A Dravidian Pause in The Hindutva Surge

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Eye of the storm Students protest in Chennai against the ban on Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle at IIT-Madras
Eye of the storm Students protest in Chennai against the ban on Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle at IIT-Madras

Until two decades ago, Tamil Nadu was hailed widely as a state where the divisive agenda of Hindutva would not find many takers. The state had witnessed social reformation movements in the 19th and 20th centuries in which the local communities had fought valiantly against the Brahminical agenda of caste discrimination. Sangh Parivar organisations were hell-bent on making inroads into the southern state, albeit with little success. However, in the last few years, the Hindutva outfits have succeeded in winning more followers in the Dravidian heartland through hate campaigns and forging opportunistic alliances. They are yet to win over the Tamil psyche, which continues to cherish a deep sense of social solidarity and co-existence.

The decision of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M) to revoke the ban imposed on the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC) has once again proved that the saffronisation agenda of the Narendra Modi government has gone awry in the Dravidian land which still harbours radical thoughts.

The unfolding of the incident coincided with the 125th birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar, who championed the rights of the depressed classes and envisioned a society free of caste discrimination. An anonymous complaint was reportedly sent to the human resource development (HRD) ministry, accusing the APSC of spreading hatred among communities and criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The ministry had directed the IIT-M management to de-recognise the group and the premier institution was quick to act upon it. The incident, which took the country by storm, evoked a series of discussions on freedom of speech. Countless students across India mobilised mass movements and following the unprecedented protests and agitations demanding a lifting of the ban, the iit-m was forced to reinstate the APSC’s recognition. HRD Minister Smriti Irani passed the buck to theIIT-M saying that her ministry had only sought a comment on the anonymous letter and denied any role in imposing ban on the APSC. The incident prompted an array of questions: Is it the HRD  ministry’s job to seek a comment on an anonymous letter complaining the actions of a students’ group on campus? Why is the Modi government so intolerant of criticism? What led to the ban on the APSC? How has the APSC, a predominantly Dalit students’ group organised to discuss and propagate the ideology of Ambedkar and Periyar, become a threat to the prime minister and his government?

IIT-MadrasCritics of the Modi government used this as an opportunity to reiterate their views. “This is a more complex issue than saffronisation”, writer and academic Ram Puniyani tells Tehelka. “The government in power at the Centre is trying to appropriate Ambedkar himself by showing that Ambedkar and his ideologies match the ideology of the government. The APSC was trying to bring forward the real Ambedkar, who was against the caste system, brahminical Hinduism and Hindutva politics. In this regard, the APSC was a thorn in their side,” he says.

Vasanthi Devi, a two-term vice-chancellor of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University at Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu and a former chairperson of the state women’s commission, terms the ban as highly condemnable. She says that the centres of higher learning such as iit-m should be vibrant places of democratic space for students to become sensitive to social issues and to raise awareness by taking up issues that matter to them.

“The constituting of the apsc last year has unsettled the Brahminical supremacy which has been ruling the roost for ages on the campus”, says Vasanthi Devi. “The iits have always been citadels of the upper castes and the upper classes. The APSCis a minuscule minority of the campus community. It is a microcosm of the real world outside. What happened to the APSC is what is exactly happening to the minorities in this country. They are silenced and their democratic spaces are getting banned.”

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