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Letting Be

This article is written by Aditya Singh Chawla (Batch of 2017).

Some disclaimers before we proceed. These are insights based on observations during my time here. Though I don’t know how disciplinary committees have conducted themselves in the past, or how they’re going to in the future – this is more an assessment of the concept in itself. I also recognize that my perspective is limited to MHOR and SDGM, and that the DISCO-WHOR experience is different in many ways. However, while they may differ in their methods, both SDGM and DISCO in principle perform the same function (in fact, DISCO tends to be more hands-on in many ways). In that sense, when I say SDGM, I mean both entities.

It is widely perceived to be the case that we live in one of the more permissive and liberal campus environments. Being in a space that allows a high degree of freedom is in principle an amazing thing. We can explore, interact and relate to the people around us, (as well as ourselves) in whichever manner and setting we’d like. It allows us the essential opportunity to discover and develop our own norms and codes of conduct, within the freedom enjoyed. Arbitrary restraints only hinder this process of evolving as individuals and as a community. For an individual, it’s the process of determining your own precepts of restraint, those that come from within, when you could have chosen none. As a community, it’s determining standards of appropriate behaviour that allow us to coexist in our individual pursuits of those precepts.

As it stands, we exercise a high degree of control over this process, and what we do for leisure here is almost entirely our choice. But while most of us are far enough from any real parental influence, let’s admit that we are under the authority of the college administration. By virtue of being a residential campus, the college also has an interest in ensuring that we conform to a Code of law, order and behaviour that it has articulated (the “Principles of Conduct,” they’re called). That there is disagreement over the substantive content of such a code is clear — we’re constantly in willing violation of it. It’s effectively a dispute over defining what freedom should legitimately mean for students in this setting.

Let’s also admit that we have little control over the Code that is enforced. In this situation of no influence over a Code that is meant to govern our freedom, the question then is, whether the community’s conception of freedom, and the conception embodied by the Code can be harmonised. Take heart, because as that beautiful KT Thomas report put it, there are “rising instances of drug abuse, sex and drinking among students”.

Clearly, we’ve figured something out.

The curtailment of liberties by any Code of Conduct will be contingent on its method and mechanism of enforcement. In our case, the mechanism that determines the extent and degree to which the words of the Code tangibly affect behaviour, is actually an acknowledgement of their dissonance with the students’ perception of legitimate freedom.

SDGM is a recognition of the fact that the Code doesn’t truly reflect the community’s conception of freedom, in so far as it is a mechanism that can appeal to both.

For the college, it is a body that exists to enforce the Code that it has articulated. As a group within the student body, it is best placed to monitor and address violations of this code. For the student body, a student run entity such as SDGM, will always remain cognizant of the aforementioned dissonance between the norms of appropriate behaviour among students, and the Code the college would have us conform to. (The obvious example is that intoxicants are prohibited, but there is a general norm of ‘live and let live’ amongst the students.) Thus, SDGM’s operation can and should be informed by the appropriate balance it is capable of achieving between its two aspects.

Barring some aberrations, the practice of SDGMs during my time here seem to reflect this. There has been a general policy of leniency towards those partaking and imbibing in the appropriate spaces. Intervention mostly occurs for repeated violations, blatant disregard of the code, or to address behaviour that the student body itself might take issue with (causing destruction, nuisance etc., intoxicated or not).

At the same time, extreme violations are referred to the authorities if they can’t be handled internally; first years are given a healthy dose of fear, along with perm being strictly enforced; raids at the behest of the wardens sometimes deprive us of our miscellaneous consumables (although no booty being found would seem quite suspicious).

This mixed approach is essential to the continued existence of SDGM, and the system that we’re beneciaries of. This is because signalling is an important aspect of these functions. The committee must consistently project to the administration that an appropriate degree of law and order is being maintained; it must also signal to the student body the real boundaries of our liberties, beyond which we strain the balance sought.

SDGM fails its function, if it acts in excess of the signals to be projected to the administration; it also fails if it falls short, in that a perceived failure to maintain order and discipline may make the administration consider direct intervention.

Controversy regarding how SDGM conducts its business surfaces fairly often, in our public fora as well as in private settings. Concerns regarding overreach, discretion and arbitrariness have been a common refrain. While there have been very grave instances of overreach (last year’s SF debacle comes to mind), some of the criticism levelled is misplaced, if it loses sight of the larger principle underlying the existence of such an entity.

At the same time, while discretion is essential to their function, it seems that these excesses tend to occur when members within the committee also lose sight of that principle.

It is thus essential to realise that the moral content of SDGM doesn’t come from the substantive rules they’re supposed to be enforcing, but by the very nature of being a student run body appointed to enforce a code we disagree with. It cannot be a conduit for people whose opinions may be in conformity with the code, but only a mechanism that sustains the environment in which we can coexist with our differing opinions and pursuits. In being a part of this community, we can only but allow each other that.

Published in Life In Laa College


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