The resignation of Raghunath K Shevgaonkar, director of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, has brought to the fore once again the highly contested issue of autonomy of educational institutions in the country. This comes after the scrapping of Delhi University’s four-year programme, despite stiff opposition from the vice-chancellor, Dinesh Singh. Officially though, Shevgaonkar is said to have resigned due to personal reasons.
Shevgaonkar has had a distinguished academic career. On completing his PhD from IIT Bombay, he pursued his post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Maryland. His research interests were in the fields of optical communication, image processing, antennas, microwaves and radio astronomy, and his work has been widely published in international journals. Prior to becoming the director of IIT Delhi in 2011, he was dean and head of electrical engineering at IIT Bombay. He has also served as vice-chancellor of the University of Pune between 2010 and 2011.
Though the Union human resources development ministry has vehemently denied that Shevgaonkar resigned under government pressure, some allege that this is yet another example of the government exercising its influence over educational institutions. Various issues cropped up which suggest a straining of ties. The first was Shevgaonkar’s alleged refusal to reimburse former faculty member and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy of salary arrears and benefits with interest. Swamy, who taught economics there from 1969 to 1972, was dismissed for opposing Indira Gandhi, then prime minister. He was reinstated in 1991 after a court order, subsequent to which he demanded roughly Rs 70 lakh as reimbursement. The government has denied having forwarded Swamy’s request to the institute. The other issue concerns Sachin Tendulkar’s proposal to set up a cricket academy inside the institute’s campus, which has also been denied by both the government and Tendulkar.
The more contentious issue concerns the MoU signed by IIT Delhi with Mauritius. While the government has set up a committee to look into the legality of the MoU, especially if it violates the IIT Act which prohibits the institute from going abroad, IIT Delhi insists the pact had the government’s approval. A statement issued by the acting registrar clarifies that the campus in Mauritius is not an “extension campus of IIT Delhi” but an independent research centre named International Institute of Technology Research Academy in which IITs limited role was only advisory in nature. The final MoU was supposedly accepted by the HRD ministry and was signed in the presence of Pallam Raju, then HRD minister, on November 19, 2013, in Mauritius.
The episode reaffirms the limited autonomy of educational institutions in India. According to a former director of IIT, by virtue of the fact that the government controls their budget, it can exercise considerable sway over educational institutions. The IIT council consists of individuals from various departments of the government like science and technology, with Members of Parliament also present. Though the director says that there is very little interference in the day to day functioning of the institution, governments do “provide direction” at the policy level.
While Shevgaonkar’s resignation was forwarded to the HRD ministry on December 26, according to protocol cited by the ministry, only the president can accept the resignation. While the resignation may well be accepted, given how both the alumni association and the faculty have backed him, it is unlikely to go down well, with further questions being raised about the autonomy of institutions.