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The Fourth Reich

January 12, 2016

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear

Any set of population, to survive in perfect harmony, needs its organizations to follow a democratic framework. This involves the guarantee of the basic fundamental rights so that every person gets a chance to reflect the individuality of their existence. In the context of R-Land, liberty predominantly filters down to the expression of thoughts and opinions of the young students who are in the continuous process of maturing and imbibing in themselves a distinct sense of identity. And hence, freedom of expression does play a crucial role.

Moreover, for a population as big as that our institute, where each activity is done in strict accordance to the books, it is necessary than an active ground is provided for a two way communication between the students and the administrators. Failure in either direction of conveyance would do insidious damage to the growth rate of the institute and become a cause of unrest.   In the recent wake of events, Watch Out! felt that a certain emphasis is needed on few of these occurrences where the freedom to express was denied. We bring to you the story of how the college authorities curbed the protest for the expulsion of students during the month of July. Read to know more about the time a chewed gum led to the ban on the cultural council to use the MAC facility. Not to forget the ridiculously infamous ‘Standing Orders for all the students’ which wouldn’t just let you keep a monkey in your rooms. And many more issues.

It is an onerous task to swim with the heavy undercurrent at an IIT, and it only got more excruciating with the installment of the “5 CGPA rule”.             
There have been endless debates about the legitimacy of the mercy pleas of the 73 students, who were to be expelled, that was turned down multiple times before the administration and court of law before it was rescinded. As a result of the failing grip in the proceedings through the court, the students found themselves in the most unfortunate position. This adversity lead to a peaceful protest on 22nd July, 2015 which was then by far the last resort for the students to get their woes heeded by the administration. Note that, the protest was a peaceful one. The most aggressive atrocity, if at all there is a compulsion to name one, was the crying out of slogans by the students who marched past the main building in a single file. No hostility or loss of property was reported throughout the entire procession. Moved by apathy for their colleagues, many students of the college felt indignant with the expulsion and joined the protest for a cause. As the momentum grew, more followed and till noon the front porch of the LHC was packed with student demonstrators. The administration in an attempt to curb the involvement of the students resorted to a rather despotic move when they issued a notice to take disciplinary action, or even expel the students who bunked the classes in order to join the protests that day.

The threat was not implemented but it does unveil the side of this institute where laws and rules are executed with austerity but the imposition is solely at the discretion of the administrators. Freedom to protest peacefully is indispensable for an institution this huge and this innocuous oppression is a threat to the democratic model on which the institute has based its functionality.   

Regarding the protests Associate Dean Prof. Inderdeep Singh commented,”Students have the right to conduct and participate in peaceful protests as long as no official work is disturbed. These measures are to protect the students from being manhandled and forced to participate in the protests by their peers against their will”.It is legitimate however, that the registration of the freshmen was affected by the demonstration but that transgression can be condoned in the gravity of the issue as they never bolstered any act of nuisance during the entire event.   

The Multi Activity Centre as it is called was supposed to be the center point of all cultural activities once it was up and functional. But just as the performing arts sector was rejoicing over the magnificent facility of the MAC auditorium, things took an unexpected turn of events when the cultural council itself was banned from the MAC auditorium. It all began tumbling down the hill during early September, after the Choreography section went recruiting. After the recruitments in the MAC, the Dean initiated an inquiry regarding the condition of the MAC after the auditions were over. “What was supposed to be a generic comment on students leaving chewing gum and wrappers on the floor was upheld into a reason for banning the whole Cultural Section from the premises of the MAC, indefinitely”, says Aditya Ganeshan, Secretary, Music Section.

This exhibits a clear dominance of the admin over any presiding committee (in this case, the Cultural Council) appointed by the administrators themselves. Due to communication gap between the authorities a simple problem evolved into a much larger logjam which ultimately led to the postponement of the event Crescendo, scheduled for mid-September by the Music section, to a much later date after the mid-terms.

Although this issue was followed up in a meeting between the DoSW in order to hear out the difficulties faced by them and the issue was ultimately resolved, these austere measures and the sluggish pace of the administrative machinery led to the disregard of the efforts put in the by the Section.

THE CHAOS IN THE CAMPAIGN

This election, the first of its kind, was unprecedented in terms of numbers. The electorate consisted of a whopping 8000 for the institute level posts. Every candidate was expected to reach out to the entire campus within a span of a single week. That boils down to a 1000 people a day. From a layman’s perspective, each of us had 11 posts to vote for. Each post saw a turnout of 3 candidates on an average, and this translated to 33 candidates and manifestos to keep track of.

