A campus discoloured: On the saffronisation of National Institute of Technology, Calicut

A few weeks into the tension at the National Institute of Technology, Calicut, and a few days after its reopening, The Hindu speaks to students and staff many of who express outrage and fear at what they feel is the slow saffronising of the educational institution run by the Centre

February 08, 2024 08:01 pm | Updated February 09, 2024 08:03 am IST

The students’ agitation following the suspension of Vysakh Premkumar at the NIT-C on February 1.

The students’ agitation following the suspension of Vysakh Premkumar at the NIT-C on February 1. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

An uneasy calm prevails at the National Institute of Technology, Calicut, (NIT-C), on the morning of February 5. Yellow college buses and a few private vehicles enter the campus at Chathamangalam, around 20 km from Kozhikode city in Kerala, as classes resume after a three-day gap. Students with backpacks slung over their shoulders are walking in. To the left of the main gate are two police barricades, a reminder of the storm of students’ protests that rocked the campus four days ago, leading to the three-day closure from February 2.

The protests had erupted as a response to the suspension of Vysakh Premkumar, a final-year-student of Electronics and Communication Engineering. The sequence of events that led to the students’ unrest and what followed have raised concerns about the institute administration’s alleged bias and the attempts to create a discord between students and among faculty members in one of the premier institutes of higher education in the country.

The map of India in saffron colour drawn on the road after the Geeta Gyan event at NIT-C.

The map of India in saffron colour drawn on the road after the Geeta Gyan event at NIT-C. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The origin of the current stalemate, according to the students, was an event titled ‘Geeta Gyan’ organised at Bhaskara Hall by the Science and Spirituality Club attached to the Centre of Indian Knowledge Systems on January 21, on the eve of the Ram Temple consecration at Ayodhya. Social media images and videos show key people from the administration attending it, apart from a section of the students.

“To our knowledge, such an event with explicit religious colours and political intentions was being held here for the first time on the campus,” says a student on condition of anonymity.

The mission of the club, according to its LinkedIn profile, is to “help students explore their spiritual side while maintaining a scientific approach towards life” and teach students to use spiritual practices, such as meditation, to tackle stress. The steps taken so far by the club to achieve this include a performance of the Ramleela to familiarise students with “our culture”, the profile says.

The Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems, which runs the club, was set up on the campus a few years ago in line with the National Education Policy 2020 to “promote education, training and research in traditional Indian knowledge systems” such as “science, mathematics, economics, astronomy and astrology”.

A photo of the ‘Geeta Gyan event’ posted on social media.

A photo of the ‘Geeta Gyan event’ posted on social media. | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Pictures and videos of the event were shared by the participants on Instagram the same day. They included a road-drawing just outside the campus hall of a saffron-coloured map of India with a bow and arrow within its boundaries. There were earthen lamps placed on its borders. The students were also seen raising ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogans.

Students air concern

H. Kailas Nath, a third-year student of Computer Science Engineering, and Premkumar were among those who felt uncomfortable seeing the videos and pictures. Premkumar posted a story on Instagram the same night, expressing his intention to stage a protest the next day. Nath, who is also the Speaker of the Students Affairs’ Council (SAC), a representative body that acts as a bridge between the students and the administrators, wondered in the SAC WhatsApp group if it was a violation of the students’ code of conduct. Student organisations are not allowed on the campus.

“There were no classes till the afternoon on January 22. I reached the campus in the morning and staged a sit-in demonstration outside the main building carrying a placard that said: ‘India is not a Rama Rajya’. Initially, a few students were with me, but they left later to work on the three-day Tathva tech fest, which was scheduled to begin on January 27. Around 10 a.m., a group of students, the majority of who spoke Hindi, threatened me, tore down the placard, and abused me,” says Premkumar.

The placards he made were destroyed by the group at least thrice thereafter. While Premkumar was going to make a fourth one, the group surrounded him in an isolated place and one among them, a fourth-year student who was later identified as Shiv Pandey, slapped him. “I shouted and tried to seek the attention of the people in the vicinity and walked away. They followed me and hurled racial abuses. I sought refuge at the security officer’s cabin,” claims Premkumar.

Soon after, around 11.30 a.m., Premkumar’s friend Nath was questioned by the same group in front of the NIT A-block hostel and beaten up as he was winding up the work on a stage for the tech festival.

In a police complaint filed on January 24, Nath alleged that he was roughed up and threatened by Pandey and others. His shirt was torn, his lip was cut, and his phone was damaged. “I sent emails to the NIT-C authorities explaining the incident, and sought treatment at the Government Medical College Hospital, Kozhikode,” he says. Premkumar filed a police complaint on February 5. Cases have now been booked against 10 people.

