The Saderla story – courage in the face of violent prejudice: Manindra Agrawal

This is a guest post by MANINDRA AGRAWAL

This is the story of a young man who made it to the premier institution of IIT Kanpur against heavy odds, but was then let down by the system and people at the institute. Yet, he showed exemplary courage and stood up for his rights firmly but gently. The story also highlights the frailties of human nature and the vindictiveness that can mar human actions. It is a story that needs to be told.

Prologue

IIT Kanpur, like all other IITs, has very few faculty from reserved categories.​ ​An initiative was taken in August 2017 with an exclusive advertisement for faculty under various reserved categories. The applications received were sent to the respective departments for evaluation, and the shortlisted candidates were called for seminars. The protagonist of this story, Dr SS (I am using initials for the key players for convenience, all names are in the public domain), who is from a scheduled caste of Andhra Pradesh, was shortlisted in the Aerospace Engineering department. He did both his M.Tech and Ph.D from IIT Kanpur under Professor AKG, who happened to be the head of the department at the time.

Ha! Look who has applied

The seminar attracted a somewhat unusual audience — apart from Aerospace faculty and students, a strong contingent of Mechanical Engineering faculty was also present. Such seminar announcements are sent to all institute faculty, but usually very few from outside the concerned department show up. SS was quite excited to give his job talk in the presence of his former teachers and friends of the department and was looking forward to it. However, he came out of it feeling humiliated. During the seminar, the Mechanical Engineering faculty, primarily IS, openly mocked him. Tough questioning of a speaker is par for the course at the institute, but mocking an invited speaker is usually frowned upon, and a line was crossed in this instance. Nevertheless, the seminar went reasonably well, many faculty gave a good feedback to the head, while some were negative.

The system works (most of the time)

In the institute, faculty are selected through a very rigorous process. After the seminar of a candidate, a group of senior faculty (called Department Faculty Advisory Committee or DFAC), consisting of the head and four other Professors, considers the seminar feedback, recommendation letters from referees, and the CV of the candidate to decide whether to recommend him/her or not. The recommended candidates are discussed by DFAC with an institute committee consisting of Director, Deputy Director, Dean of Faculty, and Dean of Research and Development (called Institute Faculty Advisory Committee or IFAC). These recommendations are shared with a selection committee consisting of three external experts along with the head of the department and Director (who is chairperson of the selection committee). The committee then interviews the shortlisted candidates and makes a final recommendation. The recommended candidates are then appointed as faculty by the Board of Governors (BoG).

A DFAC-IFAC meeting was held in September in which SS’s case was discussed. This was when I became aware of his application (I was part of IFAC as Deputy Director). AKG, being his former supervisor, recused himself from the meeting when SS’s case was discussed and the rest of DFAC unanimously recommended the candidature. Some DFAC members also commented on the proceedings of SS’s seminar in the department, terming it unfortunate.

On 7t​h ​November, I took charge as Officiating Director when the term of the previous Director got over. As Director, I chaired the selection committee that interviewed SS at the  end of December. AKG again recused himself from the interview of SS. After an engaging discussion, the three external experts unanimously recommended that SS be hired. They were impressed by the fact that he has designed and built UAVs with excellent characteristics. It was felt that there are very few faculty with such expertise and IIT Kanpur would stand to benefit from the hiring. The recommendation was sent to the chairman BoG, an appointment letter was issued after his approval, and SS joined the institute as a faculty in Aerospace Engineering department on the new year day.

From happiness to despair in three weeks

This was an exciting time for SS, a dream had come true. He was now a faculty in his alma mater and his teachers now his colleagues. However, his excitement was soon to turn into a nightmare. Almost immediately after his joining, a couple of senior faculty in Aerospace, SM and CSU, met me. They said that the recruitment was wrong, SS did not deserve to be a faculty at the institute, he could not even speak English properly, and that he was mentally unfit. These statements alarmed me initially. I had a lot of respect for SM and CSU and so I thought that perhaps a mistake had been made. But it struck me that I had heard SS speak fluent English during the interview, and that something was not quite right. I advised the two colleagues to not make an issue out of this since SS had already joined, but they seemed convinced that they needed to take their misgivings forward.

