Madhu Purnima Kishwar, who retired as professor at the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies on April 30, has sent a legal notice to the director of the prestigious research institution, alleging that she had faced “humiliation and discrimination” because of her ideological beliefs.

Kishwar was awarded the Mahatma Gandhi National Fellowship by the Indian Council of Social Science Research in December, but said she had been denied institutional affiliation by the CSDS. It was “the proverbial last straw”, according to a statement published in Swarajya magazine. Kishwar had been associated with the CSDS since 1991, before it allegedly became a “Left citadel”.

Since it was founded in 1963, the CSDS has developed the reputation for being one of India's most vibrant autonomous institutions in the field of social sciences and humanities research.

Since the Bharatiya Janata Party took charge two years ago, scholars in several parts of the country have claimed that academic freedom across the country has been under attack. This is a contention that Kishwar – a social scientist, women’s rights activist and editor of Manushi magazine – has hotly refuted.

In the statement that appeared in Swarajya, Kishwar reiterates what she had written in an earlier article: “Leftists were crying wolf, since they still retained Stalinist type control over most academic institutions and... it was not the Left but those who dissented with the Left who remained endangered and marginalized.”

The notice

The notice states that Kishwar had received a communication from the ICSSR on December 3, 2015, telling her she had been awarded the prestigious, two-year fellowship. On December 16, she was informed that she needed a letter of consent from the affiliating organisation, agreeing to administer the funds, provide an office and furniture, allow access to its research facilities and provide other material and managerial assistance.

It goes on to note that the letter was handed over to the CSDS director, Sanjay Kumar, whose first response was to agree to the affiliation. But then on January 11, according to the notice, Kishwar was informed that the affiliation would depend on the approval of the faculty standing committee. The notice claims that there are no rules which say that the committee must approve such applications. An email sent by the director on January 14 reportedly says that the "issue of affiliation in case of funded fellowship" would have to wait until "norms of self-governance" were defined.

Kishwar had then written to ICSSR, asking if a national fellowship had ever been denied. On February 15, the legal notice says, the ICSSR wrote back to say that it had not. The notice raises questions on the reasons given by the CSDS for "denial/ infinite deferment". "The act of you the noticee in denying affiliation to my client is vitiated for being malafide, arbitrary, discriminatory and unfair," it concludes.

A fiefdom

“I’m not asking for the moon,” Kishwar told on the phone. “More than 200 people have got institutional affiliation in the last 10 to 12 years. Never in the history of the ICSSR has this happened with someone who gets a national professorship, based on their past record, not on any application. I don’t like to appear as the victim but this place has done me in. What they have done is unprecedented.”

The legal notice points out that Ashis Nandy, DL Sheth and VB Singh, all academics who had retired from CSDS, were also awarded the Mahatma Gandhi National Fellowship and had no problem getting institutional affiliation.

Kishwar said that CSDS director Sanjay Kumar had initially assured her affiliation but she was later told that it would have to go through the faculty standing committee. The notice claims that there are no rules which said that the committee had to approve such applications. “The faculty standing committee is a totally arbitrary, almost self-appointed group,” added Kishwar. “Normally, the director hand picks the committee but he cannot bypass those he sees as power centres in the organisation.”

The CSDS, she claimed, was a “lawless”, “chaotically run” institution. “It was very different when it was founded,” she said. “It was a small, cohesive community of academics. We fought, we differed, but we functioned as a family. The new generation behaves like it has taken over a fiefdom.”

Over the past decade, Kishwar alleged, she had been marginalised in the institution. “Even though I was the senior-most faculty member,” she said, “and directorship is by rotation, I was never made director. That is because the ruling coterie decides.”

‘Never denied affiliation’

Kumar rejected the idea that Kishwar had been made the target of systematic discrimination. “The institution never denied her affiliation,” he said. “I, as the director, informed her on January 14 that the committee is trying to formulate the norms of affiliation and her application would be considered afterwards. She wrote to me saying that I ‘need not bother’ to represent her application to this ‘farcical committee’ with its ‘farcical notions of self-governance’. So I did not represent it.”

Kumar said he had told Kishwar informally, in conversation, that there should be no problem with affiliation. “But when it came to committing space, I had to consult the committee, as I have on every important decision in the last two-and-a-half years,” said Kumar, who took over as director in 2014. Since Kishwar was due to retire, he explained, and the institution was bound to hire new faculty, they might have needed the space.

“When she made a request for affiliation, we saw there were no adequate rules for scholars who had retired, so I requested the committee to make recommendations," Kumar said. "It is not mandatory on the part of the institution to grant retired scholars affiliation.”

Sheth, Singh and Nandy, who had got affiliation, all held formal posts in the institution though they had already retired, Kumar said. While Sheth and Nandy were distinguished fellows, Singh was treasurer of the governing body. There were no other instances of retired scholars getting affiliation, he claimed. The rest of the 200-odd affiliations granted over the last decade had gone to doctoral or post-doctoral students, said Kumar, who did not need actual space to work in the institution.

While the rules for granting affiliation to retired faculty holding no official posts had to be hammered out, Kumar said, Kishwar’s position a member of the staff also raised problems. “It would be gross negligence if you are already on the pay rolls and we grant you affiliation for another fellowship,” he added.

“If you look at the space available to faculty members, most people have one room to work in,” he said. “She, as the senior-most member of the faculty, had three rooms. And she has got a bit more funding, not less, than other faculty members for her research. She has not been discriminated against with regard to funds or space.”

To Kishwar’s allegation that she had been passed over for academic posts, Kumar claimed that was not the case. “Directors are not appointed on the basis of seniority,” he said. “The chairman of the governing body appoints the director, after there is a consensus among the faculty.”

To her charges against the faculty standing committee, Kumar said she had never made her displeasure known before. “The members of all committees are selected in the faculty meetings, held once a month,” he said. “The names are discussed among the entire faculty, including her. She has access to the minutes of every meeting. In the last 20 years, she has never registered a note of dissent, even to say she does not like the committee chosen, without naming names.”

To Kishwar’s claim that the CSDS was run in an ad hoc, arbitrary fashion, Kumar said the institution had been founded on a memorandum of understanding and had a rulebook to follow. “If the institution had been working ad hoc for the last 52 years, can you imagine how it would survive?” he asked.