While the country cheered the Supreme Court's decision to strike down Section 66A, unfettering free speech in the process, political parties grunted and groaned in the shadows. They have never been too keen on criticism, and as long as they maintain these sentiments they will continue to crack down on any narrative that is at odds with their interests.
A perfect example of this is what happened at IIT Madras.
A student study group, the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) was disbanded by the institution for allegedly "spreading hatred" against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Central government was tipped-off by an anonymous complaint about the group and decided to intervene in the matter. The student body was alleged spreading hatred by distributing posters and pamphlets in the campus.
A Times of India report states that the group did not hold any public protests or organise meetings - both of which are legal rights for all citizens, and activities that political parties indulge in frequently - they simply distributed pamphlets criticising the government's land bill, beef ban and various other policies.
It is at this point that a pertinent question must be raised. If educational institutions like schools and colleges are not the place for debate and dissent, the place for students to voice their opinions and question the status quo, what is left of them. The Modi government has shown in its first year in power that education is not a high priority. They have cut the education budget by 16 per cent and proposed a sum total of zero new policies.
Clamp-down on free speech
According to a TOI reports, "The 'controversial' pamphlet that the MHRD forwarded was the copy of a speech by a Dravidian University academic R Vivekandanda Gopal on the "Contemporary relevance of Dr Ambedkar". The event was organised by the APSC in the campus. The pamphlet reproduced portions in which the speaker had criticized the Modi regime for "pro-corporate" policies such as the Land Acquisition Bill and insurance and labour reforms. He had also accused the government of "communally polarizing" people by introducing a ban on cow slaughter and through "ghar wapsi" programs."
The dean of the college, Sivakumar M Srinivasan has defended the decision to ban the students group and said they were misusing privileges given to them by the college. However, he did not mention in what way a political discussion was a misuse of privileges.
It is highly likely that the dean acted out of fear. The intervention of the government through a letter questioning the activities of the group, could have been construed by Srinivasan as a thinly veiled threat. Thus making it clear to him that it would be easier to clamp down on the students than risk a confrontation with the government. The government on the other hand has come across as insecure and vengeful. Intervening in the matters of a small student body has lays bare the government's opinion on public dissent.
The Indian Constitution ensures every citizen the right to freedom of expression, which includes criticising the government. It also ensures the freedom to protest, a right guaranteed by the institution of democracy. Every citizen can legally and peacefully protest anything they deem fit. And the government cannot undermine that right based on the nature of the protest.
The current status of educational institutions in India is appalling. Schools and colleges should be a place for students and teachers to debate everything, from government policies, to religion, from democracy to authoritarianism. Education should encourage students to question social order and profess their opinion no matter what it may be. The development of any country - especially one that is trying so hard to emerge out of the despair of the third world and cling with all its might to the trajectory of the first - is reliant on the education of its youth.
The government should encourage dissent not abolish it, it should champion those that criticise its policies, and take pride in the fact that they have the right to do so. In India we take for granted the rights that so many of us have been born with, the right to free speech and expression, the right to profess, propagate and promote any religion and the right to openly express our views. In several countries the public still struggles under the might of a dictatorial thumb. And we in India are allowing our democracy to crumble.
The students' group has denied that it was trying to instigate protests and said it was never given a chance to explain. "We have not violated the Constitution. The Constitution allows us to criticise the government and its policies," NDTV quoted Abhinav, a member of the study circle.