Indeed, the very next day two things happened. In a departmental get-together, SM declared in the presence of SS that the standards of department are going down and he is thinking of leaving the institute (SM later claimed that he had said it in the context of problems with newly developed automation system). This was the first of the many shocks that SS was to receive as events unfolded. CSU, on the other hand, sent a mail to all BoG members insinuating that a wrong recruitment has been done and that it should be retracted by the Board.

Over the next few days, CSU sent several mails to the BoG members, some with misleading information in an attempt to justify his claim. To respond to one of these mails, I asked AKG for some information, and this was when SS came to know that some discussion was going on in BoG about his appointment. He came to me on 8t​h ​January and said that if the institute feels he is not good enough, he will resign and leave immediately. I could see the pain written all over his face. To divert his mind, I asked about his background and learned that he comes from a family with virtually no tradition of education, and that he has had to struggle all the way to reach his present place. In the end, I told him that the rumblings would die out eventually, he should ignore them and focus on his teaching and research instead.

I could not have been more wrong! On 10t​h January, SM and CSU called a meeting of department faculty omitting SS and one more newly joined faculty, to discuss his selection. At the end of it, twelve faculty members signed a letter addressed to me expressing their anguish that their views had not been heard during the selection process. Unfortunately, on the same day I was hit with a personal tragedy – my father passed away. While I was busy with the rituals over the next two weeks, things escalated rather fast. Learning about the faculty meeting and its discussions, SS had felt cornered and humiliated. He poured out his anguish in an email to me on 12t​h​:

“​h​ave conducted the meeting for almost 3 hours during which every effort are made to convince the younger colleagues that I am not a suitable faculty candidate and I got selected by wrong means. As I received more and more information, I got to know that they are also trying to get on my personal life stating that I am not mentally fit to take up this job. I would like to get to know why such a harassing treatment for me? Is it a routine that happens for every new comer in the department or something special?​”

The campaign intensified and SM, CSU, and some of their colleagues started talking about it in corridors, in canteens, and at street corners. It spread rapidly in the small community at IITK campus and soon almost everyone was talking about how one undeserving faculty from reserved category had been hired in Aerospace Engineering department through manipulation by the head, who had taken everyone for a ride. It came to a point when people started avoiding SS and whispering behind his back.

Sravanthi is SS’s wife. She was in her hometown with their two daughters, one barely a month old, when she learned of happenings at IITK. She wrote in a mail ​ ​to me on 19t​h ​January:

“​Our family is feeling so overwhelmed and privileged for being a part of IIT Kanpur. However, the happenings in the department of AE, from the day of joining of my husband, are quite disturbing and causing mental stress … We come from a lower middle class background and are second generation literates want to pave the path for our fellow and future generations by being an iconic example. But, the above mentioned circumstances compelling us to believe the suppression of growth that is happening and it is unpleasant to experience the same in such a premier institute, which is also our home institute. Being a former student at IITK, I completely understand the system and believe that there is no place for any discrepancies in the recruitment process. Neither our home institute nor our family taught us to commit any kind of mistake or to indulge in any illegal deeds at any point of life and we strongly believe that is the main reason for our growth. Right now, my husband is staying alone in the institute facing all these unwanted disturbances which is worrying me a lot. Hence, I kindly request you to look into these happenings, as it is pressurizing not only my husband but me and my kids as well. Hope you understand my situation.​”

It was heart-wrenching. There was no way I could afford to ignore the situation and decided, after seeking advice from our legal cell and chairman BoG, to constitute a Fact Finding Committee to investigate the complaints of SS and Sravanthi. Since all the accused were senior faculty at the institute and were friends with most of the other senior faculty, I requested Vice Chancellor of Abdul Kalam Technical University to be the chairman. There was one external scientist from the SC community and one internal faculty member in the committee.

