BKRIf someone else had called ISI’s outgoing Director Professor Bimal Kumar Roy a gaon wala it might have seemed disrespectful or rude.

But I have that privilege, because he has been a dear friend for over 40 years.

Bimal was a year behind me when he entered Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Calcutta, in 1974, to do the B.Stat. (Hons.) course. While I often struggled with the tough course, for Bimal it was a walk in the park. It was hardly a surprise when he raced to the top in his class.

What was more surprising was the way Bimal walked across Calcutta’s Barrackpore Trunk (BT) Road. He would just wave his arm and expect the truck and taxi drivers to stop to let him cross. We often told him that Calcutta wasn’t his tiny gaon in Bengal with small or no roads — and that he couldn’t be a gaon wala on Calcutta’s big road.

We were soon to discover new facets of this gaon wala‘s personality. For example,  Bimal was an outstanding football player. A series of intelligent and deft dribbles … and then the pass to the striker with infinite precision, leading, almost inevitably, to a goal! Why don’t you try to score the goal yourself, we often asked him. He’d reply that ‘making’ the goal was much more satisfying than ‘scoring’ it.

We then found out that Bimal used to give tuitions in maths and physics to high school students. When we asked why, he’d reply that he needed that extra money for his family, but, more than that, he loved teaching.

Another Bimal skill was when he volunteered to be the hostel mess manager quite frequently. This was a thankless task, but he accepted it quite cheerfully. His reason was again interesting and intriguing: “I see this as a good optimization problem – how to give the best food at the least cost – and it is also because I enjoy choosing and buying fish, and, being mess manager, I can buy so much more fish!”

The four B.Stat. years passed by very quickly, and, when it was time to pick the Master’s specialization, Bimal surprised everyone by choosing ‘Applied Statistics and Data Analysis’ – instead of the more highbrow ‘Advanced Probability and Mathematical Statistics’ that offered a Ph.D. berth in a top US university with almost 100% probability.

Like most ISI toppers – and also because there were no easy jobs for data scientists those days – Bimal eventually found himself as a research scholar at the famed Department of Combinatorics and Optimization in the University of Waterloo, Canada. A Ph.D. in double quick time followed … and was hardly a surprise given his immense ability and talent.

But what was a real surprise was that, unlike most ISI toppers, Bimal promptly returned to India after obtaining his doctorate and teaching for a couple of years in the State University of New York. In the early 1980s it was extremely rare for someone to give up the opportunity, and the money, offered by the US to return to an uncertain, and surely more turbulent, future in India. “India is my country, I want to live my life here”, Bimal replied while responding to the general bewilderment.

As a faculty member, and soon a full professor, in ISI’s Computer Science and Applied Statistics Units, Bimal quickly rose in the ranks. His teams did some wonderful and exciting work – measuring fraud in nationalized banks, providing the most accurate estimates of the number of tigers in the Sunderbans, analysing the distribution of soiled currency notes, or undertaking studies on garbage and waste disposal – but this wasn’t the sort of work that was personally most rewarding, or led to papers in the most reputed international scientific journals. Bimal’s well-wishers warned him that this would jeopardize his future ‘growth’ prospects – that meant more lucrative foreign jaunts, the many accompanying prizes and medals, and later the much coveted fellowships of national and international science academies – but Bimal said that he didn’t really care. He said he’d rather be a different kind of professor …

To Bimal, a professor was someone who mentored and created outstanding teams of young researchers around him, the professor who would favour practical problems of national concern … rather than stroll off for another exotic excursion into some Banach Space. But while Bimal was sure how he wanted to do things, he was still trying to figure out what he wanted to do.

The answer would be cryptology – the mathematics of encryption and network security that neatly married computer science and probability. Why cryptanalysis? Partly because it aligned best with Bimal’s top skills, but even more so because it seemed to be a critical national imperative especially as India grappled with terrorism and the aftermath of Kargil.

While Bimal and his teams provided answers and solutions to some vitally important defence and security questions – we won’t talk of all that here, but it would be fair and honest to say that Indian defence establishments rate him very highly – what is worthy of even greater applause is that Bimal created a strong and vibrant Indian team in cryptanalysis, which is essential because no country ever shares the secret of its secrets.

In particular, Bimal launched Indocrypt, the international conference on cryptology held every year in India since 2000, which has given a massive boost to the crypto movement in India. Indocrypt is extremely well-attended; some years ago Adi Shamir, the ‘S’ in the renowned RSA algorithm, attended Indocrypt. “How did you manage to rope in Shamir”, I asked Bimal. “Oh, I just sent him an email; I knew he wouldn’t refuse our invitation” – to me this casual reply reflects the respect that Bimal commands in the international community, and especially in France.

