Director's cut

arunroy Exit code: Bimal Roy; (right) Arun Shourie

With the influential ISI alumni joining issue, the sacking of Bimal Roy snowballs into a major controversy

  • "Roy is not only one of the best scientists and administrators in India, but is also a great human being" - Atul Jain, chairman, Teoco Corporation

When he finished his high school, Atul Jain was in a dilemma. He could not make up his mind about joining the Bachelor of Statistics programme at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in Calcutta. It was then that a famous teacher at the institute told him that he should take up the course, just like his senior, the illustrious Bimal Kumar Roy. “Go and follow in the footsteps of Roy. You are good at mathematics, but he is great. Learn from him,” he said.

Even four decades ago, such was the reputation of Roy, who was sacked recently from the post of director of the ISI. Jain, who now heads Teoco Corporation, a multinational software company based in Virginia, thinks the government's decision to sack Roy is insulting to the entire scientific community in India. “Roy is not only one of the best scientists and administrators in India, but is also a great human being,” said Jain.

Roy was denied a second term as director of the ISI in a controversial governing council meeting of the ISI on April 23. The meeting was chaired by BJP leader and former Union minister Arun Shourie, who is the chairman of the governing council. More trouble was in store for Roy as his five-year tenure as director, which would have ended on July 31, was cut short by the Union government. The ministry of statistics and programme implementation removed him from his post on June 10, exercising its emergency powers. While the ministry did not give any specific reason, the order said there was “justified and reasonable apprehension that... [Roy] may indulge in propagation of indiscipline and mischief, including acts of administrative and financial impropriety.”

Roy's pioneering work in cryptology is widely appreciated in the world of security. “Go and see what he has done for the defence sector in India, Defence Research and Development Organisation and space research. You will find out that he is a gem whom India needs very much,” said Jain. Ironically, the ministry which issued the order to fire Roy was headed by V.K. Singh, former Army chief.

documen Copies of the minutes of the ISI governing council meeting and an email by Shourie. The minutes and two of Shourie's emails are accessed exclusively by THE WEEK

Roy, who was awarded Padma Shri earlier this year, was keen on another term at the helm of the ISI. He had the support of more than 70 faculty members. Former and present students said he enjoyed breaking protocol and mixing with students, joining them even in the canteen. With his down-to-earth lifestyle and behaviour, he was known as a chasa (poor farmer) on the campus.

Roy was one of the six applicants for the director's post. A three-member selection committee, comprising Shourie, former Reserve Bank governor Y.V. Reddy and Goverdhan Mehta of Hyderabad University, chose Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay, a faculty member of the ISI, as the new director. The ISI governing council held on April 23 saw dissent being raised against the choice. The rules of the ISI governing council prescribe that in case of dissenting opinion, an issue should be settled by voting, but it did not happen in the April 23 meeting. Interactions with some of the council members made it clear that there was a gross mismatch between what was written in the minutes of the council meeting and what actually took place.

Sources said the meeting was tumultuous and Shourie walked out for a while. He, however, appeared to have come with an agenda to push through the candidature of Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay. According to the minutes, Shourie listed the norms to choose the right person for the post of director of which some did not meet with the approval of all council members. For instance, the “potential of the candidate to reach out to the government” was part of the list. Many former faculty members said it could not be a criterion for choosing the director.

“It cannot be a yardstick. According to rules, the government has limited powers to intervene and every director works accordingly. This is highly surprising coming from a person of the stature of Shourie. Obviously, Roy would not be the right choice then,” said a former council member. Another criterion was the ability of the candidate to get “potential donors and revenue for the institute”. “Does it mean that if a director cannot bring in funds, he would not be successful? Also, does the government want to stop financial support to institutes like the ISI?” he asked.

Many council members felt Shourie was determined not to give Roy another term. He began his address by stating that no former director of the ISI except the founding director P.C. Mahalanobis was given a second term. Former director Siddani Bhaskar Rao, who is a member of present council, said that was not a factor to be considered while choosing the director. The representative of non-scientific workers of the institute said there was no rule that prohibited Roy from being reappointed. Despite Shourie's persuasions, the representative said his dissent note about the recommendation of the selection committee would stay. Shourie still did not call for a vote.

