Why a Dalit professor at a premier Chennai institute took to a hunger strike

Dr C Lakshmanan, associate professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), had accused the institute of arbitrary appointments, lack of transparency, and caste discrimination among staff members.
Hunger Strike | Madras Institute of Development Studies
Hunger Strike | Madras Institute of Development Studies

Dr C Lakshmanan, associate professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), had gone on indefinite hunger strike on October 25 morning, alleging serious abuse of power at the institute. In a press note, Lakshmanan, who is also the author of several books on social justice and National Convenor of the Dalit Intellectual Collective, had accused MIDS of arbitrary appointments, lack of transparency, and caste discrimination among the staff members. The strike was called off the same day later in the evening, following an emergency faculty meeting with the institute’s director, says Lakshmanan.

In a press note Lakshamanan had said, “With utter dismay and anguish, I am expressing my absolute disquiet about the undemocratic governance of our institute. I have never been a mute spectator of injustice or discriminatory practices.” He also said, “I have tried to resolve the problems, pointed out by me in earlier mails, within the institute and explored all possible ways to do so but all my efforts have gone in vain.”

When speaking to TNM on the strike, Lakshmanan added, “A Dalit accountant who had served the institute for about 12 years was not taken on as a finance officer when the posting opened despite her experience and qaulifications. Before the retirement of the incumbent FO, the online process for recruiting a new member to the post had begun. She too submitted her application as she had all the required qualifications, but she was not selected. She left the institute from the mental agony this caused her. Others have kept silent for so long because it’s a small institute. I felt this cannot continue unquestioned, so I’ve taken up this hunger strike.”

Lakshmanan also said that in the event anyone is being appointed for a consolidated salary higher than Rs 5000, at least a circular regarding the vacancy has to go out, if not a public advertisement. A selection committee has to be constituted to conduct an interview. Yet, the current administrative officer was appointed without following these procedures 4-5 years ago.

“At that time when I asked the institute how they could do this, they assured me that it was an emergency hiring and that a new administrative officer would be recruited following due process, but he is still continuing in that position. There have been multiple instances of caste discrimination. One such instance was against a Dalit woman staff member that did not stop until I intervened. Such a person is in the important position of administrative officer,” he said.

The professor points out that, for the position of finance officer, interviews were conducted prior to the serving officer’s retirement, in time for a new individual to take up the post once their predecessor had retired. Lakshmanan further said that there is no clarity on whether the state government stipulated salary ceiling for a rehired pensioner is being followed in the case of Ramakrishnan.

In email exchanges with the director from August this year that he has made public, Lakshmanan reveals yet another instance of alleged casteism and administrative overreach. Lakshmanan had organised a webinar with regard to the Tamil Nadu government’s budget for the financial year 2021-22, titled ‘Tamil Nadu Budget and Perspectives of the Marginalised’ to be held on August 23. He said that one of the invited speakers was MP and VCK chief Dr Thol Thirumavalavan.

An email received by Lakshmanan from the MIDS director close to the date of the event said that he needs to consider inviting “academic speakers” or hold the event in his “personal capacity”. He writes back asking for clarification on whom the director considers “academic and non-academic speakers” as all the invitees “in his understanding would be contributing to the academic discussion”, and why such a communication was coming to him after all the panellists had accepted their invites. 

In another email, dated August 23 – the day of the webinar – Lakshmanan quotes an earlier mail addressed to MIDS staff and students from the director in response to the webinar login link. The director had sent out a response saying: “Please note that the ‘TN Budget Perspectives of the Marginalised’ is not organised by MIDS.” Lakshmanan writes back asking what organising the event “in a personal capacity” means, is he not a part of the institution and for clarity on the director’s definition of “academic and non-academic speakers”.

At the time of speaking to us, Lakshaman had said that he was yet to receive any adequate clarifications regarding any of these questions.

Lakshmanan has also alleged callousness towards PhD candidates and their financial needs.

With regard to the October 25 meeting, Lakshmanan says that assurance has been given in writing “to hold regular monthly faculty meeting to discuss and resolve all the problems related to the institute's day to day governance and adhere to the rule of law in future,” he said in a second press note. He further added that “Besides, other demands of mine would be addressed after consultation with the higher authorities. Faculty members, who attended the meeting, also convinced me that faculty members would jointly submit a representation to the Governing Council members to address the concerns raised by me.” Based on these developments, Lakshaman says that he has withdrawn his strike.

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