There have been a few reports published in the media, including Swarajya, that have suggested that the caste discrimination case filed by Dr Subrahmanyam Saderla is ‘fake’. Dr Manindra Agarwal, then Officiating Director at IIT-Kanpur under whom Saderla was hired, shares his version of the case
This is the story of a young man, who made it to a premier institution like IIT-Kanpur (IIT-K) against heavy odds, but was then let down by the system and people at the institute. Yet, he showed exemplary courage and stood up for his rights firmly but gently. The story also highlights the frailties of human nature and vindictiveness that can mar human actions.
It is a story that needs to be told.
IIT-Kanpur, like all other IITs, has very few faculty from the reserved categories. An appointment initiative was taken in August 2017 with an exclusive advertisement for faculty under various reserved categories. The applications received were sent to the respective departments for evaluation, and the shortlisted candidates were called for seminars. The protagonist of this story, Dr Subrahmanyam Saderla, who is from a scheduled caste of Andhra Pradesh, was shortlisted in the Aerospace Engineering department.
He did both his M.Tech and Ph.D from IIT Kanpur under professor AK Ghosh, who happened to be the head of the department at the time.
Look who has applied!
The seminar attracted a somewhat unusual audience - apart from Aerospace faculty and students, a strong contingent of Mechanical Engineering faculty was also present. Such seminar announcements are sent to all institute faculty, but usually very few from outside the concerned department show up. Saderla was quite excited to give his job talk in the presence of his former teachers and friends of the department and was looking forward to it. However, he came out of it feeling humiliated and stupid.
During the seminar, the Mechanical Engineering faculty, primarily Ishan Sharma, openly mocked him. Tough questioning of a speaker is par for the course at the institute, though mocking an invited speaker is usually frowned upon, and a line was crossed in this instance. Nevertheless, the seminar went reasonably well, many faculty gave good feedback to the head, while some were negative.
The system works (most of the time)
In the institute, faculty are selected through a very rigorous process. After the seminar of a candidate, a group of senior faculty (called Department Faculty Advisory Committee or DFAC), consisting of the head and four other professors, considers the seminar feedback, recommendation letters from referees, and the CV of the candidate to decide whether to recommend him or her or not.
The recommended candidates are discussed by the DFAC with an institute committee consisting of the Director, Deputy Director, Dean of Faculty, and Dean of Research and Development (called Institute Faculty Advisory Committee or IFAC). These recommendations are shared with a selection committee consisting of three external experts along with the head of the department and Director (who is chairperson of the selection committee). The committee then interviews the shortlisted candidates and makes a final recommendation. The recommended candidates are then appointed as faculty by the Board of Governors (BoG).
A DFAC-IFAC meeting was held in September in which Saderla's case was discussed. This was when I became aware of his application (I was part of IFAC as Deputy Director). AK Ghosh walked out of the meeting when Saderla's case was discussed and the rest of the DFAC unanimously recommended the candidature. Some DFAC members also commented on the proceedings of Saderla’s seminar in the department, calling them unfortunate.
On 7 November, I took charge as Officiating Director when the term of the previous Director got over. As Director, I chaired the selection committee that interviewed Saderla in December end. AK Ghosh again walked out during the interview of Saderla. After an engaging discussion, the three external experts unanimously recommended that Saderla be hired. They were impressed by the fact that he has designed and built UAVs with excellent characteristics.
It was felt that there are very few faculty with such expertise and IIT-Kanpur would stand to benefit from the hiring. The recommendation was sent to the chairman, BoG, an appointment letter was issued after his approval, and Saderla joined the institute as a faculty in Aerospace Engineering on New Year day.
From happiness to despair in three weeks
This was an exciting time for Saderla, a dream had come true. He was now a faculty in his alma mater and his teachers now his colleagues. However, his excitement was soon to turn into a nightmare.