Atul Jain Atul Jain, chairman, Teoco Corporation

What made the council members even more sympathetic to Roy was the fact that despite being a member of the council, he chose not to participate in the discussion about the new director as he was also a candidate. But after he returned, Roy was asked to sign the minutes. He refused, reportedly saying that it did not reflect what had actually taken place. Many observers believe that this was one of the reasons why his directorship was terminated abruptly.

A few days after the meeting, Shourie received emails from two members of the council who said they were not given the opportunity to raise their concerns. One was S.M. Bendre, who was appointed as head of the ISI's northeast centre in Tezpur for a second term, despite opposition from the representative of non-scientific workers. The other was Rahul Roy, a professor at the institute.

Bendre and Rahul Roy wrote in a joint email that Shourie ended the meeting abruptly and no resolution was passed confirming the decision of the selection committee about the new director. Shourie replied that the selection process for such posts was not a beauty contest, referring to Bendre's reappointment. However, while he allowed voting regarding Bendre's reappointment because of opposition from the representative of non-scientific workers, he did not follow the protocol in Roy's case. “The selection committee had been appointed from among the names that the council itself had recommended; it had done a thorough job; the decision of the committee should be accepted as is the norm.... After the meeting had ended... we talked for quite a while. At no stage did either of you, nor anyone else, express the slightest doubt to the effect that the decision regarding the new director had not been approved by the council,” wrote Shourie. According to some council members, what was missing in Shourie's response was that he did not comment on the issue of voting which was required if a member had expressed dissent.

Roy refused to comment about the issue saying he was no longer in charge of briefing the media on behalf of the institute. Repeated attempts to reach Shourie were unsuccessful.

Roy's removal has raised serious doubts in the minds of the faculty members, students and even the ISI alumni. There is a fear psychosis prevailing at the campus and nobody wants their name to come up in the media. However, the students and other well-wishers of Roy have started an online petition campaign in his support. After getting the required number of signatures, the organisers hope to send it to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Another controversy broke out after a local television channel aired a small part of an audio tape, purportedly containing the proceedings of the council meeting. “We have applied to the ISI under the Right to Information Act and sought the audio tape [of the proceedings of the council meeting] which should be made available to us,” said Jain.

Shourie has ordered a probe into the leak of the tape. His email to Pradipta Bandyopadhyay, the dean of students at the ISI, showed that he suspected Roy to be behind the leak. “The original recording was lying under lock and key.... The director directed S.K. Iyer [Chief Executive (Administration & Finance)] to furnish him a CD as well as a pen-drive of the recording. The TV programme was put together and then broadcast within days of this—and included tendentiously selected extracts from the recording,” wrote Shourie.

In the email, Shourie also raised the issue of Roy not signing the minutes of the council meeting, which resulted in the delay in issuing the appointment letter to the new director. In his June 5 email, Shourie asked that no major decision should be made till August 1, the day the new director would take over. The decision by the Centre to sack Roy has made that directive moot.

The controversy has dealt a severe blow to the reputation of the ISI. “I am concerned that over time the controversy over Roy will have an extremely negative impact on the ISI. Roy has done a fabulous job in leading the institute for the last five years. If Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay were to better the benchmark created by Roy, she would need support from the entire institute, including faculty, staffs, students and alumni,” said Suman Majumdar, former faculty of the ISI, who now teaches at the University of Connecticut. The alumni, who have been supporting the ISI in a big way, are also not happy. “The government and Shourie might pooh-pooh the role of the alumni in this matter, but they will cause serious damage to the mission of the ISI,” said Majumdar. “In the last 50 years, the ISI alumni have reached almost all corners of the globe and achieved considerable success. Preliminary discussions were afoot to set up an endowment fund for the ISI. But for this controversy, it would have attained a size unheard of in India in five years' time. I don't foresee that happening in this environment.”

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