And, through all this, Bimal continued his intense and affectionate association with all his students at ISI.  He taught dozens of courses in statistics and computer science exposing his wards to a plethora of ideas and insight, insisting on teaching every semester even after his administrative responsibilities grew exponentially. I was once visiting him at his ISI apartment, and there was a loud knock on the door after midnight. I was alarmed, but Bimal remained unperturbed: “Must be some student with some practical or research problem bothering him. My doors are always open to students!”

It turned out that this student was just back in the hostel from his village, and he had brought a bag of his favourite teacher’s favourite mangoes. It isn’t just Bimal’s love for mangoes that makes him an aam aadmi (and I’m not talking of political parties). I recall an occasion some years ago when we had to take an auto-rickshaw to reach ISI from B T Road’s Dunlop Bridge because it had started raining. Only one auto was available and there were many of us … so Bimal promptly sat next to the auto driver after asking him to shift a little more to the right. And he was those days ISI’s Dean of Studies and a front-runner for the Director’s position!

I also recall another occasion when Bimal showed up at Indian Institute of Science during an Indocrypt conference. He was busy, smiling and joking  with the international delegates … but, when he saw me, he grew a little serious. “Dada, I have a problem and want your help”, he told me. “Sure”, I said, “how can I help you?”. That’s when he pointed downwards to a gaping hole exposing his toes after the seams in his right shoe had given way. I offered to buy him a new pair if he told me his size. “No, I don’t want a new shoe, I just want you to find a good cobbler for me!”

Shortly before he became the Dean of Studies, Bimal was felled by a lethal attack of cerebral dengue. As the platelet count dropped alarmingly, he was a mere 10,000 platelets away from certain death. All of us feared the worst and there was a desperate need for blood donors. But amidst that encircling gloom we saw a dazzling heart-warming display of love and affection – 40 ISI students had formed a long queue insisting that they should be the first to donate blood to their “Bimal da”!

Given his standing, and his popularity, it was inevitable that Bimal would one day become ISI Director. Bimal assumed charge as ISI Director on August 1, 2010, I made an exclusive trip to Kolkata to be present for the occasion. I thought it would be an intense and solemn occasion involving oaths and vows; instead it proved to be a happy meeting around a round table with many cups of black tea.

Bimal’s first thoughts were to empower ISI students and researchers; “We are an institution of national importance and we must create the best capability for our country”, he told me. His next thought was to get better networked. “ISI cannot remain in isolation. We must expand to other regions, get better connected with industry, and reach out to the rest of India and the world”, he added.

As Director, Bimal was incredibly busy, and our meetings were brief and hurried. But it was apparent to me that Bimal was forging a very different leadership model: ISI had to create great knowledge, but it was even more important for this knowledge to create an impact.

We watched our old mate with glowing pride. While Bimal was winning friends worldwide, he was obviously losing some friends too – that’s what happens to every leader, but what really matters more is that the leader should be capable, charismatic and compassionate.

Bimal has always been all that … although his actions ‘outside the box’ do occasionally raise eyebrows. If a student is ill or dying, he’ll do everything within the ambit of the rules to help or save his life. If the research scholar has a paper accepted in a conference abroad for some good work, Bimal will do what it takes to provide him travel funds for that international exposure. If the ISI guest house – being usually the first point of contact for a visitor – needs a ramp up, Bimal will spend big if needed. However the same Bimal rarely, if ever, flew by business or executive class even though he enjoyed that privilege by holding a position equivalent to a Secretary in the Government.

The only relaxing moments for Bimal were on a weekend evening when he accompanied his wife for a play or a movie … and of course while watching a football match, especially if his favourite Mohun Bagan team was playing. He faced a dharam sankat a few years ago when the rival East Bengal club also offered him a club membership. Bimal gracefully accepted the membership although his son was livid.

It was football that took Bimal to the Salt Lake Stadium a couple of years when Lionel Messi made an appearance in Kolkata. But, even before the first half ended, there was a medical emergency when his ISI colleague who had accompanied him suffered a sudden cardiac arrest. With Messi around, all telephone lines were jammed for security reasons and there was no way to call for help. Together with another spectactor, Bimal personally lifted his colleague out of the stadium and deposited him in a police jeep. When the policeman wasn’t sure if he could leave, Bimal sat next to him and sternly told him to rush to the hospital. Perhaps a rule was broken that day, but a life was saved.

