Sunday, 14 June 2015

Unwarranted machinations and meddling

This post is not related to my customary `disability activism'. I have been driven to putting on my cap as Professor of Mathematics and write this piece since spotting that `something is rotten in the state of our academia'. The level of bullying/badgering of directors of what were once called `institutes of national importance' by government authorities is assuming alarming proportions, in what seems to be in the nature of an absolutely `no holds barred' form of street-fighting. Ministries have no compunctions about making public statements which, in civil(ised) society, would be grounds for filing defamation charges. The process of making fresh appointments of directors to institutes had been going on smoothly for almost sixty six years. The mathematically astute would have noticed that it has been close to sixty seven years since independence. The year's shortfall is not an oversight : that is the period since the last national elections, and has not strictly been acche din for our institutes of higher learning.

Until recently, a sort of system had evolved for the method of deciding on who would take over as the next director of a scientific institute when the existing one was coming close to the end of his/her tenure. Academic Councils were  staffed with academically qualified people, who would `spread the word', solicit the views of senior scientists of the institute in question, and look for some sort of consensus on suitable candidates. And this system had been working reasonably well.

But, within the past few months, there has been a spate of instances of appointments, whose high handed methods have led to consternation and an unease that these decisions, which would ideally be made on the basis of academically sound criteria by academically sound people, are being made with `academic soundness' being replaced by `what Delhi wants'. Although this post is primarily about how the scientific institutions are wilting under this new regimen, I will start with a non-science example, but one of the most flagrant such examples (as pointed out to me by a friend and another distinguished alumnus of ISI). The equivalent of eliminating essentially all members of some academic standing from the  ICHR and leaving its future in the hands of Y.S. Rao (whose very credentials as a historian have been questioned by Ms. Romila Thapar, according to the entry against his name in the Wikipedia) in a move that hints at a possible further attempt at saffronisation of our history.

Let us pass now to what the creme de la creme of scientific establishments have been facing in the last few months:

The Committee given the task of identifying the next Director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research was led by Prof. C.N.R. Rao, probably THE avowedly most highly regarded scientist by past governments which even bestowed the Bharat Ratna on him. Anyway, this committee had suggested that the position be filled by a respected physicist working at the institute. This Prof. Sandip Trivedi,  had had the sense to initially not be intersted in accepting such administrative responsibility which would leave him precious little time for doing physics; but he gave in, after allowing himself to be convinced by Prof. C.N.R. Rao's committee that the institute badly needed a man like him at the helm of affairs. Not too much later, the PMO issues a statement that `owing to the post not having been properly advertised', Prof. Trivedi was being stripped of his Directorship. This resulted, not surprisingly, in protests by Prof. Rao, that he had been selected as he was considered the best candidate for the position, and that Directorship of the Premiere Research Institution could not be filled in by random people responding to a newspaper advertisement. Several months later, the DAE (the ministry overlooking the running of TIFR) announced that the objections raised earlier to Prof. Trivedi's appointment had been retracted, and the he would be the Director. Interestingly, there has been no announcement yet regarding Prof. Trivedi's reaction to this latest step in the `no you aren't, yes you are' game. (I am earnestly hoping that he would say `Thanks, but no thanks'.)

Then it was the turn of the IIT's. As we all know, while there were initially only five of these institutions in the country, several political parties have been using, as part of their platform, promises to start several new IITs all over the country - Gandhinagar, Hyderabad, Patna, Jodhpur, .... Never mind that it is being found that it is very hard to attract good academics to staff these fast mushrooming institutes with. Not long ago, we witnessed a thtoughly farcical situation where more than 30 people were interviewed on one day to find directors for three of the new IIT's. Dr. Anil Khakodkar  (former Chairman of the DAE, and universally respected) who was on the selection committee for this exercise, just resigned from the committee, refusing to be part of their many ridiculous antics. There were press reports of his not having resigned, as well as stories of his disenchantment with the whole exercise.

Delhi is finding other ways of having its presence felt in academic institutions - as witnessed by the recent (and entirely unnecessary) instance of IIT Madras being pressurised to derecognise a student body which sang the praises of Ambedkar and Periyar, while also, heaven forbid, objecting to Sanskritisation, Hindi name boards in Chennai (a traditional hotbed of resistance to the idea of Hindi as a national language) and caste-related schisms - and all on the basis of an anonymous letter from `some students' asserting that this group was guilty of promoting `hate' speeches; there was such a furious reaction to this, in Chennai, and even from Fields Medallists from Harvard, that this `derecognition was revoked' after a week of undue tension in Chennai.

