INDIA: Gay professor murdered at top university

One of India's oldest universities is facing allegations of institutional homophobia following the mysterious death of a senior gay professor in February. The incident comes amid reports of widespread homophobia on Indian campuses and although the courts have upheld gay rights, homosexuality is frowned on.

Professor Srinivas Ramchander Siras, 63, chair of the department of modern Indian languages at Aligarh Muslim University, was suspended and ordered to leave his official residence after being secretly filmed having sex with a rickshaw puller.

He was found dead days after a court revoked his suspension and he was set to return to work.

Police initially said it was a case of suicide but changed their version after poison was found in his body and his mobile phone went missing. A case of murder has been registered and six people have been arrested.

Jamshed Siddiqui, Secretary of the university's Teachers' Association, alleged that Siras was "subjected to severe harassment by the university authorities and was under immense mental pressure". Siddiqui said that to suspend a professor without an inquiry was "yet another example of the high-handed behaviour by the authorities".

The university defended the decision, saying teachers were expected to lead by personal example.

"A teacher has a role of responsibility and should be a figure to be looked up to," said press relations officer Rahat Abrar.

Students have complained of homophobia on the campus and accused the university authorities of promoting a culture of intolerance. They said Vice-chancellor Professor Abdul Azis had installed CCTV cameras around the campus, including in the canteen, in what they alleged was an attempt to 'intimidate' them and stifle freedom.

Days before his death, Siras reportedly told some journalists the case against him had been played up to distract attention from an ongoing government investigation into allegations of nepotism and financial irregularities against the vice-chancellor.

The university, which takes its name from the north Indian town of Aligarh where it is located, has been dogged by controversies arising out of its special status as a Muslim 'minority' institution. Critics allege this has allowed successive vice-chancellors to run it as their 'private fiefdom'.

Once dubbed the 'Cambridge of north India', Aligarh is now known more for its poor academic standards, indiscipline and frequent strikes, and - in the recent past - student deaths on and off the campus.

Currently, the university is embroiled in a controversy over its decision to reserve 50% of student places for 'meritorious' Muslim students on grounds that it was set up to serve the Muslim community.

Aligarh has 30,000 mostly Muslim students and was established in 1875 by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, a leading Muslim educationist, to impart western-style education to his community.

Critics say that over the years - as with many other institutions that cater to ethnic minority groups - the AMU has become 'a law unto itself'. Most of these institutions are run as closed-door shops with the government hesitant to act for fear of offending minority groups.

With the tremendous political leverage they enjoy, misconduct, financial irregularities and questionable appointments are all par for the course.

As with AMU, other similar institutions are beset by sharp and fierce rivalries among teachers. Students become unwitting pawns in this fight and, in the ensuing chaos, education itself takes a backseat.