Almost immediately after his joining, a couple of senior faculty in Aerospace, Sanjay Mittal and CS Upadhyay, met me. They said that the recruitment was wrong, Saderla did not deserve to be a faculty at the institute, he could not even speak English properly, and that he was mentally unfit. These statements alarmed me initially. I had a lot of respect for Mittal and Upadhyay and so I thought that perhaps a mistake had been made. But it struck me that I had heard Saderla speak fluent English during the interview, and that something was not quite right.
I advised the two colleagues to not make an issue out of this since Saderla had already joined, but they seemed convinced that they needed to take their misgivings forward.
Indeed, the very next day two things happened. In a departmental get-together, SM declared in the presence of Saderla that the standards of department are going down and he is thinking of leaving the institute (Mittal later claimed that he had said it in the context of problems with newly developed automation system).
This was the first of the many shocks that SS was to receive as events unfolded.
Upadhyay, on the other hand, sent a mail to all BoG members insinuating that a wrong recruitment has been done and that it should be retracted by the Board.
Over the next few days, Upadhyay sent several mails to the BoG members, some with misleading information in an attempt to justify his claim. To respond to one of these mails, I asked Ghosh for some information, and this was when Saderla came to know that some discussion was going on in BoG about his appointment.
He came to me on 8 January and said that if the institute feels he is not good enough, he will resign and leave immediately. I could see the pain written all over his face. To divert his mind, I asked about his background and learned that he comes from a family with virtually no tradition of education, and that he has had to struggle all the way to reach his present place. In the end, I told him that the rumblings would die out eventually, he should ignore them and focus on his teaching and research instead.
I could not have been more wrong. On 10 January, Mittal and Upadhyay called a meeting of department faculty omitting Saderla and one more newly joined faculty, to discuss his selection. At the end of it, twelve faculty members signed a letter addressed to me expressing their anguish that their views had not been heard during the selection process. Unfortunately, on the same day I was hit with a personal tragedy – my father passed away. While I was busy with the rituals over the next two weeks, things escalated rather fast. Learning about the faculty meeting and its discussions, Saderla had felt cornered and humiliated. He poured out his anguish in an email to me on 12 January.
“...have conducted the meeting for almost 3 hours during which every effort are made to convince the younger colleagues that I am not a suitable faculty candidate and I got selected by wrong means. As I received more and more information, I got to know that they are also trying to get on my personal life stating that I am not mentally fit to take up this job. I would like to get to know why such a harassing treatment for me? Is it a routine that happens for every new comer in the department or something special?”
The campaign intensified and Mittal, Upadhyay, and some of their colleagues started talking about it in corridors, in canteens, and at street corners. It spread rapidly in the small community at IIT-K campus and soon almost everyone was talking about how one undeserving faculty from reserved category had been hired in Aerospace Engineering department through manipulation by the head, who had taken everyone for a ride. It came to a point when people started avoiding Saderla and whispering behind his back.
Sravanthi is Saderla's wife. She was in her hometown with their two daughters, one barely a month old, when she learned of happenings at IIT-K. She wrote in a mail to me on 19 January, “Our family is feeling so overwhelmed and privileged for being a part of IIT-Kanpur. However, the happenings in the department of AE, from the day of joining of my husband, are quite disturbing and causing mental stress ... We come from a lower middle class background and are second generation literates want to pave the path for our fellow and future generations by being an iconic example.
But, the above mentioned circumstances compelling us to believe the suppression of growth that is happening and it is unpleasant to experience the same in such a premier institute, which is also our home institute. Being a former student at IIT-K, I completely understand the system and believe that there is no place for any discrepancies in the recruitment process. Neither our home institute nor our family taught us to commit any kind of mistake or to indulge in any illegal deeds at any point of life and we strongly believe that is the main reason for our growth. Right now, my husband is staying alone in the institute facing all these unwanted disturbances which is worrying me a lot. Hence, I kindly request you to look into these happenings, as it is pressurizing not only my husband but me and my kids as well. Hope you understand my situation.”
