Scientists Who Signed Anti-CAA Letter Come Under Government Scanner

BJP leader Vijay Chauthaiwale shared a document listing all the signatories with the directors of various institutions, including IITs, IISERs, and the Departments of Biotechnology and Higher Education.

Bengaluru: Last month, nearly 2,000 scientists and science students from around India signed a public letter condemning the proposed changes to the Citizenship Act as antithetical to the country’s constitutional principles.

Since then, The Wire has learned that the heads of multiple institutes whose scholars had signed the letter were contacted by senior government officials and asked for confirmation of their scholars’ actions and, in some cases, possibly an explanation.

The influential Bharatiya Janata Party leader Vijay Chauthaiwale, who is also a member of the board of governors of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, shared a document listing all the signatories with other board members, the chief secretary of Maharashtra, the heads of CSIR, IIT Bombay, IISER Pune and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, and the secretaries of the Departments of Biotechnology and Higher Education.

The list was accompanied by a note that said,

“This is to inform you that three faculties of IISER-Pune have signed petition (indirectly sponsored by communists) against Indian government’s proposed citizen amendment bill (sic).”

Chauthaiwale trained as a molecular biologist and handles the foreign affairs department of the BJP.

Sources in the scientific community also said K.N. Vyas, the secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy, contacted Pinaki Majumdar, director of the Harish-Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad, along with a list of scholars who had signed up to the letter.

“We were just asked whether it is correct that some HRI members had signed the petition on the CAA,” Majumdar said in an email about the call from Vyas. “‘Yes’, we confirmed. There were no explanations asked for.”

The same sources alleged that Vyas had also argued in the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, that the letter violated a clause (#4.1.7) in the institute’s rules: that employees could not engage in ‘active politics’, although the term’s definition is not provided.

Jayaraman Gowrishankar, the new director of IISER Mohali, sent an email on December 14 to people in the institute’s employ drawing attention to the Central Civil Services, or CCS, (Conduct) Rules 1964, especially to the parts that require those speaking out about government policies to secure prior approval.

However, he clarified to The Wire that the mail sent from his office on December 14 “to all IISER employees” – not students – was sent “suo moto, within three days of my joining here as director”, and that to the best of his knowledge, no scholars of IISER Mohali had signed the letter in question. (There are eight names on the list whose current institutional affiliation is listed as IISER Mohali, at least four of whom are listed as faculty members on the institute’s website.) He also said allegations that he was reacting to any message from the government “are mischievous, false and baseless”, and that the CCS (Conduct) Rules don’t prevent employees from speaking out, only that they seek permission before doing so.

Gowrishankar’s full email reads:

The Director wishes to invite the attention of all employees to Rules 8, 9 and 11 of the CCS (Conduct) Rules that are statutorily applicable to them. These Rules pertain inter alia to the public disclosure or dissemination by the employees of information or opinions held by them. In this context, the Director is pleased to accord unconditional approval for any employee to publish or to otherwise publicly disseminate and disclose information related to their professional academic and research activities (subject to applicable copyright laws). In all other cases (including, but not limited to, comments and opinions expressed on matters related to Government policies, signatures appended to public petitions etc.), prior approval of the Competent Authority will be required for their publication or dissemination.

In similar vein as Majumdar, IISc director Anurag Kumar allegedly received a communiqué from the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) while Sudhakar Panda of the National Institute of Science Education and Research in Bhubaneswar received one from the Prime Minister’s Office.

The Wire reached out to Chauthaiwale, the MHRD, Vyas, Kumar and Panda for comment but they hadn’t replied by the time this article was published. The article will be updated as and when they respond.

The President of India signed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill into an act of law on December 12, 2019, making it the first legal instrument in independent India to grant citizenship on the basis of religion, specifically to non-Muslim refugees who fled persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan before December 2014.

Since then, multiple protests against the BJP’s communal politics have rocked the country, starting in Assam and spreading to West Bengal, New Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, among other places. Some of these protests turned violent, especially in the BJP ruled states as well as around Delhi. Thus far, 25 people have been killed.

While the scientists’ letter – which The Wire published – did not appear to evoke a directed response at first, the actions of research scholars around India gained in attention and scrutiny after major incidents of violence at the Jamia Milia Islamia (JMI) and the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and the Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh.

Police forces stormed the JMI campus on December 15, fired tear-gas shells, beat up students and arrested them for alleged involvement in violence outside the campus. The unprovoked brutality triggered national expressions of solidarity, especially from the IITs of Delhi, Bombay, Madras and Kanpur, Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi and IISc, and from a clutch of American universities as well.

These protests were further solidified by violence on the JNU campus on January 5, perpetrated by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad, the students’ wing of the BJP, with apparent help from the Delhi police.

Scholars have also organised silent protests on the campuses of IISc and the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bengaluru, among other institutes.

Paralleling the government’s efforts to contact the different directors, some protesting scholars at institutes funded by the government have also been grappling with on-campus resistance to their actions – primarily by being asked to abide by the CCS (Conduct) Rules, of 1964.

However, neither these rules, nor the TIFR rules that apply to HRI and NCBS, are clear about what they mean for protestors’ dos and don’ts, especially when scholars assert that they have a right to peaceful protest that the institute can’t infringe on.

For example, in August 2019, the Delhi high court stayed an inquiry initiated by JNU against 45 of its teachers for participating in a protest the previous year. The teachers argued, through their legal representatives, that one of the grounds for the inquiry – that they had violated the CCS (Conduct) Rules – placed them at “risk of the [authorities] taking coercive steps against them, including placing the petitioners under suspension during the pendency of the enquiry; reducing the pay-scale, grade or their post to a lower stage for a specified period [and] compulsorily retirement, removal or dismissal from service.”

For the most part, protestors – especially scholars who are not employees – have been dealing with versions of the vague assertion that political activity is not permitted on campus, an issue that many are trying to deal with through dialogue, and which some are also seeing as an opportunity to draft more specific guidelines that include students’ right to expression.

“Scientists have not only the right, as citizens, but also a special responsibility to express themselves on issues of public importance,” Suvrat Raju, a physicist at the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Bengaluru, said. “The fact that the government has repeatedly sought to shut down this criticism only demonstrates its insecurity and intolerance towards dissent.”

Employees of autonomous institutes are more unsure about their status vis-à-vis the rules because these institutes enjoy administrative freedom but still depend on the government for finances.

“Our statutes say that our highest authority is our board of governors (for every MHRD institute),” an employee of one of the IISERs said in an email, on condition of anonymity. “This has a representative from the MHRD and other members, and ideally this body should frame our rules and guidelines such that they account for the voice of the MHRD through its representative.”

“However, we have been getting signals for some time that since we get government funding, we don’t have absolute autonomy over our functioning.”

Note: Gowrishankar’s comments were updated on 8:28 pm on January 9, 2020.