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.”
It is tragic that even in an institution of national eminence, like IIT Kanpur, a handful of influential administrators can bend the draconian SC/ST Act for their own narrow purposes at the cost of destroying the careers of eminent colleagues.
The saddest part is that they have also harmed the careers of better qualified SC/ST candidates.
An Assistant Professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, Dr Subrahmanyam Saderla, had alleged in early 2018 that he was harassed and discriminated based on his caste by four senior faculty in particular, board members of IIT Kanpur, the Faculty Forum of IIT Kanpur, and finally its senate.
He alleges that he was knowingly and wilfully harassed by faculty of his own department as well as other departments because of his caste. Several actions, taken or recommended, based on his allegations by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), IIT Kanpur and the police have currently been stayed by the Allahabad High Court.
The then officiating Director, Prof Manindra Agrawal, and the head of the Department of Aerospace Engineering, Prof A K Ghosh, strongly believe that the allegation of discrimination is valid. Their decisions played a strong role in the recruitment of Dr Saderla. It was their responsibility to ensure that due diligence was followed in the recruitment process. Both of them have repeatedly stated in various committees and newspaper reports that no procedural irregularity took place in the recruitment procedure.
However, faculty, students, staff and even the faculty spouses on the IIT Kanpur campus believe that the entire case is a witch-hunt to punish the whistle-blowers, who pointed out serious lapses in the recruitment process, silence the voices of dissent, and settle personal scores.
After two inquiries, two NCSC reports, and one FIR, and over 14 months of intense stress, these four faculty members continue to stand by what they are convinced is the truth. Now, the entire Faculty Forum is fearlessly calling for the resignation of Prof Agrawal and Prof Ghosh for abusing their positions and vitiating the atmosphere of the institute. The Faculty Forum resolved that their conduct should be investigated for violations of official conduct rules. These officials should be divested of their official responsibilities with immediate effect.
For last 14 months, over several spurts of media reportage, one has heard the story of the harassment of Dr Saderla and even his family in minute chronological detail. However, not once have the four alleged faculty members who have been accused of discriminating against Dr Saderla — Professors C S Upadhyay, Sanjay Mittal, Rajiv Shekhar and Ishan Sharma — spoken a word.
They don’t offer any press briefings defending and justifying their actions, and give no quotes to newspapers. No report carried even that catch-all line — that XYZ was unavailable for comment. But what does speak for them is the Indian judicial system. They have been given four stays in 14 months by the Allahabad High Court against the actions of NCSC, IIT Kanpur and now the police.
More recently, one hears that the court has summoned data from IIT Kanpur in response to one of their writs. The data provided in their writs, a few replies to RTI queries, and documents available on the IIT Kanpur website expose some graver issues that need public attention because they raise serious concerns about the transparency, accountability and fairness of recruitment processes in institutes of national importance. Especially when it involves a special recruitment drive for SC, ST, OBC, and PwD (divyang).
Affirmative Action Drive Through Nepotism
IIT Kanpur advertised minimum eligibility qualifications for their Special Recruitment Drive (advertisement number DF-4/2017) through which Dr Saderla applied in 2017, as:
PhD, with first class or equivalent (in terms of grades) at the preceding degree in the appropriate branch, with a very good academic record throughout.
You can all read this on the website of IIT Kanpur here.
It is claimed in several fora, and by the officiating Director, Prof Agrawal, that Dr Saderla, whose PhD CPI (Cumulative Performance Index) score is 7.0, meets the advertised minimum eligibility criteria of the Special Recruitment Drive. But, on the other hand, his detractors say that 7.0 CPI is not equivalent to first class at IIT Kanpur and, therefore, the Department of Aerospace Engineering flouted minimum eligibility norms during the Special Recruitment Drive.
