Education

As Scholars Accuse IIAS of Opaque Practices, Chairperson and Director Go Head to Head

In the last two years, a record number of fellowships have been terminated, leading to allegations of favouritism and a shoddy review process from the fellows and a full-blown war between the institute’s highest figures of authority.

New Delhi: In 1965, M.C. Chagla, the then Union minister of education, celebrated the conversion of Shimla’s erstwhile viceregal lodge into the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS). It was intended to be a unique institution of scholarship and research that would have ‘no curricula, no course of studies, no faculties, no examination’ and no conferment of degrees.

What Chagla could not foresee was that with time, scholarship and scholars would take a backseat and the IIAS would become like scores of public institutions today, with a hoary past, an uncertain present and a terrifying future.

In the last two years, the IIAS has witnessed a record number of fellows being shown the door out of its sylvan surroundings because the mandated mid-way review of their work recommended the termination of their two-year fellowships. On the face of it, there can be no grudge against peer reviews of academic work. But a closer examination reveals a pattern that smacks of favouritism and a shoddy review process, where the director gets to play a major role. What makes the story complicated is that chairperson Kapil Kapoor and vice chairperson Chaman Lal Gupta are openly ranged against the director, Makarand Paranjape, accusing him of defying all rules and the institute’s governing body (GB) with impunity. They claim that Paranjape commissions favourable reports for fellows he likes and orders the termination of fellowships when the review report is remotely critical.

It needs to be pointed out that all three are appointees of this government and are of the same ideological hue. Even the fellows who have been shown the door joined the IIAS in the last three or four years and to be fair, are ideologically neutral. The matter has now reached the courts, with some fellows crying foul about the review process. Kapoor and Gupta claim they are being undermined and have prepared a long chargesheet against Paranjape. And the institution has turned into a battleground.

A source close to Paranjape quoted him saying, “The chairman and vice chairman of the governing body are positions that I hold in great esteem. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about the actual persons who occupy such positions.”

A senior official said, “Some of these worthies claim to represent Indian culture and traditions. However, they constantly violate the basic tenets of those very traditions and values. They are the most adharmic and depraved characters you will find, doing nothing that is positive but spending all their time and energy in negative and obstructive politicking. They will stoop to any level of misconduct, malfeasance and character-assassination to attain their unholy ends. They care nothing about the institution, the nation, or the public good. They abuse the positions they occupy, trying to usurp power for their personal gain and the satisfaction of their egos.”

Reviewing a review

The latest mid-course termination of a two-year fellowship concerns C.N. Subramaniam, who was working on a project titled Chidambaram and Gopalakrishna Bharati: Engagement with Devotion and Social Exclusion: Gopal Bharati’s Nandanar Charitra Kirtani. At the end of February, he received the review report of an anonymous reviewer who said, “It is my firm view that such scholarship need not be subsidised by the government or the state.” The reviewer recommended the termination of Subramaniam’s fellowship.

The review report said Subramaniam was “employing post-colonial theories, perspectives and analytical schema in order to discuss the life of Nandanar and the caste discrimination that informs parts of Indian social reality”. It continued: “This entire report is cast in the form of a diatribe against the ‘caste oriented oppressive social order’ of the indigenous people of India. This kind of discourse that flays Indian society has got academic traction from Western academics and is uncritically mimicked by Indian ‘social scientists’.”

Apart from other things, the reviewer had problems with Subramaniam’s use of the word ‘Dalit’. The report said that the author “repeatedly uses the term ‘dalit’ which has been rendered obsolete and the government of India has forbidden the use of the term”.

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Subramaniam, who has worked for decades in the field of grassroots education, wrote a point-by-point rebuttal to the review. He dealt with all the concerns raised by the reviewer and denied having a “post-colonial bias” or trying to “flay Indian society using caste oppression as an unproblematised tool”. He held his ground on the use of the term ‘Dalit’ since, in his opinion, it “best describes communities of people who were, against their will, subordinated and reduced to the sub-human status of being declared unworthy of touch or entrance into sacred spaces”. Subramaniam argued that the term ‘Scheduled Caste’ has no analytical value. “I believe that facing the truth alone will help us get rid of the ghosts of the past and pave the way for our integration as a just and unified society,” he said in his rebuttal.

