Was IIT Kanpur’s Special Drive For Dalit Faculty Vitiated By Favouritism? 

Madhu Purnima Kishwar

Oct 18, 2019, 11:51 AM | Updated 11:51 AM IST

Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur.
Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur.

This copy was written before the IIT Kanpur Board of Governors decided in mid-September that it would not revoke the PhD degree of Dr Subrahmanyam Saderla. The press note released by IIT Kanpur said, inter alia: “The Board decided that PhD Degree of Dr S Saderla will not be revoked and a corrigendum will be appended to the thesis by Dr S Saderla identifying the text that is common knowledge and identical to earlier theses. An appropriate advisory will be issued to Dr Saderla and his thesis supervisor by the Director.”

This article is in response to the Bollywood-style, pathos-filled saga that Prof Manindra Agrawal, Officiating Director of IIT Kanpur, has written by weaving a tale of alleged harassment of Dr Subrahmanyam Saderla at the hands of certain 'upper caste’ professors.

It seems likely he did this to divert attention from my expose in which a mala fide case of caste discrimination was cooked up by a group of senior faculty at IIT Kanpur, with Prof Agrawal and Dr Saderla’s PhD guide and current Head of Department, Prof A K Ghosh, playing a lead role, in order to cover up an unfair appointment that subverted a Special Recruitment Drive of IIT Kanpur to facilitate the inclusion of SCs/STs in the faculty.

Prof Agrawal’s article scrupulously avoids touching on the following serious issues I had raised in my article:

The Ethics Cell, the Senate Post-Graduate Committee (SPGC), the IITK Senate and even the response of Dr Saderla have confirmed that the latter’s PhD thesis was partly plagiarised. Depending on the technical software used by the committee set up by the Board of Governors (BoG), the plagiarism can range from at least 11 per cent to 25 per cent. As per University Grants Commission (UGC) norms, this automatically translates into the PhD degree being put in abeyance for six months. One hopes and expects that IIT standards are higher.

It is also notable that the IITs have not accepted UGC policies so far, defending the academic autonomy of their senates. One wonders why the BoG is here looking towards UGC norms, since under the IIT Act, the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) has no locus standi to advise the IITs on their specific academic decisions; nor did the MHRD do so in the previous case of plagiarism by Abhishek Singh, mentioned in my earlier article in Swarajya on plagiarism (7 April 2019).

When an anonymous student found out and reported the plagiarism, Dr Saderla, instead of awaiting the decision of the institute’s probe in this matter, hurriedly filed an FIR against four faculty members, citing harassment under the non-bailable SC/ST Act.

Several SC/ST candidates were likely discriminated against through this appointment by a senior (upper caste) faculty member, Prof A K Ghosh, to benefit one particular SC candidate — his own student, Dr Saderla. In this he got the full support of administrators like Prof Manindra Agrawal (also upper caste). It takes real genius to convert a case of alleged nepotism by two upper caste faculty members into a case of 'caste discrimination' when the only ones who have reason to feel aggrieved are other SC/ST students, who were sidelined to give way to a favoured student against the rules.

Dr Saderla’s minimal grades did not qualify him for recruitment as IIT faculty; his performance in the job seminar was found unsatisfactory; and when the propriety of the alleged nepotistic appointment was challenged, the same professor and his close buddies tried to mask it by creating a false narrative of discrimination and harassment of a hapless SC faculty.

While this attempt to use emotional cries of discrimination in a case involving favouritism is deplorable, the reality is Professors Agrawal and Ghosh are actually indirectly hounding four senior IIT professors and destroying their careers by getting them arrested under the draconian SC/ST Act. Under this law, harassing a person from the SC/ST community is non-bailable offence. A mere allegation is enough to get a person sent to jail even before trial has begun and evidence adduced.

Do these four senior professors with a stellar track record in their respective disciplines not deserve the slightest bit of empathy and trust? Their only crime has been to point out that by favouring his own SC student, Prof Ghosh did great injustice to other SC/ST candidates who had higher grades than Dr Saderla and whose PhD and M Tech theses were not marred by charges of plagiarism. Should Professors Ghosh and Agarwal be using the shoulders of their handpicked SC student to fire their guns at their colleagues just to divert attention away from their own failures?

Since Prof Agrawal avoids dealing with the charges against him and Dr Ghosh, I have no choice but to present some more facts in order to rescue the whole case from degenerating into a Bollywood-style soppy saga of misplaced victimhood.