The selection, led by Prof Agrawal, allegedly provided selective relaxation to a candidate who happened also to be the Masters and PhD student of the head of the Department, Prof A K Ghosh. This amounts to discrimination if the relaxation is given to one candidate, and not the rest who are also reserved category candidates. According to the ex-Liaison Officer of IIT Kanpur, relaxing the rules for some and not for other SC/ST candidates “tantamounts to a mockery of the great affirmative aims of a special recruitment drive.”
It is surprising that for over 14 months, an institute of higher learning, having highly educated and decorated faculty and administrators, has not been able to examine its own documents and practices to figure out whether or not 7.0 CPI is equivalent to a first class. Even the two external committees led by Prof Pathak and Justice Siddiqui have nothing to comment on this matter. The silence of the board of governors is even more deafening. IIT Kanpur would not be torn apart today if someone had simply followed the norms laid down transparently in the grading scheme. Is this rocket science?
The PG manual (institute-approved Post-Graduate manual prescribing academic norms (which can be accessed here) at IIT Kanpur says the following: minimum CPI requirement for continuing in the PhD programme is 7.0. That is, the minimum graduating CPI is 7.0. If Dr Saderla had a CPI of 6.99 he would not have been awarded a PhD degree by IIT Kanpur. The CPI of Dr Saderla is exactly 7.0, which means he barely managed the minimum norms.
Moreover, not only did Dr Saderla not have a first class in his PhD, he was on academic probation in the first semester of his M Tech. He had a CPI of 6.0 — for which, as per the PG manual rules (see here), he should have been issued a warning letter from the then head of the department. According to the testimony of one of his M Tech professors, Dr Saderla got a ‘D’ grade in his departmental course and his performance was not very good.
However, for the sake of an argument, even if it is assumed that the appointee was given a relaxation (which was not advertised), UGC guidelines permit only a 5 per cent relaxation from the minimal requirement. In this case, even if we assume the minimal requirement to be Grade B (CPI 8), described as ‘Good’ in the IIT Kanpur academic system, then 5 per cent of 8 is 7.6 CPI. Thus, Dr Saderla, even after relaxation does not meet the minimal requirement, as his CPI is 7.0 in PhD.
Does IIT Kanpur, an institute indebted to the Indian taxpayer, not owe a clarification to all aspiring and desiring SC/ST candidates on what its minimum qualification requirements are?
Why doesn’t IIT Kanpur along with all other IITs simply announce that 7.0 CPI is first class?
Why does IIT Kanpur not fill all its faculty posts with candidates having a CPI of 7.0 in their PhD? Why is there just one amongst 400 faculty who has a CPI of 7.0?
It is interesting to observe the record of the academic qualifications of General and Reserved category candidates selected in the Department of Aerospace Engineering since 2016. Here, it is important to emphasise that the advertised minimum eligibility requirements for General candidates is not different from those of the Reserved category candidates; at IIT Kanpur, they are one and the same. Check it out for yourself on the website.
Information revealed through RTIs clearly show (see table below) that no candidate — General or Reserved category — below a CPI of 8.5 has been shortlisted for final interviews by IIT Kanpur in the Department of Aerospace Engineering since 2016. The only exception was Dr Saderla. The aberration is inexplicable unless the advertised minimum eligibility norms were indeed selectively relaxed for one student (Dr Saderla) of the Head of the Department, Prof A K Ghosh. But, relaxation itself was not advertised. In fact, the information obtained through RTIs makes it amply clear that IIT Kanpur did not state any relaxation policy in its advertisement.
Such aberrations were noticed by several faculty within the Department of Aerospace Engineering after Dr Saderla joined the institute. Eleven faculty members of the Department expressed it in writing to the then officiating Director, Prof Manindra Agrawal. They said:
We the undersigned faculty members of Aerospace Engineering would like to communicate to you our extreme displeasure at the way the department faculty advisory committee and head ignored the faculty inputs and concerns and went ahead with their recommendations for the recent selections held in December 2017, to the posts of Assistant Professor in AE to the institute committee.