A blow below the belt

Before the committee could even start its deliberations, came the bombshell. In an email titled “The Ten Year Curse Strikes Again”, which was sent to all senators on 1s​ t ​February, RS called the selection of SS a scandal, incorrectly portrayed SS’s performance in MTech, and levelled accusations at everyone involved in the process. The mail was generally in very poor taste, but calling recruitment of a faculty from SC community “a curse on the institute” has far reaching connotations.  All 180+ professors in the institute are in the senators list, and within a few hours, a copy of the mail reached SS. It shattered him. Shravanthi, learning of this, immediately caught a train to Kanpur, children and all, to be by his side.

Almost immediately, SS wrote to me asking for permission to complain to National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC). I was faced with a tough choice: if I tell him to go ahead, the case would be out of our hands; if I say no, I would be stopping him from seeking justice. Eventually, I chickened out and simply wrote back that I was going to forward RS’s email to the Fact Finding Committee. SS was, understandably, very unhappy with my reply and it must have strengthened his feeling that he was not going to get justice within the institute. After a few days, he decided to send his complaint to NCSC anyway and went to AKG to inform him. AKG said that he will support SS and forwarded his complaint to NCSC.

I was oblivious to the above development until late February. However, I was acutely aware of the trauma being faced by SS and his family. One day I got an SOS from AKG to immediately talk to SS. I found him completely distraught and it appeared that he might end up doing something drastic. I talked to Sravanthi who was providing great support to SS and also got two security guards posted round the clock near his residence. By this time, I had a very ominous feeling about the whole affair.

Reconciliation attempts

While the Fact Finding Committee (FFC) was meeting various people involved, I updated our chairman BoG of the developments. He advised that a reconciliation should be done before the FFC submits its report as afterwards it would be too late. On 14t​h ​February, I made the first attempt and met, along with all Deans, several faculty of aerospace engineering department including SM and CSU. I explained the situation to everyone and said that we need a resolution quickly. The sense from most of the faculty in the meeting was that this is all a misunderstanding. In order to resolve the issue, I proposed that SM, CSU and others apologize to SS. This was, unfortunately, not acceptable to them. In the next attempt, I called Professor Kripa Shanker, a widely respected retired professor of the institute, to come and mediate. Professor Kripa Shanker spent several days on campus meeting everyone, but could not make any progress. His parting comment to me was: “Manindra, forget everything else and just take care of SS.”

Following these events, I made it a point to keep in constant touch with SS. In order to lighten up his mood, I would joke with him and discuss in general how to handle adversity. I sensed the torment inside him but we would deliberately not talk about it. Unfortunately, he kept getting one jolt after another. During a late night visit to a hostel canteen, a student hurled abuses at him which are too vile to quote here (but which are noted in the inquiry report). In the first report on the case in media, he was the only person named. Now even security guards on campus would ask him about the case. SS and Sravanthy started avoiding going out even for a walk in daytime – they would go out in the dark so no one recognizes them.

On 8t​h ​March, FFC submitted its report. It found four professors, SM, CSU, IS and RS, guilty of harassing SS and recommended action to be taken keeping in view the SC/ST Act. The report was put up for discussion in the Board meeting scheduled for 19t​h ​March. It got leaked to the faculty, and one day before the Board meeting, seventy odd faculty members signed on a letter to the BoG chairman that the Board should not take any decision based on the report and try for a reconciliation instead. This news was another blow to SS, as until then hardly anyone on campus had stood up in his support, but overnight so many faculty came together for the four senior professors. The underlying message was clear – there is a large group backing up the accused but he has to fight alone.

The Board, despite stiff opposition from some members, decided to constitute an inquiry committee with a retired judge of Allahabad High Court as inquiry officer. After the Board meeting, three more attempts were made for reconciliation, but all of them broke down at the apology issue. While the four professors eventually agreed to write a mild apology, SS wanted the apology to be unconditional and made public since his humiliation had been public. This was outright rejected by the four professors. Several people told me to put pressure on SS to accept the above apology, but I refused. His demand was fair and it was the least he deserved after all that he and his family had been through.

