Sunday, 31 May 2015

Rukmini Bhaya Nair - An IIT Teacher's View on the Madras Controversy

Let's try and take the bull by the horns at the risk of being gored. Here, as far as one can gather, is the narrative so far.

A study circle of students at IIT Madras reads B.R. Ambedkar's classic 'The Annihilation of Caste' and distributes pamphlets that reportedly 'spread hatred' by condemning not just the caste system but all of Hinduism. An anonymous letter to this effect is sent to the HRD Ministry which forwards the complaint to the IIT authorities. IIT Madras then responds by stating that the students have broken an agreed-upon rule that forbids them to use the name of the institution to "garner support or publicize their activities". Finally, the political parties enter the ring like brave matadors - some defending freedom of speech on behalf of the students, and others condemning the apparently wholesale castigation of Hinduism by these same students.

Under these piquant circumstances, how do we interpret that basic 'right to freedom of expression', ironically guaranteed under a Constitution whose chief architect was B.R. Ambedkar himself? In order to address this conundrum, I would like to first turn to a story attributed to a very great champion of Hinduism indeed - Swami Vivekananda.

Vivekananda is said to have prayed fervently at a shrine to the goddess Bhavani in Srinagar. His devotion so pleased Bhavani that she appeared before him and Vivekananda at once agitatedly related to her the desecration of her temple by past 'invaders'. He would never have tolerated such an insult, he tells her; he would have laid down his life to protect her! To all of which the cool goddess replies: "But what if this were indeed the case? What is it to you? Do you protect me or do I protect you?"

Self-deprecating and humour-laden, the anecdote shows how Vivekananda's wise analysis of narrow human enmities still holds lessons for our increasingly cacophonous politics. Taking our cue from it, we might ask: Do our politicians protect the Constitution or does it protect them? Surely, the latter as much as the former.

Extend this argument now to the students of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle. If the political right to protest is sacred, both inside and outside Parliament where so many 'unacceptable' statements have been made of late, then so is the individual right to dissent. And here, we must make a further key distinction, especially relevant to university environments, between the concepts of 'protest' and 'dissent'.

Dissent is not to be confused with protest. We protest about particular issues or events - say, price rise or a horrifying rape - but dissent is not necessarily issue-based. Unlike protest, we can't just 'stop dissenting' in the way we can cease to protest if and when we achieve our objectives. Dissent is not so much protest as the mental foundation of protest; it represents the idiom of anti-complacency and democratic self-voicing. That is why the idea of dissent is key to university environments.

To return to Vivekananda's Goddess here for a moment, we could see her as a potent metaphor for the concepts that a society holds dear - such as democracy or justice or the 'right to dissent'. As this goddess smartly argues, she does not belong by right to any of the sparring parties who appoint themselves her guardians. 'Enshrined' or 'protected' by greater guarantees, she belongs to the transcendent collective - to 'we, the people'.

It is here that the idea of 'the university', in its modern avatar, becomes relevant. In its earliest usage in English, back in 1300, the Shorter Oxford Dictionary informs us that a university indicated "the whole entire number, a community regarded collectively... the whole body of teachers engaged at a particular place, in giving and receiving instruction in the higher branches of learning".

The noun 'Institute', as in the IITs, derives on the other hand from the Latin verb for 'to establish' and has a relatively modern meaning. The first usage of this word was in 1795 in a post-revolutionary France inspired by the ideals of 'liberty, fraternity and equality'. An 'Institute' is supposed to have a more labour and skills-oriented approach to education and an emphasis on technical specializations. According to the Shorter Oxford again, it designates "a society or organization... to promote some literary, scientific, artistic or educational object".

What is noteworthy about both the pre-modern idea of the 'University' and the post-French Revolution notion of the 'Institute' is their collective orientation and their commitment to learning communes where teachers and students are equal partners in intellectual exploration.

A university is ideally a 'protected' place where ideas, however radical, can be fearlessly presented and debated. In this sense, dissent can be seen as an attitude of mind allied to the 'right' to be sceptical and to sharply question. As a teacher, the classroom is my 'sacred space'. My personal opinion is that no question can, in principle, be rejected in such a space. The query or hypothesis a student presents may be wildly off, yet it must be dealt with, as far as possible, through sustained reason and cooperative argument.

Our relentless examination systems and rickety infrastructure may, over the years, have worn down our capacity to enrich this basic idea of 'universal' questioning, but it must be recognized that the 'right' to dissent remains part of the very architecture of a university.

So even if we grant that the students at IIT Madras violated some rules and their privileges had to be 'temporarily withdrawn', a far more fundamental principle seems at stake. That principle has been already articulated by IIT Madras in no uncertain terms: "The Institute does not curtail freedom of expression". Indeed, as a respected site of education, it cannot and must not.

A colleague at IIT Madras makes three sensible points in this connection in an email to me. One, he was out of town when all the brouhaha happened but, truth to tell, he hadn't even heard of this study group until the recent newspaper reports. Two, this controversy somehow reminds him of the quite different 'kiss-of-love' campaign in November 2014 which spilled over into IIT Madras from other campuses with protests outside the campus gates, as in the present case, and then blew over. Three, his 'hunch' is that the incessant media attention these days simply escalates tensions. Overall, his perspective, as an observer at close quarters, is that dissent is such a 'generic' and integral part of campus-life that it would probably pass unnoticed if the media wasn't hyper-ventilating.

To my mind, however, the implications could be larger. Some of the most exciting academic debates in our country in the tumultuous 21st century are likely to come from the struggles of large marginalized aggregates. Unless we are prepared to take these forms of social dissent seriously in academia, the rule-bound, top-down routines to which we have become so used to are bound to be violently disrupted.

As Dalits, women, endangered language groups and others seek to insert their perspectives, texts and theories and into the accepted public discourses and academic canons, we will need to rapidly move outside our mental comfort zones. And this process of 'empowerment' is already well underway. True, the IIT Madras flashpoint may soon be forgotten but its real significance is that it is yet another wake-up call. Universities and institutes are natural havens where our youth will meet to discuss the excitement, hopes and challenges of the future. If we value that common future, we must protect their freedom to read as they will, to learn, to think and to dissent.