Chennai, May 29: The Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, caught in controversy after derecognising a student study circle for distributing pamphlets criticising the Modi government, has explained the group was punished for flouting established guidelines set by the institution's students themselves.
"We do not stifle free speech as is being made out," acting IIT Madras director K. Ramamurthy said, adding the group would be allowed to present its case before the institute's elected students, who will take the final decision.
The action against the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle, most of whose 40-odd members are Dalits, has spawned charges of caste discrimination as well as undemocratic behaviour.
It all started after the study circle distributed a pamphlet accusing the Modi regime of "carrying forward its Hindutva agenda" while helping multinationals "loot Mother India".
The pamphlet was released ahead of the study circle's celebration of B.R. Ambedkar's birth anniversary at the IIT auditorium on April 14. Its content was reproduced on the group's Facebook page.
Sometime this month, an undersecretary in the Union human resource development ministry, Prisca Mathew, sought "comments" from the IIT on the study circle's "distribution of controversial posters and pamphlets in the campus... and creating hatred atmosphere among the students".
Mathew attached an anonymous letter sent to her by "students, IIT Madras" that accused the study circle of spreading "hatred" against Modi and Hindus and trying to "polarise the ST, SC students".
The pamphlet had criticised the upper caste domination of jobs and castigated the Centre's land acquisition policy as well as the ban on cow slaughter and the ghar wapsi programmes.
IIT Madras today issued a media release saying the study circle had violated "guidelines prescribed by the board of students, which consists of all the elected student representatives," that any student group "desiring to use the institute's resources" must follow.
These resources - the campus auditorium, notice board and the online bulletin board - have now been made off limits for the group.
"The guidelines prescribe that student bodies are not allowed to use the institute's name or (that of) any of its official entities in any capacity to publicise their activities or garner support without official approval (from the dean)," the release said.
It added that such violation leads to "temporary de-recognition" and that the study circle would be able to present its defence before the board of students on August 1.
The study circle describes itself as "an initiative of students of IIT Madras" and conducts programmes on the campus. Its Facebook page says: "This page is to discuss about the social issues."
On May 24, it received a letter from Sivakumar Srinivasan, the dean of students, saying it had been "derecognised" because it had "misused its privileges".
"This is nothing but an upper caste view when uncomfortable social issues are raised," Abhinav Surya, the head of the circle, told The Telegraph .
"We have been accused of spreading hatred between SC/STs and the Hindus and vitiating the atmosphere of the institute. We are surprised and slightly amused. Are SCs and STs not part of the so-called Hindus?" he said.
A senior administrator at the institute said there "would have been no problem" if the group had confined itself to criticising the Centre at the April 14 event in the campus auditorium.
"But distributing pamphlets on controversial issues could inflame passions and was against the guidelines," he said. "We are not against healthy discussions but cannot be blind when it is escalated into a public campaign within the campus, which in turn has troubled another section of students."
Surya, however, has written to the dean defending the campaign as a democratic right. "Our discussions, meetings and pamphlets are meant to kick-start a discussion within the campus among the academic fraternity. The issues that we discuss are very important and define the way we live our lives," he wrote.
"We would also like to know what exactly constitutes the 'misuse of privileges' and how the specific issues raised in the complainant letter could be deemed controversial."
Another clarification today came from R. Vivekananda Gopal, an academic from the Dravidian University, Andhra Pradesh, who had been the key speaker at the April 14 event.
Since the pamphlet and the Facebook post display Gopal's name at the top, media reports had initially assumed that the contents below - the criticism of the Centre - were part of his speech.
But Gopal today told The Telegraph the pamphlet was a mere "curtain raiser", issued before the event. He said he had not mentioned "even one of those topics" on which the pamphlet criticised the government.
"My speech was devoted only to Ambedkar and his relevance today. Since my name was part of the curtain raiser, there is a misconception that I spoke on the topics mentioned on it," he said.
"Those views belong to the APSC (Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle) and are not mine. My speech did not touch on even one of those topics."