advised to have separate canteens for vegetarian and non-vegetarian students. IIT-Delhi went a step ahead and disallowed non-vegetarian food on the campus for a brief period.

It is known that in 2006, the IIT-Madras administration offered support to the Youth for Equality (YFE) members protesting the introduction of 27 per cent reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The late PV Indiresan, a former director of IIT-Madras, was one of the chief petitioners in a PIL challenging the government’s decision to implement the reservations that year.

According to a survey conducted at IIT-Bombay in 2013, 56 per cent of the first-year students belonging to a ‘reserved’ category felt that discrimination did exist in the institute.

On May 22 this year, IIT-Madras derecognised the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) on its campus after receiving a communiqué from the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD), which in turn had acted on an anonymous complaint.

The cited reason: organising meetings and issuing pamphlets that “spread hatred against the present dispensation and its policies”. It is another matter that the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) had specifically instructed all institutions to never act on anonymous letters.

After several twists and turns, the group was re-recognised on June 7.

Not the status quo

“Even when we formed a year ago, they (IIT-M administration) didn’t like the idea. They wanted us to remove the names of Ambedkar and Periyar,” says Akhil Bharathan, 23, a founder-member of APSC, who is pursuing his Master’s in development studies.

“While it was clear that they took action based on the letter from MHRD, the management later said it was because we had violated the guidelines for independent student bodies… (but) what about other groups such as the Vivekananda Study Circle or the Vande Mataram group? Why don’t the rules apply to them also?” Incidentally, the Vivekananda Study Circle has its own page on the IIT-M website, a provision that has now been promised to APSC as well.

The Dean of Students, Sivakumar M Srinivasan had reportedly asked APSC members to remove the names of Dalit icon BR Ambedkar and Dravidian leader Periyar EV Ramasamy from the organisation’s title. He also asked them to desist from any activities that “would go against the grain of the institution”.

As the issue played out on television screens and was debated in newsrooms, the IIT management seemed to realise that it had bitten off more than it could chew. APSC study circles rapidly mushroomed in other IITs and institutions across the country.

Finally, in an attempt to douse the controversy before the new academic year began, the management re-recognised the group. Milind Brahme, associate professor at the humanities and social sciences department, who was guiding the group earlier, was officially recognised as its faculty advisor. “I’m thinking of calling the students back together and decide on the kind of programmes and activities they would like to take forward in the new academic year,” says Brahme. “The issues they raise are matters that should be discussed openly. Caste in India is an issue you cannot ignore even 67 years after Independence. It works in different ways and it’s important to bring it out in the open, be willing to deconstruct ourselves.”

“We have resolved the issue satisfactorily. I don’t think there should be any future problems,” says Prof Bhaskar Ramamurthi, director, IIT-M.

Casting questions

Under a Right to Information (RTI) petition filed by former IIT-M student Arun Sudarsan, it was found that from 2008 to 2015, out of 2,483 PhD students, only 142 were from the scheduled castes and nine from scheduled tribes. Of the remainder, 1,592 belonged to the general category (forward castes) and 740 to the OBC. In the MS programmes, only 32 students out of 1,655 belonged to SC and ST groups.

Sudarsan had also asked for the caste and community break-up among faculty members and here too, unsurprisingly, the forward castes dominate. Of the 536 faculty members, 86.57 per cent belongs to the general category. Only 13 members of the faculty belong to the SC or ST communities.

“I filed the RTI out of curiosity. My 1,500-odd friends on Facebook discuss many issues and reservation inevitably comes up,” says Sudarsan, who has also worked as a project assistant at IIT after completing his five-year course in economics. “Most people tend to have a narrow view. They see reservation as a threat to meritocracy. So I wanted to get my hands on some concrete data, and hence filed the RTIs,” he says.

Sudarsan believes the APSC controversy could have been handled better by the institute. “In IITs, when it comes to student affairs, I have noticed that things are done quite informally. That’s why there was confusion about the guidelines. While I won’t say there’s systemic discrimination, there is a bias towards upper-caste values. The only way forward is to have open debates on these issues. Unfortunately, APSC doesn’t have popular support on campus. Most students, I think, tend to see this controversy as a dent to the institution’s image.”

Meanwhile, for students at IIT-M, especially those affiliated with the APSC, the re-recognition is a battle won, although what will follow remains unclear. “We see the re-recognition as the result of protests by students and progressive forces across the country. We plan to continue our work, conduct more lectures and other events along the same lines as we used to,” says Bharathan. He adds, “How exactly it will play out for us individual students associated with APSC, I’m not really sure… we’ll have to wait and see.”

Voices from the Right, too, contend that the issue was blown out of proportion. Aravindan Neelakandan, consulting editor of Swarajya magazine, a self-proclaimed votary of a liberal, centre-right point of view, argues that the APSC controversy was more hype than substance. “It is a fabricated incident; there was no action taken against free speech,” he says. “Naming the group Ambedkar-Periyar is as bad as calling a group Gandhi-Godse. There should be a debate to tell people they don’t have a right to use this name. How can they associate Ambedkar, a conservative, liberal democrat, who was also a fierce nationalist, with EV Ramasamy, an anti-Indian, Dravidian leader? There’s discrimination in their name itself.”

Viduthalai Rajendran, general secretary of the Dravidar Viduthalai Kazhagam, sees the incident as yet another attempt to instil an upper-caste monopoly. “Without reservations, students from SC/ST and OBC communities cannot even get a foot in the door. When most of the faculty is also upper caste, the students need a protective body to feel safe,” he says. “How can an IIT graduate be only technically skilled, without any kind of social understanding? It’s not wrong to raise these questions. We’re not saying our viewpoint is the only right one, all we’re saying is that there should be room for every school of thought.”

( Sibi Arasu is a Chennai-based journalist )