UDHAV NAIG on an engineering college circular which recently went viral on social media, and raises important questions on student rights

After two decades of enduring appalling and unreasonable diktats from the managements of engineering colleges, the students had their own little version, if one could call that, of an ‘Arab Spring’.

What started as a protest on social media against the medieval-era rules enforced by the management of a specific college, spilled over to the streets as well, with students launching a sit-in protest outside Anna University and blocking roads.

The spontaneous protest highlighted how some engineering colleges, which claim to prepare would-be engineers for future challenges, clamp down on even the most basic rights — to be able to speak to the opposite sex without inhibition or fear — under the garb of maintaining ‘discipline’ within the campus.

The college management denied that the circular, which was doing the rounds on social media, was sent out by them, but it was clear, from the testimony of the students, that the college management was just trying to duck and swerve.

Having studied engineering in a liberal college, the events reminded me of stories shared by my friends, who studied in some of these colleges. Some of them include fines for talking to the opposite sex, separate staircases for boys and girls and — this is legendary — a string running through the college bus, the lakshman rekha, so to speak, that separates the boys and girls.

Back then, we all thought that things would get progressively better, but we were wrong. I messaged a long-time friend, who went to the college in question and subsequently moved to Singapore to study further, to share some of his experiences.

He replied saying that by chastising the college for banning the use of mobile phones, jeans, T-shirts and attempting to prevent even basic interaction with the opposite sex, we are missing the forest for the trees. “Do you think these colleges really care about promoting ‘Indian’ and Tamil culture?” he asked me, before saying, “They just want to make money.”

I couldn’t agree more. The freedom which is at stake here is something more fundamental: do students have the freedom to fall in love while in college, break up, pick up the pieces and learn from life? The answer is no.

What is being promised instead is this: we will make sure your child gets a degree and a job with a five-figure salary, but not a boyfriend of her choice. Gone are the days when college was a place where you begin to taste independence.

Hegelian philosopher Slavoj Zizek was right in observing how we increasingly desire something without accepting its impact.

‘We want beer without alcohol, we want sugar without the calories, we want coffee without caffeine [decaffeinated coffee] and so on…’ Following his train of thought, are these events not a reflection of what 21st Century Indian parents want?

They want their kids to enjoy the fruits of modernity, exploit the opportunities bestowed by globalisation, without disturbing the dominant social order.

In short, they want their sons and daughters to be global citizens, work in New York and holiday in London, but yet make sure that they marry the people their parents choose. This is not done.