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Are IITs to Produce Technology Zombies?

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The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur, the first and the biggest IIT in the country, and the institution that I taught in previously, was in the news recently for the wrong reasons. The dean of students’ affairs sent an email to all students against participating in the demonstration planned by a student body—the Ambedkar Bhagat Singh Study Circle (ABSC) in solidarity with the students of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) who were brutally lathi charged on 2 May 2018. Thereafter, the registrar issued a communiqué threatening students against indulging in such activities without the permission of a “competent authority.” Defying these threats when 40-odd students came out for a peaceful demonstration in front of the gymkhana, the authorities unleashed its posse of security forces to forcibly block the demonstration in police style, physically manhandling the students.

The dean’s mail had read:

IIT Kharagpur is an institute of national importance and we do not encourage any activity which escalates tension in society in the name of political affiliation, religion, caste and region. Our sole aim is to promote (the) development of science and technology and nationalistic fervor among students.

The case in point, however, involved a peaceful demonstration to express solidarity with students elsewhere and did not occasion such apprehension. Nevertheless, it has thrown up the issue of whether students in higher educational institutes should participate in politics or not. On the face of it, the question might rationally appear ridiculous as these students being voters are already participants in the national mainstream political process. But in times when we are overwhelmed by irrationality at every step, the question must not be dismissed summarily.

Politics, by definition, implies activities associated with the governance of a country or a region. In a democracy, very little in the public sphere may thus be sans politics. Innocuous terms such as promoting “development of science and technology” or “nationalistic fervour among students” that the dean spoke of are not as apolitical as he would imagine. They beget questions such as: what kind of science and technology (S&T), and for whom and at whose cost? These issues are not to be explored anew as a plethora of research is available on issues in the relationship between technology and politics. As early as 1956, Harold Lasswell spoke of the political implications of S&T. Cozzens and Woodhouse (1995) saw the politics behind science and discussed how science–state relations can shape the societal dimensions of political power. Peter Weingart (1999) identified simultaneous tendencies towards the “scientification of politics” and the “politicization of science.” Even at the international level, the changing relationship between S&T and state power was explained by Krige and
Barth (2006
).

Control of Technologies

New and emergent technologies have far-reaching and radical political implications. Technologies of ageing and reproduction; social media, e-government and electronic voting; technologies of warfare from nuclear weapons to drones; biotechnology, stem cell research, and genetic engineering; environmental issues from climate change to geoengineering; surveillance technologies and the new paradigm of big data analytics that threatens the demise of theory are fraught with wild implications to emancipatory politics. While these implications remain unexplored by the social sciences, there are enough theoretical signals to appreciate the importance of politics in production and the control of these technologies. It implies that the IITs cannot be confined to their imaginary technology cocoons and must learn to equip students to handle the political aspects of the modern world.

Incidentally, the dean’s second point “nationalistic fervour” exposes the direct political connection with the right-wing forces in power in the country insofar as this oft-repeated phrase has acquired a distinct saffron tinge. As a matter of fact, it has been the political hallmark of the rising tide of the right wing all over the world. Nationalism is a shared emotion among people of being one and is desirable, but its fervour smacks of jingoism and antithetical politics. It, therefore, appears today as an oxymoron: a narrowly focused global ideology of the right wing. Ernest Gellner (2008) explains the power of nationalism to create mass hysteria. It is precisely this power with which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) usurped political centre stage, turning beef-eating and cow slaughter among other things into an anti-nationalist act. In fact, the motto of the IIT, yogah karmasu kaushalam ironically sourced from the text of the Hindu religion (Bhagavad Gita), may not be apolitical either insofar as it conflicts with the secular ethos of this nation.

ABSC’s Politics

The ABSC is a student outfit of IIT Kharagpur, constituted in 2016 following a similar episode that took place in IIT Madras in 2015 when its administration at the prompting of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) had withdrawn recognition of one of its student organisations—Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC)—for the alleged “misuse of privileges.” The action followed an anonymous complaint that APSC was instigating protests against the policies of the centre and creating “hatred” against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Hindus. The MHRD, under its then controversial minister Smriti Irani, followed up the issue with the IIT management. The latter prostrated when it was asked to bend and took a precipitate step without even conducting enquiries into the APSC’s activities. The dean lamely argued that the APSC had failed to follow the code of conduct for student bodies and raised an issue of prior approval. The same issues reappeared in the IIT Kharagpur three years later!

