The great divide

Published : Apr 23, 2010 00:00 IST

in Aligarh

Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras has won the first round of the legal battle. On April 1, an Allahabad High Court Bench comprising Justices Sunil Ambawani and Kashi Nath Pandey stayed the suspension of the Aligarh Muslim University professor against whom disciplinary action had been taken following reports of his involvement in a homosexual relationship. Advocate Anand Grover who represented Siras said: The stay order demonstrates that an individual with a different sexual orientation cannot be treated in a fashion devoid of justice.

The university authorities suspended Siras, a reader in the Department of Modern Indian Languages, on February 9 after he was allegedly caught on tape in a homosexual act with a rickshaw puller in a sting operation by two journalists the day before. Seeing it as the first instance of violation of last years Delhi High Court judgment in the Naz Foundation case that decriminalised homosexuality, the queer community across the country has been up in arms against the suspension. So is a group of teachers in the university, in support of Siras. According to Siras, two people claiming to be journalists entered his house unwarrantedly and taped him and his partner in an undressed state on the evening of February 8. After nearly two hours of the incident, when Siras was urging the journalists not to make the video public, public relations officer Rahat Abrar and proctor M. Zubair Khan of the university entered his house without notice and had a discussion with the journalists.

Siras was suspended the next day on the basis of the duos account. The suspension order noted a case of gross misconduct on the part of Siras. The university charge-sheet filed on February 24 (a mandatory process after the suspension order is issued), signed by the PRO and the proctor, said: Dr. Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, while working as a reader and Chairman of Modern Indian Languages, has committed act of misconduct inasmuch as he indulged himself into immoral sexual activity and in contravention to basic moral ethics [he] thereby undermined the pious image of the teacher community and as a whole tarnished the image of the university. It says the PRO and the Proctor were informed by deputy proctor Fareed A. Khan that a few mediapersons with cameras had come to Siras house.

Significantly, Siras suspension is purely on the basis of a videotape of which the university has no copy. The charge-sheet said that the witnesses did not have a copy of the videotape and that the journalists had promised to give them a copy. However, the university did not have possession of a copy of the tape until March 15, as admitted to a question filed under the Right to Information (RTI) by Anjali Gopalan, a queer activist running the Naz Foundation.

The suspension of Siras has not only fuelled the age-old debate between the liberal and conservative groups on the campus but also opened a Pandoras box for the Central university, which is already caught up in many controversies, including allegations against Vice-Chancellor P.K. Abdul Azis.

Apart from ideological issues concerning homosexuality, Siras suspension becomes controversial because none of the procedures were followed in the filing of the charge-sheet. In normal course, the Registrars office (who is the secretary of the university) sends any such allegation to the department of inquiry section with the permission of the vice-chancellor. The department of inquiry section then requests the vice-chancellor to constitute a fact-finding committee, and explanation letters are issued to the parties concerned. The charge-sheet is drafted only after hearing both the parties. But in Siras case, there was no communication between him and the university between February 9 and 24.

Adil Murtaza, who led the sting operation, told Frontline that he had not yet given the tape to the university authorities. He said he used to get a number of phone calls from unknown persons saying that Siras was a homosexual and on the evening of February 8 a caller told him that if he needed proof he could go to Siras house and see it for himself. It is here that Murtaza decided to film the act.

It is clear, therefore, that the vice-chancellor, the sole authority to suspend a teacher, did not have a look at the video tape as it was not available with the authorities. The VC should have had a look at the tape before suspending Siras as he can easily be misled by witnesses, said Tariq Islam, reader in the Department of Philosophy. What bothers the teaching community, though, is the heightened degree of surveillance on the campus and no tolerance on the part of the authorities.

Rahat Abrar, who is also one of the witnesses, however, justified the suspension. The act was immoral, he said. If the tape comes on television channels, it will bring disrepute to the university. Neighbours of Siras were also complaining against him as they had come to know about the relationship he had with the rickshaw puller.

