Horn Tata Not OK! — Hartman de Souza
This is a guest post by HARTMAN DE SOUZA
If you were to say that the right we give to those younger, to be contrary and different to those older, is not just their right after they turn eighteen, but that it is our need to let them speak so that learning continues, you would probably get a bigwig from the Tata’s sensing the USP of that and using it in his next PPP to jack himself up the ladder.
So it’s a little puzzling that the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, a major beneficiary of the munificence of the Tata’s would not only fail to see the veracity of that statement, but appear to actively work against it.
Let me give you the background and context to that connection, and indeed to this post:
Some 10 days or so back, in the middle of pressing work, I get an email from an old friend, Vidyadhar Gadgil. Vidya’s the kind of friend I like to have; in his forties; well read, salt and pepper in his hair, scraggly beard, nice grin, heart left of centre, and with a laugh that goes from tenor to baritone depending on how funny he finds something.
A respected assistant editor with the Herald, Goa, he later moved to Himal magazine in Kathmandu, where he was as well regarded for his professional and meticulous ways. He’s commissioned and edited articles of mine at both publications, so I know what I am talking about.
I lost touch with him for a year and some, though I heard he had joined the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati as an Associate Prof. Our relationship is such, that when I saw his mail in my inbox, I clicked on it, saying one quick reply to catch up again, then back to my work.
There was also a file attached to Vidya’s troubled but measured mail that hinted that his services were terminated somewhat unfairly. The attachment kept promising much but was even more tempered, as if narrated by a somewhat detached barrister. It was exasperating to say the least. While on the one hand, one sensed a current of skulduggery as sharp as piranha under the water, everything was so damn veiled it revealed nothing. I said this much to Vidya, and got back to my work.
His next mail had another attachment, this one consisting of a wikileaks quantum of emails that went between four main protagonists from April 4 to April 11 or so and a few others this side and that side of the spectrum.
On the one side, Vidya, his teacher colleague, Uma Maheshwari, and later, by implication, Vidyadhar’s spouse, Mariette Correa – like Vidyadhar, fairly distinguished alumnus of TISS Mumbai and also independently appointed faculty at TISS, Guwahati.
Ranged against them was Dr. Virginius Xaxa, the deputy director of TISS, Guwahati, which, one can now see, was something like an extension counter of TISS, Mumbai, and actually administered by its Director, Dr. S. Parasuraman, the fourth and indeed major player who remote controlled matters from Mumbai.
Two hours later, three cups of tea and one cigarette too many, I was to mail Vidyadhar a terse: “Thanks for screwing my morning!!!!”
In fact Vidya did more than screw my morning: he ruined my entire day, and an undue part of the later evening better spent in mellower fashion at the local village bar. Maybe it makes more sense if I tell you I’ve been down this road that Vidya’s on and maybe much more unfairly.
How many people you know have the distinction of being sacked from an international school in Bangalore after getting them the best results ever in India for students doing the IGCSE exams for theatre? And that too, over the telephone by the Proprietor and Chairman…
You have to give me reasons for sacking me, I tell this shit…
Reasons, he shouts in his shrill, squeaky voice? You want reasons? I’ll give you reasons! You are making some of my students rebellious, you are making some of my teachers rebellious, and I don’t like all these plays you are doing with my students talking about caste and racism and all these social issues…I want happy plays…
You want to give me that in writing?
You want it in writing? You want to take me to court? You know what I can do to you?
He sounds positively apoplectic, so even as I’m wishing he drops dead from a seizure and chokes on his slimy tongue, I calmly say, no you stupid bastard, that’s exactly what good teachers ought to be doing…I want to frame your letter and hang it on my living room wall…
Yeah, I know, pity Kafila wasn’t around those days.
That night though, I mailed Vidya. Edit the emails, I told him, keep them in the same sequence, and post them on Kafila. They are self evident enough to work at many levels. A manual for instance, on how an institution can, without a by your leave, put a cloak over things. There one day, not there, the next.
Or maybe Vidya’s colleague, Uma Maheswari’s longer emails to the director and the rest. Her correspondence would be a beacon for younger teachers, showing on one hand, her fierce commitment to teaching at TISS, Guwahati, and on the other hand, her articulate, impassioned defence of the right to dissent, the urgency to embrace critique rather than shy away from it.
Would you not be left with a bitter taste in your mouth, if you knew that sick of the way she was being hounded, Uma, in sheer disgust, put in her papers? So what are we doing here then by letting her go, exulting in mediocrity?
