When a Dalit professor is accused of misconduct

In recent times, the scientific community in India has been jolted (somewhat) by multiple revelations of misconduct in Indian science practice. When I say misconduct, I mean some of the relatively easy to identify stuff—data forgery, image manipulation, hiding data during a pandemic, peddling misinformation, etc.

What we, however, have not yet taken cognizance of is misconduct that is integral to science itself—science and its intricate relationship with the nation state, warfare and military, and casteism and cis-heteropatriarchy that form the very backbone of science and science practice in India (these being two examples; for a better understanding of scientific misconduct that is not limited to individual scientists playing with data, please listen to Ayush Gupta speaking at this TheLifeofScience.com webinar).

I say this because everytime I bring up the infamous “C-word”, I am met with immense resistance from scientists, science communicators and science enthusiasts. Now, denying caste is not new; in fact, it is one of the oldest tricks up the sleeve of academics in India. This is much more true for science and science institutions, which have been some of the fiercest oppositions to reservations and affirmative actions that allow people from marginalized castes to access and perform science. As people who think about or do science, it is also very easy to say something on the lines of “our comments are objective”(and therefore, detached from caste).

But, can observation, which is central to objectivity, be detached from the paradigm(s) that we believe in and adhere to? According to the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, a scientist views the world through the theory they believe in (this is what Kuhn calls the “theory-ladenness” of science). A scientific claim, therefore, is objective only within the framework of what the scientist believes to be true. Similarly, feminist philosopher of science Donna Haraway talks about the situatedness of knowledge. In her essay Situated Knowledges, Haraway not only talks about how all knowledge is generated within the context of the observer’s (scientist’s) assumptions (both personal and social) and within the contexts of utility and value. Haraway doesn’t stop there. In what I feel is an incredibly powerful way of looking at objectivity, she tells us that by recognizing the contingency of the knowledge we produce to the position we occupy in the world and our relationship with power, we understand the falsifiable nature of our claims better, and are therefore able to make much more objective claims than we would as neutral observers.

Now, back to misconduct. When we think about misconduct, the popular narrative seems to be centered around two main points: (a) What kind of misconduct was committed, and (b) Why did someone commit misconduct. My question is slightly different: Why is our reaction to a public revelation of scientific misconduct different in different cases? I argue that our responses to particular cases of misconduct are shaped by caste, at least partly.

A few recent cases of misconduct (alleged or proven) and how we reacted to them

In 2020, Subrahmanyam Saderla, a Dalit faculty who joined IIT-Kanpur in January 2018, was met with immense casteism. For example, a Swarajya report mentions his Savarna colleagues calling him a “curse” to the institution: “Every ten years an incident occurs which shakes the foundation of academics at IITK. The curse has struck again.”

Saderla was also accused of plagiarism anonymously, both in his PhD and MTech. theses. According to a report by News18, the IIT-Kanpur senate recommended that Saderla’s PhD thesis be cancelled based on the anonymous information received.

Since then, Saderla has cleared his name: the ethics cell at IIT-Kanpur concluded that there was no need to cancel his thesis. According to the same News18 report, Saderla is quoted saying that accusations of plagiarism were made on equations of motion—something that Isaac Newton derived in the 1600s.

More recently, a paper from the lab of Arati Ramesh, a faculty at NCBS Bangalore, was retracted due to image and data manipulation, a much more serious form of scientific misconduct. When the misconduct first came to light on the independent review website PubPeer and the details caught public attention, many Indian scientists jumped in to defend Ramesh (I have not embedded the tweets that can serve as evidence for the claim here). Many pointed out that findings of the paper may still hold true. Most of these scientists, like Ramesh, were Savarna.

NCBS set up an investigation which concluded that Ramesh was guilty of only overlooking the misconduct, and that Bandyopadhyay, responsible alone for all the fraud, left the laboratory abruptly. However, evidence emerged that Bandyopadhyay, while accepting his role in the misconduct, had informed the NCBS director Satyajit Mayor of another person’s involvement in the fraud. Bandyopadhyay also alleged in interviews to journalists that Ramesh was an authoritarian supervisor, who abused and harassed students in case their experiments did not produce data that helped substantiate her hypothesis or results from bioinformatics predictions. According to Bandyopadhyay, the fear of abuse and harassment is what led him to commit misconduct in the first place (for details, please see here).

As a result of all the new evidence, the TIFR Academic Ethics Committee (TAEC; TIFR is the parent body of NCBS) set up an independent investigation that has found both the concerns above true: Susmitnarayan Chaudhury, co-first author of the now-retracted paper, was also involved in fraud along with Bandyopadhyay, and there is at least some truth in allegations of authoritarian conduct on Ramesh’s part. Among other recommendations, the TAEC did hold Ramesh responsible for “scientific carelessness and lack of diligence”, but also mentioned that the behaviour of the PI is not an excuse for students in the lab committing misconduct. The TAEC also recommended that Ramesh’s lab continue to function under guidance from a supervisory committee (for details, please see here).

