Why Does the Modi Government Feel Threatened by Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle?

In the latest instance of saffron crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression, the IIT Madras de-recognised the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, after the Modi Government’s MHRD forwarded an anonymous complaint about the group to the IITM Director and sought comments.

The MHRD letter had alleged “Distribution of controversial posters and pamphlets in the campus of IIT-Madras and creating hatred atmosphere among the students by one of the student group named Ambedkar Periyar.” The anonymous letter to the HRD Minister Smriti Irani had said accused the group of “trying to de-align ST, SC students and trying to make them protest against the MHRD and the Central Government” and “trying to create hatred against the Honourable Prime Minister and Hindus.” The anonymous complaint referred to a talk organised by the Ambedkar Periyar group. This talk was one in which a professor, speaking on the “Contemporary Relevance of Ambedkar,” had criticised the Modi Government for the Bill facilitating land grab, and for encouraging programmes like ‘ghar wapsi’ and ban on beef. The anonymous complaint also attached a copy of a leaflet by the ‘Revolutionary Student Youth Front’ which referred to RTI findings that revealed that IIT Madras was violating the reservation policy both in faculty recruitments and in student admissions.

The IIT Madras management, acting on the letter from the MHRD, de-recognised the APSC, and advised the APSC that the name ‘Ambedkar Periyar’ itself was controversial and provocative and should be changed.

The MHRD (and the anonymous complaint it chose to take notice of) clearly equates criticism of the Government and defence of the policy of reservations as ‘hate-speech’. Why should students or SC/ST people be expected to be ‘aligned to’ (i.e loyal to) the Central Government? Why should criticism of ‘gharwapsi’ and beef ban be equated with ‘hate speech against Hindus’? Why should dissent against the Prime Minister and Government policies lead to de-recognition?

The anonymous letter also referred to posters and pamphlets by the APSC against the MHRD Circular “for separate dining for vegetarians and use of Hindi in IITs.” The reference to the MHRD circular on separate dining is significant, since it reminds us of the pattern followed by the Sangh Parivar, Modi Government and managements of higher education institutions to crush and punish dissent. The modus operandi is that Sangh elements write ‘anonymous complaints’ to the MHRD, which in turn forwards the anonymous complaint to the managements of educational institutions, seeking ‘comments’. The same modus operandi, used to crackdown on the APSC, was also used to push for separate canteens for vegetarians and non-vegetarians. In that instance also, the MHRD circular had forwarded five letters by a group demanding separate dining arrangements, and had sought ‘opinions’ from the IITs.

In both the above instances, what is on display is not just the Modi Government’s intolerance for diversity and dissent. There is also a distinct agenda of imposing upper caste hegemony. Ambedkar and Periyar are both towering figures of modern India, known for their scathing critique of caste-ridden and patriarchal Hindu society. In addition to these two figures, the APSC letterhead also uses the symbol of Bhagat Singh – a freedom fighter and martyr with Marxist ideology and politics. The Modi Government’s discomfort with and hostility for the values that Ambedkar, Periyar, and Bhagat Singh stood for could not be more obvious. The attempt to ban a group named after the author of India’s Constitution Ambedkar, exposes the contempt the BJP and Sangh Parivar have for the Indian Constitution and the rights and liberties of oppressed groups and minorities. The attempt to impose vegetarianism or bans on beef is another instance of imposing the culture and diet of the upper caste communities on the Dalits and other communities that have no objection to non-vegetarian food or beef.

The imposition of upper caste Hindu culture (in the shape of beef ban and other dietary rules for instance) on the rest of the people is not just an act of violence on the identity and culture of the latter. It has real consequences for the health of India’s poor children, when the Chief Minister of BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh withholds eggs from the anganwadi meals. Eggs are the best source of protein and contain all essential nutrients except Vitamin C. For children who prefer not to eat eggs, bananas are served in anganwadis. Being vegetarian can be a personal choice – how can it be imposed on others?

Unfortunately, the agenda of the Sangh Parivar and BJP is also aided by the fact that non-BJP Governments too have used draconian measures to clamp down on dissenting students and citizens, and have pandered to upper caste hegemony. Many North Indian state governments, for instance, have, under pressure from powerful upper caste lobbies, refused to provide eggs in mid-day meals in anganwadis and schools. Most Governments disallow, discourage, and punish progressive student activism (while themselves sponsoring violence by ruling party student outfits on campuses).

It is encouraging that progressive forces from across the country were successful in forcing the IIT-M to roll-back of the de-recognition of the APSC. It is also significant that apart from the BJP, the AIADMK that rules Tamil Nadu has also chosen to remain silent on the de-recognition of APSC, and has instead allowed the TN police to detain those protesting the crackdown. Once again, the AIADMK and Ms Jayalalitha have displayed their tacit affinity with the Sangh Parivar and BJP and anti-Dalit forces.

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