There are reports that the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT Madras) has banned a Dalit student group “Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle” (APSC) following complaints that this group had criticised the Central government’s policies and was spreading hatred against the Prime Minister and Hindus. It is also reported that the Human Resource Development ministry of the Central Government had conducted an inquiry following a complaint, which enclosed one of APSC’s pamphlets reproducing parts of a speech that accused the NDA government of favouring big business and criticised several bills; this pamphlet also mentioned the “ghar wapsi” programme of right wing groups and the ban on beef in some states (see here). Let me briefly discuss as to whether such ban imposed by IIT Madras is legally valid.
In this regard, please also see an interview recorded by the Hindustan Times with member students of APSC – Ramesh, a research scholar in physics and Abhinav Surya, a third-year mechanical engineering student.
I feel that there is nothing wrong if students of an educational institution, such as the IIT, form a student group for discussing various issues including political issues and/or the religious issues. The students have full right to form such associations. They also have full freedom of speech and expression to air their views, as guaranteed to them under Article 19 of the Constitution. This freedom extends to criticising the Government and/or the Prime Minister, as also to airing their views on religious / political matters and other burning issues including the issues of “ghar wapasi”, beef ban, economic policies of the government, etc. This freedom of speech and expression is circumscribed only by the limitations imposed in Article 19(2) of the Constitution, which lays down that reasonable restrictions can be imposed on the right to freedom of speech and expression in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. Therefore, the student group is well within its rights to exercise the freedom of speech and expression within the limitations mentioned above.
That said, however, there is another issue involved in this matter. The second issue is whether in exercise of the aforesaid right to freedom of speech and expression, can the students hold meetings in the premises of IIT Madras and distribute pamphlets propagating thoughts on religious or political or sectarian issues that may divide the students into different groups and vitiate the academic environment of an educational institution of repute, and that too without taking permission from the concerned authorities of that institution? My clear answer to the second issue is “No”. A student is required to follow a certain reasonable code of conduct enforced by an educational institution. It is well within the rights of an educational institution, such as the IIT Madras, to ensure that no religious or political meetings or activities take place within its premises without the permission of the authorities. If you permit one student group to hold open meetings, within the premises of the institution, on issues that can divide the students, such as on political or religious issues, you cannot deny the same right to another student group who may believe in the opposite ideology. Permitting different student groups to indulge in such extracurricular activities of an objectionable and/or divisive character may turn the premises of the institution into a battleground for fighting on religious and political issues. After all, an educational institution is basically meant for teaching purposes. In particular, IIT Madras, which is one of the best academic institutions in India, must endeavour to excel in academic standards and not in political and religious fights. As it is, we do not have many educational institutions in India of the standard of IIT Madras, and unfortunately, even such excellent institutions in India do not rate amongst the best in the world. Allowing such an institution to turn into a battleground for political and religious fights is not a desirable objective, as it can immediately vitiate the environment and substantially lower its academic standards. Should we allow IIT’s to become like any other substandard institution in India? Reputations and standards take years to build, but can evaporate in days.
As the reports indicate, the aforesaid student group was utilising the premises of IIT Madras and utilising the facilities of the IIT, to hold its meetings and propagate its ideology on religious, political and sectarian issues that can vertically divide the students and vitiate the academic environment within the premises of the institution. I feel that such activities cannot be permitted by an institution like IIT Madras within its premises and without its formal permission.
Having said that, I reiterate that the students of IIT Madras and any of its student groups (including the aforesaid student group called “Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle”) are well within their rights to propagate their ideology and discuss the religious and political issues in their personal capacity outside the official premises of the IIT and without utilising the facilities of the IIT. They can do so on the Internet. They can do so by holding peaceful meetings outside the IIT. They can do so by distributing pamphlets outside the IIT. They are free to use all possible peaceful means to discuss and propagate their views freely on such issues including criticism of the Prime Minister and also including discussions on issues such as beef ban and “ghar wapasi”, etc. As I mentioned above, the only limitation on the exercise of their such right to freedom of speech and expression is the one that is contained in Article 19 of the Constitution.
Therefore, the issue of imposing a ban by the IIT Madras / Chennai authorities on the aforesaid student group has to be seen in the light of two different sub-issues, as discussed above.