At around the same time that the NCBS incident was being discussed, multiple papers from Gobardhan Das, a senior faculty at JNU were flagged for image and data manipulation. However, in stark contrast to the NCBS incident, many Indian scientists, science communicators and enthusiasts joined the clamour to criticize Das. Beyond the nature of misconduct, as I see it, there was another ripe reason to call out Das: his relationship with the BJP. Here was a person very close to the BJP and more than 11 papers from him had been flagged for a very serious form of misconduct!

Das responded to a few of the concerns on PubPeer. Later, in an interesting move, he and Anand Ranganathan, another JNU professor who is a co-author of some of the papers that have been flagged, filed a defamation case against Mohana Basu, a special correspondent (Science) affiliated with The Print (who had reported on the case), Shekhar Gupta, founder of The Print, Priyanka Pulla, a science journalist, Saba Naqvi (the case against Pulla and Naqvi is because they quote-tweeted The Print’s article) and Twitter Inc. Once again, there was a scope of hilarity: rather than proving the allegations wrong by showing the raw data, Das took the seemingly ridiculous step of filing a defamation case against a journalist who was doing what journalists do—report (think about how ridiculous filing a case against two persons for quote-tweeting the report must be).

Das is close to BJP, and therefore, does enjoy a lot of power. But…

...Das is also Dalit

I have recently learnt that Das is Dalit. He has also said that he feels mentally and physically harassed due to the outrage over his papers, and has alleged that the outrage against him may be so strong due to his caste location.

Now, this complicates the issue at hand. I am not saying that Das’ caste location can be an excuse for the alleged scientific misconduct that seems to have occurred under his supervision. However, what about our response and its intensity to allegations of misconduct?

Why is it that Das, unlike Ramesh, does not have anyone from Indian science (except BJP trolls) at his defense? Is it because he is from JNU, which, some would argue, is not as elite as NCBS in the Indian science scenario? Or because he is affiliated with the BJP? Or because he is from a marginalized caste background?

The answer is not clear, but the questions must be deliberated upon. Caste, in direct and indirect ways, shapes our response to everything in Indian society; there is no lived reality greater than that of caste in India. We see IIT-Kanpur very quickly deciding that it is okay to cancel Saderla’s thesis, much like we see Indian academia very quickly deciding to call out Das. There is really no way to look at our responses to a specific incident outside our caste locations, especially when Indian academia is so dominated by Savarna individuals and is casteist to its core (think about how many Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi faculty any Indian science institute/university has, or how many science institutions in India aree exempt from reservations, and how many times we have heard the “reservation vs. merit” argument).

In Ramesh’s case, one can argue that the eventual outrage against her was a result of her being a young woman scientist, and I see truth in that. Gender is also a social construct that shapes our worldview, and therefore, our response to a particular incident of misconduct. However, caste solidarity from other Savarna academics protected her in the early days of the issue, even though all Savarna academics who defended her would deny the same. It is possible the same caste solidarity that also ensured her lab continues running, albeit under supervision, despite serious concerns regarding its functioning.

Now, is there a way to prove if responses against Das were shaped particularly by casteism? It is difficult to say. Caste is an all-pervasive, overarching structure that exhibits itself through both overt and covert ways. In Das’ case, who is affiliated with the BJP and has called student protestors at JNU the “Tukde Tukde Gang”, an analysis of how much role his caste location played in shaping the response of the scientific community in India is even more difficult.

In fact, as Makepeace Sitlhou has pointed out in a previous TheLifeofScience.com webinar, proving an incident as an act of casteism is very difficult. Even in the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula, where there was overwhelming evidence to prove that Rohith was a victim of caste-based harassment and discrimination, Appa Rao Podile, the then–vice-chancellor of UoH, emerged unscathed and unperturbed.

When I raised concerns about how our response to Das’ misconduct may be shaped by casteism, I was quickly met with responses that were on the lines of “I was not aware of Das’ caste.” Interestingly, being unaware of caste is a privilege that few can afford (I do not assert any Dalitality [at least at this moment], but I come from an ambiguous but possibly marginalized caste location, and there have been very few moments in my adult life where I have been able to be unaware of caste as a mechanism and an identity).

Like Haraway, I think acknowledging the social location in which our critique is situated can only serve to make our critique more nuanced.

And if we claim our right to critique, what is a critique really if without nuance?

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Science writer, communicator and journalist