That’s the Bimal I have always known. I was therefore aghast, appalled and flabbergasted when it was reported in the media that the government had issued a notification pointing to the existence of “a number of general and specific matters of financial and administrative irregularities which show the direct and supervisory responsibilities for acts of omission and commission on the part of Bimal Roy”. The notification adds: “There is justified and reasonable apprehension that Bimal Roy may indulge in propagation of indiscipline and mischief, including acts of administrative and financial impropriety …”.

Now wait a minute! Which Bimal Roy are we talking about? This isn’t the Bimal that I or the 2000 others who petitioned in Bimal’s favour on change.org seem to know. This can’t be the same Bimal who was earlier this year conferred the Padma Shri for his many stellar contributions to the nation. Something’s terribly wrong somewhere; this is a travesty of truth, fair play and justice! Bimal Roy’s personal integrity is complete and unimpeachable. And it is ludicrous to the extreme to imagine that Bimal would do something improper in his last 50 days, when he had 1500 full days as Director before that to rake in the moolah if he ever wanted.

We must stop this! We can’t let the evil taxi or truck driver on B T Road trample our still innocent gaon wala who has spent his whole life working for his country and his people. Please let us not run a good man down.

30 thoughts on “Still a gaon wala?

  1. We’ll get to the bottom of it, they can suppress the voice of ISI alumni who are ISI employees as well, not our voice.

    We’ll keep on asking the question – What happened in Bangalore on 23 April 2015 – for days, weeks, months and years – we are in it for the long haul, not going away in a few days.

  2. Great reminiscence! I know Bimal for over 35 years since the days of Waterloo, and my memory of him since those days till now is not any different in essence from this specific reminiscence. Those of us who are outside and geographically far away from the event place want to know first if Dr. Roy’s welfare and security are in anyway endangered, and what plans are afoot to address these issues. Secondly, an equally important issue as a member of academia, is how academia, and not just ISI, but the rest in India, plans to fight this one out.

  3. Excellent.This is the Bimal-Da we all knew. Thanks for highlighting some other anecdotes on Bimal-Da we did not know.

  4. I teared up while reading this.

    I hope there is justice in this world.. If we fight together for this gaon-wallah, we may be able to find it.

  5. Reached this.. I m nt one of ISI..
    It appears.. it is a problem of who judges whom… Personalities like Prof. Bimal Roy and Mr. Arun Shourie are of polar opposite type….. believing in different ways….. with entirely different ideologies.. with many experiences and learnings, I suppose… though they might hv aimed at a common good … at some point.. or not.
    Do not know if there is some more deep interests from some ppl… inside or outside of ISI.. West Bengal… India… etc.

    Thought ISI was a safe place.. as a few rules nd regulations caught my eyes… last year.
    I suppose Prof. Roy did sign them.
    Not being able to think it is safe anymore.

  6. A great piece of writing about an extraordinary man. When I heard what happened, I felt truly ashamed of my connection with a country where such a thing could be done to such a man. Shame on the country. Shame on the government. Shame on all those who have let this happen.

  7. That’s an excellent analytical exposure of Bimal, whom I know for last more than 40 years. I am almost sure he is a victim of current Council Chairman’s egoistic dealing. A small group of enemies within ISI are instrumental in damaging not only Bimal’s career and personal life but also the overall image of ISI. I failed to understand how a personality of his standing could be removed without any show cause notice after so many years of successful running of the Institute.Let us expose the enemies of ISI and let us protest the high handed action of the Ministry.

  8. I have also a deep respect to our beloved Dr. Bimal Roy. Only thing I got disheartened that I heard that some of the low qualified faculties were hired during the tenured of Bimal da a director and many of those cases Bimal da has exploited his power to hire them.

  9. As a rank outsider to ISI, I was touched and awed by your account of Dr. Bimal Roy – the man and the academician (of whom I knew nothing). However, it doesn’t surprise me. Look at the person heading the Human Resources ministry or the person appointed Chairman of the Governing Council of FTII, Pune or Chairman to the Censor Board and you begin to see a pattern. The biggest losers would be the students.

  10. First of all, my kudos to the author for penning down his interactions with his long-time pal Bimal, and sharing with us these invaluable pieces of experience. While these old incidents were largely unknown (therefore, are breaking stories now) to many of us who came to be associated with Bimal-da relatively recently, in spirit, our experiences too do perfectly match with the ones written here.

    I am an ISI alumnus who did M.Tech (CS) in 1999-2001. Subsequently, I pursued a research career in cryptology and information security, and, at present, am working as an assistant professor of CS at IIT Gandhinagar.

