A newly appointed faculty member – who belongs to a Scheduled Caste – in IIT Kanpur is facing discrimination that carries casteist overtones.
The man continues to struggle, as the treatment of underprivileged castes at the institute comes under the spotlight.
For almost a year now, a newly appointed faculty member at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (IIT-K) has been facing casteist discrimination and harassment at the hands of some senior professors.
Subrahmanyam Saderla, who belongs to a Scheduled Caste (SC), joined the institute's aerospace department in January this year. Within weeks, emails circulated by a senior professor in the department called his appointment a “curse”, while some others attempted to prove he was mentally unfit. Eleven months later – and despite cases in the national SC commission and a police station – the vilification campaign against Saderla has only turned uglier and reached a point where his very career and reputation as an academic is under threat.
The case (detailed in this report) not only shows the premier IIT-K in a bad light, but also raises serious questions on the Indian elite’s willingness to change the caste status quo. In the twenty-first century, must a scholar be discredited and insulted because he was born into a Dalit caste? Are “upper caste” Hindus never going to let their “lower caste” counterparts catch up?
On a quick glance, facts of the IIT-K case seem to support these assertions. Yet there is more to the story.
Here is what’s brewing at one of India’s top technical institutes:
Dalit professor joins IIT-K, ordeal begins right away
In July 2017, IIT-K advertised a special recruitment drive under the reserved category for the department of aerospace engineering, along with two others posts in general category. Saderla, who completed his M Tech and PhD from IIT-K itself, got selected under the reserved category and joined on 1 January 2018 as an assistant professor in the flight dynamics and control group.
It wouldn't perhaps be right to say that that's when his ordeal began, for he got a taste of things to come during his recruitment process itself, during a seminar in October.
“During the seminar, some faculty members from mechanical engineering department literally kept on ridiculing me for the entire talk. This was the first time I have experienced such harassment behaviour during a talk,” Saderla later said in a written complaint.
It only went downhill from there. Within four days of his joining, a senior faculty member (Sanjay Mittal) sarcastically said to a group that the standards of the IIT were going down. Next, some faculty members held a closed-door meeting in absence of Saderla on supposed lapses in his recruitment that went on for three hours. Rumours were circulated that he was not mentally fit to take up the job, and emails were sent to 188 faculty members, questioning his academic credentials.
This is cause for harassment indeed, but was it about caste?
When Saderla took up the matter with IIT-K authorities in January, he did not explicitly mention caste when pointing to these instances that left him humiliated and isolated. But in the letter, he asked why such harassment was being meted out to him, and if it was a “routine that happens to every new comer in the department or something special?”
Fact-finding committee set up, four professors held guilty
After his complaint, the institute's then officiating director, Manindra Agarwal, set up a fact-finding committee towards the end of January, comprising two professors from outside IIT-K (Vinay K Pathak, vice-chancellor of Lucknow's Dr A P J Abdul Kalam Technical University, and Dr D B Shakyawar, principal scientist at ICAR-CSWRI) and professor Sumit Ganguly from IIT-K’s ethics cell.
In its report on 8 March, the committee held four faculty members guilty of harassment, namely professors C S Upadhyay, Rajiv Shekhar, Eshan Sharma, and Sanjay Mittal. It concluded that “the issue has been created mainly by faculty members”, and that there was prima-facie evidence against the four for Saderla's harassment. It also concluded that contrary to their claims, the process for Saderla's selection followed all norms.
Was it about caste?
The four accused professors told the committee that they never targeted Saderla over his caste, and did not even know his caste, but only had “grievances” with the selection process. However, the committee still recommended the management to take action under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, or SC/ST Act, perhaps realising that their claims could not be taken at face value as it was well-known that Saderla’s appointment was carried out through a special drive.
Scheduled Caste commission intervenes
The matter reached the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) shortly thereafter, and this is exactly what Saderla told them – that the campaign against him appears due to his “recruitment via a special drive and due to his caste”. His department head, A K Ghosh, also conveyed to the commission that he had been told by members of other faculties that there was no need to recruit members of the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe community through special drives.
The NCSC found ample evidence suggesting caste-based discrimination. In its report in April, NCSC observed that the targeted harassment of Saderla “right from the pre-selection seminar to after his joining shows a deep caste prejudice in some senior faculty members and needs to be nipped in the bud”. It also noted that several emails circulated within the department repeatedly raised the issue of special drives being unnecessary.
The NCSC also said there was evidence of false information circulated against Saderla: while his actual Cumulative Performance Index (CPI) in M Tech was 7.5, it was falsely claimed to be 6.5. (Indian Institutes of Technology consider CPI of 7 as first class.)
While the NCSC directed the institute to file a complaint under the SC/ST Act, the four professors got a stay order from the Allahabad High Court against this directive. The bench said the commission had gone beyond its powers.
Retired judge conducts inquiry, holds the four professors guilty again
Next, the institute's board of governors (BoG) instituted a one-man inquiry committee to look into the matter. Justice Saeed-Uz-Zaman Siddiqi (retired) in his report in September found the professors guilty, stating that an “undercurrent was initiated to undermine (Saderla’s) knowledge, working and selection”.
Specifically for Rajiv Shekhar (now director of the Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad), who sent out an email on Saderla's appointment with the subject “Ten-Year Curse Strikes Again”, the judge remarked that it was an example of “serious misconduct by publicly humiliating a person belonging to the reserved category”. While the report was damning of all the four accused, it called Mittal and Upadhyay's acts as “gravest misconduct of highest degree”.