It was heart-wrenching. There was no way I could afford to ignore the situation and decided, after seeking advice from our legal cell and chairman BoG, to constitute a Fact Finding Committee to investigate the complaints of Saderla and Sravanthi. Since all the accused were senior faculty at the institute and were friends with most of the other senior faculty, I requested Vice Chancellor of Abdul Kalam Technical University to be the chairman. There was one external scientist from the Scheduled Caste community and one internal faculty member in the committee.
A blow below the belt
Before the committee could even start its deliberations, came the bombshell. In an email titled "The Ten Year Curse Strikes Again", which was sent to all senators on 1 February, Rajiv Shekhar called the selection of Saderla a scandal, incorrectly portrayed his performance in MTech, and levelled accusations at everyone involved in the process. The mail was generally in very poor taste, but calling recruitment of a faculty from SC community a curse on the institute has far reaching connotations. All 180+ professors in the institute are in the senators list and, within a few hours, a copy of the email reached SaderlaS. It shattered him. Shravanthi, learning of this, immediately caught a train to Kanpur, children and all, to be by his side.
Almost immediately, Saderla wrote to me asking for permission to complain to National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC). I was faced with a tough choice: if I tell him to go ahead, the case would be out of our hands; if I said no, I would be stopping him from seeking justice. Eventually, I chickened out and simply wrote back that I was going to forward Rajiv Shekhar’s email to the Fact Finding Committee. Saderla was, understandably, very unhappy with my reply and it must have strengthened his feeling that he was not going to get justice within the institute. After a few days, he decided to send his complaint to the NCSC anyway and went to AK Ghosh to inform him. Ghosh said that he will support Saderla and forwarded his complaint to NCSC.
I was oblivious to the above development until late February. However, I was acutely aware of the trauma being faced by Saderla and his family. One day I got an SOS from Ghosh to immediately talk to SS. I found him completely distraught and it appeared that he might end up doing something drastic. I talked to Sravanthi who was providing great support to Saderla and also got two security guards posted round the clock near his residence. By this time, I had a very ominous feeling about the whole affair.
While the Fact Finding Committee (FFC) was meeting various people involved, I updated our chairman BoG of the developments. He advised that a reconciliation should be done before the FFC submits its report as afterwards it would be too late. On 14 February, I made the first attempt and met, along with all Deans, several faculty of the Aerospace Engineering department including Mittal and Upadhyay. I explained the situation to everyone and said that we need a resolution quickly. The sense from most of the faculty in the meeting was that this is all a misunderstanding.
In order to resolve the issue, I proposed that Mittal, Upadhyay and others apologise to Saderla. This was, unfortunately, not acceptable to them.
In the next attempt, I called professor Kripa Shanker, a widely respected retired professor of the institute, to come and mediate. Professor Kripa Shanker spent several days on campus meeting everyone, but could not make any progress. His parting comment to me was: "Manindra, forget everything else and just take care of Saderla."
Following these events, I made it a point to keep in constant touch with Saderla. In order to lighten up his mood, I would joke with him and discuss in general how to handle adversity. I sensed the torment inside him, but we would deliberately not talk about it. Unfortunately, he kept getting one jolt after another. During a late-night visit to a hostel canteen, a student hurled abuses at him which are too vile to quote here (if you really want to know, see the second last page of the inquiry report).
In the first report on the case in media, he was the only person named. Now even security guards on campus would ask him about the case. Saderla and Shravanthi started avoiding going out even for a walk in daytime – they would go out in the dark so no one recognised them.
On 8 March, the FFC submitted its report. It found four professors, Sanjay Mittak, CS Upadhyay, Ishan Sharma and Rajiv Shekhar, guilty of harassing SS and recommended action to be taken keeping in view the SC/ST Act.
