What the Call to Ban Unofficial Groups at IITB Really Means

On 21st April, at 6:30 pm, a few dozen IIT Bombay students participated in a march to end all marches.

The march took the same route (albeit in reverse) which had been hitherto often assumed by a group they wanted to ban – APPSC, or Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle. In doing this, they perpetrated a nauseous reversal of the values that APPSC stood for: participatory democracy, substantive equality for all, and the annihilation of caste.

The march on 21st April was a reactionary negation of these, essentially republican values, hidden as it was behind benign words like ‘accountability’, ‘institutional integrity’, and ‘responsibility’. Behind the eye-wash, it was a Brahmanical reaction to the egalitarian Buddhism of Siddhartha, where a new generation of agraharam dwellers sought the force of the law to shut down the dissenting, life-affirming voice from Gaya.

While the establishment didn’t heed this absurd call by an unofficial group to ban all ‘unofficial groups’, what was more worrying to me, was the lukewarm support, although vocal in some circles, among the undergraduate community in IITB. Those ‘apolitical’, ‘liberal’, student elite of the country, who are the ‘nation-builders’ of tomorrow, not only as engineers and technologists, but also as policy-makers, and God-forbid, novelists and columnists, of which the less said the better.

As a critical outsider to APPSC, I have observed their development over the last two and a half years. What began as a solidarity group, contrived by a few doctoral students after the violence against the APSC in IIT Madras, seems to finally have come into its own: holding reading groups on Ambedkar’s and other progressive writers’ works, open discussions under the forum called majlis where Professors are invited to speak, followed by rigorous discussions. They recently held its largest cultural program where a radical Ambedkarite troupe called ‘Samta Kala Manch’ dazzled the audience with their revolutionary songs in Hindi, Marathi, and Urdu. In the best tradition of the Enlightenment, it encourages a rather complacent student body to think seriously and anew about caste today, about the democratic deficit in our institutions, about sexism, and about the structural injustices being faced by minorities, religious, ethnic, political and sexual. In Kant’s terms, APPSC dares the student body to know, to think for themselves, to be ‘wise’, ‘sapere aude!

The attack against APPSC and other ‘unofficial groups’ is disconcerting. When the discourse on social, economic, and political issues is constricted to a very narrow spectrum, student-led bodies like these become essential for the development of well-rounded citizens. Even in my own case, as someone who received a steady dose of progressive thought (and theory) in my undergrad years, the reading group on Ambedkar’s works and the after-hours discussions over chai, were revelatory. So much so, that my personal academic work started moving more towards Ambedkar’s political thought, rather than the usual suspects of western political theory. A ban on such a body would thus be a personal loss.

This doesn’t mean that APPSC is flawless. Like any student-run organization, it has its own problems, and my disagreements with it have kept me from seeking membership. I had often voiced my concern that it was preaching to the choir and that its duplication of a method and vocabulary that might work in a graduate sociology seminar is ineffective in the public square of a campus. Especially one that has recently been in the news for having posters propositioning girls (I’m assuming in the voice of a male-student) in the taste-less rephrasing of words of that crass Bollywood song, Chalti hai kya Hostel se Convo? or encouraging Basanti, contra Veeru, to dance in front of the dogs. Some of the speakers at APPSC events would use a vocabulary that appears ostentatious outside an academic conference on say, ‘Caste and Civility’, eliciting confused frowns by nonplussed undergrads, with the more reactionary among them responding with alternative facts from websites that peddle fake news.

The challenges that APPSC faces are unlike those that the group might face at other universities where social sciences are not merely a ‘service department’, where student activism is not frowned upon, where politics is not a dirty word, and a student group is not seen as an infiltrator from ‘leftist’ political parties. However, recently, these democratic or democratizing groups have in fact succeeded in changing the campus from one that is blind to the casual sexism/casteism/Islamophobia/homophobia, to one that is beginning to talk about them – although with a jaundiced eye. Yet there is still a need to clarify and tackle head-on the student community’s confusions about the very terms of the discourse.

In its turn, APPSC might say that such an exercise to be successful would require an initial spark of interest on the side of the students who seem uninterested in these issues, to begin with. Piquing their interest would require an event of ground-shaking significance, something that gets people talking, something that causes a furore. Ironically, the ‘protest to end all protests’ seems to have done just that.

Danish Hamid is a lawyer by training who is currently using tax payer’s money to write a dissertation in political theory.