When AMU Killed A Gay Professor

In the academic session 2002-03, I was an MA student at the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the Aligarh Muslim University. Over jokes and smokes under the giant banyan tree that overlooked our department, we would everyday see a man who appeared to be in his 50s, grey hair, always dressed in a black jacket and trousers with a khadi bag hanging down his right shoulder, entering and coming out of the Department of Modern Indian Languages that was next door to ours.

“He must be a professor of some language,” we gathered, and never cared to know any further. But he caught everyone’s eye almost everyday as he walked in and out of his department simply because he was always alone, never seen talking to anyone, except maybe to a few students on the odd occasion. His loneliness stood him apart in the university crowd. Most people would notice him but would not know him.

Early in April 2010, the suicide of a gay professor at AMU made national headlines. Some hurried calls to Aligarh informed me that it was the same professor who I had seen walking in and out of the Modern Languages Department everyday for two years.

He was Professor Srinivas Ramchandra Siras. He taught Marathi at the AMU and was an award-winning poet in the language.

Professor Siras was gay. He kept his sexual orientation secret for over 20 years that he taught at the AMU for fear of harassment and persecution. And his fears proved right. The world around him didn’t let him live for more than a couple of months after it got to know of his sexual orientation.

The buzz around the soon-to-be-released Aligarh is the right moment to revisit the tragedy of Professor Siras and renew the demand to seek justice for him. The Manoj Vajpayee-starrer and Hansal Mehta-directed Aligarh is the story of Professor Siras – his loneliness, his persecution, his tragic end.

It is important today to remember that Professor Siras didn’t kill himself. His was a societal/institutional murder. The AMU administration, the Aligarh district administration and society at large connived to push the 60-year-old to such an extreme that he preferred to die rather than live.

His ordeal began one night in February in 2010 when two local stringers barged into his official university accommodation and filmed him having consensual sex with a rickshawpuller. There were some credible reports that some members of the university faculty and administration were also part of the group that blatantly breached Professor Siras’ privacy. The act of this bunch of thugs was in complete violation of the rights of an individual. And as it happens with the LGBT community in our country, social persecution followed.

What compounds Professor Siras’ tragedy is that this happened to him in the period when homosexuality was decriminalised. The Delhi High Court struck down Section 377 in 2009. No one had any moral or legal right to ‘raid’ Professor Siras and film him. But they did. Sadly, society and his immediate surroundings were far more regressive than the law.

Professor Siras was totally traumatised and heartbroken. “He would say that I managed to hide my sexual orientation all these years and now had to face persecution and torture at this stage of my life,” Professor Tariq Islam of Dept of Philosophy, AMU, still remembers him saying. Professor Islam is one of the very few people at AMU that Professor Siras would talk to. “He had no friends at all. He never spoke of his sexual preferences to anyone. Even among the few people he would talk to, no one knew. We all had just known him a as gentle soul, a very learned man. During the course of those terrible two months, he told me that he was satisfied that he managed to keep this (homosexual) part of his life a secret. But see what I have to go through at this stage in my life,”  Professor Islam recalled him as saying.

He was let down by his university. AMU, forget standing behind a wronged faculty member, actually victimised him. Professor Siras was thrown out of his official accommodation, was suspended from his job, had a probe instituted against him. The conservative establishment spread all sorts of stories about him. Barring a few liberals on campus, Professor Islam among them, no one stood up for the rights of a colleague. In no time, Professor Siras was painted a villain rather than a victim. A well-learned professor suddenly was depicted as a bad influence; from an unknown person on  campus, he suddenly became the object of collective hate.

“AMU failed to protect Professor Siras,” laments Professor Islam today. “The then VC PK Abdul Aziz, who was facing severe corruption charges, saw in the Siras episode an opportunity to deflect heat from himself and turn into a darling of the orthodox sections on the campus.”

A group of students even started a “Sack Siras” signature campaign claiming that he had become a threat to the Muslim culture of AMU. Demonstrations were held against him, effigies were burnt. A gentle soul was demonised by the collective conspiracy of the campus.

The AMU community has Prof Siras’ blood on its hands.

The movie on his life is a fitting tribute to Professor Siras, but that’s only half the job done. This is a moment for all who believe in liberal principles and value human life and dignity to demand justice for Professor Siras. The AMU administration should at least now,  after six years, apologise for violating Professor Siras’ privacy and driving him to suicide. There must be action against members of the faculty and administrative staff who were reportedly part of the raiding party on that February night. If guilty, they should be booked for abetting suicide. AMU needs to atone itself of this sin.

A good gesture will be to name the Department of Modern India Languages at AMU after Professor Siras and start a scholarship in his name.

(Mohd Asim is Senior News Editor, NDTV 24×7)