The report was put up for discussion in the Board meeting scheduled for 19 March. It got leaked to the faculty, and one day before the Board meeting, 70-odd faculty members signed on a letter to the BoG chairman that the Board should not take any decision based on the report and try for a reconciliation instead. This news was another blow to Saderla, as until then, hardly anyone on campus had stood up in his support, but overnight so many faculty came together for the four senior professors.
The underlying message was clear – there is a large group backing up the accused, but he has to fight alone.
The Board, despite stiff opposition from some members, decided to constitute an inquiry committee with a retired judge of the Allahabad High Court as inquiry officer. After the Board meeting, three more attempts were made for reconciliation, but all of them broke down at the apology issue. While the four professors eventually agreed to write a mild apology, Saderla wanted the apology to be unconditional and made public since his humiliation had been public. This was outright rejected by the four professors.
Several people told me to put pressure on Saderla to accept the above apology, but I refused. His demand was fair and it was the least he deserved after all that he and his family had been through.
Sometime in March second half, Rajiv Shekhar joined IIT Dhanbad as Director.
National SC Commission steps in
Meanwhile, the selections for the Director of the institute concluded and Professor Abhay Karandikar from IIT Bombay was appointed. He planned to join on 17 April and so I was to hold fort until then.
The NCSC, acting on the complaint of SS, called him, AK Ghosh and me on 10 April for a hearing in Delhi. The Commission went through the FFC report and asked me why did I not file an FIR against the four after receiving the report. I had no answer except to say that the BoG has not asked me to file the FIR. I got a lashing from the Commission and they said that I was trying to protect the accused. The only saving grace for me was the unambiguous statement by Saderla that I had been supporting him. In the end, the Commission said that they would henceforth advise the institute on how to act.
Within three days, the letter from the NCSC arrived. It recommended filing of an FIR against the four professors, conducting an inquiry through a retired judge (as also decided by the Board), and several other measures aimed at making Saderla feel relatively more comfortable. I checked with our legal adviser, BoG chairman, and some other knowledgeable people – their uniform advice was to implement the recommendations of the NCSC. It was four days before the new director was to take charge and I felt that it would not be fair to him to start his tenure at the institute with an FIR against some faculty. I decided to do it myself.
By this time, however, there was a growing sense among many faculty in the institute that I was against the four professors and had deliberately ensured that they land in trouble. A number of well-wishers asked me to stay away from filing the FIR as it would only intensify this feeling. Finally, I decided to follow their advice, and only initiated some of the other measures recommended by the NCSC.
A day before Professor Karandikar joined, the four faculty went to the Allahabad High Court and got a stay against implementation of the NCSC recommendations. This obviated the need for filing an FIR and took a load off the institute.
Justice Siddiqi begins inquiry
Soon after the joining, Professor Karandikar took full charge of this case. The four professors also met him and requested to change the judge I had identified to conduct the inquiry. I also gave the same advice to the Director since the inquiry would lose its sanctity if either of the sides did not have trust in the process.
So a different judge, Justice Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqi, retired from Allahabad High Court, was appointed by the Director as the inquiry officer. Justice Siddiqi started the inquiry in May and continued over the next few months. Several people, including me, deposed before him and were cross-questioned by the four professors.
In the interim, Saderla had started focusing on his work. He shared with me his development of “flying wings”, which looks like a large version of paper kites we used to fly as kids! He also got a very good rating from students for his teaching the previous semester, some achievement for one whose capabilities for being a faculty were questioned! While he and his family were still isolated, there was now hope of the better future.
The report of Justice Siddiqi came in August end. It was devastating. Justice Siddiqi found all four professors guilty of serious violations of conduct rules as well as several clauses of the SC/ST Act. In very strong language, he wrote: “...all the delinquent officials have behaved in a most uncivilized, rustic, unsophisticated, and awkward manner with a clear intent to tarnish the image of IIT, to damage its reputation and to undermine and destroy the authority/employer/IIT gradually and imperceptibly and deserve no mercy, no leniency.”