The reviewer’s report contained certain “oddities”, Subramaniam added. First, it was hastily crafted, with grammatical and spelling errors, including misspellings of the names ‘Gopalakrishna’ and ‘David Shulman’. Second, the evaluator was aware of the scholar’s gender, an anomaly in an anonymous review. The reviewer had said “only males engage in scholarship”, which also said a lot about his biases. Third, the reviewer did not betray any familiarity with Tamil history and the scholarship of Tamil texts and religious traditions, which Subramaniam did not expect in such a review.

Before leaving the IIAS, Subramaniam raised four substantive issues with its chairperson, Kapil Kapoor. One, when a two-year fellowship is awarded, why should fellows be asked to sign papers seeking an extension at the end of the first year? Two, in the case of a negative report, the fellow concerned should be allowed to submit a response before the appropriate authority decides on the continuation or termination of the fellowship. Three, the reviewer should not be asked to suggest the period of extension. This is a vestige of the period when the term of a fellowship was indeterminate and it is not appropriate to rely on it when the term is fixed for two years. Four, the review should be based on the original project approved by the expert committee and should ensure that the fellow has done substantial work according to that proposal. Fellows may also be allowed to amend the proposal.

Kapoor said he could have intervened in Subramaniam’s case had the fellow, instead of pointing out systemic problems, sent a representation to him and copied it to the director.

Kuldeep Bhan of M.S. University, Baroda, faced a reviewer’s roadblock on his work on the crafts of the Harappan civilisation. A well-known archaeologist, Bhan has some 4,000 references in academic journals worldwide. But when his unfinished work was sent for review after a year, the reviewer said Bhan could be given only a six-month extension. When he submitted the final work after six months, the reviewer said the book should be published by the IIAS. Bhan chose to go with the UK’s Archeopress, an Oxford-based publisher of academic archaeological work.

While Bhan praised the IIAS and its perfect conditions for work, he said there are problems with the review process. “My work was sent to someone who had no qualification in archaeology,” he told The Wire.

The fellows are near-unanimous that the review process is not transparent. Each fellow is asked to recommend five experts who can review the work. The director is free to send the work to an expert outside that list, but the fellows think their work is sometimes sent to those who do not have domain knowledge. Subramaniam and Bhan both had this experience.

Judicial interventions

Sumandeep Kaur, an independent scholar from Punjab and an IIAS fellow, went to court against the IIAS and refused to talk about the case since it is sub-judice. Kaur’s fellowship had been terminated because the reviewer’s report had said she had not referred to certain sources or cited certain critics. Kaur’s project was on ecological concerns in Punjabi fiction. Her first year review took place last November. When the reviewer recommended the termination of her fellowship, Kaur expressed concerns about the review and a meeting of fellows was called where the overwhelming view was that the review process needs to be reviewed.

However, in Kaur’s case, something bizarre happened. As she sought extra time to wind up her work, Kapil Kapoor informed her that he had already granted her an extension, but the director was not willing to implement Kapoor’s decision. Kaur went to the High Court of Himachal Pradesh and got a stay order. But the IIAS has not paid her salary since October 2020.

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Sanghamitra Sadhu, a teacher of English literature at Cotton University, Guwahati, also took the IIAS to court. When her project, Life-Writing in India from Below, was reviewed in November 2018, the reviewer found the work lacking in many respects but did not say if she should be given an extension or whether her fellowship should be curtailed. The director’s office told her that she had been given an extension for six months from November 2018 to May 2019. When Sanghamitra objected to this extension as arbitrary and in breach of contract, Paranjape wrote to her, asking if she would prefer that her fellowship was terminated.

