Twist in the ISI tale

Print edition : July 24, 2015

Arun Shourie lays the foundation stone of the new building of the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata. To his left is Bimal Roy. Photo: PTI

Bimal Roy, Director of the Indian Statistical Institute (right); Joseph Stiglitz (centre), the economist; and Suman Beri (left), Country Director, India Central-IGC, after a lecture at the institute in 2012. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

After humiliating the former Director of an institution of national importance and vitiating the atmosphere, the government does an about-turn and tries to save face by appointing him head of a cryptology centre.

The crisis at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI)—precipitated by the apparent high-handed and authoritarian action of Arun Shourie, the Chairman of the institute’s council, at its last meeting on April 23 in Bangalore, and the arbitrary, crude and indecorous government order divesting the incumbent Director, Bimal K. Roy, of all powers on the basis of unproven charges—has deepened. This is yet another instance of the present regime’s increasing tendency to interfere in the appointments of heads of premier institutions of higher learning and undermine their autonomy ( Frontline, April 17 and June 12).

Founded by the visionary scientist Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis in 1931, the ISI is headquartered in Kolkata with branches in Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, and Tezpur (in Assam). The Tezpur centre, founded in 2011, is the most recent one. The ISI is governed by a 33-member council that includes, besides the Chairman, 12 ex-officio faculty members of the ISI, two elected representatives of the employees of the institute, scientists who are not employees of the ISI, and government representatives. It was declared an institute of national importance by the ISI Act of 1959.

The current events at the ISI have resulted in a legal notice being served on the Chairman and the institute by two ISI faculty members (who were at the council meeting on April 23), two petitions being filed in the Calcutta High Court against the government (one by three academics, including two ISI faculty members, one of whom is also a council member, and a member of the ISI society who is a professor at Calcutta University, and the second by Bimal Roy himself), an online petition ( being signed by over 2,000 people, and an open letter to the President of India from the International Association for Cryptologic Research (IACR).

But the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI) does not seem inclined to resolve the issue in a fair, just and democratic way. Significantly, the Ministry, having made all the allegations against Roy, has not served any show-cause notice or a charge sheet, let alone institute, as demanded by the online petition, a “proper public investigation into the allegations… and a proper hearing by the council”.

The appointment of a new ISI Director effective August 1, when Bimal Roy’s term comes to an end, was the most important item on the agenda of the April 23 meeting of the council. According to the institute by-laws (Article 2), the appointment of the Director “shall be made by the council” on the recommendation made by a selection committee consisting of the council Chairman and two experts approved by the council. The experts in the present case were Y.V. Reddy, former Reserve Bank of India Governor, and Goverdhan Mehta, former Director of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and currently the National Research Professor of Chemistry at the University of Hyderabad. It is curious how the council approved a committee that does not have a statistician or mathematician of eminence on it.

From among the 13 applicants and 12 nominees to the post, the committee had zeroed in on six for interaction and final selection: four professors from the ISI, Kolkata, including Bimal Roy himself, one from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur and one from the IISc. Bimal Roy had received many nominations, including a collective nomination signed by about 70 faculty members of the ISI, which said: “The precious quality of academic and administrative transparency, combined with his emotion and passion for the Institute, has turned him into an exemplary Director of the Institute. We believe that the present and future trajectory of growth of the Institute envisaged by Professor Roy will be best fulfilled under his own guidance.”

However, the committee’s final recommendation was Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay, a computer scientist specialising in computational biology who currently heads the Machine Intelligence Unit at the ISI. This decision was apparently hustled by the council Chairman without any deliberation on the matter, especially when some council members tried to express their views on the choice made but were denied an opportunity to do so; this has riled many in the council.

Since this was the last agenda item considered, the meeting ended with Shourie shutting out any attempt to raise the issue; he just got up and walked out without so much as the customary thanksgiving to the outgoing Director and the civil norm of a formal closure to the meeting. As a result, the council failed to pass a formal resolution on the appointment of the new Director in accordance with the by-laws.

This is clear from a letter written on April 29 to Shourie—less than a week after the council meeting—by two faculty members who had attended the meeting: Rahul Roy, the acting head of ISI, Delhi in ex-officio status, and Sushama M. Bendre, head of ISI, Tezpur, who was invited to the meeting (as the ISI regulations are yet to be amended to include the Tezpur centre’s head as an ex-officio member).

“We the undersigned,” they said in the letter, “… could not get the opportunity to express our views on the recommendation of the selection committee about the choice of the next Director… as the honourable Chairman did not allow any deliberation on the issue and abruptly left the meeting. Also… no formal resolution to the effect of appointment of the Director was placed before the house. The factual correctness of the same can be ascertained from the audio recording of the meeting that is available. We request the… Chairman to ensure that the minutes of the meeting record these facts. In this context we pray to the… Chairman to call another meeting of the council where the issue can be discussed and an appropriate resolution adopted.”

