Was the Attempt to Transfer Amit Sengupta From the IIMC Indicative of Government Interference?

On 1 March, Sengupta received an order informing him that he had been transferred to IIMC Dhenkanal, in Orissa. Three days later, Sengupta resigned. Courtesy Amit Sengupta
10 March, 2016

On 5 March around noon, a day after his resignation from the post of associate professor of English journalism (EJ) at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), Delhi, I met Amit Sengupta at his home in Mayur Vihar. He discussed the problems ailing his alma mater, from where he received a one-year EJ diploma in 1981. Among the various shortcomings he accused the institute of—such as inadequacies in the course and its implementation, politically motivated appointments, shortage of teaching staff, and a general atmosphere of bureaucracy—the most vehement accusation was that there was no actual journalism being taught at the institute. “They want to create robot-like products for the market with no critical thinking or journalistic skills,” Sengupta alleged, before adding, “My transfer was a punishment posting, and a case of victimisation right from the top at MIB (Ministry of Information and Broadcasting). I have done what I had to do—but it’ll be enough of a tribute to me if my students become independent journalists and good human beings.”

I spoke to over thirty IIMC alumni and students, all of whom were taught by Sengupta after he joined in October 2013. Almost all of them concurred with his remarks. In addition, they stressed that Sengupta was one of the few exceptions among the faculty, who inspired them to think politically, beyond the sanitised academic routine—and that perhaps he was targeted by the authorities for the same reason.

On 1 March, Sengupta received an order signed by Anurag Misra—an Indian Information Service (IIS) officer who currently serves as an officer on special duty (OSD) at IIMC—informing him that he had been transferred to IIMC Dhenkanal, in Orissa. Three days later, Sengupta responded with a resignation letter that he later posted on his Facebook account. He wrote that no official reason for the transfer was given, and there had been no prior discussion about a move. He alleged that this treatment was meted out due to his active support for the student protestors of Jawaharlal Nehru University and for his solidarity with those in IIMC protesting the institutional death of Rohith Vemula. Sengupta wrote: “This is part of a larger witch-hunt against intellectual freedom, academic autonomy and professional excellence, to target and eliminate individuals who this regime has declared as enemies for reasons only they know.”

A former student who graduated in 2014 and who did not wish to be named, and who now works as a political correspondent, described Sengupta as a “breath of fresh air in the dull and bureaucratic atmosphere of IIMC.” “He was anti-establishment through and through, and always sided with the students on issues like boys’ hostel, attendance, etc.” Unlike other teachers, the correspondent said, who either steered clear of political subjects, or did not express an opinion, Sengupta would “passionately talk about Nandigram, Naxalbari, Kandhamal, the POCSO act”—the violent 2007 clash between farmers and the government in the Nandigram region of West Bengal, the 1972 peasant revolt in the three areas in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, the 2008 communal violence in Kandhamal in Odisha, and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act—“and mix it up with poetry and philosophy. He was an outsider. He unsettled IIMC.”

Many students mentioned that the political climate at IIMC had worsened over subsequent years from 2013 to the present, and especially since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came to power in 2014. Echoing Sengupta, several students said that their biggest grievances were the lack of emphasis on practical journalism in the courses, and the sterile teaching methods of certain teachers. Rama Dwivedi, who graduated in 2014, explained, “Most teachers, including EJ course directors over the years, have been academics with no journalistic background. As a result, there was no political atmosphere at IIMC.” Dwivedi said that things began to change after Sengupta joined and “quickly became popular with the students.” Furqan Faridi, who graduated in 2015, said, “The IIMC course is completely obsolete. It is limited to theoretical aspects, and has nothing do with how the industry actually works.” Faridi, too, said that Sengupta was “the exception,” who would ask his students to cover “rallies and create lab journals on topical subjects like the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and Charlie Hebdo.”