Facts Related To The Appointment Of Dr Saderla

In this part – and there are more to follow – I will focus only on facts related to the recruitment of Dr Saderla. But first a clarification regarding the status of charges levelled by Dr Saderla against faculty members: Contrary to the factually incorrect version presented by Prof Agrawal, the board found no, repeat no, charges of harassment, caste-based or otherwise, against the four faculty. Currently, the disciplinary proceedings against three of the four faculty members accused of “discrimination” is complete, in which one faculty was exonerated by the Board of Governors. This is the first of the innumerable factual misrepresentations in Prof Agrawal’s retelling of the episode, where he claims that one faculty was “warned”, and not exonerated.

The increments of two faculty members were withdrawn. They have both challenged this in court. The file of the fourth faculty is under consideration with the Visitor, IIT Kanpur (President of India).

The above mentioned 'punishment' was given for violation of IIT conduct rules, not charges of caste discrimination. And what was the nature and extent of the 'violation’? One faculty member had called an informal meeting without the permission of the head and the others attended it. These two faculty members are already in court to challenge this punitive action. And the court has found enough evidence of possible wrongdoing to direct IIT Kanpur to submit documents justifying their decision. Hence, let us wait for the law to take its course in this matter.

Meanwhile, IIT Kanpur has ensured that Dr Saderla is made a permanent faculty at IIT Kanpur in January 2019. He has also been given lab space to carry out his research. In fact, the Aeromodelling lab was gifted to him by one of the alleged harassers! Thus, the institute has completed its responsibility of holding an enquiry against the four faculty in response to Dr Saderla’s original complaint, and of establishing and securing the career of Dr Saderla at IIT Kanpur.

What remains is the matter of plagiarism by an ex-PhD student of IIT Kanpur with roll number 10101064 which, objectively, has nothing to do with this student’s current role as Dr Saderla, a faculty at IIT Kanpur. A student can be employed at one of the best places, let’s say MIT, but that cannot detract from his/her past misdeeds. The current position/status of a student has no bearing on the consequences of his/her past actions. An excellent example of this is the resignation of the German Minister of Defense, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, in 2011 after his doctoral thesis submitted in 2007 was found to have been plagiarised.

This is an important distinction that explains Dr Saderla’s job being made permanent in January 2019 in spite of an ongoing inquiry into plagiarism by roll number 10101064 (Dr Saderla) in his PhD and M Tech theses.

Now, that the dust has settled on the complaint of at least one complainant, that is Dr Saderla, let us look into the status of other concerns/complaints registered in this issue. IIT Kanpur continues to refuse to look at:

  • The note on procedural lapses in the special recruitment drive of 2017 submitted by 11 faculty members of the Department of Aerospace Engineering in January 2018; and
  • Concerns raised in early 2018 by a board member and a senator on the possible violation of the minimum eligibility norms during the special recruitment drive.

After this clarification, we return to the Special Recruitment Drive of 2017. In an earlier article, I have already detailed, with evidence, how favouritism perverted the aims of the special recruitment drive of 2017 and ended up discriminating against other SC/ST candidates. However, Prof Agrawal’s recent attempt at presenting “his version of the case” demands, in fairness, further scrutiny of the issue.

Recruitment Facts

The recruitment process outlined on the website of IIT Kanpur is as follows:

Step 1: A group of faculty members of the concerned area of specialisation gives its recommendation on the suitability of candidates for a faculty position.

Step 2: The candidates recommended by the faculty group are called for a seminar. Faculty, staff and students from all departments are invited for the seminar. In this case, some of the 11 faculty members who signed the letter of displeasure to the director in January 2018 were a part of the audience evaluating the seminar. The seminar was scheduled on 5 October 2017. Remember the date, because Prof Agrawal doesn’t, as we will see below.

Step 3: Recommendation letters are sought from the referees of these candidates who are identified after the seminar.

Step 4: The Department Faculty Advisory Committee (DFAC) shortlists the candidates on the basis of the application, faculty input, seminar and referee comments.

This committee includes the Head of the Department, in this case Prof A K Ghosh, the PhD and M Tech supervisor of Dr Saderla. “Faculty input” and “seminar” refer to the feedback given by faculty members of the Department of Aerospace Engineering regarding the credentials of Dr Saderla and his seminar performance. Faculty input about Dr Saderla’s seminar was given but was not considered, as we will see below. Remember this again, because, Prof Agrawal conveniently misremembers (see below).

Step 5: The shortlisted candidates are presented to the Institute Faculty Advisory Committee (IFAC) and are called for an interview.

