IIT ban: This is no longer the India of 1975

IIT ban: This is no longer the India of 1975

By M.D. Nalapat | 30 May, 2015
Police detains National Students’ Union of India activists during a protest outside the residence of HRD Minister Smriti Irani in New Delhi on Friday. PTI
PM Narendra Modi needs to use his communication skills to convey to the bureaucracy that Indians will not tolerate stifling of their rights and autonomy.

While the Narendra Modi government has several foes, it most needs to be protected from friends such as the dean of the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai. The Ministry of Human Resources Development (a misnomer, given its unimpressive effect on academic standards in the country) declined to consign to the wastebasket an "anonymous" missive complaining about the views of a group of students who had formed a group named after B.R. Ambedkar and Periyar Ramaswamy Naicker. They had even made remarks critical of the Prime Minister. It is fortunate for Rahul Gandhi that he is not a student of IIT Chennai, else his frequent and uncomplimentary remarks on Narendra Modi would surely have resulted in similarly "anonymous" letters landing up at the MHRD for further action. While its efficiency in other matters may be the subject of debate, it is clear that action on anonymous complaints has a special place in the priorities of the ministry, which, it would seem, promptly forwards such letters to those authorities the ministry regards as needing to act in the matters. Or was it that the letter complaining about Ambedkar-Periyar backers at IIT Chennai was in fact not "anonymous", but written by an identifiable individual who, presumably for lack of courage, declined to expose his identity? Whoever it be, this individual clearly had the heft to prod the MHRD bureaucracy into signalling to the IIT dean that immediate action needed to be taken in what most would regard as an inconsequential matter (in a democracy at least) of some students expressing their views on a multitude of subjects.

Reluctance within the bureaucracy to take decisions is especially the case in these days of hyper-activism by the CAG, the CVC and the CBI, three agencies that together have ensured that corruption is almost absent in India, as evidenced by the infinitesimally small number of senior political and bureaucratic officials who have faced imprisonment over the years. Indeed, over the past 367 days, the only former minister against whom the CBI has apparently moved into action in its usual Keystone Cops style has been Arun Shourie, not ordinarily regarded as being at the bottom of the pack in quality and competence. There are more than a few ministers in the Manmohan Singh Cabinet, who are fabulously wealthy, including those who have had serious charges made against them by credible individuals. However, thus far there seems to have been negligible interest by the CBI in such worthies.

In contrast, by its action in starting the chain reaction which led to the decision of the IIT Chennai authorities to stifle freedom of expression on campus, the babus of the MHRD have done visible harm to the image of a government led by Narendra Modi, who is regarded across the globe as embodying the qualities of the 21st century, prime among which are freedom of speech and transparency in governance. Those bureaucrats still in thrall to the colonial model of governance need to realise that the India of 2015 is not the country it was in 1975, which remained largely spineless when deprived of its constitutional rights for nearly two years, including the right to life, which even to that temple of freedom, the Supreme Court, was not a "fundamental" right. Citizens look to the Supreme Court to defend rather than constrict the freedoms inherent in a 21st century democracy, and fortunately — as witnessed, for example, in its striking down of 66A of the IT Act — the Court has seldom disappointed them.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will need to use his communication skills to convey to a bureaucracy still mired in a colonial mindset that the people of India will not any longer tolerate the stifling of their rights and the snatching away of their autonomy by a state that is a combination of nanny and bully. By its opposition to, for example, the efforts of the Telecom Ministry to legitimise 66A of the IT Act, civil society in India has acquired a confidence and a resolve that bodes well for democracy in the country. The MHRD needs to follow a liberal futuristic trend rather than continue in the Kapil Sibal mode of seeking a choking degree of control over institutions. IIT Chennai has disgraced itself and shamed the nation by stifling freedom of expression in a manner as blatant as that witnessed during 1975-77. In its second year of governance, the NDA needs to vigorously support rather than oppose the freedoms integral to the future trajectory of India as a global superpower, so that those of our ethnicity can get the ambience needed to excel in India the way they do in more liberal societies such as that of the US.

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