This action of the IIT Madras authorities sparked protests across the country and beyond. David Mumford, president of the International Mathematical Union, a former Harvard University professor and a Fields Medal winner, had written to the director, IIT Madras asserting,

I believe campuses must allow open discussion of divisive issues even when it offends some people so that all its aspects are out in the open. Today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders and one wants them to think deeply about the direction to which we are headed. (Economic Times 2015)

The mounting pressure from protests made the authorities eat humble pie and withdraw the derecognition order. The episode, however, inspired students in other IITs to float similar outfits in a show of solidarity with APSC as well as in defiance of the MHRD dictates. The IIT Bombay students floated Ambedkar–Periyar–Phule Circle, IIT Delhi adopted the same name, IIT Madras had APSC and IIT Kharagpur launched ABSC. It went beyond the IIT network with Kolkata’s Jadhavpur University and New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University too floating APSC in their campuses. With these organisations rising in the IITs, the students took further initiative to create a coordinating body named Coordination of Science and Technology Institutes Students Associations. As for ABSC, it has been organising lectures on various issues, holding demonstrations against human rights violations and reacting in solidarity with the victims of state repression. It was among the leading constituents in the agitation against the fee rise that forced the administration to roll it back. At no time has the ABSC caused any disturbance either to the campus life, leave apart outside society.

This time, too, it just wanted to show its solidarity with the agitating AMU students who were on a hunger strike for demanding action against the goons belonging to Hindu Yuva Vahini and Bajrang Dal who had gatecrashed AMU and assaulted Hamid Ansari, the ex-vice president of India. Such was the hooliganism and partisan inaction of the government that it should make one’s blood boil. And, thus, ABSC’s decision to peacefully express its disapproval was an act of upholding India’s constitutional values. Then, where is the question of disturbing peace or seeking approval for expressing your fundamental right of expression? The IIT’s action only smacks of furthering saffron politics.

Yes for Campus Politics

It is utterly myopic to hold that students should not take part in politics and singularly focus on their studies. It simply amounts to killing democracy. Historically, much of the change in the world has come through youth and students. And precisely for that reason, the entrenched classes are cagey about students’ politics. Most political leaders in the world have emerged from campus politics as it helped them build confidence and articulate concerns, and develop critical thinking and leadership qualities. Student politics enables the strengthening of social bonds, forging of new friendships, fostering of communal harmony, and also helps administrations to be just and effective. Without it, students would be reduced to an inert feed to corporate mills, incapable of reacting to the problems of the day or in the IITs’ case technology zombies.

Notwithstanding the neo-liberal distortions, the purpose of education is to create good citizens and leaders who are prepared to fulfil their civic and cultural responsibilities. It is reflected in the increasing realisation that humanities courses must be included in technological syllabi (Giroux 2015). However, with the ascendance of right-wing regimes, the purpose of education is increasingly getting determined by market forces. In this discourse, education is reduced to training, public values to crude instrumental values, and higher education to operating systems, posing problems that can only be solved through quantification, effective programming, high-stakes testing and an obsession with numerical data. All this can be reversed only with critical thinking which must be groomed through constantly reacting to the environment, the essence of student politics.

The IIT authorities wanted students to not indulge in disruptive politics and rather imbibe nationalistic fervour. They, however, do not realise that they are asking the students to accept the status quo at the behest of the regime: to give up critical thinking, be selfish automatons, and loyal to the government. This situation reminds one of the questions Bhagat Singh asked in 1928:

If anything related to governments and countries’ administration is counted as politics, then is it [welcoming a commission or a viceroy] also not politics? But it will be said that this pleases the government whereas the other annoys it. So, the question is about whether the government is pleased or annoyed by it. Then should the students be taught the lesson of sycophancy since their very birth?

May good counsel prevail on the IIT authorities to ward off the ignominy it has incurred!

References

Cozzens, Susan E and Edward J Woodhouse (1995): “Science, Government, and the Politics of Knowledge,” The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, second edition, Sheila Jasanoff, Gerald E Markle, James C Peterson and Trevor J Pinch (eds), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp 533–53.

Economic Times (2015): “Ex-Harvard Professor Criticizes IIT-Madras Ban on Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle,” 4 June, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/ex-harvard-professor-criticizes-iit-madras-ban-on-ambedkar-periyar-study-circle/articleshow/47537597.cms.

Gellner, Ernest (2008): Nations and Nationalism, second edition, Ithaka, New York: Cornell University Press.

Giroux, Henry A (2015): “Higher Education and the Politics of Disruption,” Truthout, 17 March, http: //www.truth-out.org/news/item/29693-higher -education-and-the-politics-of-disruption#a3.

Krige, John and Kai-Henrik Barth (2006): “Introduction: Science, Technology, and International Affairs,” Global Power Knowledge: Science, Technology, and International Affairs, John Krige and Kai-Henrik Barth (eds), Vol 21, No 1, pp 1–21.

Lasswell, Harold D (1956): “The Political Science of Science: An Inquiry into the Possible Reconciliation of Mastery and Freedom,” American Political Science Review, Vol 50, No 4, pp 961–79.

Singh, Bhagat (1928): “Vidyarthi Aur Rajniti,” Kirti.

Weingart, Peter (1999): “Scientific Expertise and Political Accountability: Paradoxes of Science in Politics,” Science and Public Policy, Vol 26, No 3, pp 151–61.

Updated On : 11th Jun, 2018

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