Shourie’s response

In his May 1 response to the letter, Shourie rejected the members’ observations and stated that the dissent of the representative of the non-scientific workers and that of Rahul Roy was heard but denied that Sushama Bendre had even wanted to speak. “Rahul Roy did intervene,” Shourie said in his reply. “What he said, the clarification he sought, and what I explained in turn are all on record.” On the basis of a remark by one of the council members that the selection committee’s recommendation should be accepted, as is the norm, he took it that the committee’s decision was approved by the council with one dissent, he said.

Significantly, despite the specific request in the letter, the proceedings of the meeting, signed on June 4 by the Chairman and the non-member secretary to the council, do not include the “facts” referred to above. Also, since the institute regulations mandate at least one council meeting in four months, the mandatory meeting after April 23 could have been called in July to discuss the appointment issue and adopt an appropriate resolution. It could have also been used to complete the other formalities of thanking the outgoing Director for the services rendered and the adoption of the customary resolution for his pay protection when he returns as a regular faculty member of the ISI. The controversy could have been resolved amicably if only Shourie had heeded this request, but he did not.

The other important items on the meeting’s agenda were appointment of the heads for the Delhi and Tezpur centres as recommended by the respective selection committees. While the recommendation for the Delhi centre was unanimously approved by the council, the recommendation for the continuation of Sushama Bendre as the head of the Tezpur centre met with one dissenting voice. Interestingly, following this dissent, the Chairman sought a vote from the council members. Since there was no other dissent, the recommendation of the selection committee was approved by the council taking the lone dissenting vote on record. However, when it came to the last, and most important, item on the agenda, this procedure was not followed despite dissenting voices.

In their second letter of May 6, Rahul Roy and Sushama Bendre contested what Shourie had stated in his reply. “It is true that Professor Rahul Roy started speaking about the apprehensions he had about the choice of the new Director; however, even before he completed what he had to say, you were on your feet and did not entertain any further discussion, though some [other] members also tried to speak. At no time was a resolution tabled to accept the nomination of the Director.”

More pertinently, the letter also says: “If the selection of the head of the Tezpur centre made by a three-member committee could be decided on a vote… it is unclear why the members who wanted to make comments on the choice of the Director were not allowed to speak, why the matter was not put for vote and why no resolution was tabled.” It also says that the facts could be ascertained from the audio recording of the meeting.

But this letter did not elicit any reply from Shourie. And when the circulated minutes were found to be at complete variance with the actual proceedings in the matter of the Director’s appointment, Rahul Roy and Sushama Bendre, who had requested the Chairman to follow the appropriate course of resolving the issue by calling another meeting, served a legal notice on him and the institute through a Calcutta High Court advocate on June 9.

“At least as regards the issue of the appointment of the Director, the minutes are a complete lie, particularly the part about adopting a resolution,” a council member who did not wish to be named told Frontline. The circulated minutes read: “It was resolved by the council that… Professor Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay… be appointed as Director of the ISI for a five-year term w.e.f. August 1, 2015, or on her assuming the charge of the post, with one dissent note of the representative of the non-scientific workers of the institute.”

Some other council members who this correspondent spoke to also said that the minutes were not in conformity with what actually transpired and that the meeting had ended in confusion. “When Shourie could allow a half-hour discussion on the establishment of an on-campus branch of a bank, why was this important issue not even allowed to be discussed?” a member said.

It is significant to note here that Rahul Roy’s dissent on Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay’s selection was not because he was a Bimal Roy supporter. In fact, he is not. His apprehension, as noted in the circulated minutes, was that since Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay is not from the mainstream research areas of the institute, the focus on academic affairs of external centres like Delhi would be diluted. According to ISI sources, this was not an imaginary concern; this indeed happened when Sankar Kumar Pal, an expert in soft computing and Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay’s mentor, was the Director during 2005-10.

While Bimal Roy supporters are a big faction within the ISI, there are detractors as well. According to sources, while he is quite popular for his informal approach in running the affairs of the institute, some of his administrative, financial and recruitment decisions have not been in strict accordance with government norms, perhaps as a result of his informal approach. Also, given his widely recognised expertise in cryptology, a discipline of strategic importance, there has been a quantum jump in defence-related projects and an associated flow of funds into the institute. But whether this is good or bad for the institute is a matter of debate.

While Rahul Roy was not a Bimal Roy supporter, Sushama Bendre was and thus the letter and the legal notice point to the bipartisan rejection of the irregular proceedings of the council meeting. “It is not an issue of the competence of Bimal Roy versus Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay as the Director of the institute. Our protest is against Chairman Shourie’s actions only,” emphasised another council member. Some council members, in fact, point out that if only Shourie had played his cards properly and allowed some discussion on the issue, he could have obtained a formal approval because, notwithstanding their reservations, many were inclined to go with the recommendation of the committee, which was, after all, appointed by the council itself.

