The suspension of K.S. James, director of the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), for 90 days by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has evoked considerable outrage in the academic community. More than 800 academics, under the India Academic Freedom Network (IAFN), have questioned the move and the motive behind it. Many of them believe the suspension was not entirely surprising since sources within the institute had indicated that the government was looking for an excuse to bench the well-known social scientist and senior demographer who resisted attempts to influence data that did not appeal to the government.
James led the fifth round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) in 2019-21. Its findings were inconsistent with the official narrative about the state of the nation. “Phase 1 of the NFHS 5 had all the numbers the government did not like,” said one academic, speaking anonymously.
The government therefore did not want to release the Phase 2 results, but James stood his ground. In an executive committee meeting of the institute, which the Union Health Minister chairs, James was accused of pandering to “Western interests”. According to sources, James was asked to resign in 2022 itself. “From the time NFHS-5 was released, pressure was mounting on him. But he refused to quit,” they said.
James, of course, is not responsible for the findings, which reflect the reality the survey is supposed to capture. The survey had, apart from the usual indicators, interesting district-level data on several variables. An IAFN statement said the suspension of James would create suspicions on the reliability of the results of NFHS-6, currently underway.
On its part, the Health Ministry has cited complaints received in May about irregularities in appointments and recruitments and lack of compliance with a reservation roster. A fact-finding team constituted in May found irregularities in 11 of a total of 35 complaints. All appointments pass through many levels of scrutiny and process, but Frontline learnt that there were some disgruntled parties whose interests were affected by decisions made by James and some of them complained to the Ministry about his directorship.
Support for James came from unexpected quarters. In the last week of May, the leader of the Shiv Sena in the Lok Sabha, Rahul Ramesh Shewale, wrote to Health Minister Mansukh Mandavya expressing concerns. Shewale represents the Mumbai South Central constituency and was formerly with the Udhav Balasaheb Thackeray faction before he switched sides to the Shinde camp. The institute is located in his constituency. In his letter dated May 25, a copy of which is with Frontline, the MP claimed that matters started deteriorating when one Madhav Kulkarni was the Registrar in 2008. James became director in 2018. Shewale’s letter indicated that Kulkarni was responsible for the grievances of the IIPS staff. A UGC committee in 2018 had found fault with Kulkarni, he wrote, and demanded an inquiry.
One of the irregularities of which James has been accused pertains to appointments made for reserved positions. A group called the Jai Bhim Army held a demonstration in April alleging that the institute had discriminated against students, members of the faculty, and staff based on “social and regional identities”.
In response to the protest, in mid-May at least 22 senior and mid-level faculty members as well as PhD scholars from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe categories wrote to Ramdas Athawale, Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, as well as to Mansukh Mandavya, demanding action against the organisation and its leader, Nitin Bhau More, for “maligning” the institute. They wrote that as members of socially disadvantaged groups they had not experienced discrimination or heard about it. They called the allegations “false, baseless”. They claimed that there was a “hidden agenda to defame the institute” and that there were vested interests at work against James.
“From the time NFHS-5 was released, pressure was mounting on him. But he [James] refused to quit.”An academic
The suspension of the IIPS director is not an isolated incident but part of a larger pattern where the activities of higher education and research institutions and of statistical and other agencies have come under increasing governmental pressure. From the delay in release of employment data before the 2019 Lok Sabha election to the unprecedented decision to block the release of the last consumption survey data and the indefinite postponement of the 2021 Census, questions have been raised about the threats to the integrity of the nation’s statistical systems.
The IIPS is also a deemed to be university, officially designated as an autonomous organisation under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. In June, the University Grants Commission (UGC) notified the new UGC (Institutions deemed to be Universities) Regulations, 2023, covering 126 deemed to be universities in the country. Under these regulations, the right to appoint directors or vice chancellors in institutions that got more than half their funding from the government was handed over to the government.
One month later, the Centre put this into effect and brought five institutions—Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai; Dayalbagh Educational Institute, Agra; Gujarat Vidyapeeth, Ahmedabad; Avinashilingam Institute for Home Sciences, Coimbatore; and Gurukul Kangri, Haridwar—under its wing. None of these institutes and their managing boards, including those categorised as “privately controlled” as per the Education Ministry’s portal, registered so much as a protest. “There is no logic to the selection but a message that other universities should be prepared for such changes,” said an academic from one of the affected institutions.
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The UGC regulations include provisions governing the appointment of officers of deemed to be universities. While funding and appointments were linked in the 2019 regulations as well, they had a mechanism for the appointment of a Vice Chancellor by a Selection-cum-Search Committee even where the government funding was 50 per cent or more. The Selection Committee was made up of a nominee each of the Chancellor and the Central government, and an academic with not less than 10 years of service to be nominated by the Board of Management. This committee was then required to form a panel of three names from which the Chancellor picked one to be the Vice Chancellor. The 2023 regulation brought this role entirely under government jurisdiction.
- The IIPS is also a deemed to be university, officially designated as an autonomous organisation under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
- Deemed to be universities are a special class of institutions under the UGC Act, which are allowed to be exceptions to the general rule that universities empowered to award degrees have to be created by Acts of the Central or State legislatures.
- The suspension of the IIPS director is not an isolated incident but part of a larger pattern where the activities of higher education and research institutions have come under increasing governmental pressure.
- From the delay in release of employment data before the 2019 Lok Sabha election to the indefinite postponement of the 2021 Census, questions have been raised about the threats to the integrity of the nation’s statistical systems.
New UGC regulations
Under the new UGC regulations, the principal executive body of a deemed to be university is a 13-member Executive Council chaired by the Vice Chancellor. Seven of these members are appointed by the Vice Chancellor and the others are nominees of the sponsoring body, either the government or the UGC. Clearly, the control has been kept with the government. Under the 2019 regulations, the governing body was a Board of Management headed by the Vice Chancellor with a maximum of fifteen members. At least a few of these members occupy their positions by rotation based on inter-se seniority rather than being chosen by the Vice- Chancellor.
Deemed to be universities are a special class of institutions under the UGC Act, which are allowed to be exceptions to the general rule that universities empowered to award degrees have to be created by Acts of the Central or State legislatures. The vesting of powers to regulate such institutions with the UGC, a body that is a creation of an Act of Parliament, has its basis in the idea that these institutions need to be autonomous and cannot function as government departments. The new regulations are therefore disturbing and go against the very idea of autonomy, but they are hallmarks of the present government.
Not only are the UGC’s powers to define “minimum” standards being defined in progressively greater detail, but Vice Chancellors and other representatives in decision-making bodies are becoming instruments for policing the activities of teachers and students. Suppressing differing views, curbing rights to participate in protest activities, the persecution of students and faculty through exercise of penal powers, and attempts to dictate or control curricula, are increasingly becoming the norm. The suspension of the IIPS Director, thus, is not an outlier.
Even privately funded institutions are facing the heat. Ashoka University in Sonipat, Haryana, publicly disowned a faculty member’s research paper that suggested the possibility of electoral manipulation during the 2019 general election. The scholar resigned. Subsequently, the university’s economics department issued an open letter that criticised the university’s action of disassociating itself from the paper and hastily accepting the scholar’s resignation. It called this “institutional harassment”.
As controls over faculty appointments, research work, and admission processes of institutions and universities are tightened, the damage done to these bodies and the work they produce will only be felt in the future.