The reaction by the engineering institute’s administration to a peaceful march by students has reopened old grievances
IIT-K students who protested the crackdown on students elsewhere faced an inquiry by the institute
On 17 December, around 300 students and a few faculty members of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur participated in a peaceful march to show solidarity with students of central universities across India “in light of extreme and continued brutality against students".
At the time, the students did not anticipate that holding the march would backfire on them.
They protested against the crackdown on students elsewhere, but ended up facing an inquiry by the institute.
The following account, based on conversations with five students (who spoke on condition of anonymity) and IIT Kanpur administration, reveals the fractures in a close-knit community of a few thousand people.
Here is what happened: On 16 December, the IIT Kanpur administration gave students written permission for the march. On the morning of the 17th, permission was revoked, following instructions from the district administration. Section 144 had been imposed, the students were told, and the directorate had issued an order to cancel the march. But the students had already gathered. They continued with the march as planned, and it ended peacefully.
“We requested the district administration to close the chapter and not take any action as the march was peaceful," Manindra Agarwal, deputy director of IIT Kanpur, said in an interview. “They graciously agreed to our suggestion," he said.
Everyone thought the issue was settled. But two days later, Dr. Vashi Mant Sharma, a faculty member, filed a complaint with the institute director objecting to “purported anti-India and communal statements" made during the peaceful gathering. Sharma is also founder of Agniveer, which, according to its website, is “a network of volunteers working both in virtual and real world to promote Vedic Dharma".
The point of contention was the recitation of the poem Hum Dekhenge by the great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Sharma said that the poem was communal: “Two lines in the poem, when literally translated from Urdu to English, read ‘When All Idols Will Be Removed…Only Allah’s Name Will Remain’," he wrote in the complaint.
That was evidence, Sharma said, that the “gathering was orchestrated by certain nefarious elements and aimed at radicalizing innocent students, spreading hate against India, the faith of billions, and communally vitiating the atmosphere of the institute," he said.
Many students who participated in the march were shocked. The student magazine Vox Populi published an editorial. “This is exactly how propaganda is manufactured to create ruckus in an otherwise peaceful community," the editorial read, adding that “lines [of the poem] were taken out of context", “the events of the march were grossly misrepresented", and “half-truths are being circulated to drive an agenda".
The institute constituted a high-level enquiry committee to “investigate the complaints of using inflammatory, abusive and intimidating language by a section of students".
This is standard protocol, Agarwal said. “When there is an official complaint with supporting evidence, a committee is formed and all aspects are looked at," he said.
Sharma did not respond to a request for a comment.
Janwadi Lekhak Sangh (Democratic Writers’ Association), an association of Hindi and Urdu writers in India, released a statement asking the IIT Kanpur administration to stop the inquiry against students.
“There is no dispute among literature experts that words like ‘idol’ and ‘Allah’ have been used in this poem symbolically to signify rulers and people," the association said, adding that the verse denotes “the overthrow of the rule of a select few and the establishment of the rule of the people".
The investigation is ongoing, but the committee asked students to take down social media posts. “I requested students that in order to bring more harmony, all social media posts about this event—especially the ones accusing and abusing others—should be taken down," Agarwal said. “All of them complied. This shows the maturity of our students."
That includes the editorial of the student magazine. On Thursday evening, the article was taken down, and the publication released a statement: “We stand by every word in our editorial, but as per instructions, we have to take it down."
Students say that the administration’s response should be seen in the larger context of a long-standing conflict.
In November, student representatives sent a letter to the director highlighting a number of campus issues, including curbs on student freedom, hostel governance, and the functioning of the student affairs office, which “have not been adequately and satisfactorily addressed by the institute administration" despite repeatedly being raised in the past. “The worrying part is that we had to wait weeks to get an appointment to discuss student grievances, but this unnecessary twist to our peaceful march got such a prompt response," one student said.
Agarwal, the deputy director, said the “students should not worry about anything unless they have something to hide". He hopes that the resolution of this controversy will make the students realise that different views must be appreciated.
“It was insensitive to read the Faiz poem at that time and place. Different people can have different views that need to be respected. That is the sense we would like to bring to campus," Agarwal said.
Students view it differently. “Many students are so afraid that they won’t turn up for any protest in future," one said. Another added: “This will unite the student community further to raise their voice against the ongoing issues on campus."
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