A student from the current IIMC class, who asked not to be named, described the typical IIMC coursework: “They usually make us sit in class, and lecture us about media freedom and ethics, but we have barely done any proper editing or reporting. Only [Sengupta] tried to teach us what journalism actually is.” He added that Sengupta allowed his students freedom in writing on subjects they were interested in, “Most other teachers discouraged us from covering the FTII and JNU protests, and instead asked us to write on lifestyle and culture—like covering events at Dilli Haat or the Book Fair at Pragati Maidan.”

Last year, around September, almost the entire present batch wrote a joint letter to the previous director general (DG) of IIMC, Sunit Tandon, expressing their dissatisfaction with certain faculty members and the way the course was being taught. However, the letter was subsequently withdrawn upon Tandon’s request.

One of the names that often came up in the conversations with the students was that of Shivaji Sarkar, an associate professor of EJ. Sarkar was allegedly dismissed over minor corruption charges in 2012, before being reinstated in October 2015. Several students of the present class accused Sarkar of enforcing his pro-government views in the classroom. One of them told me: “He did his best to keep us from writing political stories, and he could not tolerate any anti-government opinions in class. Instead of news, he would ask us to write positive features on topics like ‘Digital India’ and ‘Make in India’”—initiatives launched under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

On 7 March, I visited the IIMC campus in an attempt to get statements from the administration. Both Misra and Sunil Arora, the chairman of IIMC and secretary at MIB, remained unavailable for comment; and my queries have been mailed to their official emails. An administrative official who did not wish to be named told me that Sengupta’s transfer was a routine decision, and that he was being sent to Dhenkanal to help Mrinal Chatterjee, the only permanent faculty member there. When asked about the number of permanent teachers at the other IIMC centres, the official replied that since the four centres at Aizawl, Kottayam, Jammu and Amravati were still new, they had no permanent teachers at present. As for the post of DG, he said that the final candidate ought to be selected by the end of this month.

Tandon, the previous DG, finished his term in November 2015. The decision of the search committee—comprising Arora, and the journalists Swapan Dasgupta and Rajat Sharma—set up to select his successor is still awaited. Meanwhile, several names have done the news rounds, such as KG Suresh, a senior fellow with the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) and a senior consulting editor with Doordarshan News; Sachidananda Joshi, the former vice chancellor of the Kushabhau Thakre University of Journalism and Mass Communication in Raipur, Chattisgarh, and who is allegedly backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS); Sitanshu Kar, DG of news at All India Radio; and Akshay Kumar Rout, additional DG of news at Doordarshan, who was personally backed by the minister of state for MIB, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore.

At the moment, IIMC also lacks an official registrar and an academic council. In addition, all six IIMC centres suffer from a severe shortage of teachers, Sengupta emphasised, so that the MIB may retain control over the institutes through “ad-hocism and guest faculties.” When I visited the campus, I approached several teachers at IIMC. Aside from the two teachers who agreed to speak to me—off the record—all others, including Shivaji Sarkar, declined to comment. The two teachers confirmed that at least half of the sanctioned posts for permanent faculty were lying vacant, and that there were only twelve permanent teachers across all IIMC centres—one in Dhenkanal, and the rest in Delhi. The other four centres all relied on ad-hoc or guest teachers, “as per the whims and fancies of the MIB bureaucrats who know nothing of academics,” commented one of the teachers.

“See, IIMC comes under the [MIB], so there was always a tendency to shy away from political topics, but [Sengupta] tried to stir things up. He was a man of imagination in our bureaucracy-ridden institute,” she continued, before adding, “Yes, things have grown worse since 2014. It was the same back in 1999 when the first NDA government came in, and Balbir Punj—at present, BJP member of Rajya Sabha—“was the chairman of IIMC. They brought in their people who tried to saffronise things.”

Later, the other teacher explained, “They targeted [Sengupta] for three reasons: One, he was a thorough professional—he had around 30 years of actual journalistic experience, and he was most diligent with classes. Two, he was extremely popular with the students. And three, he always spoke his mind, which unsettled the mediocre bureaucratic atmosphere of IIMC.” He continued, “At IIMC, it’s not an ideological war. It’s rather a battle between the professionals who came in through merit and the non-professional people who come in through political appointments.”