I still don’t know how the brain sometimes associates something like this chain of mails, with visuals that form a parallel to the narrative.
Vidya saw William Blake in water colours, Behemoth and Leviathan, a visual of which he duly attached together with the mails. At the village bar that night, overlooking a sky with the embers of a sunset still visible, I thought of Zoltan Fabri’s The Ant’s Nest, a film set in a convent; the mother superior’s body lying in chapel and a camera catching brush strokes of pew, detail of statue, kneeling nuns praying with bowed head, and the sparse interiors of rooms. You see a commune, even as a battle for her successor rages between nuns who want change, and those who want things to be as they are.
I will still strongly argue that Vidyadhar and Uma make this correspondence public, if only to send clear signals to those who administer our institutes of higher learning that they cannot trample on the rights of either student or teacher or, for that matter, non-teaching worker.
You can wish as I do that some Owners of an International School-Factory will drop dead like gassed mosquitoes. It is possible to throw stones on some school administrators and frighten them into the hills. But try as you might, you cannot deny the primacy of the Kiswahili proverb from Tanzania that simply says “Without a student you cannot have a teacher; and without a teacher, you cannot have a student”.
This symbiotic relationship, whether parent, teacher or student, one does not mess with.
Like too many of those in their forties today, intent on avoiding confrontation even at the level of ideas and still looking if not hoping and praying for negotiation and due process to bear fruit, because it is, after all, negotiation and due process and we must give it a fair chance, Vidya lost the moment.
Maybe too many have forgotten the 60s demolition of value neutrality in the social sciences. We need to realize again that the other side, whether in pro-industry government or pro-industry education, is never value neutral; that they can’t be when the primary issues revolve around ownership and often wealth, the misuse of power and more effective control if not repression.
The net result therefore, even as this is being written, is that TISS Mumbai’s director has sent to Guwahati an enquiry panel set up by him to investigate matters pertaining to people who were supposedly to be investigated after they have first been silenced, and if that was not bad enough, then terminated from service.
Is it as simple as that?
Actually it’s even worse…
It all began simply enough: students at the campus, with good reason, complaining that standards of teaching were being compromised at TISS, Guwahati. This was raised by Vidyadhar at staff meetings and indeed brought it to the attention of the deputy director, Dr. Virginius Xaxa several times. This was apart from the students themselves complaining to the deputy director.
When the complaints from the students persisted, Vidyadhar emailed the director, TISS, Mumbai, Dr S Parasuraman on April 4, 2013, requesting him to conduct, at the earliest, an independent review of the academic programme as well as the functioning of TISS Guwahati.
Typically Vidyadhar, he mentioned he was making this request after following due process with the appropriate authority.
He listed the following reasons for seeking the review:
That the interests of the students were being severely compromised, and there existed a feeling of being short-changed by an institution of repute. Substantial parts of some courses for instance, and almost entire courses had not been taught to the students, and no adequate action had been taken to either complete the teaching hours or to take the necessary action against defaulting faculty. In fact, Vidyadhar noted, whatever action had been taken compromised the integrity of the academic programme of the institute.
He mentioned the unethical practices in the classroom, of taking attendance and telling students to go and study on their own, using the register then to prove lectures were actually taken. Vidyadhar told Dr. Parasuraman in his measured tone that there was a complete lack of transparency in communication, decision-making processes, formation of committees, and other administrative matters; and that decisions on important academic matters were communicated to most faculty post-facto, if at all.
In what can only be termed a rigorously honest debriefing to one’s superior, Vidyadhar duly communicated the perceptions of both students and faculty that deputy director, Virginius Xaxa was partial towards certain faculty members; that there was a crisis of leadership in running the academic programme on sound lines, and in setting up transparent and fair systems and processes in the Guwahati campus.
He also sounded the warning notes that such a review be conducted ensuring absolute confidentiality to the students as well as faculty, since there was a genuine and strong fear that complaints against specific faculty were not entertained, and that the students or faculty who raised their voices on these issues were either belittled or victimised.
His concluding paragraph ought to have convinced Dr. Parasuraman that Vidyadhar had no personal axes to grind.
“Given that the academic programme at TISS Guwahati is in its first year,” Vidyadhar told Dr. Parasuraman, “and that decisions taken at this stage will have a bearing on the future course of the new campus, sorting out the above issues expeditiously is essential for the healthy growth of the institution”.
