Why the Left desperately needs IIT Madras
| 14 Jul 2017
| Onkareshwar Pandey, Editor In Chief, NOP

Why the Left desperately needs IIT Madras

• By Jyotirmaya Tripathy

Now that the dust has settled, tempers have worn out and blood has congealed after the beef festival at IIT Madras (IITM), it is time for some analysis. But before I begin, it should be emphasised that the recent government notification banning cattle trade for slaughtering purposes in cattle markets does not deprive anybody of his/her right to consume beef. In the same vein, it should be iterated that the recent beef festival and the subsequent brawl between two students of IIT Madras led to physical injury to both (not to one, as a large section of media in its over zealousness asserted).

The urgency to recapture educational institutions:

The problem, to my mind, lies not in the imaginary beef ban, but reflects a crisis within the Left parties to stay relevant, combined with the realisation that their hitherto unchallenged authority in universities is up for resistance and that their unidirectional obsolete narratives are subject to counter narratives of development and hope. The IITM controversy is a manifestation of that crisis and the brouhaha over the incident is an effort to take control of another institutional space.

Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ascent to power, the Left parties’ sway over institutions is fast loosening at the national level. This is supplemented with the realisation that in states like Kerala, in spite of a history of Left rule, there are indications of BJP’s rise at the cost of Left parties. It is common knowledge that the average Left voter in Kerala is a Hindu voter, where as the Congress led constellation is backed by ‘secular’ and minority voters.It may be recollected that the former Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan, to consolidate his Hindu vote base, had spoken against love jihad and the Islamist design on Kerala society and had echoed the sentiments of the honorable Kerala High Court.

Declining power in universities and BJP’s slow but consistent gain not only impoverishes the Left vote bank, but also demotivates the Left cadre to protect their constituency. It also robs the Left intellectuals of institutional privileges to legitimate their ways of seeing things as reality. Guided events like beef festival may help cling on to a receding Hindu vote base in Kerala who would like to have freedom over food, but more importantly, creates an impression that the Left student bodies are doing something to fight ‘fascist’ forces.

The beef festival had its unusual share of media coverage thereby making the event a performance of sorts. Within minutes of the brawl in the IITM dining hall, there were stories about right wing members assaulting a progressive cosmopolitan beef festival participant peacefully exercising his right in a Jain mess. Posters/photos of the affected student’s bruised and swollen face were flashed everywhere; the painful, yet pensive, mien of the victim was the perfect shot for the left-liberal class declaring the arrival of doomsday. In contrast, the other student was nowhere to be seen, the news of his broken arm nowhere covered;he remained invisible under the epithets of ‘ABVP worker’ and ‘right wing agent’. The well-oiled PR machinery of the festival organisers, guided by a few faculty members,was in full force creating a climate of imminent danger to Indian democracy. Even more eye-catching was Kerala Chief Minister demanding justice for the student from his state and the CPI General Secretary visiting the student in the hospital thereby establishing that the Left has larger designs on IIT Madras, and that the beef festival was managed by Left parties. If the incident established anything, it is the angst of ‘progressive’ groups to control public discourses. It also establishes that far from being spontaneous response to central ruling, the beef festival was a highly choreographed spectacle signaling that ‘we still exist’.

IIT Madras as the new frontier:

For Left parties, who have enjoyed power and privilege at educational institutions through their student bodies and through control of research institutions, IITs have remained the last frontier, something that can be gazed at with admiration and wonder, but cannot be breached. They are the El Dorado or a sone ki chidiya with far more influence and symbolic value in the public eye and are characterised by their direct contribution to society through innovation and social entrepreneurship. The IITs are known for their academic excellence and rigour; their alumni network, research funding and their impact on people’s lives have been the envy of universities, and the desire to control this space through student groups is understandable. They are high value targets and can catapult any interest group into national prominence and assure maximum publicity.

Among IITs, IITM is uniquely placed where a sizeable number of students come from a Left ruled state and take leadership in manufacturing social consciousness among students. On top of that,particular masters programs in IITM abounding with students from a particular regional background, their faculty with degrees from the left-bastion of a university in the national capital make IITM the new war front whose takeover will offset Left’s loss elsewhere. Though represented as a movement against the centre’s diktat on food choices by ‘liberal’ student groups, beef festivals betray the ignorance of the central rule and expose the design of handful participants to hijack other students’ ability to conceptualise freedom differently. These festivals are never about freedom over food choice, but to taunt the cultural beliefs of the silent majority and are an open incitement to violence. It seems, the IITs,originally designed to create human resources for Indian industry, are the new sites for Left’s experiment with student politics, and its victory in IITM will subvert the very idea of IITs and will be a betrayal of their mission.

(Writer Jyotirmaya Tripathy is a member of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. Views expressed are personal.)

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