In the history of the ISI, except for its founder Mahalanobis, no one has been the Director for a second term. According to the circulated minutes, which include a detailed briefing by Shourie to the council on the procedure followed by the selection committee in arriving at its recommendation, this norm was being followed by selection committees all these years as one of the criteria irrespective of the biodata of the candidates. However, there is no rule or restriction prohibiting the reappointment of a Director. Shourie too emphasised that this was not a binding factor in the considerations of the present selection committee. He further said that he had personally insisted that Bimal Roy be allowed to apply and that he had been given full opportunity to participate as a candidate in the selection process.

Though not required under either the by-laws or the regulations of the institute, traditionally the proceedings of council meetings have been signed by both the Chairman and the Director of the institute. The letter of appointment of the new Director is also signed by the incumbent Director. This time, however, as mentioned earlier, the minutes were signed by the Chairman and S.K. Iyer, the non-member secretary of the council. The reason was Bimal Roy had refused to sign them as he was not present when the issue of the appointment of a new Director was taken up. Shourie has stated in his June 5 reply to a letter sent to him by the institute’s Dean of Studies, Pradipta Bandyopadhyay, on June 4 that the minutes were taken to Bimal Roy thrice, but he had refused to sign them and that the reasons given by him “had nothing to do with the conclusion that the selection committee had reached”. Accordingly, Shourie stated, the letter of appointment was also issued to Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay by him.

Since Bimal Roy was also a potential candidate under consideration, he had rightly excused himself from participating in the proceedings when the issue came up. Further, a controversy was already brewing within the campus regarding the undemocratic conduct of the proceedings, particularly that no formal resolution was moved and passed by the council on the appointment of the new Director effective August 1. In such a situation, technically speaking, he could not have signed the proceedings. There are, however, some who argue that since the minutes had been signed by the Chairman, it becomes obligatory for the Director to sign it too. This is a matter of legality and is debatable.

However, in his response to Shourie on June 6, the Dean pointed out that no one except the Director, not even the Chairman, had the executive power to issue the letter of appointment unless he/she is so authorised by the council. “I do not recall, nor do the proceedings show, any such decision being taken by the council” (for Shourie to issue the letter). “Thus, your appointment letter to the Director-designate may not even be legally valid.”

The Dean also wrote: “Was it too much for [Bimal Roy] to expect that once the discussions on that agenda concluded he would be called back? Was it too much for him to expect that he will be informed of the name of his successor in the meeting itself rather than learning about it from secondary sources? Was it too much for him to expect that the council should thank him for his services and propose to protect his pay? Was it too much for him to expect that he will be able to conclude the last council meeting of his tenure by thanking you, the Chairman?”

Unhealthy atmosphere

Following the circulation of the minutes, a petition was filed against the Ministry and the Chairman of the council by Anup Dewanji, a council member from the institute faculty, and two others, in the Calcutta High Court which appeals for quashing of the proceedings and declares the appointment of Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay null and void on the grounds of non-conformity of the minutes with the actual proceedings and absence of a formal resolution of the council on the appointment. This is yet to be listed for a hearing.

According to Reddit, a popular news aggregating website, a right to information application seeking the release of the audio recording of the proceedings had been filed by Probal Chaudhuri, a senior faculty member. But apparently this has not elicited any response so far. To make matters worse, a Bengali TV channel, 24 Ghanta, gained access to the audio recording and aired excerpts from it on May 26, and according to the Dean’s June 4 letter to Shourie, the accompanying news story accused Shourie of high-handedness and Bimal Roy of obstructing the appointment of the new Director. The letter said that the continuing impasse over the last council proceedings was creating an unhealthy atmosphere of mistrust and rumour-mongering. He urged Shourie and the Director to investigate how the recording was leaked and resolve the issue as early as possible.

In his June 5 response, however, Shourie virtually accused the Director of leaking the tapes. He said, “The original recording was lying under lock and key in the Council Division. The Director directed Iyer to furnish him a CD as well as a pen drive of the recording. The TV programme was put together and then broadcast within days of this—and included tendentiously selected extracts from the recording…. As the Director and Iyer are both liable to be questioned… neither of them should be associated with the inquiry, nor with selecting the persons who will conduct the inquiry. The inquiry is best conducted by some Professors Emeritus of the institute itself….”

The Ministry also issued an office memorandum on June 8 addressed to Shourie informing him that the appointment of Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay as the Director “had been taken on record and endorsed by the Ministry”. This memorandum also refers to a note that Shourie had written to the Ministry on June 4 on the subject of the appointment of the new Director, which apparently had recorded facts related to “indiscipline on the part of the present Director”. Ominously, the memorandum added: “The necessary disciplinary action may be taken against him.” And the bombshell came on June 10 as an order from the Ministry divesting Bimal Roy of all powers.

