IIT Madras, a feather in India’s cap of skilled expatriates, is the new territory for the war on liberty.
The Roots of the Beef
On 25 May, the government released a notification prohibiting the sale of cows and buffaloes for slaughter through animal markets, restricting it to only agriculturalists. On 30 May, students at IIT Madras held a beef festival on campus, in a show of open protest against the order. Students avowed personal liberty and sustained the non-cooperation despite initial rebuke on social media by the right-wing student body representatives. The students at the festival were critical of the Centre’s order, terming it “food fascism”, and hurtful to marginalised social groups including Dalits and Muslims.
Militarisation of the politics of food followed. R. Sooraj, a Ph.D scholar and member of the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle at IITM, was assaulted by students believed to have belonged to the right-wing organisation Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the BJP. He was targeted for consumption of beef at the protest held earlier. This sparked mass protests and demonstrations by students and activists in Chennai, demanding action against the assailants. While nine students have been booked for the attack, they are yet to be arrested.
The impunity with which the violent act occurred shows the complicity of the college administration and larger forces of the Deep State.
Free Speech and the Campus
Universities have been the bastion of free thought and political dissent. During the anti-colonial struggle, students and teachers of Delhi University were at the forefront of debate and demonstrations. Affirmative action, in particular, has democratised Indian colleges and thrown them open to the marginalised sections. Student activism has become a mouthpiece for an ebbing Dalit movement. In a far right of centre political environment, universities have been the site of sharp, often violent, clashes. JNU was one such arena of the battle between the state and the student. Ramjas college was another. Where sticks and stones replace pamphlets and microphones, the sanctity of the educational ecosystem is challenged.
The food fest held at IITM was a non-violent means of protest. The only violence it showed was in its open defiance of an order curbing citizens’ liberty. It was a coalition of the willing, and only students who made the choice to consume the beef were involved. It was a spontaneous protest, without aggressive campaigning or bouts of hostility. This mode of protest must be defended by those who believe in the liberal ideology.
Some students, however, are also critical of the liberal claim of monopoly on reason and the concurrent condescension. A final year M.A. student from IITM wrote: “Will joking about how they are eating ‘gau mata’ as they relish beef enable discussions between those who oppose eating beef and those who don’t? Will calling people who oppose organising the beef fest ‘sanghis’ and ‘right-wing fascists’, further the space for a constructive dialogue in campus?” If speech is instrumental in sparking discussion, can closing doors on engagement lead to a free marketplace of ideas or is it likely to cause further polarisation?
Yet speech is also an end in itself, the ‘weapon of the word’ a powerful tool for the powerless. Against a state with a monopoly on coercion and reason, the rhetoric employed by the dissidents becomes important.