Education

IISER Kolkata Suspends Scholars in Row Over COVID-19 Tests on Campus

One student said IISER Kolkata has been "mishandling" its COVID-19 situation, such that "students have now taken to mass-mailing" to get the administration's attention.

Kolkata: Two students, pursuing their final and pre-final year PhD scholars at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Kolkata, have been suspended allegedly for questioning the institute’s COVID-19 testing efforts on campus.

The students had flagged concerns about authorities not prioritising COVID-19 tests properly, and asked why all the staff members of the canteen hadn’t been tested despite two of them having tested positive.

Susnata Karmakar is pursuing a PhD and Arunita Banerjee an integrated MSc-PhD. The IISER Kolkata administration handed them their suspension notices on November 6 without specifying any reasons. The letter only read:

“You are suspended for a period of two months with immediate effect. You are not allowed to enter the campus during the period of suspension. You must go for proper counselling by a proper counsellor and you need to submit the certificate by the counsellor to the students’ affairs office. Note that any case of future misbehaviour will result in harsher punishment.”

Banerjee had previously told The Wire Science that IISER Kolkata has been “mishandling” its COVID-19 situation, such that “students of the institute have now taken to mass-mailing” to get the administration’s attention.

Based on various conversations with students, The Wire Science has estimated that some 500 of them currently reside at the institute’s Kalyani campus. The institute’s total student strength is upwards of 1,500.

Many of their concerns are centred on the lack of isolation units, poorly cleaned bathrooms, toilets and other common spaces, insufficient medical attention for students suspected to have COVID-19, shortage of testing facilities, among other issues.

Many of them alleged that the institute wasn’t adhering to COVID-19 protocols specified by the government.

“On October 19, all students received a mail” from the Student Affairs Council’s food, health and hygiene office “about COVID-19 tests happening on campus the next day, and students were asked to volunteer and fill a Google form,” Arunita Banerjee told The Wire Science. “The next day, most people who had filled the form did not receive any calls from the medical unit to provide their samples.”

On the same day, October 20, a member of the canteen staff tested positive for COVID-19 (at a test conducted elsewhere) – becoming the second member of the department to do so. However, the institute’s sampling exercise didn’t include those who worked in the canteen either.

So seven students approached Jayasri Das Sarma, the person in charge of COVID-19 testing on campus. “She didn’t take much interest in it,” Banerjee said, and also refused to describe the rationale based on which samples had been collected, excluding students who had volunteered and the canteen staff.

But Sarma, a professor in the department of biological sciences, defended the institute saying the October 20 exercise was simply a trial run and that the physicians of the medical unit had only picked up a few “appropriate samples”. And on the day of the run, she continued, a group of students led by Banerjee and Karmakar had visited her demanding that 50 more samples be tested.

“When I was trying to explain the rationale behind the sample collection by the physicians, these two students started abusing me using language which is unbecoming of a student at an institute of national importance,” Sarma told The Wire Science.

Two days later, four of this group of seven – including Banerjee – received an email from the dean of student affairs saying they had misbehaved with some faculty members and that the institute had “investigated” the matter.

But it didn’t end there. On October 25, four students who had allegedly misbehaved with some faculty members were also asked to appear before a special committee on October 28. The committee had been appointed by the director of the institute, Sourav Pal.

And after their appearance before this committee on October 28, Banerjee and Susnata Karmakar were told that they were being suspended for two months each.

“The two of us were suspended for merely raising legitimate and pressing concerns about COVID-19 tests on campus, and requesting that importance be given to canteen staff given the situation,” Banerjee said.

According to Banerjee and Karmakar, IISER Kolkata didn’t follow the right procedures when it had constituted the special committee nor when it had resolved to suspend them. They said that no student representative or any medical official was present at the meeting. And while the administration had recorded the meeting, the students didn’t get a copy.

“Although our suspension notice does not specify why we have been suspended, it is indeed the result of a complaint alleging misbehaviour on our part by Prof Sarma,” Karmakar said. (The Wire Science has read a copy of this email.) “We were never told that we were appearing before a disciplinary committee until we were suspended.”

When The Wire Science reached out to Tapas Sengupta, the convenor of the special committee who recommended the suspension, with questions, he said he reserved his right “to not comment on the issue”.

Calls to Balaram Mukhopadhyay, the dean of student affairs at IISER Kolkata, weren’t answered or returned.

Due to this incident, IISER Kolkata’s administration withheld dining facilities on campus from October 22 to November 10. And in this time, members of the staff were tested for COVID-19.

Himadri Ghosh is a Kolkata-based journalist.