Dr. Parasuraman as he did later with great alacrity, sometimes even within the hour when he was issuing instructions to his IT managers to block Vidyadhar and a few others from using the intranet facilities for instance, did not respond.
Matters on campus however continued to fester with students on the Guwahati campus stonewalled by the deputy director in Guwahati, silence from Mumbai, and students complaining, as is their right, to faculty whom they respected.
Should we write to the director too, they asked. Faculty told them it was their right to do so, but refused to conceive, draft, edit or even read such a complaint before it went out. When this student’s letter did go out though, the what-you-may-call-it hit the fan.
More pertinently, germane in fact to what happened, is for us to consider and put on the backburner for now, the fact that we may just not be equipped to take criticism from students or those younger, and maybe that’s our real flaw – that we don’t even think twice of evaluating, assessing, grading and damning students every bloody day if we could but baulk at the thought of them doing the same thing to us…
It is tragic, as we shall see, that this poor kid who had the guts to put his neck on the line, who was doing his master’s in ecology, environment and sustainable development, has also had his spirit destroyed by something as simple as a lack of due process, and a total breach of confidentiality. His letter in fact must be seen in its entirety because its sincerity is palpable. It also provides empirical evidence to what Vidyadhar had already communicated in more general terms.
Even though a kangaroo enquiry is now in progress, names of both student and faculty have been deleted and his letter appears as it went out, warts and typos and all:
He titled his subject line: Attn Prof. Parsuraman: Student grievances for your kind consideration (TISS – Guwahati), and went on to write:
“Dear Prof. S. Parsuraman,
“Greetings Sir! Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is ******* and I am a student of MA in at the TISS – Guwahati campus.
“Sir, I am writing this letter to you to express before you my grievances (which are also generally felt by other students) regarding the conduct of the course as well as the overall academic atmosphere at TISS Guwahati Campus. I write to you as a student in distress as well as; as a well-wisher of the institute seeking for your kind intervention and help.
“Sir, please find below some of the important issues concerning the students regarding the manner in which some of the courses have been conducted and also regarding the overall atmosphere at the institute. The main issues revolve around how the courses have been conducted by Prof. ************* and Prof. ********** and also aspects considering conflict resolution by the deputy director – Prof. Virginius Xaxa
“The first and foremost thing that I would like to bring to your notice is the sheer lethargy with which the course on Common Property Resources and Ethno ecology has been conducted. This course is shared by ******, ***** and ***** Out of the allotted 30 hours of mandatory teaching hours, Prof. ***** conducted only 12 hours of teaching during the second semester. Prof. ****and Prof. **** did complete their 30 hours and 8 hours of teaching hours. But here I would like to bring to your notice that Prof. ***** has regularly been late at reaching to the class and classes which are supposed to begin by 9.30 am usually start by 9.45 or as late as 10 am and the classes are always interrupted with his cell phone ringing invariably. Here I would like to mention that the students are very happy with the way Prof. ***** has conducted her classes and we have no complaints regarding her teaching.
“Though Prof. ***** did conduct his 30 hours of teaching in the semester there have been serious problems with his teaching methodologies. The entire topic of biodiversity was taught using a single chapter from a single textbook called ‘Ecology and Environment’ by P.D Sharma. Apart from this particular chapter in biodiversity from the book mentioned; Prof **** distributed 4 other papers on some aspects of biodiversity; but vital topics like measurement of biodiversity, topics on scientific measures of conservation have not been taught. I find myself inadequately equipped on this topic and I fear this would eventually affect my future research pursuits and employability on the whole.
“Also there have been serious flaws on the front of field works. During the second semester we just had one field work to a place called Chandubi apparently to understand issues of ecotourism and man-elephant concept. The very unplanned and mismanaged nature of the field trip eventually brought it down to being a mere ‘picnic’. Along with the disastrous field work where the students learn ‘nothing’ (which also meant monetary loss for the students as well as the institute) there were a range of other interpersonal issues (some leading to gender issues) among students were fuelled as well as mishandled by Prof. ***** post-field trip.
“Sir, the above mentioned points which I am raising here; I have personally talked about each of these to Prof Xaxa. Also Prof Xaxa had talked to the entire batch (all 20 students of EESD) about these issues and had promised us ‘confidentiality’ as well as ‘action’ of these issues. Raising of these issues before him led to a series of faculty meetings at the institute which gave us hope that something positive would come out of this. But on Monday April 1, there was a sudden turn of events that left us students shocked and we felt betrayed. Prof. Xaxa conducted a meeting of the students with the entire faculty bringing up the issues in an open forum. The students (who were hand-picked by Prof Xaxa) were asked (almost forced) to talk in front of all the professors the issues concerning us and thus murdering the very idea of ‘confidentiality’ and betraying our trust in him.