N.A.K. Durrani, head of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication and media adviser to the vice-chancellor, said, The AMU has evolved its own traditions in the last 135 years. We have to look at the Siras case in that perspective and cannot judge it only in the legal perspective. Since this was an aberration, we needed to correct this by suspending Siras. In his reply to the authorities, Siras has accused the authorities and the journalists of violating his right to privacy. The letter says: I say that I am gay. I have never hidden my sexual orientation and people know about the same. Moreover, my sexual orientation is not at all any persons concern as the same falls under my Right to Privacy.

He said he was surprised to see my colleagues in my flat at that point of time as I had not called for any help nor invited any of the professors to my house that day. That itself shows that the university staff are a party to this operation.

Siras case is not an isolated incident that has left the university staff divided. One group, running a campaign against Abdul Aziss style of functioning, has been demanding more transparency. The other group feels that the campaign against him is borne out of personal anxieties of those who are trying to convert the university into a political space.

There is a persistent ideological struggle within the campus between the liberals and the conservatives, Tariq Islam said. There is no space for democratic dissent at all. The authorities have not made any attempts to protect Siras from the hate campaign of the regional press. Misconduct cannot be interpreted subjectively by the authorities. They have to resort to the legal way as misconduct is not defined in the university statutes.

Last year, a student, Irfan Khan, was suspended after he ran away with a girl and the girls parents accused him of kidnapping their daughter. His suspension has not been revoked even after he produced himself and the girl in front of the Allahabad High Court to say that they had got married on their own will.

The Siras issue has also opened a larger debate, on the surveillance on the campus. The AMU is the first Central university to install CCTV cameras everywhere, including in hostels and classrooms. A few executive council (the highest executive body of the university) members say this was done, at an approximate cost of Rs.10 crore, without any consultation. The university already has a local intelligence unit in place, the staff of which are paid from university funds. Justifying the decision, Durrani said: Modern security management is necessary to protect the life and property of students and the campus. We feel that the campus is very porous in Aligarh and it can become criminal dens.

However, Wasim Ahmed, former Rajya Sabha member and a former executive council (EC) member as the President of Indias nominee, told Frontline that the decision on surveillance cameras was taken by the vice-chancellor through a committee nominated by himself. Such a committee cannot be made according to the statutes of the university. Any purchase by the university has to have the approval of the EC, he said. In the case of the surveillance cameras, the EC was not consulted at all. It was because of this that the honorary treasurer, Dr Mahfooz Ahmed, resigned from his post citing autocratic ways of the VC in 2008 and lack of democracy in the central purchase committee.

The controversial local intelligence unit (LIU) was constituted by the former Vice-Chancellor Naseem Ahmed. In reply to a question filed under the RTI Act by S.P. Sharma, a former BSNL employee in Aligarh; Md. Naved Khan, a lecturer in the Department of Business Management; and Md. Chaman, a watchman on the campus, the university admitted in 2009 that the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Human Resource Development Ministry were not consulted before it decided to have such a unit. It also stated that salaries amounting to Rs.1.2 lakh for the LIU were being paid by the university.

Some critics say that the Siras incident is a mere gimmick by the university authorities to detract the press from the corruption charges against the vice-chancellor. Aziss professional career has been scarred by several accusations. As vice-chancellor of the Cochin University of Science and Technology, he was accused of large-scale financial bungling by the Finance Inspection Wing of the Government of Kerala in 2008. Among the charges were that the vice-chancellor spent huge amounts for renovating his quarters, that he misappropriated funds of air journeys and in connection with the conferring of an honorary degree on N.R. Narayana Murthy, chief mentor of Infosys. The Society for Scientific Values an independent scientific community watchdog also has a case of plagiarism registered against him in 2004 in connection with his D.Sc degree.

Similar allegations against Azis in the AMU led the HRD Ministry to order two presidential inquiries, one in April 2009 and the other on February 6 this year. The first presidential inquiry committee was constituted in July last year as a two-member bench, but one of the members, A.H. Jung, former Civil Aviation Secretary, resigned in October. In his letter dated October 22, 2009, to HRD Minister Kapil Sibal, he stated that the universitys officials were not cooperating with the committee.