He was also thoroughly impressed by how Saderla had conducted himself during the ordeal. His last paragraph in the report was: “Before concluding the report, nobility demands that I may express my gratitude to Dr Subrahmanyam Saderla to have maintained his calm, withstood irrationality and paranoia caused by the four delinquent of officials...”
The report was totally unexpected. During the hearings, Justice Siddiqi had appeared to me a very easy-going person, who would not hurt a fly. Saderla was not surprised though – he said he had confidence in the judge. He clearly had better connect with the judge’s thought process than I did.
Another blow below the belt
The report was presented to the BoG in an emergency meeting in September. As expected, another campaign started in the campus before the Board meeting to somehow get the Board to reject the report. After several hours of discussions, the Board decided to accept the part of the report related to violations of service rules and all the four professors were then asked to file their response. In the next meeting, after about a month, the Board decided to award punishment to the four faculty: Ishan Sharma was given a warning for his conduct during seminar, and the other three were demoted by one rank.
Sharma continued with his UAV programme. This time he sent a video to me of the VTOL project that he and AK Ghosh were working together on. I had the sense that we are now coming to an end to this sad saga, and SS can then settle down with his family.
Alas, it was not to be! One day before the BoG was to meet for deciding on punitive action for the four professors, an anonymous email from a gmail ID reached the inboxes of a large number of faculty alleging that Saderla has plagiarised his Ph.D thesis and, therefore, his degree should be revoked. This caused another sensation on the campus. Again, there were talks in corridors and canteens that Saderla had cheated in his Ph.D; he was unworthy even of a Ph.D from the institute, and that his degree should be withdrawn.
Saderla and Shravanthi were in a state of shock. Their attempts to painstakingly build their life on campus were in shambles. I tried to buck them up, but my words sounded hollow even to me.
The case was handed over to the institute’s Academics Ethics Cell (AEC) for investigation. AEC found that while some portions of the text in the introduction and literature survey chapters were copied from an earlier thesis, the results were all unique. Before dust settled on this, on 12 November came another anonymous mail alleging that Saderla has plagiarised his M.Tech thesis as well. It was evident to many of us, and painfully so to SS and Shravanthi, that some people were bent upon destroying his credibility and career.
On 18 November, 322 days after joining the institute, his career in jeopardy, Saderla filed an FIR in the local police station against the unknown sender of emails and the four professors under the SC/ST Act.
Hell breaks loose
The news of the FIR travelled quickly. On the night of 18 November, 20-odd faculty members along with many students (brought by these faculty) went to the Director’s residence and demanded that he stop the police from arresting the four professors, as well as take action against SS and others supporting him. Over the next few days, several rounds of meetings by supporters of the four professors were held and even the spouses of many faculty members staged a dharna. One of the resolutions passed held me and AKG responsible for all the problems, and demanded that the Director divest both of us of our administrative positions.
The four professors immediately went to the Allahabad High Court and got a stay on the police investigation into the complaint by SS. This time, SS decided to fight back, and engaged a lawyer to contest the stay. The case is still in the courts.
Yet another blow below the belt
In January this year, a few students of the course Saderla taught in the previous semester complained to the Director that SS did not cover the full curriculum. This complaint came at a time when Saderla’s appointment was to be considered for confirmation. The Director asked a senior faculty of Aerospace, who used to teach the same course earlier, to investigate the issue. His conclusion, after going through the course file, was that Saderla not only covered the curriculum, but also offered additional classes to make up for the required background. He also opined that the complaint was motivated, and appears to be orchestrated by a few faculty members.
In another Board meeting held in January, the demotion punishment given to two of the four professors was reduced to withholding of two increments. For Shekhar, MHRD had intervened and said that any punishment to him required permission of the President of India since he was currently Director of an IIT. The punishment was very light, and reflected the pressure brought upon the Board by our faculty.
