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

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

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.

Rai, on the other hand, was characterised as an unsavoury character currently facing two criminal charges and three departmental disciplinary proceedings against him at IIT—he has been kept under suspension for over 12 months since December 2017. Notably, on 17 November this year, over a thousand IIT students held a candle-light protest in support of Rai. According to a report in the Indian Express, the students support him because Rai has “not only been fighting corruption but also fighting for students’ rights.” Following the institute’s response to the court, Rai provided details of all cases against him to the court. He contested that the PIL should be heard on its own merit and since the cases against him were not being heard before the high court, the two issues should not be conflated. Rai told me that the departmental proceedings against him were “vindictive action” from the administration because he is an RTI activist who has been trying to expose corruption, misappropriation of funds, nepotism and illegal recruitment in the IIT since 2015.

Rai told me that he was not against any faith but only the construction of the temple within the campus. “Agar wo bahar banana chahte hain mandir, toh kahen, hum bhi madad karenge”—If they want to build a temple outside the campus, let them say so, I will also contribute to it.

According to Rai, the temple was an entirely new construction. The PIL said that it was only around 2004 that a bamboo thatch structure came up at the current site of the temple. Between 2004 and 2015, it occupied a space not more than 1.5 square metre and was encircled with bamboos. Rai said it was probably a security guard who created the encirclement. According to the PIL, it was only in 2015, during the tenure of Gautam Biswas as director, that the bamboo enclosure started changing into a concretised structure. Over the next four years, the PIL stated, it morphed into a fully made, but illegal, building.

The petitioners submitted two crucial pieces of evidence to prove that there was no temple at the site before 2004. One was a statement from Anil Mahanta, a former professor of IIT Guwahati, who taught at the campus between 1996 and 2013. “I’ve seen the developments in the IIT Guwahati campus since mid-1996,” Mahanta stated. “When the land filling and construction activities of IIT Guwahati started around mid nineties, there were temporary shades in the campus/compound - erected for housing the workers and the security personnel. To the best of knowledge, there was no temple or any place of worship in the campus/compound.” He emphasised that “the place where Shiva temple stands at present was an uninhabited area.”

The second piece of evidence was a map of the sewage system that was built on the campus in 2004. According to the map, a pipeline was constructed right underneath the site where the temple stands today, with two manholes on either side—these manholes are visible today. The PIL argued that if the sewage pipe was laid back in 2004, and the temple existed back then—as claimed by the IIT counter-affidavit—then the temple had to have been demolished too. But there are no such records. The institute is yet to file a response to this evidence.

On the other hand, the IIT administration’s counter contained an entire section on the temple’s “immemorial” existence. This section had five points under the heading: “The Shiva temple in question was existing prior to the establishment of the IIT Guwahati in the same place.” According to the counter, the IIT was established in 1994 and the land for the campus was acquired in 1991 and 1992 from the locals, which included the tribal population of the area. “At the time of taking over the land, the then IIT Guwahati authority found the existence of a small temple below a big peepal tree on the acquired land.” The counter said that the locals told the IIT authorities that “worships in the temple had been going on from days immemorial and though they used to visit the temple regularly for offering puja, they themselves don’t know when and how the Shiva temple under the tree came into existence.”

The counter further claimed that what the PIL called an “illegal construction” was nothing but a “small improvisation of a thatched structure to a brick structure.” It said that funds were provided by “devotees’ money,” referring to the local people as well as several students, faculty and non-teaching staff.

On 10 September, Rai and Sigh filed an affidavit-in-reply to the counter filed by the administration. The reply contested that the institute had provided no proof or evidence to support the argument of the temple’s existence. “If the temple did exist from a time before IIT Guwahati came into existence, the temple would be part of some document involved in the planning of the institute.” The reply also stated that the “authorities couldn’t provide any document, official map, master plan made before the joining of the then director Gautam Biswas, showing the temple at its present site.”

Interestingly, Biswas told me almost the same thing about the existence and construction of the temple, as stated in the counter and in almost identical language. Biswas told me that the temple was there even before the institute was set up during the mid-90s, and that, under the terms of subsequent directors, “it had been a gradual development.” He said it was the community—whom he described as “dwellers” of the institute as well as “non-dwellers”—that built the temple.

The petitioners submitted this image, which is dated between 2012 and 2013, as proof that no concrete temple existed on the site before 2014.

However, Rai contested this version of events. He told me that in the beginning of 2014, Biswas had just joined the IIT. One day, Biswas stopped by the bamboo structure to pray while he was going by in his official vehicle. “People noticed it, that the director had stopped by the structure himself,” Rai told me. “Back then, the place used to be in the middle of bushes. But the next day, on the instructions of the director, the bush was cut and the entire area was cleaned.” He said that following the director’s visit, other faculty members also started visiting the place. According to Rai, this is when the bamboo enclosure started being converted into a proper building. In the PIL, Rai stated that he had mentioned the illegal construction of the temple several times in his communication with Biswas. “But the director never responded to the petitioner number 1, neither was any action taken to stop the illegal act.”