Sometime in March second half, RS joined IIT Dhanbad as Director.

National SC Commission steps in

Meanwhile, the selections for the Director of the institute concluded and Professor Abhay Karandikar from IIT Bombay was appointed. He planned to join on 17t​h ​April and so I was to hold fort until then. The NCSC, acting on the complaint of SS, called him, AKG and me on 10t​h ​April for a hearing in Delhi. The Commission went through the FFC report and asked me why did I not file an FIR against the four after receiving the report. I had no answer except to say that BoG has not asked me to file the FIR. I got a lashing from the Commission and they said that I was trying to protect the accused. The only saving grace for me was the unambiguous statement by SS that I had been supporting him. In the end, the Commission said that they would henceforth advise the institute on how to act.

Within three days, the letter from NCSC arrived. It recommended filing of an FIR against the four professors, conducting an inquiry through a retired judge (as also decided by the Board), and several other measures aimed at making SS feel relatively more comfortable. I checked with our legal adviser, BoG chairman, and some other knowledgeable people – their uniform advice was to implement the recommendations of NCSC. It was four days before the new director was to take charge and I felt that it would not be fair to him to start his tenure at the institute with an FIR against some faculty. I decided to do it myself. By this time, however, there was a growing sense among many faculty in the institute that I was against the four professors and had deliberately ensured that they land in trouble. A number of well-wishers asked me to stay away from filing the FIR as it would only intensify this feeling. Finally, I decided to follow their advice, and only initiated some of the other measures recommended by NCSC.

A day before Professor Karandikar joined, the four faculty went to Allahabad High Court and got a stay against implementation of NCSC recommendations. This obviated the need for filing an FIR and took a load off the institute.

Justice Siddiqi begins inquiry

Soon after the joining, Professor Karandikar took full charge of this case. The four professors also met him and requested to change the judge I had identified to conduct the inquiry. I also gave the same advice to the Director since the inquiry would lose its sanctity if either of the sides did not have trust in the process. So a different judge, Justice Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqi, retired from Allahabad High Court, was appointed by the Director as the inquiry officer. Justice Siddiqi started the inquiry in May and continued over the next few months. Several people, including me, deposed before him and were cross-questioned by the four professors.

In the interim, SS had started focusing on his work. He shared with me his development of “​flying wings​”, which looks like a large version of paper kites we used to fly as kids! He also got very good rating from students for his teaching the previous semester, some achievement for one whose capabilities for being a faculty were questioned! While he and his family were still isolated, there was now hope of the better future.

The report  of Justice Siddiqi came in August end. It was devastating! Justice Siddiqi found all four professors guilty of serious violations of conduct rules as well as several clauses of SC/ST Act. In very strong language, he wrote:

“…​all the delinquent officials have behaved in a most uncivilized, rustic, unsophisticated, and awkward manner with a clear intent to tarnish the image of IIT, to damage its reputation and to undermine and destroy the authority/employer/IIT gradually and imperceptibly and deserve no mercy, no leniency.”​

He was also thoroughly impressed by how SS had conducted himself during the ordeal. His last paragraph in the report was:

“​Before concluding the report, nobility demands that I may express my gratitude to Dr. Subrahmanyam Saderla to have maintained his calm, stood irrationality and paranoia caused by the four delinquent officials…​”

The report was totally unexpected. During the hearings, Justice Siddiqi had appeared to me a very easy-going person, who would not hurt a fly! SS was not surprised though – he said he had confidence in the Judge.

Another blow below the belt

The report was presented to the BoG in an emergency meeting in September. As expected, another campaign started in the campus before the Board meeting to somehow get the Board to reject the report. After several hours of discussions, the Board decided to accept the part of the report related to violations of service rules and all the four professors were then asked to file their response. In the next meeting, after about a month, the Board decided to award punishment to the four faculty: IS was given a warning for his conduct during seminar, and the other three were demoted by one rank.