Specifically 46 files were asked for examination as there were allegations that records were being doctored. The files were promised to be sent in two or three days. They never came. Another incidence which I had brought to the Ministrys notice was [that] Rs.1.2 crore [was] spent on doing up the VCs lodge without following any procedure. When the committee asked for something as simple as the survey report of the insurance company, it was not sent even after two months, the letter read.

It also reveals that the judges had to spend from their own pockets to meet the expenses of the committee as the university did not do that. The other member of the inquiry committee, Justice Fakhruddin, a former judge of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, too, resigned after writing to the HRD Ministry citing lack of funds to travel and a permanent place to operate from. He said there had to be necessary funds to conduct the inquiry.

Another inquiry was ordered by the President into the alleged financial irregularities on February 6, two days before the Siras incident took place. The new committee is looking into the charges and is yet to come up with its report. A report submitted by the Principal Accountant-General of the Uttar Pradesh government to the Union HRD Ministry also has acknowledged financial irregularities in the university and charged the vice-chancellor with irregularities in matters relating to travel allowance claims and unauthorised purchase of car worth Rs.12.5 lakh.

There is a complete collapse of financial management in the university and the VC and the registrar became a part of this, it said.

Wasim Ahmed elaborated: Azis had admitted the extortionate travel expenses for non-official purposes in EC meetings but always uses the discretion of the VC clause provided in the statutes of the university to his advantage.

In reply to the RTI application filed by S.P. Sharma, in early 2008, the university conceded that the vice-chancellors income tax was being paid from the university funds. In yet another RTI application by Tariq Islam in 2008, asking the university about provident fund investments, the university replied that it had transferred Rs.8.32 crore of the staff provident fund from the State Bank of India to the Shreyas Grameen Bank with the vice-chancellors permission. This violated the statutes of the university and caused huge losses to it as the interest rates were lower in the SGB than in the SBI. In his RTI question in 2009, Md. Naved Khan asked the UGC whether any grant had been deducted from the AMU central funds. The UGC, in its reply, said it had withheld Rs.8.38 crore because of financial irregularities.

Within the campus, ever since Azis joined, there has been a battle between the EC members and the vice-chancellor. Consequently, a number of members have resigned from the council in the past three years, the most prominent being Sagheer Ahmed, a former judge of the Supreme Court. Justice Ahmed was opposed to Aziss idea of having external examination centres incurring high costs.

The honorary treasurer Mahfooz Ahmed also resigned quoting undemocratic ways of the central purchase committees functioning. He said the vice-chancellor had made many purchases without consulting the EC. All the complaints against the vice-chancellor were reported to the President and the HRD Ministry in early 2009 by eight members of the EC, and the Presidents order of inquiry in April 2009 followed this.

We have found evidence of the fact that he included NRIs in the university court, violating the norms. Now, he is building special centres in five different States, which is against the statutes. It is a project worth Rs.1,500 crore, said Wasim Ahmed. How can one guarantee that a person with credibility such as his wouldnt have financial interests in such a project?

The university court is the highest governing and legislating body on the campus and comprises university authorities and people from outside, including two nominees of the President of India. It takes all the legislating decisions as to how the university should function and what action should be taken complying with the statutes.

The statutes of the university say that the special centres cannot be opened beyond 25 kilometres of the university mosque. Mustafa Zaidi, a reader in the Department of Library Sciences, said, Earlier, when such a proposal was passed, it had to be finally annulled by the then VC Hamid Ansari [now the Vice-President of India]. The annulment took place even as the Dubai centre was being opened. But the university authorities defend the decision by saying that these are just centres and not special centres.

Vice-Chancellor Azis could not be reached despite several attempts by Frontline. His profile on the university website says that when he joined in 2007, the university was passing through a dark period with violent clashes between student groups, murders, inter-regional fighting and constant disruption of academic activities and that he was able to control these. It is in this context that the university authorities justify increased surveillance and the disbandment of the students union.

The university is not a political institution. Politics should be outside the campus and students should only learn politics in the department of political science, Azis said in an interview to a magazine recently.

Tariq Islam retorted: Political activities dont necessarily mean violence. A democratic political culture on the campus helps students to evolve and get exposed to many political thoughts. Politics or no politics, the recent controversies in the AMU are a blot on the lineage of the university.

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