“The nature of the conduct of the meeting between the students and the staff exposed a series of biases that are taking roots in the institute.
“First Prof. Xaxa through his very mild (in)action seems to be shielding Prof ****** on his lethargy who is conspicuously known as his ‘son’ at the institute.
“Also the closeness and consequent shielding was very evident among the Assamese professors – i.e. between Prof. *****, Prof. **** and Prof. **** and this is an evidence of the bias that these professors have against the so called mainland students which has been seen at various occasions.
“It was also a surprise to hear Prof Xaxa defending Prof. **** not taking classes as his mistake to apply the pedagogy used for M.Phil or PhD students at the MA level!
“The entire method conflict resolution adopted by Prof Xaxa and his intent to maintain ‘transparency’ and ‘fairness’ are seriously doubtful as this is embedded in a certain politics of regionalism and favouritism.
“Things have not much changed after all these processes and representations made by the students. Prof. ***** eventually conducted 4 hours of classroom teaching to cover the issues of CPR where still many issues remain uncovered. In fact I wonder if there is any particular syllabus that he is following as he keeps asking students what topics we want to be covered instead of him following a structured syllabus and topics!
“Prof. ***** still does not seem to indicate his intentions to cover any of the vital issues on the subject of biodiversity as he still asks students to make presentations on national parks in India!!!
“Dear Sir, I would be very grateful to you if you could please look into these issues as they have been suffocating us a lot for the past few days and I seek for your kind intervention and help. I also would be very grateful to you if you please keep my communication with you on this matter confidential as I fear vindictive behaviour from the concerned staff at the institute here.”
When you read that letter, you ought to ask yourself why matters couldn’t have ended right there and then, with the student’s letter the palimpsest over which you make sense of Vidyadhar’s earlier letter. Yet, within two hours of mailing out his letter, after expressly requesting strict confidentiality, Dr. S. Parasuraman, director, TISS, Mumbai, forwarded the student’s complaint to Dr. Virginius Xaxa, deputy director, TISS, Guwahati.
The student, terrified, mentioned this to at least three faculty members. He had reason to be scared. The next working day, April 8, Virginius Xaxa had a private discussion with the student who wrote the letter, then spoke to the class for three hours. Supposedly with the permission of the student who wrote it, he read the letter aloud. The students were then made to offer apologies to faculty mentioned in the student’s complaint letter.
This is when things get different from being sacked over the telephone by the Proprietor of an International School in Bangalore.
Vidyadhar followed due process again. He sent a mail that night to the larger TISS community with reference to the abuse of power shown and indeed, the totally unethical breach of student confidentiality.
These are the mails that then make up the heart of the correspondence that I have argued be made public. From here on, matters slide quite rapidly…
Vidyadhar and now, his spouse, Mariette Correa both had their email IDs on the TISS server blocked from the afternoon of April 9, 2013.
That night too, the student was made to write a brief letter to the director and deputy director apologizing, whereupon the director, TISS, Mumbai, magnanimously pardoned him, copying the email to Vidyadhar and Mariette.
The next day the student was tutored to write another letter stating he had been misguided and misled by Prof. Gadgil to whom he had shown the draft of his letter. Dr. S. Parasuraman promptly gave instructions to send this across to TISS faculty listed on the server.
Sitting in Mumbai, not having visited the Guwahati campus since July 2012 when the academic programme began, Dr. Parasuraman was not to know that the student was forced into hiding for some days, wanted by those who complained in the first place and were now in trouble, and others, because he had falsely implicated Vidyadhar. When he did come back, he was always accompanied by a faculty member. Will this be a blight he now carries for the rest of his life?
There are several words that come to mind if one wishes the synonyms for this attitude displayed by the director of TISS, Mumbai, Dr. S. Parasuraman, and his deputy in Guwahati, Dr. Virginius Xaxa. ‘Autocratic’, ‘dictatorial’, ‘authoritarian’, ‘domineering’ and ‘arrogant’ all come readily to mind.
The word ‘farcical’ however, springs when you think of the panel intended to investigate matters on campus between April 25 and today, April 27, 2013, opaquely set up by the director TISS, Mumbai whose own role in this episode must be put first under scrutiny.