    While I will try my best to put my thoughts in rigorous objectivity, it is going to be difficult, as I go along, to set personal feelings aside completely, especially when talking about Bimal-da, no less.
    Bimal-da has been my mentor, literally, since 1999 –, guiding me through thick and thin, who could be trusted and relied upon blindly for honest advices, be it related to career issues, professional matters, at times of extreme confusion in making decision, and even in crises in personal life. This kind of trust and confidence in him did not come by magic, but is something that Bimal-da has earned by his hard work throughout his life, by his constant interactions and engagements with everyone across the spectrum, students, alumni, colleagues and all other support staff.

    While taking a crack at the hardest of the problems in cryptology with formidable ease, as a dean dealing with various administrative and academic issues without losing temper, and even when he was crazily busy discharging his directorial duties, not a single moment could I remember when Bimal-da showed any signs of airs, or irritability or tantrums, when approached for advices on some issue. To me and, I can say with full conviction, to almost all I know, this much of down-to-earthness and simplicity, that Bimal-da has shown, even when occupying high offices, is simply rare and legendary. This quality takes a different dimension, since he did all these things solely out of his urge to help others, without expecting anything in return. I wish I could speak for the others, but I can at least say that I am just one of countless folks, whose lives have been enormously enriched by him. I can put my hand on my chest and say without any qualms that he is the most unselfish, humble and helpful person I have ever seen. I do not want to bring up the issue of Bimal-da’s vision to realize the importance of information security in modern India, and his untiring efforts toward the advancements of research and education in these areas, since people (as well the government) of India already know that.

    Now, in this backdrop, rather than supporting and rewarding, when a ministry brazenly arm-twists to humiliate a person like Prof. Roy, it is not him, but them who get knocked down off the pedestal of public admiration and confidence. More so, when it is executed in a cloak-and-dagger manner against all the democratic values the country stands for. In about a week, we will be observing the 40th anniversary of The Emergency era in India that saw suspension of many democratic rights of the common people. The “emergency rule” was invoked in 1975, when there were no emergency-like situations in the country; it was perhaps invoked to satisfy the ego of a coterie in the administration. In fact, the emergency-like situation was precipitated by that rule – not the other way round — in the next two years, as history says. The comparison may be tenuous and far-fetched, but here also Prof. Roy has been sacked by the “decree” of an emergency order, when there was no need for that. As the news reports suggest now, the tension came to the campus only after the order. Ironically, a person, named Arun Shourie, who, then, had been a vocal critic of The Emergency – and quite rightfully so – now, allegedly, finds himself on the opposite side of the barricades. Is it too difficult to learn lessons from history, we wonder?

  11. Let us be fair and understand that ISI runs with public money, so ISI needs to workfor the goals of the country. ISI is not purely an training intitute because several senior faculty enjoy this previlage without any classes to teach. Is the director able to reach ISI for the country is questionable. Govt needs to thoroughly investigate all the admn and financial decisions, recruitment as per reservations during last five years. Individually being a good person is different from handling the things apolitically.

  12. In my view, there seems to be a gross misunderstanding in the minds of many people — who happened to not have agreed with many of Bimal’s decisions as the director — as to what is amiss here, as to what is exactly we are protesting against. A quality of a director is to be able to show the courage to take decisions, is to be able to use his executive powers to make things happen, rather than following a safe life of sitting idle and doing nothing to avoid controversy and pleasing the so-called political masters. It is perfectly natural that a section of people would not like many of his decisions. However, this is not the matter in question. We cannot bay for someone’s blood, we cannot insist someone get unduly humiliated, just because we do not agree with him on various issues.

    The bone of contention here is government’s highhanded intervention in the affairs of an autonomous Institute, and their secret plots to throttle the freedom of the academicians. If you take a peek into history, this is undoubtedly a dangerous trend, and it can snowball into a bigger problem in the future, threatening the very democratic fabric of our society. You may not like an action of mine, but does it justify an underhand revenge attack against me? We are not living in a totalitarian regime, right. To many, Bimal’s ouster is no better than a coup orchestrated by a section of people influential in the government. No show-cause notice served, no proper protocol followed, the governing ISI council virtually bypassed, no formal charges brought in, what is happening in here? All these because Bimal had not been browbeaten into signing a certain draft? All these because he angered the ministry by asking for the audio-recording of an ISI council meeting?

    I think the entire academic community should rise to the occasion more definitively, even if they do not like some (or all) of Bimal’s decisions, or, for that matter, if they do not like him as a person at all. The issue is no more around a certain person here, it is all about the values we, the people in academia, stand for. This does not bode well for the community, if the atmosphere of confusion, the lack of confidence, the insecurity, created by this incident are not put to rest without any delay.