The administration’s counter was silent on the PIL’s allegation that “about four years ago, the entire temple began to be refurbished.” The PIL had stated that Rai had gathered information about the illegality of the temple and its renovation by using the Right to Information Act. In December 2017, Rai filed an RTI application seeking information about the ongoing construction of the temple. Among several questions, Rai asked, “Since when has Shiva temple existed? If the IIT Guwahati spent money for the construction from the government fund? If there was any official approval to the construction?” The institute’s RTI response said, “Construction or other activities in the shiva temple didn’t take place through the institute at any time … No money was from any sources spent by the institute for construction or any other activities at the shiva temple.” The response effectively admitted that the temple’s construction had no approval from the IIT board. A copy of the RTI response from the institute was produced before the court by the petitioners. The institute did not contest the authenticity of the RTI response, but called its production before the court a “misleading and malicious” act without explaining why it was either.

Rai told me that the institute was guarded by hundreds of private security guards and entry in the campus was strictly regulated. He said that the construction of the temple would not have been possible without the authorities’ permission because it needed “sand, cement, rod, tiles and other construction materials” to be transported to the spot. “How do you think trucks carrying all of these would have passed through the gate without the approval?” The IIT administration had not answered questions in the PIL about how construction material could have entered the campus, even as it admitted that “some renovation works” to the temple were taken up by “the devotees.”

This image, from May 2018, was also part of the evidence submitted by Rai and Singh as proof that the temple was a new construction.

In the affidavit-in-reply to the IIT’s counter, Rai and Singh have also contested the argument of the temple being very ancient. “There is a reasonable degree of historical importance attached to temples that have been existing since a long time,” the reply noted. “The architecture of such religious structures including the material used to build the temples are easily recognisable. Kamakhya temple, the Madan temple and Aswklanta temple can be taken example of to understand the structural build of temples in and around the north Guwahati region.” This was accompanied by pictures of the temple from 2018, 2019 and before 2014. In the photographs from before 2014, the temple is a thatched structure, while later frames show a concrete structure with marble on the floor and walls. There was no sign of any ancient sculpture on the temple’s walls, floors or idols.

Rai also dismissed the administration’s explanation about the temple’s existence. “They have said to the court that the tribals went to them and asked them not to demolish the temple,” he told me. “And they also claimed that the land for the institute was acquired from the locals and the tribals. What kind of logic it is that the locals gave away their land to the institute but asked the authorities to let the temple stand and allow them to worship? And who were these people? Where did they go?”

The IIT administration’s strong support for the temple’s presence on the campus is demonstrated by another set of evidence submitted during the case. In October 2018, ahead of Durga Puja that year, there was a series of email conversations between faculty members. The trail of emails suggests that not just Rai, but several other faculty members were equally apprehensive of the administrators tacitly supporting religious activities. The emails centred on a faculty member’s request for fund collection to organise a Durga Puja celebration.

Gaurav Trivedi, an associate professor, had sent an email to all the faculty members and staff, on behalf of the “Shiva temple committee,” which was headed by his wife. Apart from asking for contributions, he also suggested that the institute’s community hall be used to organise the festival on a larger scale instead of the area around the temple. In the mail, Trivedi claimed that, “Even our registrar sir had appreciated the idea of hosting Durga Puja in B type community hall. I really appreciate him for his kind words and support.”

Bhabha Kumar Sarma, a professor in the department of mathematics and one of the recipients of Trivedi’s email, wrote, “For the first time I’ve heard something called shiva temple committee in the institute. I would like to know when this was formed and whether with approval of the competent authority.” Trivedi responded that “as per the information provided by my wife, a committee consisting of women devotees IIT Guwahati campus was formed to take care of shiv temple related work.” To which, Sarma responded with, “The shiva temple committee is supposed to take care of the temple and not supposed to organise activities elsewhere. Further there should have proper formalities before making appeal for donations/contributions through mass mailing.” Vishv Mohan Malhotra, another professor, also asked Trivedi to “please confirm the identity of the authority” on whose behalf funds were being collected.

Devarshi Das, an associate professor, responded to the group mail noting, “I consider it bad enough that the institute has given land for a temple (funds for construction and maintenance too? - sic). Hypothetically speaking, will the institute allot land for the worship of The Almighty Bob. And now we are hearing proposals to officially celebrate religious festival by the institute. The least I can say is I oppose the proposal.” The Almighty Bob is a mythical god in the science-fiction series Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

Trivedi refused to speak to me and said that he “will speak out only when I am asked by the court and that too through a proper channel.” Interestingly, contrary to the email conversation, Biswas claimed that several people would gather at the temple during Ram Navmi and other festivals too, during his term. But, he told me, he could not stop it because if he tried to, “people will leave academics.” According to Biswas, the petitioners “think that people should ideally not be inclined to any faith. But at heart, Hindus keep on worshipping somebody.” Biswas continued, “They are not doing any criminal activities … only praying to god.”

Prasad, too, had argued the same in the counter to the PIL. “The temple was not causing any hindrance to the progress of the institute.” On the contrary, he argued, “a large number of people including students ... are also visiting this temple daily” and so there no reason to demolish it. Prasad went a step further and said that the administration was paying the electricity bill for the temple, because, “in a welfare state it was the bounden duty of the institute” to provide basic utilities for any public space. He added that “paying the electricity bill for four tube lights cannot create a cause for filing a PIL.”

Rai told me that his RTI activism against the IIT, Guwahati had already made him a target. “People would come and tell me to focus on research and not file RTIs. I ignored and did what I believed in so far.” But this time “it looks serious,” Rai said. “I’ve been told that the local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh unit are not happy and they had sent a message for me. ‘Tumko jo karna hai karo lekin ye mandir ka mudda chor do’”—Do what you want to, but leave this temple issue.