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Friday, April 6, 2018

Harassment of Dalit professor in IIT Kanpur exemplifies the subtle ways of caste discrimination in India today - First Post

India Sandip Roy Apr 04, 2018 14:22:02 IST

It’s not as brutally dramatic as a headline about a Dalit youth killed for riding a horse. Or that story about Dalit men flayed for skinning a dead cow. Or a Dalit student, dubbed “casteist, extremist and anti-national” by a Union minister, killing himself and leaving behind a five-page suicide note. At a time when angry Dalit protests during a Bharat Bandh have erupted across many states in India, the back and forth debate in one university, couched in the carefully formal language of fact finding commissions and letters to the director, sounds almost innocuous, not the kind of stuff that leaves buses torched and people dead.

But the story of one Dalit professor and what he faced in one of the premier educational institutions of the country shows how pernicious the problem of discrimination can be.

On 1 January, 2018, Dr Subrahmanyam Saderla joined the aerospace department of IIT Kanpur. He had a job offer in South Korea but he chose Kanpur. “I joined the institute with high spirit,” wrote Saderla in a letter to the director.

However, it quickly turned sour. In his letter, Saderla complained that when he was called for a faculty seminar, some of the professors present, including Professor Ishan Sharma, “kept on ridiculing me for the entire talk” and no one present tried to intervene.  He said he felt “ridiculed, harassed and undignified.”

File image of IIT Kanpur campus. 
Image courtesy:

He said he discovered that some senior faculty members had a three hour-long meeting to discuss lapses in the recruitment process, to make the case that he was not up to the mark as a faculty candidate. He alleged a rumour was spread that he was not mentally fit to take up the job. Emails were sent to various members of the IIT Kanpur community and senators questioning his academic credentials. At a department get together, he heard sarcastic comments about how the new faculty was lowering the standards of the department. He heard that at a dinner party at home, one of the professors dissed him.

An email sent to the senators of IIT Kanpur by Professor Rajiv Shekhar minced no words. It was headlined “The Ten Year Curse Strikes Again” and described Saderla’s appointment as an incident which “shakes the foundation of academics at IITK”.  He complained about the process followed, about Saderla’s grades, about his seminar performance. “How then did the candidate slip under the radar?” he asked.

It's one thing to have concerns about a candidate’s qualifications or an appointment process before they are hired. But a newly-appointed faculty member facing something like this seems not too different from a high level version of ragging.
But is it about caste?

IIT Kanpur set up a fact-finding committee to probe the allegations chaired by Vinay Pathak, vice chancellor of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Technical University in Lucknow.

The responses are striking. Professor Ishan Sharma denied he had tried to ridicule Saderla and said he had the right to go to any seminar and ask any question he wished. Professor PM Mohite in the department said he did not know the matter had anything to do with caste at all. His issues were about the process followed in the selection. Professor Sanjay Mittal, one of the professors named in the complaint as having told a departmental get-together that standards were going down after the new hire, denied even knowing that Saderla belonged to the SC/ST category.

That’s odd, because Saderla was in fact selected through a special drive for the reserved category and that seems to rankle with many in the first place. The fact-finding committee said explicitly that Dr Sharma, for instance, appeared to have “ill feeling against special drive of recruitment and in particular against Dr Saderla.”

Professor R Shekhar, who sent the “curse” email to all the senators of IIT Kanpur, denied he was against any special drive for recruitment. Shekhar has now been appointed director of IIT Dhanbad. Professor CS Upadhyay, who sent an email to the chairman of the board of governors, describing himself as a “stalwart of IIT Kanpur”, insisted Saderla’s academic performance was poor. Saderla had a CPI of 7.25 and IIT’s own definition of first class CPI is 7.0.

Saderla is not without support. The head of the department, AK Ghosh told the committee that some professors had joined together to harass Saderla, who he said “if given a chance, will be the best Flight Mechanics person in the country.” Professor Ashish Tewari said the allegations of discrimination needed to be taken seriously. The committee which selected Saderla said there was no dissent in his selection and all procedures were followed correctly.

The fact-finding committee agreed and recommended the management take “suitable action keeping in view of SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989”, the very act in the eye of the current national storm. A charge sheet is being prepared and an enquiry committee is supposed to be formed after that.

But sources within IIT say an attempt is being made to paint this as a simple “misunderstanding”. An “apology” letter has been issued, claiming that “some of our attempts to uphold the academic process of the institute have been misunderstood and misconstrued.” It claims the whole incident caused those accused of harassment “immense pain and distress” as if they are equally the victims here. A signature campaign commenced, in the name of “protecting the future of the Institute”, to resolve the issue by dialogue between the two parties.

Well-meaning as it sounds, it completely fails to take into account the enormous power imbalance at play here. A newly-appointed assistant professor finds himself pitted against the reputation of an entire IIT, his allegation described as “completely out of character with the way the Institute and its faculty has functioned in all its years of existence.” The pressure to back down for the “good of the university” can only be imagined.

Moreover, caste is being swept under the carpet which leads to the question whether caste discrimination can only exist if anti-caste epithets are explicitly flung around.

Now, the SC Commission has taken note of this and summoned all parties to Delhi on 10 April.  Whatever happens there, one thing is clear.  Many of us live under the illusion that we are caste-blind now, especially in the professional world because that illusion suits us. Yet, as a recent survey of caste in the United States pointed out, one in three Dalits reported being discriminated against during their education and two out of three reported being treated unfairly in the workplace. The story of Dr Subrahmanyam Saderla reminds us how much more insidious and deep-rooted our caste problem is than most of us care to admit.

Saderla at least felt strong enough to protest formally. Many others would rather swallow the humiliation than take on the system.  Perhaps that’s what Saderla has in mind as he writes in his letter to the director, “I kindly request you to take appropriate action such that no new faculty should ever face such embarrassing and humiliating situation in the future.”

Published Date: Apr 04, 2018 14:22 PM | Updated Date: Apr 04, 2018 14:22 PM