  13. Here is what could have had happened-Inspired by Swatch Bharath-the decision makers started the cleansing act and in the process they found the crystal ball lying buried in the ISI campus.Being an ardent guardians of this renowned institute and with an intention to know what’s in store for this great institute-they looked into it and they found this “gaon wallah” who gave his everything is going to curb the noble name & the fame with his “to be actions”

    My earnest request -Please include Astrology as a key subject and proudly acclaim how an honest man is nailed down .Share the success story and lets inspire others to look into future with mere assumptions & anticipations rather than data related statistics.

    With due respect , we all should be fair and that is what all are asking for-Be fair to the scholar,academician and a great philanthropist.

  14. ऐसे कुशल ,विद्वान् ,संस्था ,एवं छात्र के प्रति समर्पित शिक्षक के प्रति केंद्र सरकार यदि ओछी राजनीति करती है तो यह भारतीय सांख्यकीसंस्थान के लिए घातकहोगा .

  15. I am deeply saddened by the news. Prof bimal guide was my guide in 2001-2002 when I was doing my mtech thiesis dissertation under him. I still have the completion certificate with great appreciation duely signed by the great man. Those are the only jewels in my not so great career portfolio. He inspired me to pursue Ph D but I turned down the offer and joined a software consultancy firm. I repent. Sir if I would have listened to you.
    I will always pray for you so that you stay strong and healthy to come out from this.
    Anirban Datta

  16. Barring the event, almost at the a bottom of this long reminiscences, in the Salt Lake Stadium featuring Lionel Messi, I find almost all others, I am familiar with. I consider this as my personal priviledge. We are attempting some concrete steps in our fight against this great injustice. Please have patience; you will come to know about the result , hopefully in the near future.

  17. Bimal Roy is easy to approach and nice to talk. But ISI is a great idea by Mahalanobis and nurtured by several prominant figures in India like,RCBose, CR Rao, Kalyanpur etc to assist national planning process. It’s reputation is not due to recent directors. Bimay Roy and almost all other directors in last 30 years have not worked purely for mission of ISI and caught-up in personal name and fame and promoting name and fame of their supporters. ISI needs selfless people who do not promote their own friends but promote merit. Country should come first. Its a Institute purely funded by central government.

  18. What appears is ISI didnt got back to past glory during his term but he remained a popular person within ISI students due to never say no attitude and his friendly behaviour. These are very different issues than providing a clean and neat leadership and promoting statistical thinking across the nation by merit and not by supporting his supporters and well wishers.

  19. So, till mid-April 2015, Bimal-da was one of the brightest stars of India, so bright that the Govt. decided to honor him with a Padma-Shree; and within a fortnight since then, Bimal-da managed to do all those “pattern” administrative and financial irregularities!!! Wow Mr. Arun Shourie… just Wow!!! One does not need to be a guru in Pattern Recognition or skilled in Mathematical Statistics and Probability to understand that this ridiculous allegation of “pattern” irregularity is not just improbable but is impossible, and stinks of rotten lie. But this issue is much larger than Bimal-da. It is about the autonomy of an institute of national importance. If the whole ISI – its teaching and non-teaching staff, the students and the alumni – do not unite and stand up against this mischievous high-handedness, and If this precedence of invoking the emergency power (from the ISI Act) on a false pretext is allowed to go unchallenged, then the all-precious autonomy would be the casualty, relegating the esteemed institute to one of national impotence. The question is, are we potent enough to take on this challenge?

  20. Yes that a very good account of Bimalda that we know for years. Very surprising and curiosity evoking. I have never seen him out of humour so he must be taking it in stride. However the charge seems to be he ‘may’ do some wrong things which is funny and a fear of ‘paralysis’ . Riddles-So let us see! alumnus Ph.D

  21. Very well written. This needs to be set right. Cant let a great person be sacrificed at the altar of politics.

  22. I had the privilege of knowing Bimalda from his pre-ISI days in Narendrapur RK Mission where too he commanded great respect and affection of students and teachers alike. The humiliating action against Bimalda is part of the same ominous design to subvert India’s institutions that we see today everywhere, whether it is a Gajendra Chauhan being inflicted on FTII students or someone like Bimalda being humiliated in the very institution for which he gave his very best for so many years, as a student, teacher and administrator.

  23. It is not the question of how simple the person is or whether the person is wearing simple dress during five years, but what did Bimal Roy achieve in last 5 years as director? How many OBCs and SC/ST faculties are appointed? How much ISI is serving the national requirement in statistical research ( except academic papers) is a BIG question. Now how much this RCBose Institute will assist national crypto requirements is to be seen.

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