SS continued with his UAV program. This time he sent a ​video​ to me of the VTOL project that he and AKG were working together on. I had the sense that we are now coming to an end to this sad saga, and SS can then settle down with his family.

Alas, it was not to be! One day before the BoG was to meet for deciding on punitive action for the four professors, an anonymous email from a gmail id reached the inboxes of a large number of faculty alleging that SS has plagiarized his Ph.D thesis and therefore his degree should be revoked. This caused another sensation on the campus. Again, there were talks in corridors and canteens that SS had cheated in his Ph.D, he was unworthy even of a Ph.D from the institute, and that his degree should be withdrawn. SS and Sravanthi were in a state of shock. Their attempts to painstakingly build their life on campus were in shambles. I tried to buck them up, but my words sounded hollow even to me.

The case was handed over to the institute’s Academics Ethics Cell (AEC) for investigation. AEC found that while some portions of the text in the introduction and literature survey chapters were copied from an earlier thesis, the results were all unique. Before dust settled on this, on 12t​h​ November came another anonymous mail alleging that SS has plagiarized his M.Tech thesis as well. It was evident to many of us, and painfully so to SS and Sravanthi, that some people were bent upon destroying his credibility and career.

On 18t​h​ November, 322 days after joining the institute, his career in jeopardy, SS filed an FIR in the local police station against the unknown sender of emails and the four professors under the SC/ST Act.

Hell breaks loose

The news of the FIR travelled quickly. On the night of 18t h​ November, 20 odd faculty members along with many students (brought by these faculty) went to Director’s residence and demanded that he should stop police from arresting the four professors, as well as take action against SS and others supporting him. Over the next few days, several rounds of meetings by supporters of the four professors were held and even the spouses of many faculty members staged a dharna. One of the resolutions passed held me and AKG responsible for all the problems, and demanded that Director should divest both of us of our administrative positions.

The four professors immediately went to Allahabad High Court and got a stay on the police investigation into the complaint by SS. This time, SS decided to fight back, and engaged a lawyer to contest the stay. The case is still in the courts.

Yet another blow below the belt

In January this year, a few students of the course SS taught the previous semester complained to the Director that SS did not cover the full curriculum. This complaint came at a time when SS’s appointment was to be considered for confirmation. Director asked a senior faculty of Aerospace, who used to teach the same course earlier, to investigate the issue. His conclusion, after going through the course file, was that SS not only covered the curriculum, but also offered additional classes to make up for the required background. He also opined that the complaint is motivated, and appears to be orchestrated by a few faculty members.

In another Board meeting held in January, the demotion punishment given to two of the four professors was reduced to withholding of two increments. For RS, MHRD had intervened and said that any punishment to him requires permission of the President of India since RS is currently Director of an IIT. The punishment is very light, and reflects the pressure brought upon the Board by our faculty.

Grandstanding in senate and the final blow

Despite the light punishment, the friends of four professors were in no mood to relent. Now was the time for them to take revenge. On 14t​h​ March, the Ethics Cell report was discussed in the institute senate. Many senators took a moral high ground saying that copying even one paragraph in the thesis is abhorrent and requires strictest punishment. Some of us appealed that, while the thesis may be revised, senate should not ask for the degree to be revoked as it has disastrous consequences. It was of no use – there was a lynch mob baying for blood. The proposal to withdraw SS’s degree was passed by a vote of 42-15. It left many of us distraught, but when I talked to SS the next day, he showed admirable equanimity about it. His transformation from a bewildered young man caught in an unexpected storm to a hardened adult in just one year is now complete. I am both happy and sad to be a witness of this.

Epilogue

There are three, very disturbing, realities I have been confronted with in this affair. First, the failure of our system. For nearly one whole year, SS kept his faith in the system and did not step outside the boundaries of the institute. He could easily have gone to the media and/or police very early, and would have a strong case of harassment. The system could not put a stop to his continued harassment. As academicians, we are perhaps too soft to take a tough stance required in such situations.

