Science

The Story Behind Damning Plagiarism Charges Against IIT Kanpur’s Dalit Teacher

IIT Kanpur (Wikimedia Commons) 
Snapshot
  • Four faculty members at IIT-Kanpur are found guilty of perpetrating caste-based discrimination against their colleague Subrahmanyam Saderla

    One day before the institute’s Board of Governors is to announce its sentence, Saderla finds himself the victim of a plagiarism charge

On 15 October 2018, an anonymous email from a gmail ID, 'studentiitk90@gmail.com', landed in the inboxes of a large number of senior faculty members, including the director of the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur (IIT-K).

It was against a young, recently recruited faculty named Dr Subrahmanyam Saderla.

The email claimed that Saderla had copied "paragraphs after paragraph, pages alter pages" and "material worth an entire page" in his PhD thesis, that he had earned at the same institute three years ago. The email mentioned several cases of alleged plagiarism and even suggested the PhD to be revoked. It was laced with mockery and despair over the "hypocrisy" of the institute that, it claimed, terminates students for mistakes that the faculty gets away with.

"The hypocrisy of IITK and the academic system is getting to me now. It makes me wonder, why do I spend sleepless nights over my work at all? I can simply copy," the email said.

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The charges and the tone of the email must have alarmed the institute's director Abhay Karandikar as the very next day, he forwarded it to the ethics cell, giving it three weeks to investigate. Marked to professor Sumit Ganguly, who was heading the ethics committee, the email said the complaint was of a "serious nature".

In the corridors and in the canteens, Saderla now became a hot subject of animated discussions. Had he cheated in his PhD? Was he unworthy of his degree and job? Was his appointment as a faculty of IIT-K a mistake? Who influenced his recruitment?

Saderla, 31, had joined IIT-K in January 2018 as assistant professor in the department of aerospace engineering.

Indeed, plagiarism at such a premier institute has to be a serious matter. But a closer look reveals that the prompt action by Karandikar was quite out of line, if not extraordinary. This correspondent was told by several senior professors that it was unusual to consider nameless complaints, that too when people whose documents are claimed to have been plagiarised have expressed no grievances.

Why then was this zeal shown in Saderla's case?

Well, anybody who was aware of the events in the preceding ten months knew very well why.

To them, it was not even a coincidence that the anonymous email had appeared a day before a top management meet. On 16 October, the IIT-K's board of governors (BoG) was supposed to decide on punitive action against four senior professors who had been found guilty of harassing Saderla.

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At least three inquiry committees had held professors CS Upadhyay, Rajiv Shekhar, Ishan Sharma and Sanjay Mittal guilty of caste-based discrimination and harassment of Saderla, who belongs to a Scheduled Caste (SC) community

A look at the inquiry reports suggests that the group simply did not like Saderla, who had made the cut through a special recruitment drive under the reserved category that the institute had advertised in July. The IITs hardly have any faculty from reserved categories; in IIT-K, the figure is a dismal four out of 400.

From insinuations to downright humiliation, the group went after Saderla with a vengeance in the very first week of his joining IIT-K. As this correspondent has earlier reported, the vilification was so ugly that Rajiv Shekhar brazenly sent an email titled 'The Ten Year Curse Strikes Again' to about 200 faculty, calling Saderla's selection a scandal.

The then officiating director Manindra Agarwal told Swarajya that the email was unprecedented and in poor taste.

When Saderla saw the email, he was shattered. His wife had to come all the way from Andhra to Kanpur to be by her husband’s side.

After Saderla took it up with the management, two inquiries were set up - first, a fact-finding committee comprising external professors and second, a judicial inquiry committee, headed by a retired Allahabad High Court judge. Both held the four professors guilty.

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In between, a distraught Saderla also approached the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), which made some scathing observations.

The NCSC noted that “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 recommended the management to file an FIR under the SC/ST Act.

Blame it on the anonymous email, a sustained campaign against the damning inquiry reports or the top management siding with its senior faculty, but in the BoG meeting, the accused professors got off lightly. They were exempted from action for SC/ST violations.

The BoG, under then chairmanship of RC Bhargava, decided that the high administrative grade of Mittal would be stopped and he be kept deprived of Seventh Pay Commission benefits for a year. It also decided to demote Upadhyay to an associate professor. Sharma was let off with a warning; to initiate action against Shekhar, who was now director of the Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad, permission had to be sought from the President of India.

Even these decisions turned out to be hollow; as one would later learn, several of them were eventually overturned.

Meanwhile, the ethics cell came out with its report on plagiarism charges. The conclusions only confirmed the fears of many that the anonymous email was a malicious attempt to discredit Saderla and sabotage his career.

In fact, a senior professor told this correspondent that "everyone knew who had sent the email". "It's one of the four accused," he said, and shared the name.

The findings said that none of the allegations made were related to the actual research work by Saderla, such as experiments, tables, figures and the conclusions drawn from them, but were only about the content in introductory descriptions or standard equations.

Here's what it actually means: Most of what was claimed to have been plagiarised were simply equations and standard literature that Saderla had reproduced.

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For instance, consider this allegation: "Chapter 6: Page 145-149; All the marked content has been copied verbatim from PhD Thesis of Naba Kumar Peyada, IIT Kanpur 2008..."

Here's the explanation given by Saderla: that 30-33 equations of motion with approved list of symbols had been reproduced. "There is very little to modify as highlighted section consists of mostly equations and their relative description," Saderla wrote in his defense - a defense that several senior professors that this correspondent talked to, fully agreed with.

“We all know that force is equal to mass into acceleration, right? Now If I cite this equation and don't credit Newton for it, does it mean I plagiarised?" a professor explained. "The charges are ridiculous. By this logic, all of us professors are indulging in plagiarism in every single class."

