I, Mohd Zeeshan Malik, from Rajouri District in Jammu & Kashmir, have been a registered doctoral student at the Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) since January 2012. I am also a Rajat Jayanti Fellowship (DST, Government of India) awardee. I completed my PhD viva-voce examination on May 22, 2017. My PhD thesis has been highly commended by the examiners. Like any PhD student who passed the finishing point after years of intense effort, I should be celebrating and enjoying now after formal completion of the doctoral work. But the series of events that happened in the past one month are preventing me from doing so. These events, in fact, have seriously depressed me. I enjoyed my stay in SACON towards the beginning since my colleagues here were all highly co-operative. The locals in Anaikatty have been extending all their consideration to me, especially since I am from Jammu and Kashmir, which is quite far off. But, recent events have forced me to write this. I am extremely disappointed and tense about the way I have been treated by the director of my institute, which I earnestly felt was my home for the past five years.
The story began when I wrote to the hostel warden for accommodation, as I wanted to come back and stay at SACON for preparing for my viva examination that was scheduled on May 22, 2017. Usually, at SACON, students are given hostel accommodation and they get priority over others. I had planned my travels accordingly as I was confident of getting accommodation as usual, at SACON. But I was surprised that despite being a bonafide student of the institute, I was declined accommodation in the hostel or the guest house even after frequent and consecutive requests over emails and phone calls. First, I was denied the hostel accommodation by being told that ‘it is not available’. A subsequent request for a room in the guest house was denied under the pretext that ‘it is under renovation’. Later, when I was informed by my friends about the availability of accommodation, I tried calling the hostel warden who didn’t pick up any of my calls, informing me over text that he was ‘in a meeting’.
This repeated for three days. I did not get a single call or message from him even after my incessant efforts. This made me call the director over the phone to ask if I could stay in the earlier room on a sharing basis with my friends, as they had suggested. But my request was denied with the reply, “We are not allotting to anybody.”
With great difficulty, I managed to get accommodation outside the campus, in the village, thanks to the benevolence of the local villagers. SACON being situated in a remote area, accommodation on pay is almost non-existent. After managing to find a place to stay outside the campus, when I went to the office for work, I was shocked to see a senior colleague of mine, who was on a casual visit, had been given accommodation. He had probably been instructed to not enter his name in the hostel records. The next working day I realised that rooms in the guest house had also been allotted, on the previous day, to some guests. The guest house was available, and they were allotting rooms even to outsiders. Hardly seven or eight people were staying in a hostel where 24 students used to be accommodated.
On May 15 I got another shock upon hearing that they had removed one bed from the room where I was staying while on my doctoral work, but the accommodation was still available. In fact, accommodation had been given to individuals who were not even students, interns, researchers or associated with any project undertaken by SACON. My student friends were all too willing to accommodate me there. If only the director of SACON was kind, willing and considerate enough to allow accommodation for me. I felt sad, terrified, mentally tortured, and heartbroken to realise that I was being targeted and excluded. The reason behind the denial of accommodation for me was not its unavailability but something else, which I now understand as my identity by birth – the fact that I hailed from Kashmir.
Targeting me did not stop with this. Later, I came to know that the director had asked my research supervisor to hold my viva outside the university. For what reason, I don’t know, and neither do my friends – as no valid reason was given. Was I not a student of SACON? I did pay ₹50000 to the institute as my PhD fees and submitted my PhD thesis after obtaining ‘no objection’ and ‘no dues’ certificates as is required by the university. Don’t I deserve to present my work at SACON in front of my friends and faculties and get their opinion on my work? As you might know, as per the UGC guidelines, the final and crucial stage in a PhD course is the viva voce examination, during which, the candidate has to make an open defence of the work he/she has submitted for PhD. I never heard of the director asking for any other student’s viva to be conducted outside the institute. I would like to add that more than 50 PhD defences have been held in SACON so far and all were held in the SACON campus. This incident confirmed my doubt that I was being discriminated against, targeted, and excluded by the director. Later, I heard that the director had said that the classroom where the viva was supposed to happen was under maintenance, which was in fact false.
Even after all these issues, coping with all the tension and mental pain they caused me (my health was also affected during these days and I had to seek the help of a doctor), I focused on my preparation for the exam. Only because I didn’t want to spoil that day on which my five years of hard work would be defended in public. Also, I considered it an opportunity to present my work in front of my peers and get suggestions for the further pursuit of my research career.
The PhD viva voce exam being an open defence as per the UGC norms, most of the staff, scientists, and researchers were supposed to attend it. But again, to my surprise, the director called for two alternate meetings for the scientists on the same day, one at 10 AM and the other at 11 AM. My viva was scheduled for 11 AM, and I understand that it had been formally brought to the notice of the director well in advance. Even though there is no precedence for such an event, I can understand the need for a meeting if the issue is urgent. But the meetings were on the annual report, and website improvement. The meeting scheduled at 11 AM, at the same time as my viva, was to discuss website design. It was this day that I realised the sheer violation of my basic human rights; not only had he tried to sabotage my viva so that most of the faculty could not participate in it, but he had also tried to demonstrate the power of his chair.
I want to conclude by repeating that I have been selectively targeted, discriminated against, and mentally tortured during the past one month. I want justice and your support, and I seek an enquiry into the issue I raised here. But I strongly feel for my hometown. My depression makes me wonder if the residents of J&K will ever become a part of ‘mainstream’ India, because a few bigoted people hold positions of power. I wish to stop such things from happening to any other student in my institute or any other institute. Moreover, I am a citizen of India and feel I that I should get equal rights in any part of the country.