Second, the behaviour of many of our faculty has been downright disgraceful. In none of the meetings held after the FIR was filed, did the trauma undergone by SS and his family receive any attention – the only discussion point was how four senior professors are being unfairly targeted. And some of them have become vengeful – to the extent of attempting to destroy the career of a young, promising faculty. It appears that some of us are ready to support our friends using any means, fair or foul, even if it means tearing down the structures and processes we ourselves have made.

Third, I always thought that at IIT Kanpur, we respected merit and merit alone. This belief has taken a big hit. While I would still like to believe that most of us go by merit, I now know that for some of us, caste of a person is of paramount importance. It is a reality check I wish I never had.

ADDENDUM

The story has now been widely shared, and different perspectives are being published and debated. This is as it should be. However, in their attempt to defend the actions of guilty professors, some are trying to shift the narrative to

(1) SS being not worthy of being hired at IITK and his recruitment being only because of his caste and/or manipulation by AKG, and

(2) this being a political fight between two groups in the institute and SS being used as a pawn. Both are rather devious attempts at diverting the focus from the core issue. Hence I am addressing both with necessary details.

A substandard hire?

The institute always looks for people with good ability to carry out high quality research. This ability is of two types: (1) innate ability — one is born with it, and (2) acquired ability — one develops it over time with training. The ability of second type depends on the quality of training besides also being a function of first type. Both the types are important: someone with high innate ability but low acquired ability can develop fast over time and do very well. Similarly, someone with high acquired ability but low innate ability can contribute significantly using one’s knowledge and dedication. Of course, having both abilities high is ideal but restricting attention to only such researchers would miss out many potential high performers. When selecting a candidate, a judgement about both the abilities needs to be made and a decision taken whether the candidate can flourish in the system. While performance in courses (measured by grade point average), college of graduation, publications etc help in estimating acquired ability, the estimation of innate ability is far more subjective and requires experienced hands. This is why, worldwide, the selection is done with the help of senior experts. To avoid any biases creeping in, the experts are chosen from outside the institute in Indian system.

In SS’s selection, three of the country’s topmost experts in Aerospace Engineering were present: Professor K P Sinhamahapatra (HAL Chair Professor, IIT Kharagpur; expert in aerodynamics with close relationship with flight mechanics), Professor B N Raghunandan (former Dean, Faculty of Engineering at IISc Bangalore; INAE Fellow; expert in propulsion), and Professor M Seetharama Bhat (IISc Bangalore; expert in flight mechanics and control). The names of experts in a selection committee are confidential. The names are reproduced with permissions from respective experts.

After interacting with SS, it was their unanimous opinion that while SS may lack a bit in acquired ability, he has high innate ability. Further, that he is one of the very few researchers in the country working in Flight Mechanics and that the Aerospace Department in IITK has not hired any faculty in this area for the past twenty years. Also, more than his publications (six in number at the time) and the fact that he had best student research paper award in an international conference to his credit, they were impressed by the fact that the method invented by him in his PhD was used by TASL (Tata Advanced Systems Ltd) to design hand-held fixed-wing UAVs for defense. (It may be noted that the UAV designed by TASL has now passed the trials in Ladakh with flying colors beating competing products from multiple countries, including Israel. They will now be supplying to the defense.)

All this led to the experts recommending SS unanimously for a faculty position.

Let us now look at some other data points. SS, after completing his Ph.D was offered a two year postdoctoral position at Gyeonsang National University of South Korea. After he joined IITK, he was given an open offer by the university to come and visit them anytime, all expenses paid. Indeed, he went in the summer of 2018 for a month. In collaboration with his Korean coauthors, an article of his has just been accepted in the ​Journal of Aerospace Science and Technology (one of the highest ranked journals in Aerospace Engineering according to Scimago, ​https://www.scimagojr.com/​), on online estimation of aerodynamic parameters for UAVs. Such estimation is a very difficult task according to aerospace experts since the speed of a UAV is comparable to speed of wind which induces a lot of error in the estimation (it is easier comparatively for aircrafts since their speeds are much higher and hence there are significantly lower errors due to wind).

