A sense of unease has gripped one of India’s premier technology institutes over the last week. On November 17, close to a thousand students gathered at IIT Guwahati (IIT-G) in a candle-light march in solidarity with their professor, Dr Brijesh Kumar Rai.
Rai, an Assistant Professor of the Electronics and Electrical Engineering Department, was served a showcause notice on November 1, 2019 by the Board of Governors following a two-year-old inquiry against him in a case related to a project funded by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). In 2017, Rai had alleged that there was “corruption in the staff recruitment” concerning the ISRO project. He had thereafter written to the Dean of Research and Development, and later the Director of IIT-G regarding the same. When he did not hear back from them, Rai claims that he reached out to ISRO directly.
The authorities in their showcause notice (dated Nov 1, 2019) charge Rai on many counts, one of them stating that his “email communication to ISRO without maintaining a channel of official protocol is a wilful charge of insubordination.” The notice then states that Rai is “not a fit person to be retained in service” and gave him 10 days to make a representation.
This incident precipitated huge social media outrage by the students of IIT-G coming out in support of Roy, who was hired in 2011. “When we learned about this development, the students took a stand and started posting on Facebook groups, giving testimonials, supporting Dr Rai. The virtual protest then led to a physical protest on November 17 when hundreds came out in support of him,” says a final year BTech student of the institute, who preferred to remain anonymous.
Vikrant Singh, a third year student in the Electronics and Electrical Engineering Department adds: “Sir has been not only been fighting corruption but also fighting for students’ rights. In the candle light protests, we expected about 200 to show up but about a thousand were present.”
Rai’s brush with the administration is not new. Since 2015, he has been crusading against corruption, misappropriation of funds, nepotism and illegal recruitment in the institute. “It started in 2015, when an MTech student had dropped out before completing his degree but still managed to get a degree. I filed an RTI. While the student was prevented from getting the degree, nothing happened to professor who facilitated it,” says 41-year-old Rai, who is a native of Uttar Pradesh.
When the ISRO case happened in 2017, he was put under suspension for nine months. “Then I went to the Gauhati High Court and filed a writ petition and my suspension was quashed. However, the court did not quash the proceedings,” he says. “The charge against me is that I put out information about the project in the ‘public domain’. How can writing an email to ISRO — who is part of the project — be ‘public domain’? What I did definitely can’t be the basis of my dismissal,” he says.
Singh, the third year student, says that Rai has spent a lot of time on such cases. “There have been about 35 cases we have been fighting especially with regard to illegal recruitment, nepotism and public fund misuse,” he says.
Meanwhile, as student support has swelled, the IIT-G media cell has put out an official statement that there has been no official termination decision with regard to Rai. “IIT Guwahati wishes to clarify that the ongoing disciplinary proceedings against Dr. BK Rai, Assistant Professor in the EEE Department, are to investigate the violations of code of conduct rules of the institute and several complaints received against him through enquiry as per procedures. No decision on his employment has been communicated to Dr. BK Rai till date from the institute.” the statement from November 21 reads.
It further goes on to say: “Media reports on this issue claiming otherwise are based on mere speculation & false information that are being spread.”
“We were also sent mails by the student affairs department asking us to list out who all were present at the protest. They also said that if we do not reply to the email, it would mean we took part in the protest. It was very intimidating,” says the BTech student, who did not wish to be named. However, he says that no action against them has been taken.
“Similar things are happening elsewhere too,” says Rai, “It is not only IIT-G but educational institutions in general. In many cases, in other insititutes advertisements for staff selection are rarely put out and candidates are handpicked. We need systemic changes. With authority, accountability must come too,” says Rai.
Messages and calls to Dr. T.G.Sitharam, Director, IIT-G went unanswered at the time of filing this report.
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