TISS students say Dalit PhD scholar Ramadas was targeted for his anti-BJP politics

Anand Patwardhan, director of Ram Ke Naam, extended support and said that this was reminiscent of the attack on Rohith Vemula, which must be resisted by all citizens of India.
Ramadas Prini Sivanandan at the Parliament March
Ramadas Prini Sivanandan at the Parliament March
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Members of Progressive Students Forum, a student organisation at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, have criticised the institute’s move to suspend Ramadas Prini Sivanandan, a Dalit PhD scholar at its Mumbai campus for two years over alleged ‘anti-national’ activities. They said Ramadas, who is a Central Executive Committee member of the Students Federation of India (SFI), had not violated the rules as alleged by the institute and that he was specifically targeted for being vocal against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

A show-cause notice was sent to the student by TISS Mumbai on March 7 claiming alleged falsehoods about his “repeated misconduct and anti-national activities.” In the notice, the college management accused Ramadas of staging a demonstration outside the Indian Parliament in New Delhi on January 12 under the banner of Progressive Students Federation (PSF) - TISS. “Further, you have also posted some pamphlets on social media sites calling upon to join screening of the documentary "Ram Ke Naam" on 26 January, 2024 at 7:00 pm as a mark of dishonour and protest against the Ram mandir inauguration in Ayodhya,” the notice read. 

It goes on to say that Ramadas screened the “banned” BBC documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and organised Bhagat Singh Memorial Lecture by inviting “controversial speakers”. The speakers of the lecture were People's Archive of Rural India founder P Sainath, anti-caste activist Bezawada Wilson and editor of Economic and Political Weekly Gopal Guru among others.  

On April 18, an empowered committee concluded that the rally Ramadoss participated in was politically motivated. He was found guilty of violating Clause 9 and bringing disrepute to the institute. Quoting Ramadas’ scathing attack on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP, the committee further stated that he was misusing the institute’s resources for personal political ambitions. They also mention that whether Ramadas was an ‘anti-national’ was for law enforcement agencies to decide.

Following the massive outrage, TISS released a public notice on April 20 reiterating the charges levelled earlier. It also said that Ramadas overstayed in the TISS hostel unlawfully ignoring multiple warnings from the administration. “His unlawful overstay in the hostel has seriously and genuinely deprived other deserving PhD Scholars who were waiting in the queue. While projecting himself as a champion of students' rights, his prolonged occupancy of hostel facilities has deprived genuine needy students of this accommodation and resources,” read the public notice.

Are charges levelled by TISS baseless?

PSF members said that Ramadas was suspended for his vocal stand against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led Union government during the protest. TNM has a copy of the rally’s poster, which only mentions PSF and not TISS. A student, on the condition of anonymity, said, “There was no mention of TISS at the rally. The rally was organised by United Students of India, which consists of student groups linked to political parties from Communist Party of India (Marxist) to the Indian National Congress. How is criticising BJP or RSS anti-national,” she asked.

The students further said Ramadas had not circulated pamphlets related to any screening of the 1992 documentary as contested by the committee and that It was just a Facebook post asking people to watch it and resist communal politics. 

It is pertinent to note that Ram Ke Naam, a documentary on the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, was screened at TISS Mumbai in 2017 during Sameeksha, the annual fest of School of Social Work. It was followed by a discussion with its director Anand Patwardhan. The national award winning documentary was also telecasted on Doordarshan following an order from the Bombay High Court in 1997. 

Justice Shah, who heard the case, observed that the entire structure of the film was based on the ideology of social justice for lower classes and castes. “The film presents the dispute not as a Hindu-Muslim problem but as a secular world view vs non-secular world view. The protagonists in the film are neither Muslims nor Hindus but Indians, specially the poor and the working class,” the court added. Ram Ke Naam is also publically available on Youtube and has not been banned.  

The institute claims that the BBC documentary was banned in India. The two-part documentary on the 2002 Gujarat Riots, when PM Modi was in power, was taken down by the Union government by invoking its emergency powers under the amended IT Rules 2021, directing both YouTube and Twitter to remove links to the documentary. However, when TMC MP Saket Gokhale filed an RTI application seeking information on what grounds was the documentary banned, the Ministry said details cannot be provided. The Supreme Court had issued a notice on petitions challenging the government’s decision to block the documentary. The petitions argue that citizens have the right to see news, facts and reports on the 2002 Gujarat riots and that the Union government's decision has infringed citizens' right to information under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.The case is pending.

While TISS tried to stop the lecture of Bezawada WIlson, students said that the institute had not notified the new guidelines and hence the event was not illegal. In 2023, the Union government had changed the UGC regulation allowing itself to appoint the heads of deemed universities, including TISS.  “Bhagat Singh Memorial Lecture was held from 2018. The administration has never officially objected to the Lecture on account of having 'controversial speakers". That the administration thinks this way is a blot on the academic credentials of the institute,” read a statement from PSF. 

Contrary to the institute’s version that Ramadas overstayed in the hostel, an email purported to have been sent from Ramadas to the hostel authorities state that he wants to vacate the hostel from November 30. “I request you to kindly remove me from the hostel list and allot my vacancy to any other needy student,” the mail read. 

Support pours in

Many of the institute’s alumni and other student organisations in the campus voiced out their support to Ramadas and urged the authorities to revoke the suspension. They have accused the institute of acting like the mouthpiece of the RSS. Lakshmi Lingam, Chair Professor of School of Public Health and an alumni, said, “This public notice is appalling. It is not a public notice to announce to the world that a student is suspended for so-called 'anti-national' activities. Should one consider through this announcement that the current administration, a non-existent Chancellor, a Governing Board and top officials of TISS have declared that TISS is now openly towing a political line? It is not about education any more; it is a call for complete submission and subordination of all its key stakeholders to an understanding of what education is and what discipline is,”

Anand Patwardhan, the director of the documentary, extended support and said that this was reminiscent of the attack on Rohith Vemula, which must be resisted by all citizens of India. “I join all conscientious citizens of India in condemning the shocking, unconstitutional and undemocratic debarring of PhD scholar Ramadas for two years,” he said.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) demanded the institute to revoke the suspension order immediately. The United Students of India said that such a “pseudo-nationalistic evaluation of students” by the TISS administration can only be viewed as an attempt to crush the voices of dissent against the BJP-Sangh Parivar. Extending support to Ramadas, Students Union of TISS, Mumbai questioned the timing of the action. “Three months have passed since all these activities that had happened. While no actions were taken then, now, especially when it is the season of general elections in the country these notices are being sent out labelling students as 'anti-national' and giving baseless accusations as 'hurting religious sentiments',” they said.

The Union added that the constitution of the TISS Students' Union Article 16(5) protects all students from prejudiced academic evaluations unrelated to academic performance based on the student's views, opinions, political associations, organisational memberships, or the instructor's biases based on the character of the student. Other student bodies that extended support include the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA), Students Federation of India (SFI), Adivasi Students Forum - TISS, Northeast Students Forum - TISS, and Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) among others. 

Tamil Nadu Minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader Mano Thangaraj also extended his solidarity and said that curtailing freedom of speech and expression of dissent by a reputed educational institution was a wrong precedent. On every instance of suppression, a new leader will emerge. Thanks to TISS for paving the way for a young leader Ramadas Prini Sivanandan,” he said.

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