Sadhu went to the High Court of Himachal Pradesh in March 2019 and the court, through two interim orders on May 20 and June 17, 2019, allowed her to continue with the project. On July 3, 2019, the interim order was further extended, but in November 2019, the matter was shifted to a single judge bench which dismissed her petition on November 29. Sadhu left Shimla on November 28, 2019, and has now challenged the high court order. The institute had threatened to charge her the market rate for her residence for the period after May 2019, but Sadhu said she had stayed at the IIAS premises due to the court’s interim order. Before she left in November 2019, she submitted her final report.

Another facet of the flawed review process emerges in the case of Ashwin Parijat Anshu, who teaches history at Zakir Husain College, Delhi University. Anshu worked on a project titled Re-enchanting Modernity: A Study of Vivekananda’s American Engagement. In June 2019, when his work went for its first review, the report said the fellow had made “reasonably good progress” and could be given an extension of nine months and if necessary, even more. The IIAS administration gave him the nine-month extension, but concealed the fact that the reviewer had said it could be extended further.

Anshu stayed for nine months and three extra months due to the national lockdown during the pandemic and completed his work. The final work was sent to another expert for review, who first said the work was “illuminating and insightful” but then took a dim view of the overall project and pointed out major problems. The first reviewer had suggested that Anshu should refer to the six volumes of Marie Louis Burke’s documentation of Vivekananda’s travels in the West. The second reviewer said Anshu had not made any progress on Burke’s work. In any case, Anshu now intends to have it published. “The director has reduced the entire review process to a joke,” he said.

War of words

Eminent sociologist Sujata Patel was at the IIAS as a national fellow when much of the review drama played out. She raised systemic issues. According to Patel, “At the IIAS the process of review is misapplied. We don’t know who is doing it. Personal likes or dislikes come into play.”

Patel said that when fellows are selected through a rigorous process by a group of experts who think their work will create new knowledge, “they don’t need to be humiliated”. “They are already established. It goes against the principle of academic work and scholarship,” she told The Wire, regretting that the “goals of IIAS have been routinised”.

The irony is that Kapoor and Chaman Lal Gupta have the same views as Patel and the IIAS fellows. Gupta said, “The director commissions favourable reports for fellows he likes. There have been occasions when even a two-line positive report has been used to grant an extension.”

In response, Paranjape said: “Mr Gupta’s accusations are unfounded, baseless and malicious. [His statement that] ‘fellows are asked to leave on the slightest negative comment’ sounds preposterous, if not foolish. We go by the rules and by blind peer review reports which are on file, not on the whims and fancies of any individual.”

The larger fight within the administration is about who has the last word. Kapoor and Gupta say the chairperson and the governing body are supreme and the director is bound to follow their decisions. But Gupta said, “Paranjape is defying the orders of the chairperson with impunity.”

Paranjape hit back: “The director is the principal executive officer of the institute, who reports to the governing body. Both the chairman and vice chairman are honorary positions with no executive powers or responsibility, held in this case by retired persons who are over 80 and 75 respectively.” The vice chairperson has no role to play, Paranjape added, but “this particular vice chairperson is the most meddlesome”.

Referring to Gupta’s statement that the governing body has passed resolutions against Paranjape, the director said, “The governing body has not been convened since February 2020. Mr Kapoor has not visited the institute for nearly 17 months. Without even trying to speak to the director, he has issued literally hundreds of joint emails with Mr Gupta, vice chairman, GB, containing directions, diktats, rulings and orders, all without GB resolutions, let alone prior and minuted discussions. This not only shows collusion on their part, since they live in different cities, but deliberate violation of the Memorandum of Association in acting beyond their statutory powers and mandates.”

Paranjape added: “The terms of Kapoor and Gupta, as well as of the GB, ended on February 20, 2021, yet they have persisted in interfering in the day-to-day functioning of the institute and working against its interests. They have even tried to incite employees and collude with litigants against the institute. All this is on record. What can we say of those who burn their own home to spite the inmates?”

Gupta alleged that Paranjape is involved in financial bungling and the governing body has lost faith in him. A chargesheet has been submitted to the education ministry, but no action has been taken, Gupta said. Professor K.K. Aggarwal, a one-man fact-finding committee, had visited the IIAS, but only met Paranjape, said a source close to Kapoor.

