The sex-for-cash University scandal in Tamil Nadu is being probed by two authorities. The first is a criminal investigation by the CB-CID in the state. And the second probe, seen by many as contentious, is by a one-man-committee appointed by the Governor of the state, Banwarilal Purohit.
Retired IAS officer Santhanam has been tasked by the Governor – who is also the Chancellor of the Madurai Kamaraj University, where the incident took place – to get to the bottom of the scandal. Trouble is, the Governor himself has been named in the audio tape where a woman professor tried to lure four of her students into providing sexual favours for ‘higher officials’ in the University.
So exactly what is the scope of Santhanam IAS’s probe, and how is he going about it? In an interview to TNM, Santhanam confirmed what many in Tamil Nadu have been speculating for days now: No, he will not be questioning the Governor, although he says that will in no way affect the neutrality of the investigation.
‘Cannot question Governor’
"I cannot conduct an inquiry with the Governor. I will talk to the students and Nirmala Devi and decide how to go ahead with the matter,” Santhanam tells TNM. The officer refused to explain further as to why he cannot question the Governor.
The officer however assures: “No matter who I find is involved in any wrongdoing in this case, I will name them in the report.”
Santhanam’s statement that he will not be probing the Governor comes days after Banwarilal himself conceded that the one-man commission can question him, too, if he wanted to; the Governor said this when he faced a volley of questions from reporters in Chennai last week about his name cropping up in the tape.
Commission with no teeth
Further, Santhanam tells TNM that the committee will submit its report but does not have any power to take action on the basis of its findings.
“My role is only to conduct an inquiry and submit a report to the Governor. I have nothing to do with subsequent action," says Santhanam.
So what happens if the Governor’s name crops up in the report? "The Governor has said he will be sending the report to the government for further action. Whoever is involved, I will name them and give the report to the Governor," Santhanam says.
Scope of the probe
"The committee has been formed to inquire into the details and background of the immoral conversation between Nirmala Devi and the students," Santhanam tells TNM. “As the Chancellor of Madurai Kamaraj University, the Governor is worried about the reputation of the University. So we have to check the involvement of University officials in this case," he adds.
But what are the terms of reference for this committee? And under what law was this one-man committee constituted?
“It is constituted as per section 9 of the Madurai Kamaraj University Act, where the Chancellor (the Governor in this case) is allowed to direct an enquiry," says Santhanam.
Clause 1 of Section 9 states: “The Governor of Tamil Nadu shall be the Chancellor of the University. He shall, by virtue of his office, be the head of the University and the President of the Senate and shall, when present, preside at meetings of the Senate and at any convocation of the University.”
Clause 3 of the same section states: “...where power is conferred upon the Chancellor to nominate persons to authorities, the Chancellor shall, to the extent necessary, nominate persons to represent interests not otherwise adequately represented.”
Santhanam says, "The clause doesn't talk specifically about inquiry. However, the Governor is overall in charge of the institution. So, under that power he constituted this commission.”
Conflict of interest?
However, while it may be the case that the Governor has the power to constitute the commission – is it ethical for him to have done so, considering his name crops up in the tape? Isn’t it a conflict of interest for the Governor to be instituting a probe?
Santhanam denies the charge, saying, "No, it is not a conflict of interest. He has formed it under the Madurai Kamaraj University Act. We will ensure that the probe is conducted impartially."
The investigation so far
Santhanam has so far conducted inquiries at Madurai and Aruppukottai. The Commission has spoken to the students who exposed the assistant professor, and says they have been forthcoming with information.
The Additional Controller of Examinations at the Directorate of Distance Education in MKU, M Rajarajan, submitted reports to R Santhanam at the MKU guest house in Madurai on Saturday. Santhanam also questioned the Vice Chancellor and the Registrar for over three hours on Thursday.
However, before he formally questioned them, did Santhanam hold ‘informal discussions’ with these officials, as reports have claimed?
"I just had a preliminary discussion with the Vice Chancellor," Santhanam says. "This was before I started the inquiry. The discussions were more about the modalities of the inquiry. And after that I went to Aruppukottai and spoke to the students and staff. I am going back next week to Arupukottai and Madurai to continue inquiries. They are cooperating fully," he adds.
But is it advisable to be holding informal meetings with authorities who could potentially be involved in the case?
"The discussion was regarding logistics. I am not going to pass any judgement at this stage about their involvement. I have an open mind about this. If anybody is found guilty, that will be exposed. My objective is to conduct an impartial inquiry. I am not worried about the individuals. Whoever has a role in this murky business, will be exposed."
One man commission, plus two women helpers?
The Governor faced severe for constituting a one ‘man’ commission, and not involving any women in the probe. The Governor when questioned about the lack of women in the team had brushed off the question last week. However, Santhanam says that two women professors have been associated with the commission from the very beginning.
"We have two women professors. They have been with me from the beginning. They were not present on the first day when I had a preliminary discussion over the modalities of the inquiry. I immediately associated two women professors. They have been part of this inquiry. One of them is from the Mother Teresa University and the other is from the Agriculture University," says Santhanam.