It could be the caution that comes with the few highs and frequent lows of single-handedly taking on, for six years, the country’s oldest Indian Institute of Technology, but on Tuesday evening IIT Kharagpur computer science professor Rajeev Kumar wasn’t celebrating the end of a two-year long suspension.
Barely hours earlier, Kumar, dubbed by the Supreme Court of India as an “unsung hero” responsible for much of the transparency introduced in the IIT entrance examination in recent years, had received a brief “memo” from the institute registrar. It informed Kumar in three typically bureaucratic sentences that the “competent authority” had decided to allow him “to resume his duty with immediate effect revoking the suspension” imposed on the 54-year old in 2011.
The suspension was justified by the IIT as necessary while an enquiry panel it had set up probed a raft of charges against Kumar. But the nature of the charges against Kumar -- that included speaking to journalists without permission from the very authorities he was questioning, based on archaic government rules that are rarely enforced except when it involves critical news reports – and his history of tussles with the IIT officials left him convinced he was being victimized.
“I don’t think the memo is the end [of the alleged victimization],” Kumar said, responding cautiously to this correspondent’s call. “All that’s happened is that instead of sitting at home, I can go sit in office.”
But for the whistleblower who faced the threat of dismissal from his job till Tuesday, the IIT Kharagpur order that follows two Delhi high court orders in his favour, does come as a reprieve, even if only temporary. The reprieve, though, only highlights the sense of vulnerability that many whistleblowers across India suffer.
Few among the lakhs of students across the country preparing for the second leg of the new two-tiered IIT Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) one June 2 may know his name, but Kumar was instrumental in pressuring the IITs to make the test, widely regarded as one of the world’s toughest entrance barriers, more transparent.
Kumar’s battle started in 2007, and his story is both a tribute to the Right to Information (RTI) Act enacted two years earlier, and a cautionary tale for those keen on using the transparency law.
The computer science professor was surprised when his son didn’t clear the IIT-JEE in 2006. Using the RTI Act, he got details of the cut-off marks used by the IITs that year to select students. Creating an algorithm to test what the IITs did wasn’t a challenge. Before long, he realized that many students – including his son – had managed an aggregate score about 100 marks higher than what the IITs said was their cut-off, but had been disqualified because their chemistry scores were below the subject cut-off used.
Curious about the decision to rule out students with an overall performance far superior to many selected, Kumar pursued with RTI applications, now pressing the IITs for the formula they used to calculate their cut-offs.
Initially, he didn’t get any reply. Then, once he approached the courts, the IITs came up with three different formulae – one in a reply to Kumar, and two others in affidavits to the courts. None of these formulae yielded the cut-offs the IITs used. When Kumar exposed this gap, the IITs eventually came up with a fourth formula that uses multiple iterations to reach the cut-offs.
It is unlikely to ever be completely clear whether the IITs merely messed up their reply to Kumar and the first two affidavits, or whether the final formula was an afterthought.
But what followed was unprecedented. After Kumar petitioned everyone from the President and the human resource development (HRD) minister to the chairmen, directors and faculty of the IITs, with blueprints to make the IIT-JEE more transparent, the IITs did relent.
Till 2007, those students who qualified in the IIT-JEE only knew their rank, and no one knew what they had scored in the test. Students had to return their question papers to invigilators at the end of the exam, leaving them with no authoritative way of crosschecking their performance outside the test centre. The IITs never put out the correct answers to the questions posed in the test.
Today, all students are told their aggregate and subject-specific scores, and the IITs place both question papers and the correct answers online after the test is over, allowing students to verify how they’ve performed. This transparency has left the IITs exposed to criticism when the test papers contain incorrect questions or answers, but it has lifted the blanket of opacity that shrouded the test till Kumar pestered the IITs with his RTI requests.
While dismissing a petition by Kumar seeking his son’s admission, the Delhi High Court praised the professor in October 2011 for pressuring the IITs into injecting transparency into the IIT-JEE. “The appellant will have to be satisfied with being one of the many unsung heroes who helped in improving the system,” the court said.
Transparency in the IIT-JEE wasn’t the only mission Kumar took up.
Starting with IIT Kharagpur in 1951, India set up the IITs as the country’s premier engineering schools, modelled on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The institutes remain the country’s best engineering institutions and boast formidable faculty, top students and alumni who are leading policy makers and CEOs across the world. But in recent years, the IITs have faced repeated controversies. The concerns over the 2006 IIT-JEE were only the start.
In 2010, the Hindustan Times first exposed how senior IIT Kharagpur officials and faculty members were running an unrecognized, fake institute from within the IIT campus, duping innocent students by offering them certificates with absolutely no value. The CBI arrested an aerospace engineering professor believed to be the mastermind of the racket, and is still investigating the case.
Also that year, Kumar obtained details – through the RTI Act – of a till-then unacknowledged, secret quota for children of faculty that the IITs ran for several years. Kumar also claimed that IIT Kharagpur was pressuring teachers to buy computers at inflated prices, and that it was doing little to curb cheating in internal exams.
But Kumar’s crusade had consequences.
IIT Kharagpur accused Kumar of trying to manipulate the institute’s procurement policies to buy a laptop using official funds for personal use. Kumar, the institute said, had threatened an official – his email had said that he would have to resort to using the RTI Act if the official failed to act on his demand. The IIT said there was no evidence to back Kumar’s claims of large-scale cheating in internal examinations.
And it traced Kumar’s call records – illegally, without a warrant – to show that he had spoken to journalists, including this correspondent. The IIT set up an enquiry against Kumar, and then suspended him pending the result of the probe.
Six months passed, then a year. But the probe panel – which Kumar accused of bias -- didn’t come out with a report. Meanwhile, Kumar questioned the legality of keeping him under suspension, citing rules that suggest that such suspensions must be reviewed every six months.
The IIT insisted that the rules Kumar was citing didn’t apply to them, but the HRD ministry ruled that they did. Eventually, the ministry asked the IIT to lift the suspension against Kumar.
Many within the academic community have supported Kumar over these years, though few have come out openly. Equally, several teachers, including Kumar’s colleagues at IIT Kharagpur, and many administrators have called the computer scientist a habitual trouble monger, accusing him of hurting the IIT brand name.
Now that the suspension has been lifted, both Kumar’s silent supporters and his critics will be watching him again, one question on their minds. The academic in him is alive again. But is the whistleblower in him still breathing?