IIT Kanpur's hesitation to act against professors accused of harassing Dalit colleague exposes deep caste fissures
What is striking is that the four accused have claimed their actions were to uphold the high standards of the IIT.
The aerospace department of one of India’s premier educational institutions has been experiencing quite a bit of turbulence all year and its effect is being felt far beyond the department.
Subrahmanyam Saderla joined the aerospace department of IIT Kanpur in January this year. By April, IIT Kanpur had to set up a fact-finding committee to probe his charge that as a Dalit man he faced what could only be described as high-level “ragging” in the university that left him feeling “ridiculed, harassed and undignified”. The case went up to the SC/ST Commission in Delhi. The commission ordered an enquiry but the accused professors got a stay on that order from the Allahabad High Court. That court ordered the IIT Board of Governors to set up its own enquiry.
That one-man commission headed by retired judge Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqi deposed all concerned, allowed the accused to cross-examine all deponents, ordered email chains and documents to be dug up. He has turned in his report which Firstpost has accessed. It is damning. All four professors named have been found guilty and the report agrees that an “undercurrent was initiated to undermine (Saderla’s) knowledge, working and selection". Emails were sent alleging procedural lapses in his selection. He was humiliated in a seminar. An email was sent to all the IIT senators questioning his academic credentials. He was dissed at a dinner party. The report says the four professors have shown “clear intent to tarnish the image of IIT” and should not be “permitted to teach the future generation”, not even in primary schools.
That’s quite a slap in the face for CS Upadhyay, Sanjay Mittal, Ishan Sharma and Rajiv Shekhar.
The report details the charges against each. Shekhar sent an email titled the “Ten-Year Curse Strikes Again” questioning Saderla’s academic credentials. Siddiqi says since Shekhar knew that statutory norms had been followed in his selection, this letter was a clear example of “serious misconduct by publicly humiliating a person belonging to the reserved category”. Siddiqi notes the aggressive contemptuous tone of the letter was a “blot” on the name of someone teaching at such a prime institution.
Mittal and Upadhyay were found guilty of the “gravest misconduct of highest degree”. Mittal had allegedly said at a departmental get-together that Saderla’s hire had meant the departmental standards were going down. Sharma was accused of ridiculing Saderla at an academic seminar. Siddiqi writes his examination revealed that Sharma was actually satisfied with Saderla’s replies, submitted no complaint after the seminar, but still said “if you are right I have been teaching wrong for the last ten years” just to make Saderla the laughing stock of the room. The defence had said there was no specific “casteist remark” made but the report brushes that aside saying that was not the point. The point was a jibe was made in the presence of students to publicly “embarrass, humiliate and insult” Saderla enough to make him not join the institution. Even if he did join, a student present at that seminar might never respect the professor. In fact, there was a charge that a PhD student shouted obscenities at Saderla when he was having tea at the hostel. Eventually, it created such a noxious atmosphere, says the report, that Saderla became the object of gossip not only among the professors but among students, hawkers and security guards at IIT. “This will ultimately ruin the atmosphere of IIT,” writes Siddiqi.
What is striking is that while the four have claimed their actions were to uphold the high standards of the IIT, the Siddiqi report says not only did they defame Saderla but they ended up forming a “caucus” which was “boldly, shamelessly, arrogantly, imprudently and in a brazen manner challenging their own employer” and creating chaos within IIT. Siddiqi says media reports quoting the officials make it clear they are neither repentant nor distressed about what has transpired. Thus a suggestion at an IIT meeting that the four professors should just tender an apology to defuse the crisis was pointless since they were arguing that they had committed no wrong in the first place.
Section 3 of Act 33 or the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities ) Act is clear. It lists various kinds of atrocities from dumping excreta in the neighbourhood, stripping and parading someone naked, wrongfully occupying land belonging to an SC/ST person, but it also says if anyone “intentionally insults or intimidates with intent to humiliate a member of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view” they shall be punished with “imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to five years and with fine.”
“These delinquent officials are digging their own grave,” writes Siddiqi but the question now is whether the IIT has the will to follow through. A board meeting was called on 6 September where some tried to reject the judge’s report or at least downplay it. Pressure was mounted on Saderla to back down. The chairman at the board meeting decided that only punitive action would be taken for service rule violation rather than the SC/ST Act violations. But the National Commission of Scheduled Castes summoned the director of IIT and the victim on 10 September, insisted on seeing the judge’s report and gave the director an ultimatum to file an FIR against the named professors now that two committees have found the harassers guilty or else face possible punishment for neglect of duties as public servant under the same SC Act. They gave him fifteen days to do it. A week has elapsed since that directive. The clock is ticking.