Was an IIMC Academic Sacked for Protesting the Dismissal of 25 Dalit Workers?

Narendra Singh Rao, a former academic associate at the Indian Insitute of Mass Communication, was abruptly removed from his post on 21 December 2016. {{name}}
01 January, 2017

A little after 9.20 pm on 18 December 2016, Narendra Singh Rao, an academic associate at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), Delhi, who had been working in the institution since 2010, sent an email to its director general, KG Suresh. In the email, Rao alleged that his superior, Surbhi Dahiya, an associate professor at IIMC and the course director for the Advertising and Public Relations department—commonly referred to as Ad&PR in the institute—had been “purposefully and persistently” subjecting him to “brute harassment and gross victimisation” since she was appointed course director,  in early November 2016.

Rao alleged that Dahiya had unceremoniously removed the classes he had been teaching from the schedule, and had asked him to complete the remaining course in unofficial classes. He added that she had encouraged the students of Ad&PR to not attend his classes. Further, Rao claimed, Dahiya had been confining him to clerical work, and had excluded him from every “serious and real academic activity in the department.” He wrote that he believed Dahiya had encouraged another staffer—he later told me was referring to her personal assistant, Deepak Kumar—to misbehave with him. Towards the end of the email, Rao wrote that he was “awfully depressed and suffering from acute stress related headache and low blood pressure.” “Heaven forbids if anything happens to me (including my death), Ms. Surbhi Dahiya and IIMC administration will be responsible,” he added.

The next morning, close to 9 am, Rao wrote another mail to Suresh, seeking medical leave. He cited the same health issues as his previous letter, adding that he was receiving treatment at the Sitaram Bhartia hospital in Delhi. While he was still on leave, on 22 December, to Rao’s surprise, he received a letter issued by the IIMC’s deputy registrar PVK Raja. Issued a day earlier, the letter terminated Rao’s position as academic associate with immediate effect. It cited clause 1 of Rao’s contractual agreement—which stated that his “services can be terminated at anytime without assigning any reason”—as the basis for his dismissal.

On 25 December, Rao posted an open letter addressed to KG Suresh on his Facebook profile. He described the manner in which his employment had been terminated as “crude and medieval” and said that he was being punished because he had “raised my voice against a number of atrocities being committed against vulnerable people in the campus.” Among these, Rao mentioned “illegal sacking of 25 Dalit safai karamcharis, constant victimization of a Dalit rape survivor, harassment of a Muslim student, who was forced to contemplate suicide, by the reactionary and brahmanical [sic] forces of IIMC.” He stated that that he had also opposed “the rampant attempts being made to saffronise the media education and ethos in the campus (wherein only journalists with Right-wing, Hindutva/RSS leanings are invited for special lectures)” and that he was dismissed because his views were not in line with Suresh’s “personal and political agenda.” “It’s a clear case of vendetta against me for I had been perceived as a liberal voice in the institute,” Rao told me when I met him, on 27 December.

Rao was the second academic staffer in 2016 to publicly accuse IIMC of discriminating against him because of his political stances. In a story published in The Caravan on 10 March 2016, Ishan Marvel reported that Amit Sengupta, a former associate professor of English journalism at IIMC, resigned from his post after he was transferred to IIMC Dhenkenal in Odisha. Sengupta had alleged that he had been transferred because of his active support for the student protestors in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and for his solidarity with those in IIMC protesting in the wake of the University of Hyderabad scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide. Sengupta had said that the institute’s decision to transfer him was a part of a “larger witch-hunt against intellectual freedom…to target and eliminate individuals who this regime has declared as enemies.” In his report, Marvel also noted that many students and faculty on the IIMC campus backed Sengupta’s claim.

While the concerns Rao raised in his open letter—which Sengupta as well as several students and members of faculty at IIMC had voiced in March—appear to still hold relevance at the institute, I found that their relation to Rao’s dismissal was unclear. Several students I spoke to praised Rao as an educator. But the marginalised people he claimed to have stood up for—including Imran Shakeel Khan, the Muslim student Rao had referred to in his open letter, and the woman who had filed a police complaint in October 2015 stating that she had been raped by a clerk at IIMC—provided me with accounts of his support that differed from Rao’s. In a Facebook post he uploaded to profile on 26 December, Khan wrote, “Aaj tak meri khairiyat nahi li aur ab keh rahe hain ki aawaz buland ki. (You never once asked me how I’m doing, and now you’re saying that you raised a voice in my support.)”

Not long after Rao posted his open letter on Facebook on 25 December, many IIMC students shared his post on their profiles, expressing their support and employing hashtags such as #IStandWithNarenSir. One of the posts read: “In solidarity with Naren sir, one of the finest, humblest teachers at #IIMC. No wonder they sacked him considering the cesspool of mediocrity the institute has turned into.” Avik Deb, a student of English journalism at IIMC, told me that Rao was a great teacher and taught critical subjects.

