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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 32 New Delhi August 1, 2015

Indian Math Nobel Laureate joins Protest against Arun Shourie

Friday 31 July 2015

by Subhankar Gupta

Prof Sathamangalam Ranga Iyengar Srinivasa Varadhan, the greatest living Indian Amerian mathematician and recipient of the Abel prize, considered as the Nobel Prize in Mathematics, awarded from Oslo, has joined the near-5000 signatories demanding a probe against dismissal of the Director, Indian Statistical Institute, Prof Bimal Roy, by the ISI Chairman, Dr Arun Shourie. Varadhan, who is one of the youngest recipients of the Abel Prize (even before the Nobel Laureate in Economics and innovator of Game Theorym John Nash), is an FRS and did his Ph.D in theoretical probability from the ISI in the early 1960s. Among his questioners during viva voce for his doctoral dissertation was the legendary statistician and an authority in the Theory of Probability, Andrey Nikolaevich Kolmogorov.

Varadhan’s gesture is as a sop to the petitioners, among whom are many eminent math-stat scholars associated with internationally famous universities and institutions,. The petition has not only hit the conscience of Dr Shourie who academically belongs to Economics and for whom the latest theoretical advance-ment in math-stat and math-physics is Greek, but has exposed him. The decision to choose Prof Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay, head, machine intelligence unit, ISI in Kolkata, is strongly criticised but reminds one of almost the same way another computer scientist, Dr Sankar Pal, was made the Director, disregarding much more competent math-stat scholars through machi-nations, hatched by a coterie of CPI-M academics who used to indulge more in politicking than academic activities.

It is unlikely that Shourie knows the ABC of Varadhan. But he can’t be blamed. When Varadhan got the Abel Prize, Dr Pal, then the ISI Director, did not congratulate him, as was done by eminent math-stat scholars abroad. Varadhan’s contributions in theoretical Statistics and Mathematics apart, he has original papers published, touching theoretical physics too. Among his major contributions are the Theory of Large Deviations that opened up a new frontier of unifying an efficient method for clarification of a “a rich variety of phenomena arising in complex stochastic systems, in fields as diverse as quantum field theory, statistical physics, population dynamics, econometrics and finance, and traffic engineering. It has also greatly expanded our ability to use computers to simulate and analyse the occurrence of rare events. Varadhan has made key contributions in several other areas of probability.” His research is on the borderline of mathematics and physics. So his protest demanding a probe into the jingoist way of sacking the ISI Director a few months before the end of his term (August 2015) raises genuine queries.

The tearing hurry of the ISI Chairman (whose competence for the post is questionable) is inexplicable. His argument that Bandyo-padhyay’s choice was made by a team of very competent academics is brittle as none of those making the choice had the competence to judge the academic record of five candidates (Bandyopa-dhyay having been the last). Shouri circulated the proceedings of the Council meeting, revealing all this. The ISI President, Dr C. Rangarajan, who gave a nod, too has no academic background in math-stat. The two academics, who together chose the new Director, are academically quite remote from the math-stat discipline. The two were Dr Y.V. Reddy, former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, and Chairman of the 14th Finance Commission and an economist, and Dr Goverdhan Mehta, FRS, National Research Professor and Eli Lilly-Jubilant Chair, School of Chemistry, University of Hyderabad. Prof Mehta belongs to the discipline of Chemistry. None of the three possesses the competence to evaluate the candidates. And they are nowhere near the level of achievement of the greatest living Indian mathematician.

Incredible as it may seem, at a meeting on the choice of the Director, Prof S.M. Bendre, head of the ISI’s Tezpur Centre, raised some questions only to be stopped by Shourie with indecent observations. Dr Bendre wrote to him stating: “You had indeed said that ‘selection process for such posts is not a beauty contest’.“ Such highhandedness towards academics is not expected from one at the helm of India’s few internationally renowned institutions, as it is at variance from the unique tradition set out by the father of India’s Statistics, Professor P.C. Mahalanobis.

The dismissal notice, issued by an official of the concerned Ministry, was an indecent and irregular act. Never in the past was the appoint-ment letter issued by a petty bureaucrat, Deputy Director, Ministry of Programme implementa-tion and Statistics. It states: “There is justified and a reasonable apprehension that the present Director, Dr B. Roy, may indulge in propagation of indiscipline and mischief, including acts of administrative and financial impropriety in the interregnum up to 31st July 2015.” This sentence is tendentious as the official tramped all norms of ethics and indecently hit out at the academic devoid of academic etiquette. There was no inquiry into the allegations nor was Dr Roy served a show-cause notice. Moreover, words such as ‘reasonable apprehension’ that Dr Roy would indulge in “mischief and financial indiscipline” look obviously prejudicial. There is no proof of these allegations. On the contrary, the proceedings of the last Council meeting forwarded by Shourie to the Council members and ISI Secretariat noted quite a few positive things on Dr Bimal Roy (17-21). For instance, "The Committee appreciated the valuable and distinguished services rendered by Professor Bimal Kumar Roy, the present Director of the Institute.” How could the sack notice then resort to unsubstantiated allegations?

The role of the media in reporting the dismissal of Roy and induction of Bandyopa-dhyay is very strange and casual. A news in The Hindu group described Prof Roy as a scientist, specialising in cryptology, but he belongs to combinatorics and he had his Ph.D.

A very renowned professor of the ISI in a note, circulated to a close circle comprising top math-stat scholars, laments, Shourie, having failed to carry the Council with him for the ratification of the Director’s appointment, “went to the Ministry for support and endorsement. This is not legally valid and Shourie knew it very well. He also knew that it will be challenged in the Court, and it has been.”

The petition, initiated on June 13, states that several RTI applications had been filed by eminent professors of the ISI, Kolkata, including Prof Probal Chaudhury, to release the audio tapes and other information related to the Council meeting for appointment of the Director, which contain the proof of the actual discussion. Prof Chaudhury is a very eminent scholar and fellow of prestigious bodies like the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, USA, Indian National Science Academy, Delhi, Indian Academic Sciences, Bangalore and National Academic Sciences, Allahabad. He was editor of Sankhya (2006-2007) of the ISI, ex-associate editor of Journal of the American Statistical Association (Theory & Methods) (2005-2011), Statistica Sinica (2005-2011), Calcutta Statistical Association Bulletin and editor, International Statistical Review, plus a Bhatnagar Laureate (there being over 30 Bhatnagar Laureates in the ISI).

Where the matter will lead to is beyond conjecture but the ISI chairman’s adamancy strengthens the apprehension of the veteran BJP leader, Lal Kishenchand Advani, that another Emergency is dangling over the Indian democratic polity. The saffron stick is of only one grade and that is for destabilisation of academic institutions or bodies. The Indian Council for Historical Research, National Council Educational Research and Training, ISI and all such institutions are threatened by those whose mindset is ‘fascistic’.