Finally, having been involved with a large number of faculty evaluations and selections, I have acquired some ability to judge the abilities of other researchers. In my view, the innate ability of SS is among the top ten percent of all faculty of the institute. He has been vindicating the decision taken by the experts through his performance despite all the distractions of past one year, demonstrated by his new designs (​flying wings and ​VTOL UAV​) and contribution to L&T Defence UAV design (acknowledged ​here​) besides publishing papers. Few faculty in the institute perform at this level immediately after joining the institute. His confirmation after one year of probation period in the institute sailed through smoothly (it does ​not happen with all new faculty) in January this year. Moreover, given the strategic aspect of SS’s work, it would have been a loss to the institute (and to the country had SS chosen to stay back in Korea) to not hire SS. I am confident that he will bring laurels to the institute within next ten years.

A question arises naturally: if SS is so good, what was the need to consider him under Special Recruitment Drive? The reason is differential between innate and acquired ability. In the special drive, the focus is on finding researchers with high innate ability who may not have acquired ability meeting the usual norms, and we tend to miss such people in normal recruitment process.

A power play?

The power play narrative has been circulating for a long time. I kept quiet because I expected people will see through it, but it has not happened.

For the uninitiated, the story goes like this:

SM was a candidate for Directorship of IITK in January 2018. As I was also a candidate, I considered him a competitor and used SS to get him mired in a controversy so that he is eliminated from the race.

Now for the truth. I was ​not interested in Directorship of IITK. I did even not apply and refused offers of nomination from many. Yet, the selection committee constituted for the purpose by the ministry shortlisted my name for interview. I got a ​call for the same on 12th February. It was indeed an honor that the committee considered my name despite the application not being there. Following this, I came under considerable pressure from well-wishers to go for the interview. After careful consideration, I decided against it and ​informed the ministry on 27th February, one day before the interview. One of the factors influencing this decision was the controversy regarding SS recruitment. As I wrote in my story, by February-end, I had a very ominous feeling about the case. In fact, in my ​mail to all Deans informing my decision, I wrote:

“​After giving careful consideration, I have decided against appearing for the Director’s interview tomorrow. Besides my earlier concerns, there is now another one: the AE affair has a non-trivial probability of forcing the institute to take unpleasant decisions. If that happens, there will be a lot of unrest on campus. It is important that I take those decisions as officiating director and then hand over the charge to the new director to start with a clean slate.​”

Surely, SM was aware of the fact that I did not go for interview on February 28th (he was present there). It is rather unfortunate that the narrative of power play has gone on unchecked for more than a year now.

Manindra Agrawal is Professor at IIT Kanpur

13 thoughts on “The Saderla story – courage in the face of violent prejudice: Manindra Agrawal”

  1. Thank you, Prof. Manindra Agrawal for this account. Often it is very difficult to assess accusations and counter-accusations from the outside, even when one knows about the pervasive presence of prejudice, particularly in our most “reputed” institutions. I think your account is important because it documents and records things that are never spoken about.

  2. This is shocking, but not at all surprising. The scholar in IIM, Bangalore, who wrote an academic paper on how upper-caste the IIMs are, is facing an enquiry. This kind of unrestrained misuse of power, will get a further boost if this government is voted to power again. I have no doubt at all that the four senior professors acted as they did because they knew they were acting out a script for the BJP and “merit”.

  3. Thank you Prof Manindra Agrawal. What has happened shows a deep seated bias which all of us must fight against. You deserve appreciation for laying out in detail step by step how the whole unfortunate thing developed into a tragic event.
    P C Haldar

  4. “Where the mind is without fear. and the head is held high” wrote Rabindra Nath Tagore. After more than 70 years of our republic the reality is – “Where the mind is full of fear, and the head hangs in shame.” Alas, when will we, my countrymen, be able to raise our heads out of shame, with a mind bustling with the force of human creativity and dignity for all humans? My salutations to SS.

