A former student of IIT Madras laments the recent restrictions on life on campus and argues that it is freedom that will produce successful and responsible adults
I remember what IIT Madras (IITM) was like when I first set foot on its campus. The professors were passionate about teaching, they encouraged discussion and welcomed students to challenge them in class. However, a lot of the learning that happened in college actually happened outside the classroom. In IITM's hostel zone, life was run by the students with a strong sense of independence. There was hardly any interference from professors, and as freshies (first-years), we were inducted into the vibrant traditions of IITM student life by our seniors. The doors to our hostels never closed, the back gate of the campus remained open through the night, allowing night owls to slip out and get tea and bread-omelette after the eateries on campus had closed.
It often seemed like the campus woke up only at dinner time. Students thronged inter-hostel competitions and other activities that could go on well past midnight. There was always so much to do, and the level of creative talent on campus amazed me. There were actors, writers, musicians, sportsmen and innovators, all actively pursuing their interests and learning new skills, even if it was for the sole purpose of performing in front of an audience or for the sake of hostel pride.
I began to see that the supposed brilliance of IIT graduates was thanks not to their ability to crack an entrance exam, or even their supposed engineering or scientific prowess, but to the four years they spend in an open, encouraging environment moulding them into confident, free-thinking individuals.
There was no need at that time to restrict Internet access in hostels or increase the minimum attendance requirement from 75 per cent to 85; in spite of everything, students worked hard and performed well. There was no need to close the back gate of the Institute at midnight or close the night eateries earlier; students would often sleep after class and work at night. There was no need to threaten seniors with police action at the slightest mention of ragging; ragging in IITM, euphemistically (but perhaps more accurately) called ‘interaction' was never forced, never physical, never more than a bit of harmless teasing that helped juniors and seniors get to know each other better.
But over the course of my five years in IIT Madras, all these measures and more were introduced by an increasingly paternalistic administration, telling us when we should go to bed, whom we could invite to our hostels, what we should be doing with our free time. The only effect of these measures was not an improvement in academic performance, but a decline in enthusiasm for various creative activities, a widening gulf between senior and junior batches, and a growing trend of frustration and even depression among students.
Since last year, the administration has clamped down even harder, imposing severe restrictions on the long-standing tradition of the annual hostel nights, when hostel residents throw a party for their outgoing batch. A recently leaked email thread between hostel wardens has revealed disdain for student freedom and taking offence at students' requests for privacy in their hostel rooms. One warden has gone so far as to say they need to “generate fear” to keep students in line, and another stresses that students should keep their doors open at all times, saying “the bathroom/toilet is the only place where you [students] get your privacy”.
Finally, the IITM authorities are now discussing imposing a curfew for the women students, disallowing them from venturing out of their hostels past 11 p.m. without a male escort. With a recent rash of chain snatching incidents and assaults, the administration wants to lock up the girls at night rather than increase security at unmanned access points. The authorities' excuse that the proposed curfew is for the safety of the girl students is ridiculous, sexist, and detrimental to the interests of the ‘supposed' victims.
IIT Madras is still in some ways better off than other colleges in the State that impose far more draconian measures to control their students, but in comparison with other IITs, IIT Madras is one of the least liberal. One of the frequent arguments made by the establishment is that students need to “remember what they have come here to do”, which is only to study. IITM needs to acknowledge that, just as many of its graduates go on to excel in fields outside engineering, not all the brilliance of its graduates is earned in its classrooms. Former director M.S. Ananth used to say that in his experience, it was students with nine-point GPAs that often ended up working for the five-pointers. The democratic values and freedom that IIT affords its students goes a long way towards shaping them into successful, responsible adults. The administration of IITM needs to recognise that the more they restrict their students, the less space they grant them to discover themselves and grow.
(The writer graduated with a Masters in English Studies in 2011)