How is anyone’s caste, creed, religion, gender or any other divisive trait inferred from this communication? It simply reflects an apprehension that could easily have been addressed by Prof Agrawal or Prof Ghosh. Unfortunately, they didn’t do so. Their failure to address these lapses and take corrective measures has today cost IIT Kanpur its academic image.
Instead of addressing the concerns raised by the department faculty, the officiating Director turned the entire case into a caste issue. Prof Kamal Poddar is one of the 11 signatories of the letter mentioned above. He is a very senior and well respected faculty of the Department of Aerospace Engineering. Few know that he himself belongs to a reserved category because IITs pride themselves in being concerned with merit alone, and nothing else. Belonging to the same department as Dr Saderla, he has first-hand knowledge of this issue.
He was also the institute’s Liaison Officer for the SC/ST cell when Dr Saderla was recruited, in which capacity he corresponded with the National Commission of Scheduled Castes on this matter. He informed NCSC, in writing, that he did not find any caste issue in this episode. All interactions of Dr Saderla with the faculty have been cordial. In fact, the department faculty have hugged and welcomed Prof Saderla.
To quote from Prof Kamal Poddar’s letter to NCSC:
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 AK 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 person’s caste.
Instead of listening to the testimony and evidence of its own officer (the office of the Liaison Officer is expected to assist the NCSC in the investigation of complaints as mandated by DoPT), NCSC recommended in its minutes dated 10 April 2018 to remove him from his post. Of course, such overreach and unfair judgement without supporting evidence could not escape the eyes of the High Court, which immediately stayed the order.
But it still makes you wonder: who is harassing whom? And is this a caste issue at all, considering that the NCSC prefers the version of one SC person (Dr Saderla) over another (Prof Poddar, LO, IIT Kanpur); the former backed by upper caste officials (the officiating Director and Head of Department) to protect his recruitment with the latter questioning it to protect his department and his institute from nepotism, and the wider SC, ST, OBC and PwD candidates from discrimination in the form of unequal opportunities. Clearly, this is not a caste issue but one of transparency and equity, as Dr Poddar said, but for which he was rapped by the NCSC itself.
If Relaxation Was Not Advertised, Was It Implemented?
If IIT Kanpur had clearly advertised in its recruitment policy that applicants with 7.0 CPI were eligible to apply, more SC/ST candidates would have applied in response to the special recruitment drive. All SC/ST candidates who had similar or better qualifications than Dr Saderla, but did not apply for the post because they did not possess a First Class in their PhD or M Tech, have been deprived of an opportunity to apply, compete and be hired at IIT Kanpur. Put simply, IIT Kanpur has discriminated against all eligible SC/ST candidates, by undisclosed selection norms and procedures that benefited the student of the Head of the Department of Aerospace Engineering.
This preferential and privileged treatment to Dr Saderla seems even more discriminating when you look at the CPI scores of the other SC/ST candidates who applied during the Special Recruitment Drive. In response to an RTI (see Table 2), IIT Kanpur admitted that there were four SC/ST candidates who applied in the Special Recruitment Drive for positions in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. Even though Dr Saderla only had a CPI of 7.0, IIT Kanpur selected him over two other candidates who had CPIs of 8.2 and 8.25 in their PhDs.
The other SC/ST candidates were not even shortlisted, let alone interviewed and selected for the post despite their better CPIs compared to Dr Saderla. One often hears of discrimination between General and Reserved category candidates, but this is a novel case where some members of the higher castes favoured blatant misuse of reservation by elite castes to discriminate in favour of one candidate. It has pitched a Dalit against other Dalits.