  5. What is to comment on stark reality? casteism is all pervasiveand spread its tentacles to every institution and with vengence after Modi came into power.

  6. It is a heart wrenching account. It is deeply shocking to know that, even in this day and age, such skullduggery exists in the highest, most reputed academic institutions. I salute and stand in solidarity with the brave young scientist who was made to undergo this horrific torture at the hands of his colleagues.

  7. India needs system that penalises those who act with hate and with caste related prejudices, The stays in the courts should be challenges to get them vacated and law should be allowed to take its own course.

  8. This post also appeared on another website, and I had posted my comments there. On that website a lot of supporters of the four accused profs started arguing about Dr. Saderla’s MTech and PhD grades, and his H-index comparing it to very senior profs or researchers from vastly different domains. MTech and PhD grades for faculty positions is unheard of as there is no standard basis like standardized tests used for college admissions. H-index is compared according to the seniority and domain. I was an “UPPER CASTE OPEN CATEGORY” faculty in an IIT in the past with education from abroad, and no one ever checked my transcripts while shortlisting me for interview/job-talk or while offering me a job (and I was shortlisted at multiple IITs).

    I will mention an anecdotal experience during my tenure as a faculty in an IIT. During a PhD interview/admission process, which follows norms that are different for each IIT, and not like standardized GATE, GRE, SAT, MCAT, JEE tests, I noticed a senior full professor in the same panel that I was part of, was categorically asking extremely hard questions to candidates from SC/ST categories and from rural regions who did not have the typical suave English skills (that one “acquires” by going to urban English medium schools). One candidate was still doing very good despite the hard questions and was on the verge of solving an extremely hard problem given to him, and suddenly the senior professor declared that the interview was over. Not just that, I noticed that he was ultra-soft on upper caste seemingly suave urban students, by asking them very simple questions, and then declared his results unilaterally without even consulting the rest of the panel.

    This disturbed me a lot, and in the following departmental faculty meeting I decided to speak up against this discrimination. As soon as opened my mouth, the senior professor roared shutting me up saying he has been in the system for over 30 years so he has absolute authority to decide whom to admit and whom to reject, and I have no right to speak. I was shell shocked to see this kind of fascist attitude. Fortunately a couple of other senior faculty immediately stood up in my support, and they subsequently also rectified the admission process to bring more fairness to the whole process.

    But such incidents continued repeatedly later too, leading to my decision to quit the system, because I could not muster energy to keep fighting such disgusting practices. Just that because I was not a direct target of the bullies (thanks to my birth caste), I decided to quit quietly, and Saderla is a direct target and he has shown guts to take these bullies head on!

    Thus, I have no doubt whatsoever that Dr Saderla must have got BULLIED in his seminar talk, and later too, to humiliate and baffle him deliberately for being from dalit caste from rural region, deliberately put his course CPI/GPA under microscope to find “reasons to reject” than focusing on reasons to accept, and then declare him to be unfit.

  9. It really comes as a surprise when you inherently try to be polite, soft worded so as to not offend people around, there are these miscreants that are so blatant and blunt in their wrong doings.

  10. Thanks to Dr Manindra Agrawal for narrating the facts and holding a mirror to our society. The academic community must support Dr Saderla to counter the prejudices and back his courage.

  11. I really appreciate Dr. Saderla for the spirited fight against the caste prejudice. Such prejudice do exists in our society, though not always in very explicit form. In several institution deserving people suffer just because of their caste. I’ve seen many of my SC colleagues quietly suffer injustice, as they were afraid to stand up.

  12. Prof. Manindra Agrawal has talked about the dark underbelly of the systems in a premier Indian institute. People, at the top, mostly talk about the only bright side on social media. We need more people like Prof. Agrawal in order to improve our systems.

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