And now for the latest manifestation of this heavy-handed meddling. When I first got into mathematics, almost 50 years ago, people only spoke of two places in India which did cutting-edge research in mathematics: TIFR and ISI. I have been on the facukty of branches of the Indian Statistical Institute at Delhi and Bangalore for a total of about 12 years, and I have the greatest fondness and loyalty to this institute which has come through many bad patches, but always managing to pick itself up and continue to hold a place of some esteem in the world of mathematics and statistics. I have known nobody who has spent some time associated with ISI who does not have the fondest soft spot in their hearts which prays for the well-being of this remarkable institute, which almost `flourishes in spite of itself'. This whole piece was prompted by the machinations concerning the directorship  of ISI. This is what has happened, and got me - and all well-wishers of ISI - all riled up.

The man who had been holding this post for the last (almost) five years is a Professor Bimal Roy, who took over after the institute had been through a rough patch. By all accounts (from academics whom I have held in generally high regard), the institute was quite happy with his tenure. And so, apparently was the Government, since they awarded a Padma Shri (a presumably coveted honour bestowed by the President of India) to him just a few months back! His tenure was supposed to come to an end on August 1, 2015, and the council had set up a Selection Committee to be entrusted with zeroing in on the choice for next Director. There was a Council meeting when this Committee was to announce its recommended choice of name for next Director. The general feeling doing the rounds was that this choice should/would fall on one of two people, either Professor Roy himself, or a candidate who had rendered yeoman service to the Institute for more than a decade and has moved, not long ago, to a non-ISI institute for personal reasons. Then the bombshell is dropped: the future Director wil be an entirely different candidate (formerly considered an outsider, if that).Usually, the Selection Committee's choice is supposed to be a recommendation for the Council to deliberate upon. This time, however, the Chairman of the Selection Committee and the Chairman of the Council are the same: the former journalist Arun Shourie whose wearing these two caps is, no doubt, a fall-out of his connection with the ruling party. One would have hoped that such critical posts would be reserved for a reputed academician, rather than a politician. Anyway, Mr. Shourie ensures that there will be no conflict of opinions between his two caps by just announcing the Committee's decision and shortly thereafter leaving for his flight out of Kolkata. And now, the powers that be talk of perceived acts of indiscipline on the part of Bimal-da (as he is universally and affectionately called) and have stripped him of his post as Director with immediate effect, making vague charges of `financial and administrative irregularities, `lest he indulge in further acts of such indiscipline or mischief'. I would have imagined that you must be well equipped with reams of proof of such misdeeds before you can dare to make such assertions of misconduct; but I suppose it is a function of the ground rules of the game (and who decides these rules)!

Going back to something I have said in an earlier post in this blog, this is exactly the sort of occasion when the Presidents of our Academies of Science should speak in one voice and say enough is enough, you politicians leave science to us scientists and you concentrate on doing your job of governing the land. God knows there are enough problems needing their attention: appalling frequency of rapes; spiralling rate of traffic related deaths; farmer suicides; non-implementation of `laws' like (i) abolition of manual scavenging, (ii) compliance with the UNCRPD; caste-related daily violence, like thrashing a teen-aged girl for daring to have her shadow fall on a high-caste.


  1. YS Rao's appointment as chair of the ICHR is another such example.

  2. Much noise without substance.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. I have seen, somewhat accidentally a spokesperson from the ruling party throwing mud on IITD Director a few days before the MHRD backed off!

  5. Oh my god, I wrote a longish comment and it just got lost. Will try again later Nissim. You have written well but I have a few points to make.

  6. In a federal set up, it's hard to differentiate the administrative style of state and central institutes. The postings of CAO based on political patronage have long been practised with all impunity. There are considerations beyond academic credentials and personal integrity. This blatant violation is being highlighted in limited as well as in mainstream media. The full house show is still on. But this one coming from the background of institutes of high repute, TIFR, & ISI makes it more depressing. Where is higher education in the country heading to? or, is the central ministry paranoid about the `left- centric' tilt of the institutes?