Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Rules, discipline, decorum

Over at Alaphia's post, one of the commenters mentioned Jeppiaar. That comment triggered this post.

Every Sunday morning, Sun TV broadcasts Sapta Swarangal, a program that showcases musical talents in amateurs -- college students (and groups) in particular. In a recent episode, one of the participating groups was from Velammal Engineering College, located near Chennai. During the pre-competition chat, the show's MC asks the group "So, what's special about your college?" The group's leader answers immediately "Rules!". The MC is taken aback, but recovers quickly to ask, "Rules, ... and discipline?".

"Yes", says the group's leader with a mischievous grin, "discipline and decorum".


"Rules, discipline, decorum." Using these three simple words, engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu (and recently, the Anna University has joined them) have unleashed a reign of terror among their students. This post is about how this evil might have taken root.

In the late eighties and early nineties, Tamil Nadu saw a great expansion in engineering education, a growth that led to the current number of over 250 colleges offering degree programs. [To put that number in perspective, there were just seven such institutions when I entered college in 1981.] During the early days of this furious expansion, most of the colleges didn't have a track record that could help the public (parents, really) judge how great they really were. Since 'academic greatness' was hard to judge, the parents settled for a convenient proxy in 'rules, discipline and decorum'.

At this game of 'greatness through decorum', nobody was better than the Sathyabama Engineering College (now Sathyabama Deemed University), founded by Thiru. Jeppiaar (who is now its Chancellor), whom the University's website describes as "a man of success and a wide-angled ideology".

Now, Sathyabama had a strong set of rules prescribing dress codes for students and faculty, and penalties for 'crimes' such as not attending classes. It also banned the use of lecture notes by its faculty during their lectures (!). It went so far as to even 'outlaw' all interactions -- including conversations -- among boys and girls (men and women?). Result? Parents loved it. It must be a great place, the reasoning went, if one can trust it with one's daughter.

Reacting to the rule 'outlawing' conversation between the sexes, a colleague of mine observed that perhaps it all makes sense. "It does liberate one's mind", he said, "if the mind is not allowed to think about sex!"

I am not sure if Sathyabama was the first one to institutionalize this fetish with rules, but it certainly was the best. Now, this fetish is the norm among pretty much all the colleges.

I remember an incident from several years ago, when a male student was allegedly slapped at one of the colleges that dot the Old Mahabalipuram Road. His crime? Chatting with a girl in the college bus; the bus driver ratted on him. In a subsequent meeting, several parents protested against this barbarity. However, their protests were greeted with a stony silence from the other parents. A participant told me later that girls' parents were (secretly) happy that the principal took strict action.

When parents condoned -- and, in fact, encouraged -- high handed and dictatorial behaviour by college administrators on non-academic matters, it was only a matter of time before the disease spread to places like Anna University. That seems to have happened now, with Professor D. Viswanathan, its current Vice Chancellor, issuing fatwas defining acceptable behaviour.

Sathyabama's website has absolutely no information about its faculty. If you doubt me, go ahead and check out their Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Unless people stop confusing 'academic greatness' with non-academic issues such as rules, discipline and decorum, this reign of terror is not going to go away. Our cussed regulators are not at all helpful when they don't mandate our universities and colleges to disclose, unconditionally, all academically relevant information. In the absence of this information, an urban legend based on 'rules, discipline and decorum' is what determines 'greatness' of an institution. The stricter the rules, the greater the institution.

Has anyone told you that Anna University has just become great?


  1. Anonymous said...

    More Sathyabama stories - Apparently, in the college bus, they have a rope that separates the male section from the femal e one. And if you touch the rope, you could be hauled before the goondas who are responsible for enforcing "discipline". What I don't understand is why any sensible parent would send his/her son/daughter to such schools!

