Unlike most leading universities in the country, the Indian Institutes of Technology have largely shunned student politics. That may be changing now.

Across India, small groups of IIT students are demanding fairer representation of students from all backgrounds, an election process free of interference and an expanded role for elected representatives.

At IIT Indore, for instance, the students are seeking ways to strengthen the body that represents them after the authorities dissolved it earlier this month for failing to stop protests against the poor quality of food in the mess. On January 11, a group at IIT Bombay called Swara wrote an open letter to their director, demanding that the election process to the students body be reformed to “ensure students’ participation in decision making”. In IIT Kharagpur’s senate, the institute’s highest administrative body, the sole representative of research scholars in December submitted a demand for reforms in the way members are selected. Meanwhile, in April, a group at IIT Banaras Hindu University called Students for Change will campaign for greater powers for their students’ parliament, the latest step in their three-year-old effort to make the the election process more inclusive.

At most IITs, elected student bodies – called gymkhanas, councils or parliaments –have limited powers. Former members of these bodies at IIT BHU and IIT Indore said they merely acted as extensions of the administration, used for communicating unpleasant decisions such as fee hikes to the students and defusing the protests that almost invariably followed. Students want this to change.

Linking these campaigns across the country is the Coordination of Science and Technology Institutes’ Student Associations, or Costisa, formed in December 2016. With a coordinator on each campus, it provides “collective support to various student groups...striving to promote scientific temper, campus democracy and progressive politics”. It helps by sharing information, coordinating protests and rallying support from others when one campus needs it.

With most undergraduates wary of participating, most campaigns for reform are being led by research scholars who have completed their undergraduate studies outside the IITs. At IIT Bombay, most of the politically active students are from the humanities and social sciences departments. Many of them have previously been exposed to student politics in institutions they have previously attended, such as Jawaharlal Nehru University, Hyderabad Central University, Kolkata’s Centre for Studies in Social Sciences and Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

At IIT Kharagpur, the campaigners are engineers but like their IIT Bombay counterparts, they first participated in students’ movements in other institutions. The group at IIT (BHU) are the exception: Students for Change is composed mostly of engineering undergraduates, many of whom say they were inspired by the teacher and social activist Sandeep Pandey, who was sacked by the institute in 2016.

The spur for this change came in 2016, when the IITs more than doubled tuition fees for undergraduate courses from Rs 90,000 per year to Rs 2 lakh. Several IITs raised fees for postgraduate studies and for hostel, mess and medical facilities as well. Realising that they had been unable to do much to prevent this convinced many IIT students they needed to organise more effectively.

The push for more active student politics on IITs campuses is not popular. Given their close alliances with business corporations and anxieties about employment for their graduates, the IITs are wary of any activity they see as being disruptive. In fact, even many students are unsympathetic to campaigns they see as “doing politics”.

“We are accused of smearing the reputation of IIT Kharagpur, of trying to turn it into Jawaharlal Nehru University or Jadavpur University,” said one research scholar. Both these universities are known for unabashedly political student activism that often spills out of the campuses and onto the streets. “Professors also discourage students, especially BTechs [or undergraduates], from joining,” he said.

Here’s a look at student stirrings at IITs across the country.

IIT Bombay

In an open letter last month, the student group Swara objected to what is known as the “black box” system that operates when picking representatives to the students body. As the IIT’s student magazine Insight explained in 2016, this refers to the “closed-door meeting with the incumbent general secretary and designated returning officer to discuss the feasibility of different points in the candidate’s manifesto”. This practice, Swara said, “kills the vision, imagination, freedom and creativity of the candidate in drafting a manifesto”.

A Swara member, requesting not to be identified, added: “This must be the only place where the previous regime decides what the next will do.” The ritual, he added, is meant to “ensure continuity, not change”.

After the “feasibility check”, 30 copies of the manifesto are stamped. With these and all on their own, the candidate is then expected to go to the voters, who could number 10,000 depending on the post. “Personal endorsement”, where a student declares support for a candidate and helps with the campaign, is not allowed. Swara asked for this restriction to be lifted as well. Campaigning on social media was also banned until this year.

Another group on the campus, the Ambedkar Phule Periyar Study Circle, has produced a video on the subject.