The ethics cell clearly stated that it found no reason for the thesis to be revoked. Still, it recommended that since the language in some equations follows closely, Saderla should rewrite the content in his own words.

One hoped that the matter would begin to settle down, but on 12 November 2018, came another anonymous email, this time alleging that Saderla had plagiarised his MTech thesis as well. It was now clear to a wider set of people that the anonymous complaints were motivated.

Saderla, of course, knew it already. Perhaps pushed to the limits, he approached Kalyanpur police station on 18 November 2018 and lodged an FIR against the four professors. In his written statement, Saderla also accused two other professors, Debopam Das and MLN 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.

Photo for representation Photo for representation

The police case caused a sensation at the campus, but the four professors managed to get a stay on their arrest from the Allahabad High Court.

A senior professor who is backing Saderla told Swarajya, "It’s well known that the easiest escape from police action is to approach the Allahabad high court, where cases notoriously drag on and on. That’s what the accused did.”

A final decision on plagiarism was still pending. On 10 January, IIT-K director Karandikar wrote to the Senate Post Graduate Committee (SPGC comprises of representatives of all departments and is currently chaired by professor Nitin Kaista), asking what further action should to taken.

The SPGC held "an emergency meeting" on 15 February. In a controversial move, it decided to refer the matter to IIT-K senate on whether that Saderla's PhD should be withdrawn with immediate effect.

The decision raised eyebrows.

“The norm is that the SPGC must get a review done by the concerned department - in this case the aerospace department - as the work is technical in nature. But this wasn’t followed. No technical investigation was done,” a senior professor told Swarajya.

If this wasn’t enough, Saderla became a target of yet another "motivated" campaign. Some students wrote a written complaint to Karandikar that Saderla had not covered the full syllabus in a particular course. It was about the same time when a decision on confirmation of Saderla’s appointment was to be taken.

This charge too proved to be frivolous as probe by a senior faculty of aerospace department concluded that Saderla had not only covered the curriculum but also offered additional classes. The probe said that the complaint appeared motivated and orchestrated by some faculty members.

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This report was submitted in February and till date, no action has been taken.

One would think that it was clear as crystal to everyone what was happening with Saderla, but on 14 March, came another shock. The Senate (IIT-K's highest academic body comprising of all 199 faculty) met under the chairmanship of Karandikar and decided that the thesis must be revoked.

Here’s why the decision is controversial:

  • Why did the Senate consider the SPGC report which lacked any additional conclusive evidence?
  • Why was the mandatory condition of quorum, that is presence of at least 50 percent of the members (100 in this case) flouted? Only 48 Senate members attended the meeting.
  • Why did they turn a blind eye to the obvious malicious campaign going on against Saderla?
  • To make matters worse, even those who were present were allegedly misled.

The document that was presented in the senate (as uploaded on IIT-K website) shows a 303-page document, whereas Saderla’s original thesis is 245 pages excluding the mandatory pages. Out of these, only 28 pages are under scanner, amounting to a total of 11.45 percent plagiarism. The benchmark available from various sources, including IEEE is about 15 percent. However, these 28 pages are repeated in the 303-page document (appended with the complete thesis turnitin report), making it 56 out of 303 pages, thereby increasing the ratio to 18.5 percent. What’s more, many people seem to have calculated 56 pages out of 245, thereby making this ratio inflated as 23 percent.

“Given the happenings related to Saderla, the document presented in the Senate by Kaista and as uploaded on web smells of foul play,” a senior professor told Swarajya.

Swarajya called up Kaista for his response to this allegation, but he did not pick up the calls. We will update the report when he responds.

However, this correspondent had a conversation with an IIT member who put forth the other side of the story. He said that the SPGC is being maligned in the media only for doing its job. “It was given the task of probing plagiarism which it did. It’s obvious that he [Saderla] has copy-pasted material, whether it’s 28 or 56 pages. It’s unfortunate that the same set of people who recruited him, and his recruitment was a clear case of nepotism, are now trying to give him a clean chit for lifting content,” he said.

Meanwhile, a crucial meeting is scheduled three days later. The BoG will meet on April 9 to take a final decision on whether to revoke Saderla's degree or not. The young assistant professor’s career and livelihood, and indeed his reputation and dignity, are at stake.

Photo for representation Photo for representation

Isn’t a quick glance at all the events listed above enough to suggest organised and systematic victimisation of Saderla? A vendetta against him for standing up against a powerful lobby? The young academic himself has maintained a dignified restraint in the media.

Well, the outrageous developments aren’t lost on the dispassionate observer. Civil society groups have now stepped in and a number of voices within the campus are now openly backing Saderla, despite being targeted for it.

Among others, a civil group led by an alumnus of the institute, Dheeraj Kumar, contacted IIT-K director Karandikar last week and posed several questions that we are sure are looming on the readers’ minds too:

  • Why did Karandikar not file FIR against the accused as per NCSC orders?
  • Why did he accept an anonymous complaint in a sub-judice matter just a day before the BoG meeting?
  • Why did the BoG ignore violations under the SC/ST act?
  • Why did the BoG reverse its decision and dilute the punishment decided for the erring professors?
  • Why should not the PhD thesis of all 400 faculty be screened for plagiarism to be fair to all?

This correspondent tried to contact Karandikar but he remained unavailable (We will update the report once he responds). As per an email by Dheeraj Kumar, Karandikar has assured that he would use the special powers vested with him under Section 13 to overrule Senate's recommendations.

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All eyes are now on the April 9 meeting of the BoG.

However, even if the Board gives a decision favourable to Saderla, which by all means it must, the matter, clearly, doesn’t end here.

Will Saderla’s tormentors be brought to task?

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