Education

Interview: IIT Guwahati Whistleblower Says 'Fighting for Justice Is Not Wrong'

Brijesh Kumar Rai opens up about how he uncovered corruption and nepotism at the institute, the growing influence of Hindutva politics, and his future plans.

Guwahati: Brijesh Kumar Rai has been at the forefront of a controversy for most of his time as assistant professor at the department of electrical and electronics engineering at IIT Guwahati, since 2011.

Rai is a whistleblower and has been a thorn in the side of authorities at the IIT after he exposed alleged corruption by some senior officials and highhandedness among some academic members against students.

He was recently in the news after the institute’s board of governors ordered him on January 1 to vacate his residential quarters by the end of the month, and leave on ‘compulsory retirement’ on grounds of alleged misconduct. A senior official has also lodged an FIR against him for alleged intimidation.

On January 9, Rai obtained interim anticipatory bail against the FIR, and the hearing has been scheduled for January 22. The Human Rights Law Network’s Guwahati chapter has agreed to represent him in court.

In an interview with Gaurav Das for The Wire, Rai spoke about the corruption and nepotism charges and on the growing influence of Hindutva politics over the institute.

The questions are in bold. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and style.

How did you react to the action by IIT Guwahati and to the FIR lodged against you, and how are you going to deal with your present situation?

I was away in Benares when the order was given on January 1. On the next day, I received an email, that I had to vacate my residential quarters. The FIR was lodged on January 3. This is nothing but a means to intimidate me for opening my mouth and exposing wrongdoings at the institute.

I will challenge the order at Guwahati high court. On January 9, I got interim anticipatory bail and on January 22, there is be a hearing regarding the matter of my bail.

What was the FIR about?

The FIR was lodged against me for allegedly intimidating an IIT official with a threatening letter. It was prepared in such a manner that I had threatened the officer with dire consequences.

[The FIR] stated that I had written a letter, with my signature on it, that I was threatening an official. The letter was prepared in such a manner that my signature was forged and that I had posted it via postal mail.

I am well aware of who could be behind the letter that I have allegedly posted. That particular official is a very corrupt person, and the rumour is that he is involved in commercial malpractice. That official is not a member of the [board of governors] but he used to attend [its] meetings, and there was a question as to how that official could attend [these] meetings.

According to you, corruption at the institute is not new and had been happening under the previous administration as well. How and when did you spot it?

It was around 2012, when I was [asked] to do stock verification. Stock verification means to check from time to time whatever instruments have been purchased [against the list]. It was not a regular responsibility but nonetheless it was given to me, under the supervision of someone. What I noticed … was that stock items estimated to be around Rs 10 crore [in value], which had been purchased [at the start] of the department at IIT Guwahati in which I was working, [had never been] used over the same period of time.

These items included instruments, floppies and computers, and were placed or put in cupboards and almirahs. … Most of the instruments, like PCs, have become obsolete and cannot be used anymore. Can you imagine the worth of Rs 10 crore in a poor country like India?

I calculated that with that amount of money, hundreds of cancer patients can be treated with feasible and better care. I began talking about it with some people. Back then, I had no idea [how to approach] whom. But in general people in IIT Guwahati knew about it, and one of the things I got to know was that the beneficiaries of corruption at IIT Guwahati were within the institute. Nothing had been done and the senior officials [who had] joined the institute also had a lackadaisical attitude. I [figured] that a similar pattern may have been occurring in other departments as well.

In 2017, you alleged that there was widespread corruption in staff recruitment and for which the institute served you with a show cause notice. What happened?

In 2017, around 50 people were recruited from a waiting list. Fifty is a big number and in one go, 50 had been recruited. This wasn’t just related to an ISRO project – which IIT Guwahati had teamed up for – but to an overall [and] ongoing illegal recruitment of staff happening since 2011-12.

There was a rumour back then, in 2017, that each of the candidates on the waiting list had paid Rs 10 lakh for the job. I had in my hand the minutes from the board of governors’ meetings [concerning] the recruitment. When I reviewed the minutes, [I noticed] several discrepancies over staff recruitment.

Prior to 2017, and maybe since 2011-12, I feel more than 200 staff [have been recruited illegally]. Besides, many people who were hired on a contractual basis were regularised in the absence of a proper mechanism, and even without the hiring process being advertised.

For the ISRO related project: I had written to the chairman of the space body that the advertisement posted by [IIT Guwahati] for a research associate for a project to be funded by ISRO was drafted in such a manner that it seemed some rules [had been] relaxed so that the institute could fit any candidate according to its whims.

It reeked of corruption seeking to take advantage of the ISRO fund. I was accused of embarrassing the institute and was served with multiple show-cause notices.