The report also rebuked Sharma for needlessly ridiculing Saderla at the seminar because he never raised any formal objection to his recruitment later. While grilling Saderla at the seminar, Sharma had taken a dig at him by saying that “if you are right, I have been teaching wrong for the last ten years”. However, as Siddiqi's report points out, Sharma never submitted any complaint against his candidature, suggesting that the ridiculing was only to make Saderla a laughing stock.
When the BoG met in September, efforts were reportedly made to downplay the report, with the chairman deciding that only punitive action would be taken for service rule violation and not for SC/ST Act violations. The NCSC directive to file a first information report (FIR) was ignored. In their next meeting on 17 October, the board decided to stop the high administrative grade of Mittal and keep him deprived of Seventh Pay Commission benefits for a year. It also decided to demote Upadhyaya as associate professor. While Sharma was let off with a warning, the BoG sought permission from the President of India to initiate action against Shekhar.
Victim in fresh trouble, files FIR under SC/ST Act, career at stake
A month after the damning judicial inquiry report, tables turned as Saderla suddenly found himself accused of plagiarism. An email from an anonymous student marked to institute's director and other faculty claimed that several chapters in Saderla's PhD thesis were copied verbatim from other sources. The email said that “we are always told that if we were students in foreign university, we would be thrown out if we plagiarise. Look at the amount of material plagiarised in this thesis...”
Perhaps pushed to the limits, Saderla approached Kalyanpur police station and lodged an FIR against the four professors on 18 November. The FIR was filed 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. In his written statement, Saderla also accused two professors, Debopam Das and M L N Rao, of influencing the BoG to exempt the four professors from the SC/ST Act. However, the police did not add their names in the FIR.
While the police case caused a sensation at the campus, the four professors soon managed to get a stay on their arrest. Their contention was that since the Allahabad High Court, while staying the NCSC directive earlier, had asked the institute to conduct an enquiry, the FIR was wrongly registered against them as the enquiry was pending.
Next, Saderla again approached NCSC and wrote to them about his plight on Sunday (24 November). The letter said that the four professors were using the banner of IIT-K faculty forum (a faculty representation group of about 400 members) to harass him. Saderla said no action seemed to have been taken against the four so far, and that the plagiarism charges were an attempt to revoke his PhD degree so he would lose his job.
In clear terms, Saderla alleged caste discrimination in the letter, pointing out that “as there are only four SC faculty members out of 400 at IIT Kanpur, these people have large support and are able to utilize institute resources to cause mental harassment and agony to me”. He also said “only few faculty members have been able to help me or show solidarity in my fight for justice”. Saderla called his ordeal “organized harassment and terrorization of a person belong to Scheduled Caste community”.
At the time of publishing this story, there were speculations that an NCSC official would visit the institute regarding the matter.
No institute for Dalits?
Saderla’s experience at IIT-K has been harrowing and one wonders if the institute has any place for “lower castes” at all. After all, faculty members numbering over hundred, joined by scores of students, are shockingly backing the four accused instead of supporting the victim.
Only last week, a meeting of the faculty forum unilaterally concluded that “the Institute did not find any merit in the charges of harassment against four of our colleagues under SC/ST Act”.
One is also tempted to ask if Saderla’s plight is symbolic of a Dalit in today's India.
To dig a bit deeper, Swarajya spoke to some top authorities at IIT-K, who presented a more nuanced view. Manindra Agarwal, the current deputy director under whom most of the episode unfolded, told us that casteism is but a part of the campaign and “much of it was perhaps just professional rivalry”.
“Since Dr Saderla did his PhD under the current head of department [A K Ghosh], his appointment may not have been welcomed by some senior faculty,” he said.
Agarwal said his move to set up a fact-finding committee in January also did not go down well with the accused professors and perhaps that is why they have “gone after the boy with a vengeance”. He said that the institute's ethics cell has found no merit in the plagiarism charges against Saderla, but the matter is all ready to go to senate now where it would be further reviewed.
It is to be noted that both Agarwal and Ghosh are under fire from the faculty forum for their support for Saderla. On Tuesday (27 November), the forum demanded that both Agarwal and Ghosh be divested of their responsibilities, alleging that it was they who pushed Saderla to file the FIR.
A senior professor, requesting anonymity, told Swarajya that the matter is “all about four people being stupid”.
“It's incorrect to say that we have a casteist mindset here. After all, those involved in Saderla's appointment were also upper castes,” he said.
The professor said “only 130 out of 400 professors, and 100 out of 7,000 students” are backing the accused. “Even these figures are inflated as many of them have lent their support without knowing the details. You see, faculty members who have been here for over 25 years will naturally draw more support than a person who has not spent even a year,” he said. The professor also said that the senate’s decision on plagiarism charges against Saderla “could be influenced”.
Another professor, speaking anonymously, echoed the sentiment, saying that “even the judicial report pointed it out”. “The [judicial] report clearly said that if Saderla had faced discrimination at M Tech and PhD level, he would not have even applied for a post here. You see, he was already employed in Korea,” the professor said.
He, however, admitted that the institute has a long way to go in ensuring better representation of underprivileged castes.
While these accounts do lend more perspective to the tale, it cannot be denied that it's Saderla and Saderla alone who is in the firing line. Not just his job but also his career is at stake, given the attempts to revoke his degree.
It may be argued that both Saderla’s tormentors and supporters are “upper castes”, but the case will surely decide whether the institute can promise “lower castes” dignity in the campus. All eyes are on the outcome now.