Teacher with extremist links accuses IIT of being casteist


She is known to breeze into the classroom with just a chalk piece in hand and work out complicated problems in minutes. Now Dr W.B. Vasantha, associate professor of mathematics at Chennai IIT, has a difficult problem in hand: feelings of harassment and denial of promotion. Bent on finding a solution, she has sued the IIT in the High Court and demanded Rs 25 lakh as damages.

Dr W.B. Vasantha says that IIT has denied promotion and perks to her because she is the only woman scientist there who belongs to OBC.

The conflict with the IIT authorities, says Vasantha, can be traced to something cuckoo. She had complained to the wildlife warden that cuckoos were shot down on the campus by hired gypsies at night and the birds often fell on her compound. The mission, she says, was carried out on the orders of Dr N.V.C. Swamy, the then director of IIT and her neighbour in the campus, who could not sleep because of cuckoo songs. The gypsies, she alleged, were paid from the institute funds, and Swamy was severely warned.

Vasantha, who joined the IIT as a lecturer in 1988, received seven salary increments in two years, thanks to her academic excellence. But when the post of lecturer was upgraded in the IITs in 1990 she was posted as an assistant professor on the lowest basic pay scale. She says that in 1989, 1990 and 1992 when applications were invited for higher posts, her field of specialisation, algebra, was excluded.

In 1996, Vasantha applied for the professorial post but was offered only associate professorship. Even then the IIT refused to designate her as associate professor and pay the salary, perks and due allowances. Fearing dismissal, she filed a writ petition and obtained an order prohibiting termination of her services from the post of associate professor in March 1997. The order is in force but she has not received the benefits.

Felicitated as one of the Victory Women on the International Women's Day last year, Vasantha has found mention in the International Who's Who of Intellectuals by the International Biographical Centre, Cambridge, and has the maximum number of papers (32) reviewed or cited by the American Mathematical Review.

Vasantha was anguished about not getting the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award for mathematical sciences despite her name being short-listed for three years. In February 1997 she filed a writ petition challenging the 1996 awards. The award is given for contributions in India during the five years before the year of award but Dr V.S. Sunder, who won the award, was abroad during 1994-95, she says.

Academic grouses apart, Vasantha talks of irregular water supply to her block, stoppage of electricity to her office in the evenings and thefts. Last month she wrote to the National Human Rights Commission that IIT was discriminating against her because she was the only woman scientist there from the 'Other Backward Castes'.

The matter acquired political overtones after the Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam took up her OBC refrain and highlighted the absence of a reservation policy for students and teachers. Meanwhile, Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy demanded the arrest of PDK leaders and "a mathematics associate professor" of the IIT for acting in collusion with the LTTE and the ISI to discredit the IIT. Says Vasantha: "It is an irony that Swamy, who in 1996 had asked prime minister Narasimha Rao why I was denied Bhatnagar award, has now issued a press release against me."

"Many years ago, when Vasantha was denied a promotion she approached me. I saw her research papers, took up the matter with the chairman and got her the promotion," says Swamy. "But since then, she has been associating with the PDK, which is purely an LTTE organisation, to disrupt IIT Chennai, which is emerging as a major centre for IT. They allege that there are too many Brahmins in the IIT. Their motive seems to be hatred of Brahmins; it has got nothing to do with justice."

Vasantha's husband Dr K. Kandasamy, a visiting professor of Tamil literature in Madras University, claims the PDK came into the picture after the Tamil magazine Nakheeran published an interview with her. Says PDK general secretary Viduthalai Rajendran: "When we read about her lone battle for social justice, we decided to support her. No due representation has been given in the institute to the SC/ST and the OBC in teaching positions; it has been catering to the interests of the upper castes."

IIT director Dr R. Natarajan, however, denies any discrimination: "There are certain selection procedures, which are being followed for everyone here. The Bhatnagar award is a CSIR procedure and the IIT has got nothing to do with it." He explains that water and electricity problems affected other faculty members on the campus, too, but Vasantha had not allowed any work in her premises.

As the battle goes on Vasantha may have to think up new ways of finding a solution to her problems.

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