Published: 04th July 2019
Two IIT-Guwahati students write to PM about how superviser's harassment ended their research dream
The two students have written letters to the PMO seeking his intervention, claim they have been through hell while working under this supervisor
Two students of IIT Guwahati have written to the PMO complaining about the mental harassment they have been suffering at the hands of their guide. After repeatedly complaining about the professor, one was forced to resign while the other says that he is unable to carry on with his PhD because no professor is willing to be his guide any more.
Sunayan Deka joined IIT-Guwahati in 2016 and Lalit Mohan Pandey was his supervisor. "I heard other people complain about Pandey and his unprofessional behaviour but I just stuck to my work as I was new," Deka said. One of the things he had heard was that Pandey had allegedly forced one of Deka's seniors to add his wife's name to his paper despite her not contributing anything to the research. "Another junior who also complained about his unprofessional behaviour wrote to the PMO," Deka said. However, it was only in May 2017 that things began to affect Deka.
Imposing an unhealthy work culture
After a severe back injury, Deka was forced to take two months of bed rest and even after his return to the institute, his doctors asked him to take it easy and go for physiotherapy. However, when Deka tried to tell his supervisor about it, he says he got no support, "I told him that I could not stand for too long and that I might need a slight routine change because I had to go for physiotherapy. I requested him to be a little lenient with timings. He made me stand for three hours that day," he said.
@narendramodi ji— Sunayan Deka (@DekaSunayan) June 30, 2019
I am Sunayan Deka and have reported you about the harrashment perpetrated on me by my supervisor in dept of BSBE, IIT Guwahati (PMOPG/E/2017/0625025, PMOPG/E/2018/0493865 and recently 2019/0352865). I am wandering for justice from last 18 months. #pleasehelp
Deka said that from that day on his supervisor treated him inhumanly, pushing him to depression. He said he would be asked to stay in the lab late into the night irrespective of whether or not he had work and was not allowed to attend his physiotherapy sessions. As the date for his research proposal presentation approached, Deka said the supervisor suddenly said that his research was not fit for a PhD despite having worked on it for more than a year. "He said he would not allow me to submit the proposal and began to give me excess work during that time," he said. Deka did manage to present his proposal and did get good feedback but his harassment continued.
Forced to run personal errands?
A common complaint made by village children against their school teachers, this appears to have been the case here too. "He would make us do personal errands for him like get his laptop serviced or bike serviced. He would force us to work from 9 am till midnight sometimes, but that's okay, we've even stayed back till 3 am. The point was that we didn't even have work and when we questioned him, he would yell and shout and say hurtful things. He was aggressive, rude, mentally abusive," Deka recounted. Deka also said that the supervisor forced him to add another student's name in his paper despite him not contributing to it.
The stress and over-work ended up making Deka's back worse again and he was asked to go on one week of bed rest. When he came back, he expected things to get better. But the work culture got worse, "So I approached other officials in the administration and even wrote a letter to the PMO. I tried everything avenue but nothing worked. They asked me to apply for a new supervisor and then constituted a committee to deal with the issue," Deka told us. And who headed the committee? The man Deka was accusing of abuse and unprofessionalism.
Justice committee headed by accused
The committee ended up accusing Deka of making the issue personal and said that through their evaluation, they had found that he had not been performing well. "If they had said that within the first few months of my joining I would understand but after I had already published two papers and done well in my seminar, how could they tell me this," Deka questioned. Out of the blue, his fellowship was also cancelled and he was forced to sign an apology letter. He refused to do so. "I was then asked to sign an agreement saying I would never work in any labs which was something that they had no right to make me do," he said. Deka finally gave up and gave in his resignation. But he didn't get an experience certificate stating he had worked there for two and half years and neither did he get his fellowship money, "They said I had been absent for 171 days which is ridiculous because it was during that time that my seminar had happened and they had no way to prove it," he explained.
RTIs and repeated requests and meetings left him with nothing. It has been 18 months.
Then a while ago, he received a mail from one of his juniors who had heard about his ordeal. He said that he was facing the exact same issue.
Violation of Mental Health Bill: Don't fight like a girl
Srijeeb Karmakar from Agartala had joined the institute in 2017. When he was in class nine, he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He has struggled with it over time but managed to find his way to IIT. So, when he joined IIT, he made sure to tell his professor and seniors about his condition to ensure he was able to handle the work well. He realised soon after that he had made a mistake.
"After I told them, I was subject to discrimination, bullying and verbal abuse," he says. Soon after, a senior that he had confided in about his personal struggle began to use the information to harass him. When he complained to the supervisor, Lalit, he was apparently dismissed saying, "Ragging is common in colleges, don't fight like a girl."
The comments from the supervisor allegedly didn't stop at that, "He abused me verbally through his cruel comments about my ancestry and mental illness. Some of his comments were, “You have a personality defect, maybe it is something you have inherited” and “If I knew you have bipolar disorder, I would have never taken you, no one wants to invite problems”. Soon after I was isolated from my lab mated and my name was also excluded from a paper I worked on," he explained. Similar to Deka's case, Karmakar was also asked to stay in the lab from 9-7 and feels he was under constant surveillance. "I have escaped several times from the campus to avoid that abusive environment in an act of self-preservation which is now being used against me for not being regular and normal like other PhD students," the scholars said.
Duo struggle: Shrijeeb Karmakar and Sunayan Deka have said their personal lives have also been a struggle because of their experiences under the supervisor
No stipend, no work, sick and depressed
Karmakar repeatedly complained to higher authorities but there was no change, he says he was harassed continuously. The supervisor allegedly also told Karmakar that he was not fit to pursue the topic of his thesis despite the fact that he had five published papers in the subject. After running from pillar to post, he was finally allowed to work under another supervisor but no professor was willing to work with him, "Now I am in a situation where I don’t have a research lab, no professor wishes to take me as I am not mentally well, I have a damaged reputation as my lab has been changed twice, I am without stipend, without work, depressed, sick and I am told “if no faculty wishes to take you, you have to accept your fate”
It was only during this time that Karmakar heard of Deka and they exchanged their harrowing experiences and decided to write to the PMO again. Karmakar said that since he started talking about the issue on social media, other students have also reached out to him claiming they had also quit their PhDs for the same reason."It is my final plea, that there should be a psychological evaluation of my supervisor to assess his eligibility to guide students as most of his doctoral students feel they are losing their individuality, personal liberty and research interest," Karmakar wrote in his letter to the PM.
We have reached out to the Registrar and Lalit Pandey for their comments and will update this copy when we receive the same.