Higher Education

This professor's campaign reformed the opaque IIT admission system. So why was he suspended?

Rajeev Kumar, now in Jawaharlal Nehru University, was suspended and then compulsorily retired by the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.

The finishing line is finally in sight for Rajeev Kumar.

In 2006, Kumar, then a professor of computer science at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, had challenged the system of admitting students to the prestigious engineering institutes. This started a decade-long battle between him and one of India’s top engineering colleges, which was fought though the Supreme Court, High Courts of Delhi and Kolkata, the Central Information Commission and even the Central Vigilance Commission.

Along the way, with orders and directions from the court cases, the admission system for India’s top engineering colleges was reformed. Question papers were made public from 2007-’08 onwards; the minimum marks a student must score in a subject to qualify were declared, answer keys were made public; copies of answer sheets were made available to candidates and counselling for final admissions became a joint exercise for Centrally-funded engineering colleges.

The fight is now drawing to a close.

In early July, the Delhi High Court ordered IIT Kharagpur to accept Kumar’s resignation from the day he was relieved from there – in June 2015. Now, his position as professor in Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Computers and Systems Sciences can be regularised. Earlier, following another Delhi High Court order, the institute had accepted his resignation from August 2017, which would have led to him losing his terminal benefits such as pension and gratuity.

For Kumar, the last decade’s experience has been bruising. He alleged that IIT Kharagpur’s administration, staff and alumni did not take kindly to his probing and criticism, and victimised him. Accused of sullying the institute’s pristine image, Kumar was suspended in 2011 and handed compulsory retirement in 2014. The retirement order was set aside in 2017 by former President Pranab Mukherjee. In 2014, he applied for and got a professorship in the School of Computer and Systems Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He joined in June 2015, on lien from IIT Kharagpur which refused to accept his resignation. This led to another round of litigation.

“From 2011 to 2015, I could not function as an academic,” said Kumar. “For two years, I was banned from entering my department. But now I can focus on research, teaching and work that has social impact .”

How it all began

In 2006, Kumar had been in IIT Kharagpur for about six years. He worked on programming languages, machine learning and multimedia systems. From Pilibhit, Uttar Pradesh, he held an MSc in Physics-Electronics from Allahabad University and an MTech in computer science from the University of Roorkee.

In 1983, he joined the Survey of India in Hyderabad, leaving in 1986 to join the Defence Research and Development Organisation in Dehradun. From 1994 to ’97, he worked towards a PhD in computer engineering at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, returning to India to teach at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, in Pilani, Rajasthan. He joined IIT Kharagpur in 2000.

In 2006, his son wrote the IIT Joint Entrance Examination – then comprising a single test and, like now, conducted by one IIT for all of them. Despite a good score, he did not get an IIT seat. Kumar was stunned. “Even in BITS I found students who were very bright and wondered why they were not in the IITs,” he said. “In those days, the IITs did not make public the full list of scores, the cut-off marks [or minimum score required to qualify], the procedure for determining cut-offs marks or even the question papers. Candidates were just told if they had made it or not and often ones with lower scores were picked over the high scorers.” In 2006, IIT Kharagpur was responsible for conducting the exam.

From September to November 2006, he filed multiple applications seeking admission data under the Right to Information Act, 2005. No information was shared, so he appealed to the newly-established Central Information Commission. After a hearing in April 2007, he obtained the cut-off marks, details on the procedure for setting cut-offs and also the scores of the top 500 candidates of 2006. Applying the procedure for computing cut-offs to the data, he concluded that “the cut-offs were not as per procedure”. He said: “We still do not know how the 2006 cut-offs were decided”. Soon after, in June 2007, he filed a case in the Calcutta High Court – the first. His main prayer then was that his son should be admitted into an IIT.

Over the years and through the many court cases, the IITs would submit three different procedures they claimed they used to compute the cut-offs. Each time Kumar tested it against the data and found the cut-offs stated could not have been derived using them. In 2009, during the course of one case in the Calcutta High Court, two academics from the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, and Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, studied the data on the directions of the court, and arrived at the same conclusion.

The Kolkata cases were not successful. The High Court dismissed the petition in 2008 because at the time he applied, Kumar’s son – along with all other applicants – had signed a declaration that essentially said that the decision taken by the IITs with regard to admissions was final. Kumar appealed almost immediately, but that was dismissed too in January 2010. Simultaneously, he filed more Right to Information applications – on results, vacant seats, question papers, admission of children of faculty members in the IITs and later, on IIT Kharagpur’s dealings with him – and tracked each one through the Central Information Commission in Delhi.

His dogged pursuit forced some changes for the subsequent generations of candidates. Over 2007-’10, the IIT-Joint Entrance Examinations’ organising institutes started making questions papers public. Later, they started making public the answer keys, subject-wise cut-off marks and how they were computed. From 2011, examinees could even get scanned copies of their answer sheets so that they could independently calculate their scores by matching their answers with those in the answer key.

Kumar’s son had enrolled in Jadavpur University in 2006 itself. By 2010, he had graduated and was employed in a multinational corporation. But Kumar was not yet done. A slight man, but with enormous reserves of determination and patience, Kumar abandoned Kolkata and sought justice in Delhi.

IIT Kharagpur. (Photo credit: IANS).
IIT Kharagpur. (Photo credit: IANS).