When students heard of these developments, many reached the main building and raised placards in support of Premkumar and Nath. “The group that beat me up came there again around 2 p.m. and tried to provoke us. They also tried to damage the placards. We raised ‘India is not a Rama Rajya’ slogans and they responded with ‘Jai Shri Ram’. There was a stand-off for a while,” Premkumar says.

By this time, the officials, including Commander M.S. Shamasundara (retired), Registrar, reached the scene. This was followed by arguments between the students and the authorities. “We told them that our intention was not to protest against the ‘pran prathishta’ (consecration) at Ayodhya, but what happened in the name of ‘Geeta Gyan’ on the campus. After some time, the police were called in and the crowd dispersed,” says Dinakar Lal (name changed), one of the students present there. 

Disciplinary panel begins inquiry

The institute’s disciplinary committee soon began an inquiry into the episode. Premkumar, Nath, Pandey, and four other students were asked to depose on January 25. Premkumar was questioned alone, and six others were heard together. The suspension order issued on January 31 night by the Dean, Students’ Welfare, said that “after a thorough investigation”, Premkumar was found to be “solely accountable for inciting campus unrest” in the form of an “unlawful gathering at the main building on January 22” and “lowering the esteem of the institute”. The suspension was said to be valid for a year.

The students’ agitation at the NIT-C following the suspension of Vysakh Premkumar on February 1.

The students’ agitation at the NIT-C following the suspension of Vysakh Premkumar on February 1. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

By February 1 morning, students in large numbers gathered on the campus to protest against the move.

The SAC members and a section of PhD scholars and other students prepared a memorandum seeking immediate revocation of Premkumar’s suspension and submitted it to G.K. Rajanikant, Dean, Students’ Welfare. But, the official reportedly said that since Prasad Krishna, the Director, was out of town, a final decision could not be taken.

The students, however, refused to budge and decided to intensify their protest. Around 6 p.m., more people gathered next to the main gate, sit-in demonstrations were held, and the exit gate was blocked, preventing staff from leaving the campus. At the same time, students’ organisations such as the Kerala Students Union, Fraternity Movement, Muslim Students Federation, staged protests outside the campus. Later, Students Federation of India activists too took out a protest, which ended in a lathi charge.

Inside the institute, the students staged two street plays and a mime to explain the reason for the protest. At around 10.30 p.m., the authorities informed them that the suspension has been put on hold pending an appeal against it filed by Premkumar. Raising of slogans and a march by students followed. Along with this, the authorities also decided to suspend classes for three days from February 2 and postponed the Tathva tech fest and the Ragam cultural fest.

Asked about the “steps being taken to address the students’ protest” and “the sequence of events that happened before”, the NIT-C authorities said in an e-mail reply on February 6 that “the suspension of the student is put on hold pending the decision of the appellate authority, which is the Senate, being the highest academic body of the institute”. They chose not to respond to the second part of the question.

Faculty members a worried lot

A section of faculty members, who did not wish to be named, however, is alarmed by the developments as they see a clear design to create division on the campus that has students from across India, with 50% reserved for those with a Kerala domicile. They say that prior to this episode, teachers would never express their political leanings in public.

A senior faculty member claimed that the activities of the Science and Spirituality Club and the Centre of Indian Knowledge Systems have a clear Hindutva bias. Teachers fear going on record to say this. “There is a perceptible change in the past one-and-a-half years. People are scared to speak out fearing retribution,” one of them said. Club functionaries refused to respond to queries.

Meanwhile, Shaija Andavan, a Professor attached to the Mechanical Engineering Department, courted a controversy on February 2 after one of her social media comments hailing Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, was reported in the media. Under a Facebook post by Krishnaraj, a lawyer, which said that Godse, the Hindu Mahasabha leader, was a “hero” for many in “Bharat”, Andavan wrote: “Proud of Godse for saving India”. The police have now booked a case against her.

Some others see attempts to divide the students as well. The SAC, an elected body of students, has 13 posts of secretaries. Six posts each are now reserved between students from Kerala and those from other States. The post of sports secretary is exempted from this. Speaker is elected by branch representatives from each department and Deputy Speaker is chosen by the Speaker.

The authorities claim that the reservation is an attempt to ensure representation to various sections. There is some uncertainty over Tathva, the three-day annual techno-management fest held in October, and Ragam, the annual cultural fest held in March in memory of P. Rajan, an alumnus who disappeared in police custody during the Emergency. Both are conducted entirely by the student community. NIT-C authorities say that Tathva and Ragam have been postponed until further notice and new dates for the events will be announced.

As classes resumed, there is a sense of unity among most students. “We now realise that any injustice by the administration can be corrected by joint action,” says Pinto Mathew (name changed), one of the students.

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