The following day, Suresh called five of the students who had written posts in Rao’s favour to his office. He then advised them to carefully consider what they were posting on Facebook. “I won’t call it a warning. But, he asked us to be objective about what we are posting,” one of the students told me. “I said you are all future journalists and not activists,” Suresh told me when I met him on 28 December. “Apka kaam hai dono side ko janiye fir is tarah ke comment kijiye, Isse na ek vicious atmosphere create ho raha hai (Your job is to learn about both sides and then comment in such a manner. This is creating a vicious atmosphere.)”

The student who had told me about the meeting said that members of the administration had contacted the parents of at least three students who had written Facebook posts in Rao’s support. Suresh later confirmed later that the administration sent letters to the parents. According to the student, the parents were told that their children were indulging in activities that were against the code of conduct underlined for them at IIMC.

On 26 December, the IIMC deputy registrar issued another official order barring Rao from entering the IIMC campus. The order said: “Rao, till recently a contract employee of IIMC, who has been raising passions on caste and communal lines trying to vitiate the peaceful atmosphere of the institute, is hereby debarred from entering the premises.”

During my visit to IIMC on 28 December, I met Dahiya, the course director against whom Rao had complained, and two other staff members from the Ad&PR department. Krishna Pandey and Nadeem Akhtar, both academic associates in the department, had filed complaints against Rao after he was dismissed. Pandey, who joined the institute in the same year as Rao, in 2010, said in her complaint that Rao acted in a “superior manner” and did not complete his share of the clerical and administrative work as an academic associate. Akhtar had alleged that Rao misbehaved with him on 16 December 2016. He told me that Rao had spoken to him rudely.

Rao told me that though he considered Pandey and Akhtar “his good friends,” according to him, they were “stooges” of the administration. He claimed that Pandey and Akhtar’s contracts were due for renewal in the coming weeks, and that this was why they were echoing the administration’s stance. The duo denied Rao’s allegation during our meeting.

During our conversation, Rao had claimed that he had been teaching regularly since he had joined the institute and that things went wrong only after Dahiya took over as the course director. Dahiya said that Rao only wanted to teach—teaching is one of the duties assigned to academic associates at IIMC, whose primary role is to the assist the professors—and would not comply when she asked him to complete tasks such as compiling assignments.

Dahiya, as well as the additional director general, Mayank Kumar Agrawal, were present during my meeting with Suresh, in the latter’s office. (At the beginning of our meeting, Suresh had casually informed me that he knew the editors of this publication, and the owners of Delhi Press, the publisher of The Caravan.)

In a Facebook post he had uploaded at around 8.40am on 28 December, Rao had wondered why, if there were any complaints against his work and demeanour, the institute had not served him a show-cause notice or given him a chance to respond to such charges. I posed the question to Suresh. He told me that IIMC was not obligated to serve Rao a notice as the latter was a contractual employee. Suresh quoted the clause that Rao’s termination notice had referred to, adding that the clause meant Rao could be terminated without an explanation. Agrawal also claimed that IIMC had paid Rao a month’s salary, in lieu of a notice period.

According to Suresh, Rao’s mention of his health issues in the internal complaint that he had filed against Dahiya, appeared to be a threat. “Tomorrow if he commits suicide, I will be held responsible,” he said. “Please leave, bhai. Mere paas sir dard kam nahi hain (I have enough headaches as it is.)”

In October this year, IIMC had laid off over 20 Dalit contractual workers. At the time, the institute had said the workers were let go because they were no longer required—a new contractor had been hired, who had brought along his own workers, and had chosen to not retain any old employees. Among the workers who were dismissed was the woman who in October 2015, had alleged that a clerk working for IIMC had raped her.

When I asked Suresh if Rao’s employment was terminated because he had spoken out against the sacking of 25 Dalit workers in October, he said that he had no record of Rao’s objection, and that there was no evidence that he had spoken out against the sacking of the workers. “He didn’t give me anything on this in written,” Suresh said.

Rao gave me the contact information of the woman who had filed the complaint against the clerk. I first spoke to her on 28 December. The woman told me that when the workers were dismissed, an upper-division clerk named Anil Sharma had informed them that they were being let go since the administration wanted to remove her from the campus. I asked her if Rao had expressed his support for her or the other workers, either when she was allegedly raped or later, when they were let go. “Unhone toh humey aisa koi support nahi kiya hai”—he has never supported us, she said. “Ek tarah se woh mera naam istemaal kar rahe hain,” the woman who allegedly been raped, later told me—in a way, he is using my name. She added that no other professor or teaching staff from IIMC had spoken up either. “Nobody came forward to support us,” she said.