The order said, “Indiscipline is evident on the part of the present Director… from the facts recorded in the aforementioned note…. A number of general and specific matters of financial and administrative irregularities, which show the direct or supervisory responsibilities for the acts of omission or commission on the part of the present Director,… are available in the Ministry in the various files on the [sic] different subjects.”

It added: “There is justifiable and reasonable apprehension that the present Director… may indulge in propagation of indiscipline and mischief up to July 31 before the new Director… takes charge…”.

Invoking Sections 11 and 12 of the ISI Act, which give emergency powers to the government, the order divested Bimal Roy of all administrative and financial powers and duties of the Director with effect from June 10 “in public interest and in public good, and to prevent indiscipline or mischief, and to prevent the eventualities of administrative or financial malfeasance and for the good of the institute”. The order further vested all the responsibilities with the Director-designate. An order dated June 16 clarified that Bimal Roy had not been removed from his post but only divested of his powers.

This sudden burst of unsubstantiated charges and the divestiture order at a time when barely two months of his term were left, without even a show-cause notice, and that too in language unprecedented in official communications, which could be challenged in a court of law for defamation, has baffled many from within the ISI and outside it. In fact, it is pertinent to ask why, if the Ministry had evidence for such misconduct in its various files, none of the issues were raised during the first four years and 10 months of Bimal Roy’s term. It is possible that both the refusal to sign the minutes and the leak of the audio recording, which Shourie called “mischief” in his June 5 letter, annoyed him no end. If one is looking for political undercurrents to this animosity, one may argue that Bimal Roy was close to the former Chairman Pranab Mukherjee, now the President of India, who was also a top functionary in the United Progressive Alliance regime. But neither explanation is satisfactory. Perhaps, there is something more to it than meets the eye.

IACR statement

On June 21, the following statement was issued by the IACR: “The IACR is dismayed by reports of Professor Bimal Roy being dismissed in all but name as Director of the ISI…. Professor Roy has been a driving force in advancing the important field of cryptology in India, elevating its visibility to international level…. Removing him from this position one month before the appointment expires is an act that has put India in a shameful and awkward position in front of the international community of cryptology research and of mathematics in general.” But what is indeed curious, as some council members point out, is that Shourie issued both the minutes and the note to the Ministry on the same date. While Shourie’s statement that the selection committee recognised and appreciated the “valuable and distinguished services rendered by Bimal Roy” is recorded in the minutes, his note purportedly contains facts about his indiscipline and acts of omission and commission.

Left with no option, in June end Bimal Roy appealed in the Calcutta High Court to clear himself of all the charges. His appeal, according to sources, is that he has been denied the due process of natural justice and that the divestiture order is bad in law. As a council member pointed out, Section 11 only requires the government to issue directions to the institute through the Director to take specific actions, and not issue orders of this nature directly.

But since the Director himself is involved, the directives could have been given to the Dean or the chief executive (administration and finance). Also, Section 12, which has been concurrently invoked, requires that the institute show cause to the satisfaction of the government within a specific period, failing which any order issued has to be first published in the Official Gazette, and appoint one or more persons to take charge of the institute.

The order, the member said, is thus invalid and can be challenged in a court. This apparently is the prayer of Bimal Roy’s petition too. But now comes a completely bizarre twist to the whole saga which is bewildering to say the least.

The climbdown

On June 30, the Ministry issued a fresh order, which is indicative of a virtual climbdown on the part of the Ministry and Shourie. Again invoking Sections 11 and 12 of the Act—the reasons for which have not been spelt out this time—it said: “To optimally use the expertise and services of Bimal Roy”, he will be posted as Head of the R.C. Bose Centre for Cryptology and Security effective August 1 with “functional autonomy in all technical, administrative and financial matters of the centre” and that he will report not to the Director but to the council.

The R.C. Bose Centre was established by Bimal Roy within the ISI, Kolkata, to further research and applications of cryptology. But the same Ministry, which only 20 days ago accused Bimal Roy of several general and specific “administrative and financial irregularities” and divested him of all powers, has now vested with him all administrative and financial powers with regard to this centre. This defies all logic. Also, invoking Sections 11 and 12 is inexplicable, especially when a selection committee was constituted in November 2014 to identify someone to head the centre, which currently has only an acting head. “One of the most damaging long-term consequences of this might be the direct interference of the Ministry into the working of the ISI,” observed a faculty member. As some point out, this may be a face-saving move by the Ministry, which is facing a barrage of criticism, online petitions and court cases, and a means to defuse the crisis situation that Shourie had created. In fact, this order would strengthen Bimal Roy’s case . He can submit this in the court as evidence that the charges levelled on June 10 had no basis. But how the situation plays out at the ISI remains to be seen.