New Delhi: A group of students at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay have issued a statement questioning the varsity’s decision to invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be the guest of honour at this year’s convocation ceremony.
The students say the statement itself is their protest and that they do not intend to take it up with the IIT administration.
“We would like to question the contribution of the ruling government, whose head is PM Narendra Modi, in higher education and in other vital social issues affecting the social harmony and fundamental rights of a substantial section of the Indian population,” the statement says.
Fearing retaliation, the students have chosen to remain anonymous.
According to the students, while Modi would not be stopped from speaking at the university, the decision to invite him is questionable – especially given his government’s poor track record on funding public higher education institutions. Since public expenditure on education is on the decline, the students have asked whether the prime minister really wants education for all, or whether he is “promoting the Brahmanical idea of education only for a few people, belonging to upper caste and upper class backgrounds”.
Given the lack of public expenditure, several universities across the country are witnessing fee hikes. Central government policies have only made matters worse, the students have argued. “We fear scrapping of Non-NET fellowship in central universities or scrapping of GOI-PMS scholarship (for SC, ST and OBC students) in TISS, are just the beginning. Further fee hike and scrapping of scholarships are expected if the present system is allowed to continue. Of course, the worst sufferers would be the underprivileged students coming from non-upper caste backgrounds.”
Students also brought up the Higher Education Committee of India Bill, which has proposed a body that will replace the University Grants Commission. The new committee could lead to restrictions on academic freedom, the students have said, “Since the power to control funds will remain with the MHRD under the new act and HECI will have the power to punish or even shut down any institution which will not meet its guidelines”.
Given that Modi was being invited to speak at an educational institution, the statement said there are some questions he should answer first. “Will it be wrong for us to question the prime minister why his government is hell bent on destroying the educational institutions of this country? Will it be wrong for us to ask, why the government is scared of higher education and freedom of teachers and students in selecting what they want to study?”
Another concern expressed in the statement is the lack of jobs in the Indian market. Citing Labour Bureau data, the students have said, “Despite our privileged status as students of IIT Bombay, we are indeed concerned about the falling rate of employment across the country. The government has managed to create very little number of jobs over the last few years.”
Finally, the students have said that since they believe academia does not exist in a vacuum, they are also concerned by the hate crimes taking place across the country. “We question how the perpetrators of such heinous crime could get all solidarity from the ruling party. We condemn all the atrocities committed on Dalits and Muslims over the last few years in the name of religion and aggressive upper caste pride. We question how beef becomes so important an issue that living human being could be killed for it, and the murderer would get perfect impunity from the state. We question how the government could so easily decide who is a citizen and who is not on basis of their religious identities. But finally we would like to question Mr. Modi’s silence on all these issues. As a prime minister, we demand that he takes a positive stand and condemn all the hate crimes committed and supported by his party members.”
Asked what they intended to do with their statement and whether they would be making a formal representation, one of their representatives told The Wire that “so far nothing [has been] sent to the director… The questions are more for the prime minister himself than for Prof. [Devang Vipin] Khakhar. Besides the students involved in writing the statement would like to keep it anonymous.”
“The statement was aimed to create a ripple among the larger body of students inside and outside IIT, which I believe is done. We are looking forward to how the administration and the government responds to this. The point was to question the silence regarding this. People wanted to protest. Then they were afraid to be public about it. The statement is a vent. It breaks the silence and the illusion that everybody is accepting the Modi regime. The statement itself is the protest. So far we haven’t planned anything else.”
Note: The article has been edited to add the information that the authors of the statement intend only to have it circulated, and not formally handed over to the IIT administration.