During our two conversations, I had asked Rao repeatedly about how he had expressed his objection to the issues he mentioned in his open letter. He told me that he was never publicly vocal and had only extended his “moral support.” He added that he had voiced his disagreement with the dismissal of the workers to his colleagues. He had not, he said, written any letters to the administration, nor did he have any formal records of having protested on behalf of the workers.

On 31 December, at about 11.40 am, the woman formerly employed as a worker at IIMC called me. She told me that the statement she had given me on 28 December was incorrect, and that Rao had indeed helped her by putting her in touch with a journalist at the news website Catch News, who later published a news report regarding the workers’ dismissal. “Wo samne aake isliye nahi bolen ki unko thoda sa thi ki wo unhe nikaal denge (He didn’t speak openly because he thought that he would be fired,)” she said. When I asked her why she—or for that matter, Rao—had not mentioned this during our previous conversations, she said that she was confused when we last spoke, and that she did not know that Rao would be fired. (In the conversation I had with her on 28 December, however, I had mentioned that Rao had been let go.) I contacted Praneta Jha, the journalist who wrote about the dismissal for Catch News. Jha said that she had not received information about the incident from Rao.

Khan, the Muslim student Rao had referred to in his post, denounced Rao’s claims in the Facebook post he uploaded on 26 December. He wrote that his fragile health and mental state were due to personal problems, and not, as Rao suggested, due to the institute. He added that since he joined IIMC, he had not had any formal or informal interactions with Rao. “Naren Sir, my sympathies are with you for having lost your job,” Khan wrote. “But the way you have used me in your post is very upsetting.” “Because he”—Rao—“has to become a martyr, he is taking it into larger context. Kyunki today he knows making an allegation of saffronisation will sell,” Suresh told me.

Throughout our conversations, Suresh denied that any concerns of saffronisation were legitimate. But this assertion was not entirely borne out through my reporting, either. Many students I spoke to echoed Rao and Sengupta’s concerns about the direction the institute was taking. Several pointed out that for its guest lectures, IIMC invited only individuals with allegiance or ties to the ruling BJP. Rao highlighted names such as Chandan Mitra, the editor of the Pioneer; Swapan Dasgupta, the senior journalist and a member of the Rajya Sabha; and Rajat Sharma, the chairman and editor of India TV—all of whom are well-known supporters of the current dispensation. Sharma and Dasgupta were also members of the committee that recommended Suresh be appointed director general. Suresh, too, has ties to the RSS—he was formerly a senior fellow with the Vivekananda International Foundation, a public policy think-tank affiliated to the RSS. In September 2016, for its convocation, IIMC had invited the union minister M Venkaiah Naidu as chief guest. According to a report in the Indian Express, Naidu told the graduating IIMC class that they have “a duty towards the country,” and that they must not “eulogise terrorists like Burhan Wani, Afzal Guru.” “You will not invite Shekhar Gupta; you will not invite Raj Kamal Jha,” Sengupta told me, referring to the senior journalists. “What is this?”

Several students also told me that faculty members often rejected project ideas or reports that appeared to be critical of the government—an allegation that many students had also raised when Sengupta resigned. Niharika Banerjee, a former student of IIMC, now a trainee journalist with the Economic Times, told me that when she wrote about the protests at Film and Television Institute of India over the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan, Dahiya rejected her assignment. “I’m pretty sure she didn’t go through it. She said, if you write this now, you will have trouble during placements,” Banerjee told me, before adding, “She told me to get a book from the library and write something from it instead.” Another former student, Prashant Kanojjia, told me that he was not allowed to do a project on Rohith Vemula. Kanojjia told me that a faculty member asked him to do his project on Digital India instead.

When I pressed Suresh on allegations of this nature regarding the institute, he said, “Frankly speaking, since when media started getting into allegations of a contractual employee? I don’t think it’s media’s role.” Suresh also blamed news organisations for focusing on such issues, and suggested that the media should instead focus on reporting positive things about educational institutes instead.

He was not the only person who appeared to be displeased by my queries. At about 11.30 pm on 28 December, Sengupta called me. He first asked me to “file an objective story.” He then accused me of having spoken to Rao in an improper manner, and claimed that I was working on behalf of IIMC. He swore at me, and asked if I was “a Sanghi.” He also threatened to get me sacked if I wrote the story. Sengupta said, “I’ll report to your proprietor and editor and you are going to get fucked very bad. You file the fucking story, you will get sacked tomorrow,” he said. On 1 January 2017, Suresh called me. He said that there was “absolute calm” at IIMC and that I had an “editorial agenda” to malign the reputation of the institute. He added, “You should compare IIMC to what JNU is doing.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Surbhi Dahiya had joined IIMC on 3 November 2016. This has been corrected. The Caravan regrets the error.