Dr Subrahmanyam Saderla, a recently recruited faculty at the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur, found himself accused of plagiarism through an anonymous complaint last year
The institute has been allegedly sitting on the final report on the plagiarism charges since May. A meeting on the decision is scheduled on September 14
On July 22, the director of the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur (IIT-K) received a letter from the National Scheduled Castes Commission (NCSC). The commission wanted to know the status of the plagiarism inquiry against a young faculty member, Dr Subrahmanyam Saderla, who belongs to a scheduled caste.
More than ten months had passed since an anonymous email from a gmail ID, 'email@example.com', landed in the inboxes of a large number of senior faculty members, including the director. The email had alleged that Saderla copied "paragraphs after paragraph, pages alter pages" and "material worth an entire page" in his PhD thesis, that he had earned at the same institute three years ago.
Saderla, 31, had joined IIT-K in January 2018 as assistant professor in the department of aerospace engineering. The email had appeared a day before the institute’s top management - board of governors (BoG) - was supposed to decide on punitive action against four senior professors who had been found guilty of harassing Saderla .
At least three independent inquiry committees had held professors CS Upadhyay, Rajiv Shekhar, Ishan Sharma and Sanjay Mittal guilty of caste-based discrimination and harassment of Saderla, who was recruited through a special drive under the reserved category. Besides Saderla, many saw the email as a vendetta against him for complaining to the institute’s higher authorities about his harassment.
The director, Dr Abhay Karandikar, replied to the commission’s letter on August 16.
“Upon receiving the complaint of plagiarism in PhD thesis of Dr Saderla and its circulation amongst institute faculty, the undersigned immediately requested the institute Academics Ethics Cell to look into the complaint. The Academic Ethics Cell investigated the complaint and suggested minor revisions of the thesis (i.e. Dr Saderla rewrite in own words all the common material appearing in his thesis as specifically alleged in the complaint). Further, it did not recommend withdrawal of the thesis.”
It further said,
“Since it pertains to PhD thesis and its revision, the issue was discussed in the Senate meeting held on 14 March 2019; and the Senate, after due deliberation on the matter by a majority vote (For: 42; against: 15), resolved to recommend the revocation of the PhD degree of Dr Saderla to the Board of Governors, IIT Kanpur. The Board of Governors in the meeting held on 9 April 2019, held that the case for revoking the PhD degree of Dr Saderla is not determinable yet and therefore the Board did not accept the Senate recommendations.”
The letter said the final report on plagiarism will be presented to the BoG on August 27. Dr Koppillil Radhakrishnan, former chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) is the chairman of BoG.
“Further, the Board authorised the Director to constitute a committee of technical experts from outside IIT Kanpur and put up the recommendations of the committee to the Board for consideration. In adherence to the decision of the Board of Governors, a Committee of eminent technical experts was constituted vide Office Order dated 24 April 2019. The report of the committee has been received and will be presented to the Board of Governors in its next meeting scheduled on August 27 2019.”
There is much to read between the lines in this letter. It is learnt that the expert's report was submitted in early May and since then, the management has been sitting on it. It was only after the commission’s letter that the management even thought of fixing a date for its presentation. “The NCSC letter left them panicked,” a source in the institute told Swarajya.
The director’s statement about the BoG rejecting the Senate’s decision to revoke the PhD thesis of Saderla hides more than it reveals. As reported by this correspondent earlier, the Senate’s decision was highly controversial. It is believed that consistent pressure from activists, media and IIT Kanpur alumni saved Saderla from an unfair decision by the BoG under pressure of Senate.
Saderla’s concerns that the institute management was simply delaying the final decision on his thesis were confirmed when the due date of August 27 arrived.
The meeting did not take place.
An anxious Saderla reached out to Radhakrishnan, the BoG chairman. In a letter on the same day, that is August 27, Saderla told Radhakrishnan that he had been eagerly waiting to know the decision on his thesis but was “completely depressed and broken down” to know of the meeting’s cancellation.
Saderla’s letter said,
“As you are aware, right from the day of my joining I was subjected to continuous harassment by a group of faculty members of our institute…We are not sure how many more days to lead this anxious life and I don't think anybody can suffocate a fellow human being and his family to this extent.”
Saderla told Swarajya that Radhakrishnan then called him up, and said that he had been busy with Chandrayaan-2 and another BoG meeting would take place soon.
Saderla, however, could not hide his disappointment. “I am surprised that the administration planned a meeting at a time when the chairman was occupied with Chandrayaan-2, which is a highly planned mission,” Saderla told Swarajya.
The matter again went to the back burner until Saderla pushed it. In the first week of September, he shot two letters – one to NCSC and another to Radhakrishnan. The letters asked for rescheduling the BoG meeting and made a request – that the management should keep Dr Debopam Das out of the BoG meeting. Das, a professor in the institute’s department of aerospace engineering, had been found guilty of shielding the four professors by an NCSC inquiry.
Saderla’s letter to Radhakrishnan on September 3 said,
“I kindly urge you to take respective measures to exclude Professor Debobam Das participating in the matters related to me during the next board meeting so that the obstruction for the justice in my case can be minimized.”
The management has kept the next BoG on September 14, that is, tomorrow.
While Saderla eagerly awaits his fate, an official told Swarajya that he is not very hopeful that the meeting would indeed be held. “The chairman is simply dragging his feet on the issue. The management is trying their best not to give the plagiarism row a closure,” he said.
Many in campus believe that if the experts’ report gives a clean chit to Saderla on plagiarism charges, it would confirm the doubts of many that the accusation was part of a targeted harassment against him. It is pertinent to mention here that after the email, Saderla filed a first information report (FIR) against the four professors under Section 500 (defamation) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), Section 66D (cheating by personation using computer) of the Information Technology Act, and the SC/ST Act. His complaint said the email was motivated and was an attempt to influence the BoG decision on the four professors’ punishment. It further said that Saderla had proof that the anonymous ID was destroyed after sending out the email and was created solely for the purpose of defaming him.
All eyes are on the BoG meeting tomorrow.
If the decision goes in Saderla’s favour, his legal case against the four professors will get stronger. However, the young scholar told Swarajya that his name being associated with plagiarism has already caused him much damage.
If the decision is adverse, then Saderla could lose his PhD degree and the job.
What does the experts’ report say?
Well, it’s confidential. The official that Swarajya spoke to, who is privy to its contents, said that the report does not use the word plagiarism at all. “It praises [Saderla’s] thesis. It does not mention plagiarism at all and says some portions allegedly copied are common knowledge,” he said.
Whatever be the decision, the entire plagiarism episode stands to stir a hornet’s nest at the campus. Will the institute entertain similar complaints received anonymously in future? Will it act on all such complaints?
When asked, the senior official that this correspondent spoke to, said that it’s a big question mark for the management. “If they don’t, then it will be believed that Saderla was singularly targeted,” he said.
Meanwhile, not much is happening in the legal case against the professors. Saderla told Swarajya that he has attended “seven-eight hearings” and every time, a new date is fixed. “I honestly do not know how it works. I go there and come back with a new date without uttering as much as a word,” he said.
When this correspondent emailed the director requesting for a meeting on September 5, he replied he was busy with an event. Requested for a meeting the next day, Karandikar did not reply to the email. He did not take phone calls.
This correspondent reached out to Ishan Sharma, but he declined to talk, saying he had been denied permission to talk to the media by the director. This correspondent did not receive a reply to an email request to CS Upadhyay.