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A Dalit Scholar’s ‘Curse’ Which Never Leaves: Story of Shunned IIT-K Academic Subrahmanyam Saderla

By: Eram Agha

Edited By: Angana Chakrabarti


Last Updated: April 02, 2019, 20:08 IST

A Dalit Scholar’s ‘Curse’ Which Never Leaves: Story of Shunned IIT-K Academic Subrahmanyam Saderla

From discriminating colleagues to "plagiarism charges", IIT-Kanpur academic Subrahmanyam Saderla's time at the institute has been marked by travails and hardship.

New Delhi: Dr Subrahmanyam Saderla, a Dalit academic from IIT-Kanpur says he has a document saved on his phone.

News18.com has learnt that the document, an email titled “Curse Mail”, which was sent by four senior faculty members on February 1 last year, starts with this singeing line - "Every ten years an incident occurs which shakes the foundation of academics at IITK. The curse has struck again!”

In the email, Saderla’s colleagues not only questioned his recruitment to the university but also vilified the scholar, calling him an “unsuitable” candidate.

“Ironically, it appears that a candidate with an IITK PhD CPI of 10 and good research publications was rejected. Are we living in an inverted world? How then did the candidate slip under the radar? Let us assume that the Departmental Faculty Affairs Committee slipped but what was the Institute Faculty Affairs Committee doing?” the email reads.

The email’s authors denounced Saderla and described him as an “unsuitable, uninspiring, unfortunate candidate”, who “came by wrong means”, and was “mentally unfit to take the job.”

The email prompted Saderla to lodge an official harassment complaint following which a committee was constituted.

The committee headed by Professor Vinay K Pathak, Vice Chancellor Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Technical University recommended that the “management should take suitable action keeping in view SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989 and its Amendment Act 2015.”

“The issue has been created mainly by faculty members whose acts are against the organization and in particular against Dr Saderla who has been harassed by their acts and prima facie evidence has been found,” the committee had observed at the time.

But Saderla didn’t stop there. He took the complaint to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC).

Following this, a high court judge found the four teachers guilty of flouting IIT-K’s conduct rule and the SC/ST Preventions Atrocities Act.

A year on, Saderla marks the anniversary of the email with a singeing response to his colleagues. His email titled “One Year of Curse” reads, “Is it a sin to get appointed through a special recruitment drive?”.

This communication now assumes importance, as IIT-K Senate has put forth a recommendation to the Board of Governors that Saderla’s PhD dissertation be cancelled over an anonymous complaint against him.

The charges of plagiarism were made through an anonymous email, which was sent across to several faculty members on October 15 2018, just two months after the four professors were found guilty of harassment.

The Academic Ethics Cell of IIT, however, found no reason to revoke Saderla's thesis since “there are no allegations with regards to scholars own research work, including detailed experiments table’s figures and the conclusions drawn from them.”

The Ethics Report also pointed out that the institute does not have any policy of looking into the charges made anonymously. The Board of Governors is likely to convene on the matter soon.

“I have faith in the Board of Governors and that they will act without any prejudice. The Board has 194 members – 58 are in my favour and 42 are opposing it. The charges of plagiarism were made in an anonymous email – ideally, the person whose work has been plagiarised should be complaining – then why a nameless email?” Saderla told News18.com.

Interestingly, according to Saderla, the plagiarism charges are trivial. “The Ethics Cell has said that there is no need to revoke my thesis – there were similarities in introduction and appendix. The charges were made on equations of motion. But that is something Newton derived, and no one can take it away from him.”

He said that he is only being probed for speaking up against harassment.

Always Under The Scanner

Hailing from Andhra Pradesh, Saderla’s tryst with humiliation started as far back as the selection process.

The inquiry report by the High Court judge mentions that during the course of the recruitment process Dr Subrahmanyam Saderla was invited for a seminar in which he was grilled over his presentation.

One of the faculty members questioned Saderla’s inferences saying that if he was right, then he (the faculty member) had been teaching the wrong lesson for the past ten years. According to the inquiry report, “Saderla felt humiliated and insulted.”

Saderla’s research, which focuses on unmanned aerial vehicles, is said to be a step ahead from his senior’s work on low level angles as it also provides experimental data through aerodynamic modelling.

His hiring was followed by several meetings with faculty members to discuss the “possible procedural lapses in the recent hiring in the Department of Aerospace Engineering.”

Saderla was hurt to know about this follow-up action to his recruitment and contacted the director to make provisions so that no other faculty has to face these situations. Needless to say, the ordeal left Saderla traumatised.

His wife, Srawanthi Satuluri, also complained to the authorities about harassment and discrimination. The inquiry report pointed out that she was concerned about how her husband was under great duress. “We come from the lower middle-class background and are second generation literates. We want to pave the path for the fellow future generations by being iconic examples,” she said.

Saderla didn’t want to lose the battle in his own institute and took the matter to the NCSC.

The director was grilled and was told to lodge an FIR. One of the accused professors Ishan Sharma filed a writ petition countering the report’s findings in the High Court which stayed the FIR.

"Why me?”

Saderla, who is one of the only four SC/ST category teachers among the 400 faculty members, was lauded by the other faculty members from marginalized background for his bravery. “When Rohith Vemula case happened in the central university of Hyderabad, I told myself that it might be just one case of discrimination but I was wrong,” Saderla recalls.

Born to an upper caste mother and a Dalit father, Saderla said that he never faced discrimination while growing up. “I never faced it. This is the first time I am seeing such discrimination. The selection committee was happy with my hiring – yet this happened.”

In the email “One year of curse” he writes, “We have grown up hearing the stories from our parents that there was a time when people were labelled as curse on every occasion of an unsought encounter. But never understood the exact crux of that act in spite of our parents being direct victims of such hostile experiences. The events that I have gone through make me question – why me? Why only me?”

News 18.com contacted the IIT-K administration Registrar KK Tiwari, who said that the Board of Governors will take a final call on the recommendations put forth by the institute’s Senate.

first published:April 02, 2019, 11:44 IST
last updated:April 02, 2019, 20:08 IST