Grandstanding in senate and the final blow
Despite the light punishment, the friends of four professors were in no mood to relent. Now was the time for them to take revenge. On 14 March, the Ethics Cell report was discussed in the institute senate. Many senators took a moral high ground saying that copying even one paragraph in the thesis is abhorrent and requires the strictest punishment. Some of us appealed that, while the thesis may be revised, the senate should not ask for the degree to be revoked as it has disastrous consequences. It was of no use – there was a lynch mob baying for blood. The proposal to withdraw Saderla’s degree was passed by a vote of 42-15. It left many of us distraught, but when I talked to Saderla the next day, he showed admirable equanimity about it.
His transformation from a bewildered young man caught in an unexpected storm to a hardened adult in just one year is now complete. I am both happy and sad to be a witness of this.
There are three, very disturbing, realities I have been confronted with in this affair. First, the failure of our system. For nearly one whole year, Saderla kept his faith in the system and did not step outside the boundaries of the institute. He could easily have gone to the media and/or police very early, and would have a strong case of harassment. The system could not put a stop to his continued harassment.
As academicians, we are perhaps too soft to take a tough stance required in such situations. Second, the behaviour of many of our faculty has been downright disgraceful. In none of the meetings held after the FIR was filed, did the trauma undergone by SS and his family receive any attention – the only discussion point was how four senior professors are being unfairly targeted. And some of them have become vengeful – to the extent of attempting to destroy the career of a young, promising faculty. It appears that some of us are ready to support our friends using any means, fair or foul, even if it means tearing down the structures and processes we ourselves have made.
Third, I always thought that at IIT Kanpur, we respected merit and merit alone. This belief has taken a big hit. While I would still like to believe that most of us go by merit, I now know that for some of us, caste of a person is of paramount importance. It is a reality check I wish I never had.
The story has now been widely shared, and different perspectives are being published and debated. This is as it should be. However, in their attempt to defend the actions of guilty professors, some are trying to shift the narrative to:
1) Saderla being not worthy of being hired at IIT-K and his recruitment being only because of his caste and/or manipulation by AKG
2) this being a political fight between two groups in the institute and Saderla being used as a pawn. Both are rather devious attempts at diverting the focus from the core issue. Hence I am addressing both with necessary details.
A substandard hire?
The institute always looks for people with good ability to carry out high-quality research. This ability is of two types: innate ability - one is born with it, and acquired ability - one develops it over time with training.
The ability of the second type depends on the quality of training besides also being a function of the first type. Both the types are important: someone with high innate ability but low-acquired ability can develop fast over time and do very well. Similarly, someone with high acquired ability but low innate ability can contribute significantly using one’s knowledge and dedication. Of course, having both abilities high is ideal but restricting attention to only such researchers would miss out many potential high performers.
When selecting a candidate, a judgement about both the abilities needs to be made and a decision taken whether the candidate can flourish in the system. While performance in courses (measured by grade point average), college of graduation, publications etc help in estimating acquired ability, the estimation of innate ability is far more subjective and requires experienced hands. This is why, worldwide, the selection is done with the help of senior experts. To avoid any biases creeping in, the experts are chosen from outside the institute in the Indian system.
In Saderla’s selection, three of the country’s topmost experts in Aerospace Engineering were present: Professor K P Sinhamahapatra (HAL Chair Professor, IIT Kharagpur; expert in aerodynamics with close relationship with flight mechanics), Professor B N Raghunandan (former Dean, Faculty of Engineering at IISc Bangalore; INAE Fellow; expert in propulsion), and another expert from IISc Bangalore in flight mechanics and control.
After interacting with Saderla, it was their unanimous opinion that while he may lack a bit in acquired ability, he has high innate ability. Further, that he is one of the very few researchers in the country working in Flight Mechanics and that the Aerospace Department in IIT-K has not hired any faculty in this area for the past 20 years. Also, more than his publications (six in number at the time) and the fact that he had best student research paper award in an international conference to his credit, they were impressed by the fact that the method invented by him in his Ph.D was used by TASL (Tata Advanced Systems Ltd) to design hand-held fixed-wing UAVs for defence. All this led to the experts recommending Saderla unanimously for a faculty position.
