An Alumnus Explains How Autocracy is Marring the IITs

The IIT Roorkee incident bares an autocratic regime that refuses to engage with students, writes Aditya Mani Jha.

4 min read
Perhaps more hand-holding was needed than the extreme step of expelling students in the IIT Roorkee case. (Photo: <a href="">IIT Roorkee website</a>)
An Alumnus Explains How Autocracy is Marring the IITs

Dire Need for Reforms

  • The way IIT Roorkee matter has been dealt with is representative of the authoritative IIT administration
  • IIT Roorkee administration should’ve informed its students well in advance about the CGPA-related criteria
  • Similar autocracy rules the roost even at IIT Jodhpur
  • Tussle between IIT Jodhpur director, Professor CVR Murty and the students since the last 4 months

The IITs are doing a fine job of shooting themselves in the foot, and we’re not talking about Madras, which at least had a little help from Smriti Irani.

Last week, IIT Roorkee expelled an eye-popping 73 students on the basis of poor performance in their first year. The institute says that these students have a CGPA (Cumulative Grade Point Average) of less than 5. This CGPA itself is based on a relative grading system, which means that depending upon the nature of the statistics, anybody can fail despite scoring well above the minimum passing marks. Also, just 7 out of these 73 are general category students; the rest are divided between SC (Scheduled Castes), ST (Scheduled Tribes), OBC (Other Backward Classes) and PD (Physically Disabled) categories.

According to the latest reports, an unconfirmed number of students have been allowed by the IIT Roorkee administration to appear in a re-examination following an order by the Uttarakhand High Court. However, the ham-handed way in which this matter has been dealt with is representative of what the average IIT administration is like: authoritarian, cavalier and clinically devoid of empathy for students and professors alike.

Is the Grading System Any Better?

First of all, let us examine the academic and moral implications of the relative grading system. As a professor, you are basically telling your students: “You must try and score well. Failing that, you must score more than your friend. And failing that, you must ensure that your friend scores less than you.”

HRD Minister Smriti Irani at IIT Kharagpur campus.&nbsp;(Photo courtesy: Facebook)
HRD Minister Smriti Irani at IIT Kharagpur campus. (Photo courtesy: Facebook)

Now, as Gajendra Chauhan’s all-time favourite film 3 Idiots tells us, students can resort to unconventional tactics to achieve the same, like slipping pornographic magazines under an entire hostel wing’s doors. And while I think that most IIT students don’t need a twisted benefactor to procure pornography, the point is valid nevertheless: the relative grading system is the academic equivalent of an underground martial arts “death match”.

Why did the IIT Roorkee administration not declare this all-important piece of information (that students with a CGPA of less than 5 would be expelled) until after the end-semester examinations?

I studied Geology at IIT Kharagpur from 2007-12. In my five years on campus, I witnessed a number of Kafkaesque incidents involving idiosyncratic professors and the sheer powerlessness of the students. On one occasion, a professor failed an entire class because he felt they did not score as well as they could have (more than half of them scored 50-60 out of a possible 100). Another professor once set a minefield of a Thermodynamics question paper, in which 39 out of 40 students scored less than 20 on 100. But since the 40th student scored 88, the remaining 39 were promptly failed. It doesn’t even matter whether the scoring system is relative or absolute. When it comes to passing a subject, you are entirely at your professor’s mercy.

 (Photo:<a href=""> IIT Jodhpur website</a>)
(Photo: IIT Jodhpur website)

Rumblings at IIT Jodhpur

It is no surprise then, that we are witnessing a similar administrative philosophy in the oldest (Roorkee) and the newest (Jodhpur) IITs. For the last 4 months or so, students and a section of teachers at IIT Jodhpur have been demanding the removal of the director, Professor CVR Murty, a man whose leadership style reminds one of Pol Pot.

Under Murty’s regime, the tenures of 16 teachers were jettisoned without explanation, including Dr Ganesh Bangler, a promising young professor whose work had been published as an “Emerging Technology” feature in the MIT Technology Review as recently as February. Students were sent a “code of conduct” letter that forbade them to talk to the media, engage in any kind of activity that could be considered political, or even post anything about the institute’s functioning on social media.

In the months since April, when the first reports about the students’ reports started trickling in, there have been massive demonstrations on the IIT Jodhpur campus. Students erected a tombstone on the campus that lamented the death of “the peace of mind” of the students and the faculty. The authorities removed the tombstone, only to find another identical one replacing it days later.

 (Courtesy: ANI)
(Courtesy: ANI)

Students sat on a dharna, lollipops in hand, observing a “Lollipop Day” to highlight the “lollipop of false assurances” that the institute had been dangling time and again. Murty even sent a letter to the parents of every student on the campus. The last lines of the letter are chilling: “Actions of the kind displayed by our students during the last month will negatively impact the reputation of the institute. (…) The students must not indulge in activities that will jeopardise their careers.”  

Whether it’s Roorkee, Jodhpur, Madras or my dear old alma mater Kharagpur, IITs and dictatorial regimes go hand in hand. If IITs are really serious about the current threats to their autonomy, as well as their academic standards (which have been slightly rubbish of late), they would do well to respect the wishes of their students. Or failing that, just listen for a change.

(The writer is a columnist and an IIT Kharagpur alumnus)

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