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'Not Criminal to Mark Dissent': Dalit PhD Scholar Suspended by TISS For 2 Years

Students described the institute’s action against the PhD student as “saffronisation of TISS.”

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“I was not a part of any unlawful activity. I was exercising my constitutional rights and demanding education for all. In my opinion, that is one of the most patriotic acts,” Ramadas Prini Sivanandan told The Quint

The 30-year-old Dalit PhD scholar was suspended by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai on 18 April for two years for his “repetitive misconduct and anti-national activities.”

The suspension order referred to a show-cause notice, issued to Ramadas on 7 March, which accused him of “staging a demonstration outside the Parliament in Delhi on 12 January 2024” and “screening banned BBC documentary” among other things.  

The institute’s action has invited sharp criticism from student organisations as well as political parties across India, which have demanded an immediate revocation of the suspension order.  

While the Congress’ student wing National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) labelled it a “troubling pattern of silencing dissent”, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) working President Supriya Sule stated the incident “mirrors a broader trend of crackdowns on student dissent against BJP policies.” 

In a public statement issued on 20 April, TISS asserted that Ramadas has been suspended for “repetitively engaging in unlawful activities during protests, including the Parliament March...” 

The Quint speaks to Ramadas about the incident and his response to the suspension order, and other students who described the institute’s action as “saffronisation of TISS.” 

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‘Marking Dissent Not Unlawful’: Ramadas

Hailing from Wayanad in Kerala, Ramadas belongs to the Dalit community. He is the Central Executive Committee member of the Student Federation of India (SFI), which is linked to the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He is also a member of the Progressive Students’ Forum (PSF), a student body at TISS. 

In the show-cause notice, a copy of which was accessed by The Quint, the elite institute has accused Ramadas of “wrongfully creating an impression” that PSF is associated with TISS and that “its views are endorsed by TISS,” during his participation in a demonstration outside the Parliament in January this year.  

16 student organisations, under the umbrella of ‘United Students of India’ and linked to the opposition INDIA alliance, had staged a protest at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on 12 January against the National Education Policy 2020. Ramadas too was a part of the demonstration. 

“I was one of the speakers there. The crux of my speech was criticising NEP 2020 and the Union government for their non-inclusionary policies. Nowhere did I mention TISS or that I am carrying an official opinion of the institute. Besides, we had prior permission from the Delhi Police to hold the protest. Then how can it be unlawful?” Ramadas told The Quint. 

He added that it was “not criminal” to gather or mark one’s dissent to a policy of the Central government.  

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‘TISS Claim That I Planned to Screen ‘Ram Ke Naam’ a Lie’: Ramadas 

The show cause notice issued to Ramadas last month also accused him of “calling upon students to join the screening of documentary film Ram Ke Naam on 26 January at 7pm as a mark of dishonour and protest against the Ram Mandir inauguration in Ayodhya.” 

Ramadas, however, refuted these allegations, calling them a “lie.” He claimed that he had put up a post on Facebook, asking people to watch the documentary but had not called for a public screening.  

“Besides, the film has been screened before on many accounts as part of the course work. I attended a screening organised by students on 17 December 2016. In 2017, it was screened during an official event of the School of Social Work at TISS and the Director was the host,” alleged Ramadas, who also completed his MA and M.Phil from TISS. 

In their public statement, the institute stated that “the documentary, deemed propaganda by the government of India, was not sanctioned for viewing.” 

The 1992 documentary film, directed by Anand Patwardhan, won a National Award for ‘Best Investigative Film’ in 1993 and portrays the right-wing organisations’ campaign to demolish the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and the communal violence it triggered. 

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‘Saffronisation of TISS after Takeover by Central Govt’: Student 

On being asked about the TISS administration’s accusation of “inviting controversial guest speakers” for the Bhagat Singh Memorial Lectures, a PSF member, requesting anonymity, told The Quint: 

“The previous administration gave permission to hold lectures. But last year, the administration denied permission to hold lectures by activist Harsh Mander and Ramon Magsaysay awardee Bezwada Wilson.”  

She claimed that Ramadas is being targeted because he has always been vocal about issues related to hostels, fee hikes and questioned the right-wing agenda. On the administration’s accusation of screening BBC documentary India: The Modi Question, the PSF member clarified that a few students, including Ramadas, were watching the film on a laptop on campus.  

Meanwhile, Ramadas said that student activists are being targeted for “opposing the Sangh Parivar” at multiple universities, including TISS, which came under the central government’s purview in the June 2023-May 2024 academic session.   

“This action not only indicates suppression of student activism but also communalisation and saffronisation of the campus,” she lamented. 

The Quint has reached out to TISS for their response to the students' allegations and will update the story once the institute responds.

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‘Ramadas’ 2-Year Suspension Harsh, Absurd’: TISS Student 

In addition to his suspension, the order debarred Ramadas from all campuses of TISS. Calling the punishment “harsh” and “absurd”, another PSF member claimed that this was the institute’s way to “warn” and dissuade students from participating in protests.  

Ramadas added that he was an “easy target” because of his “Dalit identity.” 

“Having excelled in the UGC NET entrance exam, I was awarded the National Fellowship for Scheduled Caste (NFSC) students. So, my education is funded by the Ministry of Social Justice. If I am suspended, my NFSC will be over,” he mourned.  

The PSF member, in the meantime, questioned the timing of the suspension order. He claimed that Ramadas had responded to the show cause notice (dated 7 March) on 21 March and that there has been no communication regarding this since then. 

The PSF member alleged, “The administration chose to issue the suspension order now because vacations have started, and students have left for their homes so they cannot be mobilised against their action.” 

The students said that they will appeal the decision within the 30-day-window given by the institute. 

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‘TISS Action Undemocratic, Unconstitutional’: Activists Demand Revoking Suspension

The administration’s action against Ramadas was met with cutting criticism from student organisations, rights activists as well as politicians.  

NCP MP Supriya Sule said the action “reveals a disregard for freedom of speech and dissent within the institution at the behest of the ruling BJP Govt.” DMK leader and Tamil Nadu minister Mano Thangaraj too condemned the institute: 

United Students of India, which had organised the Parliament March to Delhi in January this year, labelled the incident as an “attempt to crush voices of dissent against the BJP-Sangh Parivar.” 

PSF stated that Anand Patwardhan, director of the documentary Ram Ke Naam, called the suspension “undemocratic and unconstitutional,” while the CPI(M) demanded the order to be revoked immediately.  

Ramadas said that he will appeal the order and that he was hopeful that it will be revoked.  

“I came to TISS as a proud student. I deeply cherish the values of TISS, where we learnt how to debate and dissent. Whatever is happening now is unfortunate, but I am hopeful things will change for the better,” Ramadas remarked. 

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Education   Freedom of Speech   TISS 

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