The IFAC includes the Head of the Department and the Director, in this case, respectively, Prof A K Ghosh, and Prof Agrawal. As the Director, Prof Manindra Agrawal was the chair of the DFAC-IFAC committee. Please remember this as well, because, yet again, Prof Agrawal has willed himself to forget this, as we see below.

Step 6: An external selection committee then takes a call. This selection committee is chaired by the Director, in this case Prof Manindra Agrawal, in his capacity as Officiating Director. The Head of the Department is present during the selection. This selection committee took place in the last week of December, 2018.

Prof Agrawal, the Fact-Finding and Inquiry reports confirm that these steps were followed, but none of them verify whether the shortlisted candidates met the advertised minimum eligibility criteria. This immediately prompts the following questions:

In the entire selection process, why did Prof Agrawal as the custodian of the entire selection process, and Prof Ghosh, as the Head of the Department, not bother to check whether the advertised minimum eligibility criteria were applied uniformly on all SC/ST candidates who applied?

Why did both of them not bother to check whether all SC/ST candidates were given equal opportunities to apply, compete and be hired at IIT Kanpur? Why was just one, Dr Saderla, the PhD student of the Head of Department given an opportunity by relaxing the advertised minimum eligibility norms? What about the rest of the SC/ST candidates? Do they not have rights?

Prof Agrawal, in his version of this case, comments upon the alleged harassment of his selected candidate after the candidate joined, whereas the flouting of norms that is being pointed out by faculty members occurred before the candidate joined, during his recruitment. My article discusses these crucial aspects that Prof Agrawal, in his version, does not touch at all.

Here are some crucial facts.

Fact 1: The questions raised by the 11 faculty members from the Department of Aerospace Engineering as well as a Senator, Liaison Officer and the Board member were about the procedural lapses in the pre-hiring process and not the post-hiring events alleged in the complaint letter of Dr Saderla. Some of the concerns raised were about the advertised minimal qualifications in the Special Recruitment Drive, which have no bearing on the research capabilities — “innate” or “acquired” — of a candidate.

The advertised minimal qualifications raise a question about the denial of equal opportunities to all SC/ST candidates to apply and compete for the faculty position.

Fact 2: The job seminar of Dr Saderla took place on 5 October 2017. But, in Prof Agrawal’s retelling, the DFAC-IFAC meeting discussed Dr Saderla’s case a month before, that is in September 2017. The only way this would have been possible is if the DFAC members had a premonition in September 2017 of what will happen in Dr Saderla’s job seminar in October 2017. This allowed them to predict or foresee the “unfortunate proceedings” of the job seminar that was held on 5 October 2017 and, better still, discuss and evaluate Dr Saderla’s performance in advance.

If true, then this premonition of the DFAC committee is another miracle, like the one which roped in Prof Robert Langdon from his fictional universe in Dan Brown’s novels to sign a petition on the alleged harassment of Dr Saderla (see post-script).

Unfortunately, the truth is much more mundane: “Dr Saderla’s candidature was discussed in the IFAC and DFAC which was chaired by the officiating Director Dr Agarwal.” (Statement under oath to Hon’ble Justice (Retd) Siddiqui by Prof Abhijeet Kushari, Associate Professor, Aerospace Engineering, DFAC member, and institute witness in the departmental inquiry against four faculty.)

Has the former Officiating Director, the current Deputy Director, and a staunch supporter of Dr Saderla misled the public about the sequence of events in a signed public article?

Fact 3: If a faculty member recuses himself or herself from a meeting, it is minuted. No records of DFAC meetings, DFAC-IFAC meetings, or of the selection process till date have been produced by Prof Manindra Agrawal which state that Prof A K Ghosh recused himself from these proceedings, given his direct interest in Dr Saderla. This should have been done to avoid the obvious conflict of interest. In fact, DFAC member Prof Abhijeet Kushari, who was an eye-witness, confirms that Prof Ghosh did not recuse himself from the DFAC-IFAC meeting. Similarly, he was present in all department-level deliberations, as confirmed by another DFAC member to the Fact Finding Committee (FFC): “He (Prof AK Ghosh) was there.” (recorded in Annexure 3 of the FFC Report)

Fact 4: Prof Agrawal, in January 2017, admitted in an email to the members of the Board of Governors that the selection committee did not find the candidate (Dr Saderla) to be strong:

“In the selection committee, all the three external experts had the unanimous opinion that, while the candidate is not very strong, he has the potential and motivation to do well. That formed the basis for their recommendation.” (Emphasis author’s)

I also repeat other statements made by Prof Agrawal and Prof Ghosh from my previous article on this issue, because Prof Agrawal has not responded to these facts.

