IIT Guwahati defends temple on campus as professor’s PIL calls for its demolition

29 November 2019
These images, showing various stages of the temple’s construction, are part of the evidence submitted during the course of the case.
These images, showing various stages of the temple’s construction, are part of the evidence submitted during the course of the case.

A temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, situated inside the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, has sparked a tussle between the administration on one hand and a faculty member and a section of students, on the other. On 6 May this year, Brijesh Rai, an assistant professor in the department of electronics and electrical engineering, and Vikrant Singh, a doctoral scholar of the same department, filed a public-interest litigation before the Gauhati High Court that demanded the demolition of the temple. The PIL alleged that the temple was “illegally constructed” and “could well be a conspiracy to give preferential treatment to one religion which could potentially communalise the environment of the institution.” In response, the IIT administration told the court that the demand for demolition is a reflection of the “perverse mind” of the petitioners.

The petitioners argued that the temple was illegally constructed over the last five years with the connivance of some higher officials and that such a construction on the campus of a publicly funded educational institute violated its secular nature. Apart from its demolition, the petitioners also requested a court-monitored investigation into the temple’s construction and disciplinary action against the officials involved in it. On their part, the IIT administration told the court that the temple predated the campus and had existed “since days immemorial,” and that no public funds were ever diverted for its maintenance or its alleged construction. The institute dismissed the petitioners concerns on the secular nature of the institute and said that “the existence of the temple doesn’t cause any damage to the secular environment existing within the campus.” They further claimed that the PIL had no support from the students and asked the court to dismiss the petition with exemplary costs.

I went through all the evidence produced before the court, the affidavits and counter-affidavits filed by both parties, and also interviewed one of the petitioners and the director under whose tenure the temple was allegedly built. The most intriguing aspect of the entire episode is the IIT administration’s brazen support for a religious structure despite opposition from its own faculty and students. Contrary to the administration’s submission on student support for the PIL, the petitioners had submitted signed declarations from at least six students. It said that they did not think “it’s in right spirit to have any religious structure inside the campus of a public institute, especially one of national importance such as IIT Guwahati.”

In the PIL, Rai and Singh identified four parties as the respondents—the secretary of the department of higher education under the union human resource development ministry, the director of IIT Guwahati, the board of governors of the institute and Rajiv Modi, an ex-chairperson of the institute. The high court has excused Modi from the case for the time being and the ministry is yet to respond. A joint secretary to the HRD ministry, though, is also a member of the board, which is presently chaired by TG Sitharam, the institute’s current director. Sitharam is also involved with the Swami Vivekanand Yoga Research Foundation. The foundation is run by Nagendra Guruji, who is the personal yoga trainer of Narendra Modi. MGP Prasad, the current registrar-general of IIT, filed the institute’s affidavit-in-opposition on 1 August, in response to the PIL, on behalf of the director and the board.

A curious aspect of Prasad’s counter was the personal attacks on Rai and Singh. Prasad pushed for the dismissal of the PIL on the ground that Rai and Singh were the only ones who had any problem with the temple. “IIT Guwahati houses around ten thousand residents within the campus … most of the dwellers frequents the temple but none ever challenged its existence.” Instead, he said that Rai and Singh had filed the case with “ulterior motives” and “evil design.” The counter dismissed Singh’s involvement and termed him as an “obedient student” who wanted to “oblige” Rai, his research guide.

Sagar is a staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: IIT Guwahati PIL Temples