The code of conduct provided by the institute forbids any form of debate amongst the contestants. Printed posters and campaign rallies are also prohibited. One week before the elections, the candidates were given a specific amount of time when they could go to each bhawan, and address the inmates through the ancient, if not nonexistent, public address systems. Even in the rare few bhawans with fully functional systems, only a handful of candidates showed up to deliver speeches, as they were well aware of the fact that rambling declamations with no provision for interaction with the electorate would not win them too many votes. And indeed, the meetings saw a turnout of hardly 1% of the bhawan inmates.

“It was a request from the students’ side to get to know the agenda of the candidates at the central level but if the students themselves do not turn up for the bhawan level addressal, it becomes difficult for the candidates to spread their agenda. A decentralized public addressal was arranged only because a centralised public addressal was difficult. The candidates only got to interact less with the bhawan inmates was because the students did not use this opportunity properly to know the candidates”, says M.L. Kansal, Chief Returning Officer for this year.

This makeshift provison was made primarily because all channels of communication between the candidates and the electorate were cut off. The usage of social media and other online means for campaigning was banned. The administration also declined to upload the manifestos of candidates on any common platform where the electorate can read and deliberate upon them in their own time. In addition to this, all campus media was been denied access to the candidates.

The only other official provision for reaching out to the electorate, apart from word of mouth, was a poster in each bhawan, which, again, most of the candidates did not bother with. The neutral voter who is supposedly the hero of these elections is characterized by his apathy towards the same.  A notice board in one corner of the bhawan with 50 posters on it will attract no more than a few stray glances. This also tilts the balance unduly in favour of the boys. With the curfew and restrictions on entry into the bhawans, it is impossible for a female candidate reach out to the electorate and emerge as a contender at the institute level.

In IIT KGP and IITB where similar systems of elections are followed, central debates for every post are conducted right before the elections; a common platform within the span of a single evening where all the candidates are allowed to appear on stage, address the audience and be questioned. In addition to this, student media bodies in other IITs are allowed a fair amount of leeway to function, to fulfill the role of media in a full fledged democracy. The administration cannot expect to curb regionalism and ask the electorate to make informed choices when it itself denies them of every mean to do so. The admin’s paranoia regarding possible misconduct does not come as a surprise, but in course of this the candidates’ voices as well as that of the electorate have been stifled.

The Standing Orders of 2008 is a severe blow to individual freedom at IITR. The clause 1-3.8 prohibits any meeting of students other than those organized under the aegis of the various recognized student activities, without prior permission from the DOSW. This gives the administration absolute right to ban any student group or activity in the campus. The beginning of the academic year witnessed inconceivable orders from the administration including banning of any informal intro talks for freshers. Even though the aim of these rules is to prevent any act of ragging in the institute, one cannot neglect the interaction gap created as a result of these hostile rules.

The standing orders give the administration absolute power over the content in any program in the institute. The DOSW prescribes the terms and conditions for dance shows, theatrical performances. And indeed, as it happens, every performance, every publication on campus passes through the scrutinizing eyes of the administration, giving them perfect right to banish whatever suits their fancies, without being accountable to cogent logic. Challenging these decisions is a hassle no one wants to take on.

“We’re still learning and we should be allowed to make mistakes. Authorities should guide us through it instead of stating the obvious ugly truth, and curbing the idea completely. Freedom is a tricky thing. It needs to be earned and given. Giving it is their responsibility and earning it is ours.”, says Sowmya Mishra, former General Secretary of the Cultural Council. This takes us to the heart of a much broader debate. One involving censorship in art and media. Censorship strangles creativity. Objectionable content needs to be curbed, but censorship becomes harmful the second it impedes innovation and expression.

EPILOGUE

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights grants everyone the right to hold opinions without interference. It declares that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression,regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of choice.” Additionally, it states that the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities and may therefore be subject to certain restrictions when necessary for respect of rights or reputation of others or for the protection of national security or of public order, health or morals.”

This covers both sides of the debate. In a closed society like our campus, there exists a need to establish a code of conduct to define the boundaries between method and mayhem. And this is where the administration’s right to keep a check on student activity is justified. But it should also be noted that in a society where the balance of power is as lopsided as in IITR, it is quite easy for the lines between surveillance and suppresion to be blurred. And there is a broken thread of trust between the administration and the students which has resulted in more than one single instance where they have been. And many a time, the culprits are either the students, implying that they should not be allowed express their opinion, or the administration, which obviously cannot be.