Statement of Head, Aerospace Engineering:

“Dr Saderla has M Tech CPI=7.25 (well above graduating CPI), PhD CPI=7.0 and thesis of good quality (paper from PhD=6). Yes, for general candidate, we would not have shortlisted the candidate. This point was clearly mentioned in DFAC-IFAC meeting. This being special drive and for SC category, DFAC-IFAC agreed to take it for interview.” (Emphasis author’s)

Statement of Officiating Director, IIT Kanpur on the Head’s statement:

“… the department would not shortlist a candidate with this record in the case of general category candidates. However, given that this was recruitment in special category, some relaxation was done during shortlisting. In other words, he [Head, AE] is saying that the candidate does meet minimum qualifications. However, for general category candidates, shortlisting is done with more stringent norms which were not applied in this case.” (Emphasis author’s)

However, nearly 14 months after writing these statements to the Board of Governors, Prof Agrawal is now claiming that the selection committee was “impressed” by Dr Saderla. He is contradicting his own statements, which implies that he either misled the Board of Governors, or he is misleading the public, or both. His contradictory testimonies are not doing him, or other academics any good.

Fact 5: The job seminar of Dr Saderla took place on 5 October 2017. Three months after the seminar, Dr Saderla filed a complaint of harassment against the faculty who attended the seminar, which included one Prof Ishan Sharma. Both Dr Saderla as well as Prof Agrawal believe that the presentation went reasonably well. Prof Ghosh too makes this claim. So, the people who are testifying that the job seminar went reasonably well are the candidate himself, his PhD guide, and the chair of the selection committee now defending the hire.

In this regard, please note that a job seminar is not a self-appraisal form. Every job candidate may feel that s/he has performed well in the exam or in the interview. But it is not the judgement of the student/candidate that is used to evaluate performance, but that of the committee. In this case, it was the judgement of the faculty who were sitting in the audience.

Both Prof Agrawal and Prof Ghosh did not attend the seminar. How then do they know how the seminar went?

Eye-witnesses and experts present in the seminar have stated that the seminar performance of Dr Saderla was not exceptional. Consider the following:

“Unfortunately, most of the questions he was not able to answer satisfactorily. There is one question from one of the DFAC members; it was not a satisfactory answer.”

“I was present in the seminar and I talked to some people. Presentation was OK but question-answer was poor because he was not able to answer most of the questions. That was the feedback.”

(Statements recorded by the Fact Finding Committee in its annexures of Prof Abhijeet Kushari, Professor, Aerospace Engineering, DFAC member.)

A subject expert from the Department of Aerospace Engineering stated, under oath, in the Departmental Inquiry that Dr Saderla was asked around 10 questions, but he was unable to answer many of them correctly. He also stated that he had given feedback about this.

Instead of addressing these concerns, Professors Ghosh and Agarwal converted academic questioning into an allegation of caste-based slander, using the opaque veil of the SC/ST Act.

Fact 6: Let us believe, for the sake of argument, that Prof Agrawal was looking for “innate ability” and not an “acquired” one in the Special Recruitment Drive. Therefore, even though “acquired abilities” in Dr Saderla, as defined by Prof Agrawal in terms of performance in courses, grade points, college of graduation, publications, etc, were found “lacking”, his “innate ability” made up for it. If indeed the selections were based on “innate” and/or “acquired ability”, then Prof Agrawal forgot to mention this criterion in the advertisement for the benefit and information of all other SC/ST candidates. After all, if other SC/ST candidates, who lacked “acquired” abilities (not having First Class, etc), had known that IIT Kanpur could also evaluate “innate” abilities in its selection process for the post of Assistant Professor, they would have certainly applied. This immediately prompts the following questions:

  • Why did IIT Kanpur not advertise that its minimal eligibility criteria also includes “innate abilities” and not just “acquired abilities” for the benefit of all SC/ST candidates?
  • In the absence of any other SC/ST candidate who had applied on the basis of “innate abilities”, is it at all surprising that the student of the Head of the Department alone was found suitable?

Fact 7: The internationally accepted way to evaluate “innate ability” is to consider the research output and research seminar performance of the candidate. As mentioned above, Dr Saderla’s seminar performance was not exceptional. Even the selection committee members found the candidate “not very strong”. But, faculty feedback about the seminar was not considered, and the seminar performance was never discussed during the selection of Dr Saderla:

Statements To Fact Finding Committee Of Prof Abhijeet Kushari, Professor, Aerospace Engineering, DFAC Member.