Students on the Guwahati campus got to hear about his panel on their notice board; informed that a team of senior faculty from TISS, Mumbai were visiting and would like to meet them. Did Dr. S. Parasuraman, and his deputy director and the panel not know that examinations at Guwahati would get over on April 26, and most students leave that very evening itself?
Faculty in TISS Guwahati received a mail from the deputy director’s research assistant saying very much the same thing and to keep themselves available for a meeting. No mention of a review, no mention of any terms of reference.
Interesting too, that the so-called review is being conducted after all dissenting voices have been silenced. From the time he sent his first mail out protesting Dr, S, Parasuraman’s breach of the student’s confidentiality, Vidyadhar’s right to reply within TISS were denied to him. Given the age we live in, that information, thankfully, did go out.
Now matters become so pitiable, it could be any one of our governments at state or centre covering up one of the many scams. By the evening of April 11, both Vidyadhar and Mariette received letters terminating their appointment with immediate effect, with no explanation given, and instead some vague references made to an earlier letter of April 9 terminating their services – which they only got several days later after specifically asking to see it.
Not only was the project they administered closed, citing some bureaucratic nicety, the appointments of the rest of the project staff , one project officer and three administrative staff were also terminated on April 9 without even the one-month notice period as per their contract.
The closure of the project is the main reason cited for getting rid of two or three unnecessarily troublesome faculty who were there in the best traditions of TISS Mumbai. Had the project come to its natural and full closure, Vidyadhar and Mariette would have wound things up by the end of May, and both ready to move to Hyderabad, closer to where their children go to school, primed perhaps for a new adventure.
I ask Mariette in one of my mails to give me the names of TISS alumni that graduated with her and Vidya and she gives me a random list of six or seven, and why don’t I find it surprising that two of them are really well known to me – and this is without knowing that they also know Mariette and Vidya.
If you knew TISS from the late 70s because of people you knew who went there, or other people who knew them and knew you and told you about them, and if you sat down and seriously searched for your memories, say in a village bar, you would be surprised just how much is thrown up.
You would get Medha Patkar from the NBA and Brian Lobo and Pradeeep Prabhu of the Kashtakari Sanghatana, whom you would have met and are, in any case, better known. By the time you have finished your second and ready to head home though, even later, climbing the hill back, you end up with close to fifty people you know who are TISS alumni. They’re the kind of people whose names I see in my inbox I am going to click on them. I’d do this because I know they are people, even in the thick of the shit happening around us, who still walk the talk.
Maybe somebody should tell Drs. Parasuraman and Xaxa that TISS is a ‘brand’. You don’t even have to write ‘Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ and then put TISS in parenthesis. You just write TISS. Everyone knows what that is.
That, when you cut through the faff, is what ‘brand’ means, a quality or even edge for which a business house, say the Tata’s would pay serious money to build. Unlike the imperatives that dog business however, TISS as a brand was created by concerned faculty, students and alumni, and that you cannot buy.
Dr. Parasuraman, unfortunately, as too many ageing administrators, perhaps even many heads of government departments, appears to want, above all, to keep matters on an even keel and ensure that the boat is not rocked. What happens after he retires is the other guy’s problem. He’ll take his benefits, his perks, and his whatever, and go for evening walks with his dog.
He prattled at some length about “disturbing the academic environment” in one of his mails.
Vidya’s colleague Uma, in one of her responses asked him what this really meant. Would protest on the streets tomorrow against state oppression also come under disturbing the academic environment? She also asked him whether it was a teacher’s duty to support students who came to them with their problems, of whatever nature? Or were they to just turn a blind eye?
Most pertinent though are her remarks that take us back to the opening paragraph of this posting, namely, the right of the young to speak because it is our need to hear them.
Is suggesting a standard procedure to be followed, she asked Dr. S. Parasuraman, as indeed seen in both Vidyadhar’s and the student’s first letters in early April, a “disturbance to the academic environment” as he referred to it or, on the contrary, the only means to protect this? It is quite likely that Dr. S. Parasuraman, as many other teachers in our schools and colleges too, have not realized that dissent too, is something students need to be tutored in. Or maybe they know that too well…
By the time you read this, Dr. S. Parasuraman’s panel will have met; rubber stamped some papers, and fully exonerated him and his deputy director of all blame, wrongdoing, and whatever, when any tin-pot marketing executive in Tata’s would tell him this is a sure-fire way of severely diminishing a ‘brand’ .
From the Village of Moira, Goa, April 27, 2013.