On June 30, 2019, a newly-installed sliding gate at the main entrance of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, collapsed on a young security guard after it slid off the rails.
The gate, which had been operational for less than a month, had been approved for usage by the administration despite not being equipped with a stopper to secure its movement.
The guard – 20-year-old Gowtham Biswal – consequently found himself under the de-railed gate and reportedly did not receive medical attention for nearly an hour after the incident. He ultimately succumbed to his injuries. Another security guard was also injured in the process of trying to help Biswal and is still in the hospital.
After the incident, an FIR was lodged at Sadashivanagar police station by Yudhisthir Naik, another security guard present at the spot. The prime accused, project engineer Col. Arun Sharma of the Centre for Campus Management and Development (CCDM), along with Nagaraja – the owner of the construction company – were arrested under IPC Section 304A (causing death due to negligence).
However, both were subsequently released on bail.
The following day, on July 1, the director of IISc, Dr Anurag Kumar, had a brief meeting with the students. This was followed by a condolence meeting later that night. It was only after this initial meeting that the institute and the students’ council sent out an email acknowledging the incident.
This was nearly 24 hours after Biswal’s death.
It was during this meeting that the institute claimed that they would pay a compensation fee of Rs 10 lakh to the family of the victim, although no written confirmation was given for the same.
After a candlelight vigil, students raised further concerns about how the institute deals with such incidents, the security of those on campus and about the course of action to be taken. Students also requested that their representatives be included in any panel that would be set up to investigate the incident. It was also alleged that the security guards who had witnessed the incident had been threatened that their jobs would be in danger if they testified.
On Tuesday, the director was reluctant to meet students, and in his place, a professor – Sathish Vasu Kailash – was sent instead. During his engagement, Kailash refused to be recorded on video or audio, and students were informed that Col. Sharma could not be asked to resign.
However, he said that a committee comprising an external chair and two internal members from the institute had been formed to investigate the matter and that they would convene for the first time only on July 16, 2019 – over two weeks after the incident.
Finally, as the day was ending, two student representatives were allowed to meet the director in his office. They presented the following four demands (paraphrased):
- The immediate suspension of the prime accused, Col. Arun Sharma, till the investigation had been concluded
- Five student representatives be allowed to be a part of the committee that would investigate the incident
- The committee should conclude by July 9, 2019
- All demands that the director agrees to should be provided to the students in writing
None of these demands were agreed to. After the meeting concluded on that unsatisfactory note, the students organised a sit-in at the main building – with sloganeering and chanting – till the director agreed to an open meeting at 7:30 pm, where students demanded to know the basis of the rejection of their demands.
At the second meeting, the director stated that CCS laws prevent the institute from firing Col. Sharma because he had been in custody for less than 48 hours. While he agreed to consult and communicate with the students during the course of the investigation, he refused to directly include any student representative in the committee itself.
Moreover, he also stated that July 16 was the earliest that a competent committee could be formed as members would be travelling before that and there were no other suitable alternatives.
However, students cited IISc’s by-laws, whereby it is states that the director holds the power to suspend any member appointed by him in the event said member were to become the subject of a criminal investigation. Following this, the director and registrar agreed to ponder over this and assured students that they would get back to them with a decision by 11 am the next morning.
As students gathered at the main building the next day, it was found that the director had left for another meeting and, only upon the insistence of the students, the registrar addressed the gathering informing them that the director would return by noon.
Moreover, he said that the institute would place Col. Sharma on compulsory leave and not on suspension as was demanded by the students.
Upon the director’s return, he, too, confirmed the same and continued to refuse the inclusion of student representatives in the enquiry panel. Amid protest from the students, the director retired to his office and soon after, the police arrived at the main building. The police was called by the IISc administration around 1:30 pm, with approximately 15-20 police personnel present near main building.
Even though students were protesting peacefully, the police was called to threaten and intimidate them, but the students refused to back down. Then, around 2 pm, the director, accompanied by professor Umesh Varshney addressed the gathering once more, and stated that Col. Sharma would be suspended immediately, and informed that the committee would now comprise of four members, due to the addition of another external member. However, he still refused to concede to the demand of student representation on the panel.
Meanwhile, professor Sathish Kailash allegedly was heard threatening students with arrest, citing that they had become violent. Among the various reasons cited for the exclusion of students from the committee, perhaps the most ridiculous was the claim that this would set a precedent for students to ask for representation on all other panels, including those for comprehensive examinations of PhD students.
Undeterred, students continued their protest.
One student fainted at about 3:35 pm and was taken to the Institute’s health centre. At around 4:30 pm, the police again intervened and told students that they were not siding with either party, but were willing to mediate negotiations, and asked students to prepare a draft of all their demands and arrange for a body of four representatives to meet with the director in their presence. The students thereby formed a new draft, reducing their demands to only two:
- The suspension of project engineer Col. Arun Sharma, CCMD, with immediate effect until the investigation has been concluded and the committee has made its recommendations. The director must give this in writing;
- Two student representatives selected by the students – independent of their affiliation with the students’ council – must be included in the investigative committee. The proceedings should be transparent.
The students believe that their demands are rooted in the two key ideals of justice and transparency. The presence of Col. Sharma on campus, despite him being the subject of an investigation, raises questions on the integrity and fairness of the administration’s treatment of the matter.
The fact that there are many ongoing construction projects on campus is alarming and a threat to the safety and well-being of the entire IISc community.
However, despite many rounds of negotiations, the administration has refused to agree to their demands. Consequently, students affirm that protests would continue until satisfactory concessions are made.
Sourav Majumder is a physical science research scholar at IISc, Bengaluru.
Featured image credit: Sourav Majumder