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Crackdown, Suspension, Invitation to Probe: The TISS Playbook of Curbing 'Anti-National' Activity

The institute, increasingly seen to be supporting the BJP dispensation, has suspended a PhD scholar from a Dalit community and asked law enforcement agencies to launch an investigation against him for participating in a protest against the NEP.
An entrance to TISS. Photo: Facebook/Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

Mumbai: For the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, participating in protests for a better education policy, being critical of the government, having political views contrary to the establishment or forming a student group on campus are all ‘anti-national’ activities.

The institute, better known as TISS, has suspended a PhD scholar and asked law enforcement agencies to launch an investigation against him for participating in a protest organised in Delhi early this year. 

In a letter dated April 18, the TISS administration noted the suspension of Ramadas Prini Sivanandan, a PhD scholar from the Development Studies department at the Mumbai campus of TISS. He has also been debarred from entering any of TISS’s campuses for that period. 

Ramadas Prini Sivanandan. Photo: By arrangement.

Sivanandan belongs to a Dalit community, is an active student leader from Kerala’s Wayanad and also a Central Executive Committee member of the leftwing Students’ Federation of India. He is also the joint secretary of its Maharashtra state committee and was a former general secretary of the Progressive Students’ Forum (PSF), a students’ collective at TISS.

The TISS administration has found Sivanandan “guilty” of four charges. A six-member committee – including pro-vice-chancellor Professor Shankar Das and proctor Professor Arvind Tiwari among others – have held that Sivanandan has violated the institute’s honour code by attending the protest that was held in January at Jantar Mantar against the National Education Policy (NEP).

Sivanandan, in a detailed 18-page response to the show-cause notice served last month and accessed by The Wire, has said that he had attended the protest in his personal capacity, just like several other students from across universities, including TISS. The committee, however, claimed that since Sivanandan is a part of the PSF-TISS – an organisation which owes its existence to the fact that there are TISS students in it – he cannot claim that his participation was in personal capacity.

The committee quotes three paras as objectionable from the pamphlet that was distributed at the January 12 protest in New Delhi. They are below.

“The attack on quality education in India is scaling dangerous heights under the current BJP- led union government. The RSS-backed government not only aims to undermine and dismantle the public education system but also seeks to replace it with communal, destructive scheme that fundamentally contradicts the constitutional vision of education. The BJP govt. have even initiated their attempt to remove the name of the country, INDIA from text books.”

“The Parliamentary Elections are approaching us in 2024 and 2025 will mark the 100h anniversary of the world’s largest fascist organization which controls the BJP govt in power.”

“Save education, reject NEP, Save India, Reject BJP.”

The protest was organised with police permission and multiple organisations had come together under the banner ‘United Students of India’. Sivanandan has refused to talk to reporters but students close to him said that the institute is no longer concealing its allegiance to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. “As students of social sciences, we are trained to think critically and our thinking cannot always align with the ruling party’s agenda. What TISS administration is forcing us to do is become stooges of the state and not question any of its policies, even if they are fundamentally anti-people,” a student told The Wire.

Sivanandan in his response to the show-cause notice issued in March states: “The demonstration was done in a peaceful and orderly manner, without any complaint, and consisted of legitimate and constitutional demands on higher education, which the student body of the country is entitled to raise.”

He further adds that “attending the demonstration does not constitute a criminal or anti-national activity as alleged”.

“In fact, it is not only lawful but also a constitutional right to participate in a lawful assembly. It is also in the national interest to speak for the right to education and other fundamental rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution.” The TISS committee, meanwhile, has looked at Sivanandan’s assertion of his right to protest as an “admission” of his “crime” of participating in the protest and harbouring “political ambitions”.

Besides participation in the protest march, the committee also claims that Sivanandan violated the institute’s code by arranging for screening of a “banned” BBC documentary. The documentary ‘India: The Modi Question’ has critically looked at the Narendra Modi- led government’s functioning and also goes back to the 2002 riots in Gujarat when Modi was the state chief minister.  

Also read: Modi Documentary Fallout: Govt Launches Income Tax ‘Survey’ at BBC Offices in India

The institute has raised issues against screening of another documentary, an award winning film, Ram Ke Naam by filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. Earlier this year, when the Modi government decided to make the consecration ceremony of the Ram temple in Ayodhya a national affair, Patwardhan’s movie was widely screened across different university spaces as a mark of protest. The film recalls the brutal violence that broke out in Ayodhya and spread across different parts of India following the demolition Babri Masjid in 1992. TISS has thus branded the screening of films that question the BJP and RSS as “anti-national”.

In the suspension letter, the institute claims that Sivanandan was warned several times and also served with notices for organising a Bhagat Singh memorial lecture with “controversial speakers”. The TISS committee does not identify who these controversial speakers are but speakers included Magsaysay award winner Bezwada Wilson, journalist P. Sainath and retired JNU professor and former editor of Economic and Political Weekly, Gopal Guru. 

Soon after the news about Sivanandan’s suspension broke, TISS issued a statement claiming that a “certain section of media is tarnishing the institute’s name”, the same way it accused Sivanandan of tarnishing the institute’s name by being a part of PSF-TISS.

TISS has a vibrant culture of students organising themselves around different ideologies. Like PSF, the institute also has student’s groups like Ambedkar Students Association, Radical Study Circle among others. These organisations have existed for over a decade and have participated in the institute’s activities and also organised protests or laid down demands from time to time. The institute now looks at them as adversaries and claims only the elected students’ body as a recognised organisation. Every other group is deemed unrecognised and hence unlawful. Representatives of the students’ body claim that the institute refuses them permission for most gatherings, especially those it considers an affront to the current dispensation.

Among all allegations, the most startling one is the institute’s eagerness to invite law enforcement agencies to act against its own students. For organising film screenings and participating in the protest, the institute says “law enforcement agencies may take legal actions as per process and the institute must have no objection for the same”. Just a decade ago, the police had not been able to access the university space without the director’s permission. The same institute is now inviting the law enforcement against its own students for exercising their constitutional right to participate in a peaceful protest and voice their opinions.

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