You have been at loggerheads with the present director of IIT Guwahati, T.G. Sitharam, over the alleged corruption and malpractice that you brought to light last year. How is the situation different from the previous administration, which functioned under the UPA regime?

Corruption was omnipresent even during the Congress regime. But the difference now is that there is a complete denial of corruption, and … if anyone opens their mouth or is not in sync with the ideology of the RSS or the BJP, one is termed anti-national, communist or leftist. Things have stooped to such a level.

The Congress party is not a cadre-based party and is not rigid. This is not the same as the BJP or the Communist party. The present IIT Guwahati director is an RSS person, and in the present environment, there is no space for dissent. No matter whether an academician is a fraud or not – the only important aspect [is that they should be related, one way or another,] to the RSS – even if someone has attended an RSS meeting or knows some RSS person. They should [self-identify as] a national.

The director hails from an organisation based in Karnataka whose chief is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal yoga trainer. Sitharam used [more than] Rs 20 lakh on renovating his quarters and spent more lakhs [of rupees] on expensive furniture and on meetings at five-star hotels. I opened my mouth and he blocked my mail. I wrote to the President of India, the prime minister’s office, the Ministry of Human Resource Development and others [describing] my plight but nothing has been done thus far. My pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

Did you know you would get into trouble with the new saffron shadow over educational institutions in the country, and that IIT Guwahati wouldn’t be an exception?

I began to understand that in any of the institutions anywhere in the country – if anyone needs someone to get booted out, that person needs to first be isolated and branded a leftist, communist or even an anti-national. This happened to me in one of the board of governors’ meetings where I was branded a communist. I began to wonder why someone would call me such a thing. [How should it matter if] I am a communist or a leftist? My political ideology is none of other people’s business. I was shocked when I heard this.

What was the controversy surrounding the construction of a Shiva temple inside the IIT Guwahati campus about?

The temple was a ploy on the part of the former senior-most official to please the RSS people. A construction inside the campus and bringing in materials without the permission of the director is not possible. I [asked] a temple was needed when there were temples in and around the IIT Guwahati campus. One can cross the Brahmaputra river and reach the Kamakhya Temple. There were temples near the [institute] called Aswaklanta and Dol Govinda. I said it would be better to focus on teaching. Besides, constructing a temple was against the secular fabric of an educational institution.

Who [came up with] the idea for a temple [inside the campus] was not important, but the [point] was to [garner] a sort of favouritism from the saffron brigade and extend the tenure of the official.

I was called anti-Hindu. But still, I went forward and filed a PIL at the Guwahati high court in 2019. I also filed an RTI application in 2017, asking whether the construction of the temple [had been officially approved], … what the source of money was, etc. The RTI revealed that no permission [had been] given, so how could it be constructed? Did some rowdies barge in and build the temple? This was an unauthorised construction.

The PIL is still pending. My plea is to demolish the temple. And appropriate action should be taken against whoever misused their powers for the construction.

What other issues did you notice?

I noticed that some professors resort to mischief when dealing with some students. Some faculty members are biased as well. Once, I noticed a PhD student of lower calibre being given full marks [and more than the] topper of the department. I approached the head of the department, and he told me that the topper was a ‘shameless’ person. This happened in 2012. I felt this was quite an injustice as the future of the topper was at stake.

In another incident, I observed that the maximum number of PhD students were being interviewed at a time. I was shocked. What was happening? Taking as many students as you want and leaving them with no room for discussion! Quality was being compromised.

Once, I argued why a student who had failed the comprehensive exam twice was being dismissed. I was aware that [on a previous occasion,] the department had recognised a third attempt on humanitarian grounds. I asked why this wasn’t being done this time. I was told that the student’s guide was upset with him. I argued strongly that that shouldn’t matter. I told [my colleagues] that even though they [had all agreed], my note of dissent was to be attached.

What do you think will happen next? Is your family worried?

I am from a middle-class background. My father worked hard to educate me. For me, teaching is a noble profession. It lets me [have] an impact on scores of young minds. I feel [what] I have achieved [is thanks to the support of] many of my present and former students. Some of my former students still call me and ask me for my advice.

If Sitharam thinks that he can deter me by terrorising me, he is wrong. I am not afraid. This should set an example for the nation. Fighting for justice is not wrong. I will battle Sitharam in court.

For now, I have to look out for other alternatives and resources to sustain myself and my family. Nepotism shouldn’t be allowed to win, and corruption needs to be defeated. My image and reputation have been rendered hostile by IIT Guwahati and by Sitharam. This will [make it harder] to find a new job.

Gaurav Das is a Guwahati-based freelance journalist.