IIT (BHU)

In 2015, during a protest against compulsory attendance marking, the IIT’s administration agreed to allow a Student Parliament to which students could elect their representatives. It would have around 65 elected representatives, a few from each batch. “Initially, we thought it was a good initiative,” said a mechanical engineering student who goes by the single name Swati. “But the election policy framed was such that the parliament has become an extension of the administration. Instead of presenting our concerns to the administration, it communicates their concerns to us.”

A student must have an average grade of seven out of 10 to be eligible to contest the election. Participation in co-curricular activities is important as well. “A candidate will get points for winning a prize in dance or marketing a college festival,” explained Swati. “Students from rural areas or marginalised communities who often hesitate to participate in such activities are effectively barred as only the candidates with the highest scores are allowed to contest.”

Because there is little campaigning, students often vote for candidates they do not even know. “There are no public meetings or debates, just one handmade A4 poster per hostel,” Swati said. Pressure from her group, Students for Change, led to the candidates being allowed to also issue “statements of purpose” in 2017.

Elected in this fashion, the parliament has few powers. Swati was a member in 2015-’16. “It can do little beyond placing a new dustbin somewhere or fixing new lights,” she said. “It cannot do anything about fee hike, crowding in hostels or campus security. Its grievance redress committee sent us a mail categorically asking us not to raise issues like safety.”

Not surprisingly, the students’ interest has waned, with voter turnout falling from around 70% in 2015 to under 30% last year. “In the standard format resumes for placements [a winter exercise when companies are invited to recruit from the graduating batch of students], there is a column for ‘position of responsibility’,” Swati said. “Most students now contest for parliament posts only to have something to put in it.”

The email sent by the Student Parliament in 2016.
The email sent by the Student Parliament in 2016.

IIT Indore

Last year, members of the IIT’s student gymkhana realised how powerless they really were. The students had been complaining about the quality of food served in the mess when, in September, the mess fees were increased. Protests erupted.

“We opposed the hike but were told by the wardens to stop the protests and convince the students,” said a former gymkhana member. They complied, he said, because “we have no written powers so all we do is coordinate between the different clubs and societies.”

At least two attempts had been made to prepare a constitution that would define the gymkhana’s powers and guide its dealings with the administration, but the student representatives and the administration failed to agree on its provisions, the students said.

In December, a private cafeteria opened on the campus and many students started eating there instead of in the mess. When that café was shut down on January 16, the students launched a protest. This time, the gymkhana refused to play the peacemaker. “We have no powers, so why should we stop the students?” the former member asked.

On January 20, the gymkhana was dissolved without notice. Its former members alleged they have been facing threats and harassment from the administration. One research scholar alleged the students are not being allowed to leave the campus if they are in large groups.

As the students vented their anger on social media, suggestions poured in about how to strengthen their position and the gymkhana’s – hire a lawyer, file queries under Right to Information Act to “build a paper trail”, reach out to the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development which funds the IITs and the institute’s Board of Governors.

“You don’t want just the food [or] bus issues resolved,” one commentator reminded them, “you want students’ opinion and welfare to be taken into account.”

The institute’s spokesperson, Nirmala Menon, however, told Rediff.com she had not seen “any mail to that effect”, referring to the dissolution of the gymkhana. She also told Hindustan Times that the current crisis is an “internal matter” and that “the authorities are trying to resolve the students’ grievances”.

Student protest at IIT Indore. Photo credit: HT
Student protest at IIT Indore. Photo credit: HT

IIT Kharagpur

Researchers at IIT Kharagpur were galvanised into action by the 2016 fee hike. They demanded that the sole representative of over 2,000 research scholars in the Senate, the IIT’s highest administrative body, be elected and not nominated. “Our demand was partially accepted but the process is rigged,” said a scholar and member of the Ambedkar Bhagat Singh Study Circle, itself established in 2016.

The senate representative is now elected by a pool of about 30 scholars, called the Research Scholars’ Council, from among themselves. The council itself is composed of nominated members. “Teachers pick the representative for each department and centre,” said a member of the council. “As a result, student concerns do not always reach the administration. There are problems with infrastructure – instruments are not maintained well and to use some we have to wait months. These matters must be addressed urgently.”