If you have just got a 75 percent raise, how would you look if you threaten to go on a hunger strike asking for a further raise of 2 percent?
If you don't want to look ridiculous, and if you still want to fight for that extra 2 percent raise, you better find some other way of telling the world that a lot more is at stake.
In other words, you look for a principle that you can defend in a public setting.
The principle should be uncontroversial, grand and elevating -- like, motherhood, masala dosa and monomaniacal war with MHRD.
[You can never lose on the last one; going to war with government is always a PR winner!]
IIT faculty associations were in a hurry to find such a principle. What they did find is pretty brilliant:
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I just finished watching a half-hour show on CNN-IBN on the IIT faculty salary issue. It had three people batting for IIT faculty: Chetan Bhagat (yes, he of the "Three Mistakes" fame), Prof. Balakrishnan of IIT-D, and Prof. Indiresan, ex-Director of IIT-M. They were all chanting the same mantra: "The hunger strike is not about pay; it's about autonomy!"
This has been going on for over two days. Every newspaper / TV channel is peddling this nonsense.
As the media went to town over how MHRD was pounding IITs' autonomy into the ground, I wondered: how is it that a simple dispute about faculty pay scales suddenly turn into a soul-stirring cry for autonomy? How is it that the IIT faculty federations's original memorandum sound generally reasonable to me? Was this autonomy thingy always there (but missed by me)? Or, is it simply being used in a cynical exercise of shifting the goal posts?
I went back and checked the two documents submitted by the IIT faculty federations to the government. They are dated 23 August 2009 and 21 September 2009. The first one recounts their demands; the second one articulates why they are rejecting the 16 September notification before rehashing their demands one more time.
Neither of them contains the word "autonomy."
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If I sound pissed, I am. The IIT faculty had one genuine grievance (after the revised notification of September 16), and they mucked it up royally.
That grievance arose from the clause about on-contract assistant professors, whose salary is at least a third less than that of real assistant professors. This killer clause is going to affect IITs' ability to recruit assistant professors (especially in the next two years), not because their absolute salary is low, but because the comparison is now with the salary of real assistant professors.
The IIT faculty took this one truly genuine, golden grievance, and mixed it with lots of cheap metal scrap, gave it a nice, shiny coat of autonomy. It sold it to the media as designer jewellery!
At the end of the day, I am bitter because the one genuine grievance has ended up being de-emphasized in the second round, just as it did in the first.
Trust the senior faculty to push their case as hard as possible. Trust them to exploit a genuinely junior faculty grievance to help their own piffling cause.
How low were the stakes for the senior faculty?
An extra AGP of Rs. 500 for associate and full professors, and a shot at an extra AGP of Rs. 1,500 for some 60 percent of professors who aren't getting a chance to be called "senior professors." They translate to, roughly, 1 to 2 percent of one's salary.
Make no mistake: It is this piffle that's masquerading as a cry for autonomy.