Free speech must for students, IITB alumni to director

Two alumnus of the prestigious, Powai based IIT, Bombay, have in an open letter to the Institute's director urged that the robust traditions of free speech and dissent be upheld on campus


In the spate of protests that spilled over in as many as 32  Institutes of higher learning following the brute police actions on Jamia Milia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University and Jawaharlal Nehru University on December 15, 2019 and January 5, 2020 respectively, the dozens of protests that took place at IITB were historic.

Predictably, these have been followed by repression and blatant efforts at coercive intimidation.

Now two former IIT-ians write an open letter to the director not only making a case for free speech but tracing the illustrious history of IITB’s alumni that have broken ceilings of predictability and forged new horizons. Do not the present students of IITB not have the right to emulate them, the letter asks.

The full text of the letter may be read here:

Dear Director Sahib

On January 26, this year, IIT Bombay students organized a lively event “Reclaiming the Republic” to mark the Republic day celebrations and to serve as a reminder of our Constitutional values that we all hold dear.

Then came an email dated 28 Jan from the Institute to the students that summarized “Hostel conduct rules” and pretty much obstructed the fundamental rights of the students to express themselves freely and peacefully.

Our letter to you was published in The Midday on Jan 31 and sent to you by email. This was a plea, from senior alumni of this great institution, to respect the students’ rights to free and peaceful expression and to withdraw the restrictive rules.

It seems that not only do these rules continue but security forces now regularly chaperone and control events around the campus. Even a harmless road painting depicting the students’ solidarity with the women of Shaheen Bagh has not been spared and blacked out!

It is often said that “students are supposed to study”, implying that they should ignore or at any rate not get involved in what is happening on the world outside. This is emphasized even more for students of IITs and other prestigious institutes – who are expected to excel at science and technology to the exclusion of everything else – as if that were even possible, let alone desirable.

These statements ignore the great contribution made by youth and students for freedom and progress in India and the world. Youth and students from our forefathers’ generations fought valiantly for freedom from colonial rule – which is why we are now able to celebrate 70 years of the Indian Republic. Who has not heard of the young patriots and martyrs like Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru and countless others? Breathes there an Indian youth who has at some time not pledged to follow in their footsteps and work for the true liberation of her motherland?

Today too, our country is going through turbulent times. Are we not in the pincer grip of a combination of a falling economy, an atmosphere of increasing discrimination, hate and violence and a health pandemic? Would you want our students to live in a cocoon and ignore all the challenges that humanity is facing?

If so, how would they be expected to take tough decisions when they venture out in the real world? How will they hold up when the real-life situations challenge the core of their morality and test their character? “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right” said Martin Luther King Jr.

Students have historically spoken out against injustice and our IIT Bombay students have been no exception. For instance, IIT Bombay students protested the horrendous genocide of the Sikhs organized following the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1984, and some even participated in ensuring that Sikhs in Mumbai, Delhi and other parts of the country were safe from marauding mobs.

There are several IIT graduates too who have followed their conscience and are respected for their integrity and human values. Some have given up lucrative corporate careers and become prominent human rights lawyers, educators, RTI pioneers and Information Commissioners, environmental activists, gender advocates and much more. Others combine a job or a livelihood with similar activities; acting according to their conscience to work for causes they believe to be just. I hope you agree that they have made immense contributions to the nation and mankind, for making our country and the world truly better for everyone.

Shouldn’t the present students of IIT Bombay be permitted to emulate them? Is it fair to suppress all nonviolent activities which perhaps question the present order of things, including peaceful protests?  Will such an attitude contribute to nurturing a generation of youth who care for the nation and all its peoples, for social justice and fairness – or will it lead to engendering an egocentric attitude of “couldn’t care less” among them? If, as we believe, it would lead to the latter, do you think you would really be at ease with your conscience a few years later?

We request your sympathetic consideration of the students’ right to free speech and peaceful assembly and protests. Let us remember the great soul who said “The only tyrant I accept in this world is the ‘still small voice’ within me. And even though I have to face the prospect of being a minority of one, I humbly believe I have the courage to be in such a hopeless minority.”

Yours in hope,


Dr Venkatesh Sundaram & Chandru Chawla (IITB Alumni)

March 12, 2020




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