Paranjape calls the charge of financial bungling “false and malicious”. He said: “Messrs Kapoor and Gupta mounted a smear campaign with untrue and baseless allegations to oust the director and take control of the institute.” According to Paranjape, the IIAS sent detailed replies to both the ministry and Aggarwal and the report was submitted to the ministry months ago.

“But do they respect the findings of such a committee? Obviously not. When it goes contrary to their malicious intentions, they continue their dirty tricks of personal attacks, propaganda, and defamation,” Paranjape said.

The chairperson’s office also said that Paranjape was harassing people in the institute, including the institute’s secretary, Colonel Vijay Kumar Tiwari, the manager of the local branch of the State Bank of India and the contractual staff. A source close to Kapoor said, “The chairman’s office is left to protect the victims of the director.” Kapoor’s office has demanded an academic audit of the IIAS.

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Paranjape, the director of the IIAS, spoke to The Wire about the issues brought up by its fellows. The interview is being reproduced below.

As a scholar and an author, don’t you think reviews are about improving the work rather than terminating the work? Isn’t it a common practice that after anonymous reviewers give their feedback, the authors generally go back to their work and review it? Is it justified to terminate fellowships? Is it not a humiliation of sorts?

Ordinarily, as the director [of the IIAS], I would not be inclined to speak to the press on matters internal to the institute’s functioning. However, the questions you raise are worth discussing because they concern not just the IIAS, but more generally, the state of Indian academics.

Look around. Isn’t it obvious that what is happening at the institute is part of a much bigger institutional crisis across the country? Several top universities and institutions of national importance are hotbeds of disaffection, administrative chaos, or rampant mismanagement. Since these are national assets, we must all ponder deeply on how to rectify the situation.

Very often we come across situations where academics is [reduced to] lobbying and fixing things rather than following laid down procedures and good practices. When interested parties don’t get what they want, they resort to extra-constitutional means to force their demands.

Now, let’s come to IIAS and its fellows. Let me assure you that we have the highest regard for our fellows and treat them with the utmost respect. As an academic myself, I have tried personally to give priority to the fellows and to the research that they pursue at the institute. I therefore beg to disagree that the denial of an extension to a fellow is a “humiliation.”

An extension of fellowship, as per the present terms and conditions, is not a right or entitlement. It requires an assessment of the first year’s work by a double blind review system. Only on the receipt of a positive report can the fellowship be extended.

Please remember that whenever we subject ourselves to a review by others, especially in academics, the chance of a negative report cannot be ruled out. But peer reviews are an essential part of academics the world over, regardless of what level you are at. How can you get away from them?

As long as these remain the terms and conditions, both parties have to abide by them. Those who go to court because they dislike the review are violating the terms and conditions that they themselves signed before joining. They are thus betraying a trust and breaking a contract. How can this be tolerated or justified?

In this regard, I respect C.N. Subramaniam, who chose to abide by the terms and conditions and left rather than agitating or going to court as others did.

Don’t you think termination raises questions about the manner of selection? Fellows are taken after a due process of presentations and the approval of experts. Termination within a year means either the selection was flawed or something is missing in the review.

Not necessarily. A person is chosen on the basis of their potential, even promise, to produce the intended work. Suppose they spent the whole of the first year doing very little or producing work which is not up to the mark? Let me assure you that this has happened in the past. Being selected is one thing, but making productive use of your first year is quite another. Surely, when large sums of public money are involved, a review is necessary.

Do you think fellows should be given an opportunity to respond to reviewer’s comments?

My personal view at this stage, when the matter is sub-judice, is beside the point. But suppose it is your work that is being reviewed. How can you review the reviewer? If you can’t review it, then a third adjudicator would be needed, who will have to review your work, the reviewer’s report, then your response to the reviewer. The process would be endless, rendering the review procedure interminable and infructuous.

What is the criterion to select reviewers? More than one fellow said no one from the panel of names sought from them was sent the work for review. 

You will agree that if we are limited to choose only those reviewers provided by the fellows themselves, no objective or blind review would be possible. Both the person reviewed and the reviewer should not know each other.

