Smriti Irani addresses a BJP workers’ meet in Assam’s Silchar on Friday. Picture by UB Photos
New Delhi, May 29: The human resource development ministry appears to have breached a Central Vigilance Commission guideline in forwarding an anonymous complaint to IIT Madras, which has led to a student group being controversially derecognised for criticising the Narendra Modi government.
The IIT today cited its own rules, apparently set by student representatives themselves, to defend this week's action against the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle, most of whose 40-odd members are Dalits, amid charges of "stifling free speech" and caste discrimination.
The ministry too issued a statement denying any role in the institute's action, stressing it had only forwarded the complaint and sought "comments".
But the forwarded complaint had a hand-written line by an unnamed official saying: "Unfortunate. IITs were never used for such purposes. Pl get comments."
The decision to forward an anonymous complaint after adding a judgmental noting suggests the meddling mindset that has marked the ministry over the years is immune to regime changes.
An official wondered whether the IIT would have acted at all without the prod that became a thinly veiled nudge to crack down once the word "unfortunate" was added.
Several government officials said the ministry's move of forwarding the complaint itself flouted a Central Vigilance Commission circular, issued on November 25 last year.
"No action should be taken on anonymous/pseudonymous complaints," the circular, of which this newspaper has a copy, tells ministries and government departments. The officials confirmed that anonymous complaints were as a rule not given any attention.
The commission had issued the same direction in 1999 before modifying it in 2002, saying such complaints might be looked into if they contained verifiable facts. Last November's order withdrew the 2002 amendment.
The study circle had last month distributed a pamphlet castigating the Centre's "Hindutva agenda" with references to the cow slaughter ban and ghar wapsi programmes, and accusing it of helping multinationals "loot Mother India".
This prompted an anonymous letter to the ministry by "students, IIT Madras", which accused the study circle of spreading "hatred" against Modi and Hindus and trying to "polarise the ST, SC students".
On May 15, ministry undersecretary Prisca Mathew forwarded the complaint to the IIT Madras director, seeking "comments" by an early date. The letter referred to "distribution of controversial posters and pamphlets in the campus... and creating hatred atmosphere among the students".
A ministry release said: "Ministry of HRD has nothing to do with this except for forwarding the complaint... for comments. IIT Madras has taken action as per their own procedure and institute's guidelines."
Speaking to this newspaper in Assam's Silchar, HRD minister Smriti Irani stressed that IIT Madras was "an autonomous body" and had taken its own decision.
"I know the people in the Congress are interested in finding flaws in the HRD (ministry), but I hope they understand that autonomous institutions have the right to administer their institutes according to their own laws," she said.
Although the complaint and the ministry letter focused on the anti-Modi and allegedly anti-Hindu content of the pamphlet, IIT Madras highlighted only procedural violations by the student group.
The IIT said the study circle had flouted guidelines for student groups "desiring to use the institute's resources".
"The guidelines prescribe that student bodies are not allowed to use the institute's name or (that of) any of its official entities... to publicise their activities or garner support without official approval (from the dean)," an IIT release said.
It said the study circle would be able to present its defence on August 1 before the IIT's student representatives, who'll take the final decision.
Irani's ministry has a reputation for meddling in the affairs of autonomous institutions.
In October, it had asked all the IITs to look into a lone citizen's petition seeking separate dining halls for vegetarian and non-vegetarian students at their hostels. The ministry's alleged high-handedness is said to have forced the resignations of an IIT chairperson and an IIT director.
Last year, the ministry had got the higher education regulator to arm-twist Delhi University into scrapping its four-year undergraduate programme. It's now pushing all the central universities to introduce a new credits system without taking the teachers on board.
As for the Central Vigilance Commission circular on anonymous complaints, an official clarified that it was not necessarily a deterrent to whistleblowers.
He said that while whistleblowers needed to reveal their identities before the authority they were complaining to, they could do so on a separate sheet with a request not to be identified.
Additional reporting by G.C. Shekhar