Table 2: Marks of all candidates who applied for the Special Recruitment Drive of IIT Kanpur
This dubious practice has also been recorded in the Supreme Court judgement in the District Collector, Vizianagaram,Vs. M. Tripura Sundari Devi (1990(4) SLR 237. The Supreme Court states in its judgement:
It must further be realised by all concerned that when an advertisement mentions a particular qualification and an appointment is made in disregard of the same, it is not a matter only between the appointing authority and the appointee concerned. The aggrieved are all those who had similar or better qualifications than the appointee or appointees but who had not applied for the post because they did not possess the qualifications mentioned in the advertisement. It amounts to a fraud on the public to appoint a person with inferior qualifications in such circumstances unless it is clearly stated that the qualifications are relaxable. No court should be a party to the perpetuation of the fraudulent practice.
Both Prof Agrawal, Chair of the Selection Committee, and Prof AK Ghosh, member of the selection committee which recruited Dr Saderla, have confirmed that requirements of academic qualifications were indeed relaxed for Dr Saderla.
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 short-listed 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 added)
Statement Of Officiating Director, IIT Kanpur On The Head’s Statement:
“… the department would not short-list a candidate with this record in case of general category candidates. However, given that this was recruitment in special category, some relaxation was done during short-listing. In other words, he [Head, AE] is saying that the candidate does meet minimum qualifications, however, for general category candidates, short-listing is done with more stringent norms which were not applied in this case.” (Emphasis added)
But we all know that the relaxation was not advertised, and therefore it could not have been selectively offered to the student of Prof A K Ghosh. This, as the Supreme Court judgement emphasised, is a fraudulent practice for which both Prof Agrawal and Prof Ghosh are liable to face a disciplinary inquiry. Of course, such an enquiry, if held impartially, will also nullify the Special Recruitment Drive, further implying that Dr Saderla will have to re-apply whenever a fresh advertisement is floated by IIT Kanpur.
With this as a background, does it surprise us anymore that all three — Prof Agrawal, Prof Ghosh and Dr Saderla — are moving heaven and earth for last 14 months to divert the attention of the entire nation, and now even the world, by spreading the news that four faculty in particular, and the faculty of IIT Kanpur, in general, are casteist?
Professors Ghosh and Agarwal have played divisive politics twice. Firstly, they misrepresented the minimum eligibility qualifications to all reserved category candidates by advertising that First Class and a very good academic record was an eligibility requirement to be a faculty at IIT Kanpur. Due to this, several Dalit candidates who had CPI scores below First Class or an academic record which was not ‘very good’ could not apply for the post of Assistant Professor. They lost an opportunity of employment.
Secondly, between the candidates who applied, Prof Ghosh selected Dr Saderla, his own student, despite the fact that the other SC/ST candidates had higher CPIs than Dr Saderla. This divisive politics will damage the movement for empowering Dalits by pitching one Dalit against another, even while destroying the academic ethos of a great institution. And, of course, it will destroy IIT Kanpur, as we are in the process of witnessing.
Right to equality of opportunity in matters of public employment (Article 16) is the fundamental right of all Indians. All eligible reserved category candidates have the right to avail themselves of equal opportunities to apply to IIT Kanpur. For this the entry level qualifications have to be the same as the ones that are advertised. No other department in IIT Kanpur even short-listed, let alone recruited, an applicant with a CPI of 7 in the Special Recruitment Drive.
Either all departments, other than Aerospace Engineering, did not follow the advertised recruitment guidelines and are therefore guilty of discriminating against SC/STs, of Prof Ghosh flouted the advertised guidelines to facilitate the entry of his own student with the support of the officiating Director. They owe an apology to the Dalit community and the nation for subverting a process intended to deliver affirmative action to the marginalised sections of society and for besmirching the image of IIT Kanpur.
Sadly, the well-intentioned SC/ST Atrocities Act lends itself to easy abuse in many cases even while genuine victims of caste oppression don’t often get justice, thanks to poor implementation of laws meant for their empowerment. It is tragic that even in an institution of national eminence, like IIT Kanpur, a handful of influential administrators can bend the draconian SC/ST Act for their own narrow purposes at the cost of destroying the careers of eminent colleagues. The saddest part is that they have also harmed the careers of better qualified SC/ST candidates.