“The seminar performance was not considered for shortlisting the candidates.”

“The Seminar was not discussed in the meeting [DFAC-IFAC, chaired by Prof Manindra Agrawal]”

Statement under oath to Hon’ble Justice Siddiqui by Prof. Abhijeet Kushari, Associate Professor, Aerospace Engineering, DFAC member, and Institute witness in departmental inquiry against four faculty.

The last statement is especially damning. Even if we accept that Prof Manindra Agrawal was hiring on the basis of “innate ability”, then why did he not bother to discuss “innate ability” in terms of Dr Saderla’s seminar performance in the DFAC-IFAC meeting which he chaired? This meeting was the only place where people like Prof Abhijeet Kushari, who attended the seminar, could have provided him feedback!

It is sad to see the Deputy Director of one of India’s premier institutes of higher learning calling his own senators “a lynching mob, baying for blood”, when all that the senators are standing up against is plagiarism and for academic integrity and honesty. Are we sure, at all, that Prof Agrawal will also be questioned by Prof Abhay Karandikar, the present Director of IIT Kanpur, for violation of conduct rules with as much alacrity as he has shown in previous cases?

According to Prof Agrawal, there are two narratives of this issue that are being published and debated. One is of “Saderla being not worthy of being hired at IITK and his recruitment being only because of his caste and/or manipulation by AKG”; and two, this is a “political fight between two groups in the institute and Saderla being used as a pawn.”

Let me leave you with a third narrative.

Professors Agarwal and Ghosh subverted the Special Recruitment Drive (SRD) to push the case of Dr Saderla and are now shielding themselves from an enquiry by threatening everyone who raises a voice with an SC/ST case. One is appalled by how other deserving SC/ST candidates have been discriminated against by their actions.

I think it best to leave you with the unequivocal appraisal of the Special Recruitment Drive of the Institute’s SC/ST Liaison officer, Prof Kamal Poddar, Department of Aerospace Engineering, in his letter to the NCSC (National Commission for Scheduled Castes):

Here is what I think has happened: Several faculty members flagged the possibility of violation of advertised minimum eligibility norms and the possibility of conflict of interest as the Head (Prof A K Ghosh), who is also Prof Saderla’s adviser, being involved in all committees of the selection process. These issues were flagged privately to the Director (through Head), by email to only Board members, and over a restricted Senators-only list. This was, I repeat, (the) only concern raised about the possibility of violation of advertised minimum eligibility norms and conflict of interest. Because, relaxing the rules for some and not for other SC/ST candidates would tantamount to a mockery of the great affirmative aims of a special recruitment drive. Nothing in these private notes/mails was specific to a person, leave alone (the) person’s caste.

Post-script: A statement in support of Dr Saderla, purportedly signed by 400 people internationally, is doing the rounds. The original statement has 400 signatures, with #276 being the fictional hero, Robert Langdon, from The Da Vinci Code. This raises doubts about the sincerity of the whole international solidarity campaign.

This is also the statement being carried (verbatim) by websites such as CounterCurrents.org, Sabrang India, and TheWire.in till I exposed the fraud. TheWire.in has added 67 more signatures while that of Langdon has gone missing, though the other websites continue to show Langdon as one of them.

There are several resolutions to the mystery of the missing Dr Langdon is the latest version of the petition on TheWire.in.

1. Realising that he is supporting a fraudulent campaign, and being a seeker of truth, Robert Langdon, once again broke through the fourth wall, and took back his support. Indeed Amar Ujala reports that Langdon and 67 other professors are now protesting against this English media campaign and want their names withdrawn from the list of supporters.

2. TheWire.in is running a parallel surreal campaign in which the campaign manifesto is plagiarised in toto from other campaigns, names are duplicated from other campaigns, names appearing magically, and leading fictional characters having walk-in parts.

3. The campaign leaders, who are friends with the TheWire.in writer, realising that they have been caught out, decide to make amends in their own special "international solidarity" way by signing out Dr Langdon and signing in several replacements.

I am choosing option 3.

Also Read:
IIT Kanpur: Fairness Was Subverted In Special Jobs Drive For SCs
IIT Kanpur Case: Is Plagiarism Okay If You Are From The Right Caste?

Madhu Purnima Kishwar is Maulana Azad National Professor, ICSSR, and the founder of human rights organisation, MANUSHI.

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