  2. Anonymous said...

    There was a time when Vice Chancellors of Universities were appointed on the strength of their academic record, the quality of papers they had published, the number of books they had authored, their mentoring of Phd students, etc. They commanded respect and did not need to resort to gimmicks to attract attention and to leave an impression. VCs like DV of Anna University have no academic record to speak of,no creditworthy reputation as a teacher, no noteworthy papers published, no other distinction except that they had access to political powers. What else can you except from people of this ilk ? How else can they gain visibility? Unless some minimum criteria is laid down and the process of selection is transparent and monitored by a panel of eminent academicians, such low-calibre people will continue to rule the roost.

  3. Anonymous said...

    I guess I've not been keeping up with current events in TN for a while now. I nearly choked to read that D.Vishwanathan (DV) was the vice chancellor of Anna Univ. How was such an imcompetent bigot made the vice chancellor?

    I graduated from Anna Univ (architecture) about 6 years ago and had the pleasure(!) of being taught by DV for one semester for a course. The very first class, he showed up and yelled at us, because the boys and girls did not sit separately. The School of Architecture was one of the few oases in the Univ, where guys and girls interacted freely and unselfconsciously. I am grateful for having studied in such an atmosphere and am definitely no worse off for it.

    He did not show up for subsequent classes. SO we knew NOTHING about Mechanical systems in buildings and we were supposed to write an exam on it! We protested to our HOD who assured us that we would all pass. Ok, but what about learning the subject? Years later I still feel bitter towards certain professors who were complete failures in teaching and DV is among the top of my list..mainly for being incompetent (The moral hooliganism is merely icing on the cake).

    Needless to say, I don't agree with your colleague about the liberting aspect of outlawing interaction between sexes, even if he had said that in humour.

  4. Anonymous said...

    Well I graduated from Sathyabam 4 yrs back and it was tough but hey we did find our way to go around the so called rules.. but I do hear that it is become even more strict after I left,.. but when I was there it was strict enough - cant get out of hostel, the rope separating girls and boys, girl-boy no talking crap, and u wont believe - some of the bus drivers too act like some undercover agents if at all some guy jumped over the rope soetimes.. though after 2 or so yrs travel by same bus u get to know them.. but for the 1st and 2nd year its very tough but its chill during 3rd and 4th yrs provided u stay within limits.. the so called "RULES" Thing is sometimes overblown.. given that we have our share of fun but ya it did exist a bit too much like it felt like we r being choked..

  5. Abi said...

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Veena: I too find it amazing that people find such places great, particularly in the absence of academically relevant information.

    Raj: The VC's job has become so badly politicised that it would actually be very difficult to get good people to take it up! I am not the one saying this stuff; it's from none other than the former Delhi University's VC, Deepak Nayyar!

    Vita: I like the phrase 'moral hooliganism'! I should remember to use it sometime. My colleague was not being just funny (that he certainly was), but also sarcastic.

    Vivhyd: I always knew teenagers would find a way around any crazy rule you throw at them. What makes me mad is that they are made to worry about rules; instead, I would much rather have them dream, and dream big.

  6. Anonymous said...

    As it is, only a miniscule fraction of our student population ever get to experience the joys of a true "academic environment". The last thing we want is this number going down! The Anna Univ VC has surely taked a few fast-paced steps in that direction. I am stunned that an university VC (holding a PhD) has such archaic views.

  7. Abi said...

    Aswin: This episode just goes to show that Ph.D.'s and archaic views need not be mutually exclusive! Advanced thinking in one realm need not translate into similar levels of thinking in other realms.

  8. Anonymous said...


    A first year student of Jeppiar College of Engineering committed suicide last week. Reason: She was humiliated and isolated by college staff for doing "mistakes" like talking to boys and submitting assignments late. The college staff had instructed the girl students not to talk to her. This public humiliation and isolation came as a shock for this confident and cheerful teenager. She couldnt take this anymore and tragically decided to end her life.

  9. Anonymous said...

    Correction to the link mentioned in the above post

  10. Anonymous said...

    Um, I wonder why no one highlights this little line prominently displayed on their website: "a Christian minority institution" Having studied in a convent school, I can see where this craziness is coming from.

    Maybe this point is not highlighted because that is considered irrelevant, I think it should be.

  11. Anonymous said...

    And now we(sathyabama students) have a bit of relaxation.