Let us now look at some other data points. Saderla, after completing his Ph.D was offered a two-year postdoctoral position at Gyeonsang National University of South Korea. After he joined IIT-K, he was given an open offer by the university to come and visit them anytime, all expenses paid. Indeed, he went in the summers of 2018 for a month.
In collaboration with his Korean coauthors, an article of his has just been accepted in the Journal of Aerospace Science and Technology (one of the highest ranked journals in Aerospace Engineering according to Scimago, https://www.scimagojr.com) on online estimation of aerodynamic parameters for UAVs. Such estimation is a very difficult task according to aerospace experts since the speed of a UAV is comparable to speed of wind which induces a lot of error in the estimation (it is easier comparatively for aircraft since their speeds are much higher and hence there are significantly lower errors due to wind).
Finally, having been involved with a large number of faculty evaluations and selections, I have acquired some ability to judge the abilities of other researchers. In my view, the innate ability of SS is amongst the top ten percent of all faculty of the institute. He has been vindicating the decision taken by the experts through his performance despite all the distractions of past one year, demonstrated by his new designs (flying wings and VTOL UAV) and contribution to L&T Defence UAV design (acknowledged here) besides publishing papers. Few faculty in the institute perform at this level immediately after joining the institute. His confirmation after one year of probation period in the institute sailed through smoothly (it does not happen with all new faculty) in January this year. Moreover, given the strategic aspect of Saderla’s work, it would have been a loss to the institute (and to the country had Saderla chosen to stay back in Korea) to not hire him.
I am confident that he will bring laurels to the institute within the next 10 years.
A question arises naturally: if Saderla is so good, what was the need to consider him under Special Recruitment Drive? The reason is the differential between innate and acquired ability. In the special drive, the focus is on finding researchers with high innate ability who may not have acquired ability meeting the usual norms, and we tend to miss such people in normal recruitment process.
The names of experts in a selection committee are confidential. Two names are reproduced with permissions from respective experts. I have not yet been able to contact the third expert. The UAV designed by TASL has now passed the trials in Ladakh with flying colours beating competing products from multiple countries, including Israel. They will now be supplying to the defence.
A power play?
The power play narrative has been circulating for a long time. I kept quiet because I expected people will see through it, but it has not happened.
For the uninitiated, the story goes like this:
Sanjay Mittal was a candidate for Directorship of IIT-K in January 2018. As I was also a candidate, I considered him a competitor and used Saderla to get him mired in a controversy so that he is eliminated from the race.
Now for the truth. I was not interested in Directorship of IIT-K. I did even not apply and refused offers of nomination from many. Yet, the selection committee constituted for the purpose by the ministry shortlisted my name for interview. I got a call for the same on 12 February. It was indeed an honour that the committee considered my name despite the application not being there. Following this, I came under considerable pressure from well-wishers to go for the interview.
After careful consideration, I decided against it and informed the ministry on 27 February, one day before the interview. One of the factors influencing this decision was the controversy regarding Saderla’s recruitment. As I wrote in my story, by February-end, I had a very ominous feeling about the case. In fact, in my mail to all Deans informing my decision, I wrote:
After giving careful consideration, I have decided against appearing for the Director’s interview tomorrow. Besides my earlier concerns, there is now another one: the AE affair has a non-trivial probability of forcing the institute to take unpleasant decisions. If that happens, there will be a lot of unrest on campus. It is important that I take those decisions as officiating director and then hand over the charge to the new director to start with a clean slate.
Surely, Mittal was aware of the fact that I did not go for interview on 28 February (he was present there). It is rather unfortunate that the narrative of power play has gone on unchecked for more than a year now.
(Dr Manindra Agarwal is currently the Deputy Director at IIT-Kanpur and was Officiating Director of the institute when the episode began. This is his side of the story)