In public interest

In April 2010, Kumar appealed in the Supreme Court against the Calcutta High Court’s decision to dismiss his appeal. That case was “almost infructuous” because his son was close to graduating. Considered a domain outside judicial review, this case too ended with dismissal in January 2011. “But the judge acknowledged that because of the applicant, the system has evolved a lot,” said Kumar. But he pressed on, hoping for reform.

Kumar had also discovered errors in the 2006 question paper. Armed with information gathered over years, he filed a Public Interest Litigation, first in the Delhi High Court. When the High Court rejected the petition, he filed one in the Supreme Court, in July 2010. In August 2011, the apex court directed the High Court to hear it. “This was the case that resulted in wide-ranging reforms,” he said. It also brought down the wrath of IIT Kharagpur upon him, he alleged.

“My home was attacked twice – our windows and other things were broken,” he alleged.

In December 2010, he ran into trouble with the authorities at IIT Kharagpur again. Upon discovering that the department responsible for procuring laptops was going to buy him one at a higher price when another of the same make but superior functions was available at a lower price, Kumar wrote to the dean of Sponsored Research and Industrial Consultancy at IIT Kharagpur. “They started harassing me,” he alleged. The institution accused Kumar of trying to buy a laptop on his own, bypassing procedure. Kumar argued he was merely trying to save the institute money. This resulted in all procurement of laptops being put on hold for a while and later, cancelled. He reported what he called the “laptop scam” to the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which funds the IITs, and the Central Vigilance Commission.

By February 2011, the situation on campus was so vitiated that Kumar sought protection from the Central Information Commission, Delhi.

Three months later, in May, the institute suspended him on charges of misconduct.

What followed was a frenzy of cases in judicial and quasi-judicial bodies, most of them in Delhi. At one point in 2014, he even filed a complaint with the press council against a press release issued by the ministry. It was not uncommon for him to make multiple trips to the national Capital in a year.

In 2012, he filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court against the Central Vigilance Commission, the Ministry of Human Resource Development and IIT Kharagpur. The Delhi High Court heard it because the Central Vigilance Commission and the IITs’ governance machinery – the IIT Council and the ministry – is in Delhi. But also from 2012, the IITs started declaring the minimum marks for qualifying – 10% each in physics, chemistry and maths and 35% in aggregate.

He spent two years on suspension even though it is customary to review suspension orders after three months. He was already paying for the administrative and travel costs of litigation. His resources were further straitened by the suspension. “I was not allowed inside my own department in Kharagpur,” he said. “Research scholars I was guiding would come home. I could not take leave or do anything without permission. It was like being on house arrest.” His relations with the IITs were so acrimonious by this point that his daughter chose not to enrol in an IIT despite qualifying for a seat.

“But my official duties were not affected,” he said of the period from 2006 till his suspension.

Isolated from his colleagues, his wife was his support system. “She made my schedules and appointments and organised my travel,” he said. Around this time, he was part of the team that reworked the guidelines for accreditation of technological institutes. This prepared the ground for India to become a member of the Washington Accord, whose signatories recognise India’s engineering degrees.

Kumar’s wife died in 2016. She suffered from the “social stigma” and stress caused by the protracted suspension and disciplinary proceedings, he said. “She had asthma but I did not think it would get that severe,” he said. “I have asthma too but you cannot be in Delhi and not have respiratory problems.”

(Photo credit: HT).
(Photo credit: HT).

After IIT Kharagpur

Kumar’s suspension was lifted in April 2013, and a few months later he joined IIT Kanpur as a visiting professor. While he was there, the Delhi High Court heard his petition and sought “stakeholders’ feedback” on errors in the questions, answer keys and IITs’ corrections. In August 2014, the High Court ordered the ministry and IITs to hold a common counselling for admission – an outcome of the public interest litigation filed by Kumar. During the course of the case and in part for the debate it generated, the entrance exam became a two-tier process. The Joint Entrance Examination (Main) became the main entrance exam for most government-run engineering colleges and a preliminary round for the IITs. The IITs started to conduct a second test, the JEE Advanced, for its own admissions.

Kumar returned to Kharagpur in June, 2014, and was served a show-cause notice asking him to explain why he should not be compulsorily retired. “I had allegedly defamed the institution, violated the code of conduct and attempted to personally procure a laptop,” he said. The order of compulsory retirement was issued in October 2014, but because of an injunction by the Delhi High Court in March 2013, the institution could take that decision but not act on it. Kumar had also appealed to the President of India, the Visitor for the IITs. “Although many supported me in private, absolutely no one stood by me openly, people were afraid to be seen with me,” Kumar said. “Neither the academic authorities not alumni groups were willing to discuss the issues I was raising with me.”

IIT Kharagpur has steadfastly denied his charges, as well as victimising him.

Kumar finally found a way out.

In January 2014, while he was still in Kanpur, Kumar had applied for a professorship in Jawaharlal Nehru University. He was appointed in April 2015 and joined, on lien from IIT Kharagpur. Upon confirmation in JNU, he submitted his resignation to IIT Kharagpur in June 2016 but the institute did not accept it, citing the ongoing cases. In June 2017, he said he was “relieved from JNU” to compel him to join IIT Kharagpur again but he refused. The 2014 retirement order was finally set aside by President Mukherjee in July 2017, days before he left office. Subsequently, the Delhi High Court suggested that IIT Kharagpur accept Kumar’s resignation. It did, but only from 2017. Finally, on July 11, the High Court issued another order directing IIT Kharagpur to accept his resignation from 2015. The letter arrived from Kharagpur on July 25 and Kumar hopes his position at JNU will now be confirmed.

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