“This is a clampdown of our fundamental rights to free speech and expression, as well as right to peaceful assembly,” a PhD student at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay told The Quint on 16 November, Thursday – days after a set of interim guidelines was rolled out by the administration of the reputed institute.
The guidelines, a copy of which was shared by Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC), an IIT Bombay students’ group, on X (formerly Twitter), and has been confirmed by The Quint from the institute itself, states that:
“While IIT Bombay encourages free and open discussion on educational subjects, it must also remain apolitical in all its endeavours. Hence, it is imperative that our students, faculty, and staff members stay away from activities/events on campus that may invite socio-political controversies, diverting IIT from its primary mission, or may bring IIT Bombay into disrepute.”
Terming the guidelines as "gag rules", the APPSC claimed that these “effectively prevent students from organising events, seminars, demonstrations, and protests.”
Apart from confirming that these new guidelines have been issued, IIT Bombay refused to offer any further comments on these allegations to The Quint.
‘How Can an Institute Be Apolitical?’
“What do you mean by an apolitical institute? The institute has so many students who can have their own opinions. How can an institute be apolitical? And enforce that opinion on all its students?” a student told The Quint, requesting anonymity.
Besides asserting that the guidelines are interim and will be applicable until a more comprehensive set of guidelines is formulated and approved by a “duly appointed committee”, the circular from the admin also categorised events as:
Purely non-political: Events that are scientific, technological, research-based, literary or artistic, that have absolutely no political content.
Potentially political: Events that have any content that may be viewed as political or socially conflicting.
“For instance, students want to organise a seminar on climate change. Who makes the discretion if it is a science issue or a political issue?” another student asked, requesting anonymity.
Speaking to The Quint, several students alleged that the interim guidelines were issued in response to a solidarity meeting organised on campus on the occasion of Children’s Day [14 November] to mourn the death of thousands of children in Gaza. On that day, even as the students purportedly congregated for a "silent, peaceful meeting", they were allegedly dispersed by the security staff and their stationary (paints, brushed and sheets) to make posters was also confiscated.
In response, a statement by a students' collective – IITB4Justice – on 14 November, said,
“The only disturbance came from the security team, enforcing an institutional ‘diktat’ to suppress any form of silent expression, even if that expression was supposed to mourn the thousands of innocent children killed in Palestine, which is indeed a moment of shame for the institution.”
Earlier, on 6 November, the screening of Arna’s Children – a documentary film about an Israeli soldier who turns into a human rights activist – by Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) Department professor Sharmishtha Saha was disrupted by a section of students.
A right-leaning students' collective IIT B for Bharat had accused Saha and guest speaker Sudhanva Deshpande of “glorifying terrorists”.
“During the screening of the film, the student who disrupted the discussion made videos of the professor and circulated them on social media without her consent. It was done with malicious intent to defame the professor. If this can happen to the faculty member...what about our protection?” a student of the HSS Department, requesting anonymity, asked.
In a detailed statement, Rajkumar S Pant, President of Faculty Forum of IIT Bombay, said the body was "distressed with the tarnishing of the reputation and physical threats" against Saha, adding that claims against her were "based on misinformation and falsehood".
In response to The Quint's email, Saha shared the link to the same statement issued by the Faculty Forum, without commenting on the controversy further.
A week after the incident, IIT Bombay Director Subhasis Chaudhuri constituted a fact-finding committee to probe the incident, according to a report by The Times of India.
In addition, a lecture by former Delhi University professor Achin Vanaik on the Israel-Palestine conflict on 7 November was allegedly cancelled by the administration.
‘Can’t Be Critical of Govt as Students Liable for Defamation Under New Rules’
Apart from asserting that protest marches or gatherings on campus will require prior permission from the institute as well as local police, the interim guidelines stated that events – which include inviting external speakers, and screening of films and documentaries – organised by the students or the faculty, will need prior approval from the authorities.
The institute's director has appointed an External Speaker Review Committee for the same. However, no such permission is required if the content is purely non-political.
“What exactly does the institute mean by political events. If one is trying to protest human rights abuse, is that political? Are we not allowed to create awareness about humanitarian issues on campus? Are we not supposed to have a discourse on the socio-economic-political issues our society is riddled with?” the student asked.
In addition, the guidelines also warn the students not only of disciplinary action but also criminal action under Section 499 (defamation) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) if students or faculty members make a public statement critical of IIT Bombay or capable of harming the elite institute’s relations with the government. It stated:
“The institute has said students shouldn’t do something that brings it shame or tarnishes its relationship with a state or central government. In my opinion, this is a very patriarchal point of view,” a student said.
‘Direct Attack on Humanities and Social Sciences Department’
Students of the HSS Department alleged that the new rules will hinder their academic research as their curriculum is closely linked to current socio-economic-political events. “This is a direct attack of the right wing against the HSS Department. How will they carry out their research? The Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) evaluates various government policies. What is the point of this department if students cannot criticise?” one student said.
“Last year this time, an event called Cultures of the Political Left was organised by the HSS Department. It was a two-day-long conference but was cancelled last minute after IIT B for Bharat objected to it. They had then demanded the shutdown of the department itself,” the student said.
Another student viewed the recent guidelines as a strategy to discourage students from expressing dissent on campus and a move to take away all control from students.
The interim guidelines mandate that events can be organised only through the recognised students’ council, which, a student that The Quint spoke to claimed, is indirectly chosen by the IIT B administration.
“The candidates who can contest student council elections need to fulfill criteria spelt out by the administration and are also interviewed and vetted before they can contest. And the previous student council is the election commissioner and oversees the elections process for violation of code of conduct. The entire process is skewed.”
Even though the interim guidelines encouraged the students to take matters to internal committees, students claimed taking that route hasn’t resulted in any resolution.
“In the last one year, we have highlighted issues related to reservation, caste discrimination, mental health, food segregation, fee hike but in vain,” the student said.