Several times, we find there is a prior understanding between the two, partly because the reviewers suggested are already known to the fellow. Sometimes, astonishingly, names of their own colleagues from their own parent institutions have also been suggested. Once or twice, the reviewer has even written to us in advance of receiving the research work, already approving it. At other times, there’s an ideological collusion between fellows and reviewers which, again, needs to be avoided.

Therefore, we ask for suggestions, but are not bound by them. We have to exercise due precautions to ensure the fairness, anonymity and authenticity of the review.

A scholar from Punjab and few other fellows all said that the chairperson was in favour of their continuation, but you objected to it. Doesn’t the Memorandum of Association of the IIAS make the chairperson and the governing body the final authority in decision making?

Both the fellows and the institute are bound by the terms and conditions of the fellowship award, which clearly stipulate that the fellowship cannot be extended without a positive report. When a report is clearly negative, how can we arbitrarily extend a fellowship? Whoever does so is breaking the rules. That includes the “scholar from Punjab” which you have not, it would seem deliberately, named.

When it comes to members of the governing body, let us not forget that it is the reviewer who has read the research work and evaluated it, not any member of the governing body. Those who arbitrarily promise or order extensions are not only breaking the rules, but are undermining the very basis of evaluation. They are sending out the wrong message that regardless of the review, they have the power to grant the extension. This is totally against the letter and spirit of the terms and conditions and against the interests of the institute.

What is the point of evaluation if you don’t respect the report of the reviewer? [Or] else, anyone can go to a member of the governing body to overturn the reviewer’s recommendation.

Similarly, if fellows go to court whenever they don’t like the review, then the institute loses its academic autonomy and credibility. Courts, in my humble opinion, can only ensure that there is no procedural irregularity. How can they adjudicate on the merits of an academic work, which is the domain of experts?

Sadly, in our country, there are negative forces who don’t care for rules or procedures as long as their interests are served. These forces combine to browbeat institution heads into conceding to their illegitimate demands. When these are not met, they try to demean or defame the person following the rules and procedures.

Is what is happening in the IIAS part of a power struggle between the director and chairperson, leaving the fellows to suffer?

 I don’t believe the fellows are suffering. Most are not only very pleased with their stint, but find the experience life-transforming. But there are a few who believe that when their reports are negative, the reviewer is to be blamed. They want to extend their stay by hook or crook. Then they indulge in all kinds of scheming and politics to get their way.

Personally, I am not interested in a power struggle. I have tried to work for the betterment of the institute, the fellows and the employees every single day of my tenure. But when the chairs of the governing bodies of institutions of national importance are themselves bent on breaking rules, acting beyond their mandate to further their own power or profit, one has to draw a line.

The Indian Institute of Advanced Study is a public asset. It is an institute of eminence. To safeguard it for future generations is our sacred duty. This is not a matter of ideology or political affiliations, but of national and public interest.

They try to destroy or demoralise the person in charge. They stoop to any lengths of skulduggery or chicanery to achieve their ends. It is these few bad apples, so to speak, that cause the whole barrel to rot.

Do you think systemic change is needed as far as fellowship is concerned? Do you intend to initiate changes?

Certainly, all systems must reviewed and improved. I have said several times both publicly and privately that any review process is certainly amenable to evolution or improvement or evolution.

I inherited the present review process when I joined as director in August 2018. I hope, with the support of the GB, to change it for the better. But I would also underscore that the IIAS is a place for serious scholarship; even a cloistered and protected space as originally envisaged by our founder, Dr S. Radhakrishnan, the second President of India. Therefore, fellows ought to study and conduct research, not indulge in scheming, lobbying and politics.

Do you agree with the reviewer’s comment in the case of Mr Subramaniam that the word ‘dalit’ should not be used since the government does not use it? Should scholars echo the establishment?

It is not in my purview to comment on a review. The review process is meant to be confidential. The very fact that you are supposedly privy to some part of it shows that those entrusted with its confidentiality have been leaking it out in contravention to established rules and procedures.

Akshaya Mukul is a Delhi-based journalist and author of Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India.