IIT Mandi director has a knack for courting controversies

Laxmidhar Behera, Director, IIT Mandi Director

After previously raising eyebrows by affirming the existence of ghosts, Behera has now sparked controversy by suggesting a link between natural disasters  and people’s meat-eating habits.

It’s been two months since the monsoon rain began unleashing its fury on Himachal Pradesh with tens of thousands of people still struggling to pick up the pieces as the crumbled roads, bridges, homes and other buildings have affected both agriculture and tourism, the mainstays of the hill state.

However, instead of pointing out why hills have become so fragile and vulnerable, the top IIT Professor has created a stir with a viral clip in which IIT Mandi Director Laxmidhar Behera, while addressing a group of students in an auditorium, says that to become a good human being, they have to avoid eating meat.

“To become a good human being what do you have to do?,” he asks and then answers: “No meat eating.” He further exhorts students to repeat the answer. “Himachal Pradesh will have a significant downfall, if the innocent animals are butchered.” The top professor explained to students during a recent address, the ‘butchering of innocent animals’ had an unseen yet ‘symbiotic relationship with the degradation of the environment’. The debate has since taken a political turn as a video of Professor Behera urging students to turn vegetarian went viral.

“…you cannot see right now but you are there. It is having landslides, cloudbursts and many other things again and again, these are all effects of cruelty on animals…people eat meat. To become good human beings, what do you have to do? No to meat-eating,” he explained.

Netizens have been vocal in their criticism of his views. While some flagged his role as an educator others attempted to reason scientifically with the academic.

“Director of an IIT. Why is Himachal having landslides? Because of unplanned construction/deforestation/climate change/all of the above? No. Because of meat-eating. Is he saying farming animals leads to deforestation? No. He says it leads to cloudbursts,” derided one user on X (née Twitter).

As the video gained traction it also became a talking point for Opposition politicians. Congress general secretary, communications in-charge, Jairam Ramesh asserted that Behera was unfit to be the director of an IIT and the longer he stayed in office the “more the damage he will do to the spirit of scientific temper.  A senior Minister confused Newton and Einstein while another justified excluding Darwin from textbooks…Now, this simply flabbergasting statement from the Director of a prestigious institution!!!.”

 “Science and spirituality is one thing, but science and crackpot theories that are put out by people in positions of power is quite another,” a social media user said. Another user, Professor Ravikant said, “IIT Mandi ranks in top 20 of India’s NIRF rankings. It’s an elite institute. Its director claims that he can drive out ghosts by chanting and that eating meat causes landslides.”

The fact is the sunken roads and washed-away highways tell the unfortunate tale of a system that has allowed constructions in the fragile hills by ignoring scientific rigour. Mountains have been cut indiscriminately and the retaining walls of roads are not strong enough. The Landslide Hazard Risk Assessment-2015, undertaken by a think tank, had warned of the threat and high landslide vulnerability faced by 60 per cent of HP’s road network. The state government has estimated the losses caused to be over Rs 10,000 crore because the number of roads swept away is staggering and more than 160 roads still remain closed across the state for its failure to build stable and ecologically sustainable structures.

The IIT Professor

Enquiries reveal that Prof Laxmi Dhar Behera had joined as the Director of IIT Mandi on January 19 , 2022. Prior to this, he was working as the Poonam and Prabhu Goel Chair Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, IIT Kanpur, and simultaneously served as TCS affiliate faculty. After completing BSc (Engg) and MSc (Engg) from NIT Rourkela in 1988 and 1990 respectively, he received the PhD degree from IIT Delhi in 1997.

During his 26 years of research and teaching career, Prof Laxmidhar Behera has contributed significantly to areas such as Intelligent Systems and Control, Vision based Robotics, Warehouse automation, Brain-Computer-Interface and Drone based pipeline inspection system. He has established industrial collaboration with TCS, Renault Nissan, and ADNOC, Abu Dhabi, BEL Bangalore while making significant technological development in the areas such robotics-based ware-house automation, vision and drone guided driver assistance system, and drone guided pipeline inspection systems. Prof. Behera has worked as Reader at University of Ulster, UK during 2007-2009 and has taken up visiting professor assignments at ETH Zurich, and FHG, Germany. Prof. Behera has supervised 22 PhD students to completion. He has published three graduate level textbooks, 110 peer reviewed journal papers, 208 papers in conference proceedings and 17 book chapters.

Other controversy

This is not the first time his statements have stirred a row. In 2022, days after he was appointed as the director, Behera, in a five-minute video clip on YouTube, spoke about his apparent act of exorcism to rid his friend’s apartment and parents of  “evil spirits” through the chanting of holy mantras of  “Hare Ram, Hare Krishna”. When asked about the video, Behera had said, “I narrated what I said. Ghosts exist, yes.”

While this viral video has given enough fodder to social media users, another viral video showing Haryana  Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, purportedly of his interaction with a member of audience at a public meeting, has led to a controversy and criticism by Opposition leaders. The viral video, shared on social media by both Congress and Aam Aadmi Party, shows a woman demanding a factory be set up at Bhatol Jatan village. Mocking the demand, the CM is heard replying: “Agli bar jo chand ke upar jayega na Chandrayaan 4, usmein tumko bhej denge. Baith jao. (Next time, you will be sent to the moon on Chandrayaan 4. Sit down).”

With Haryana due to hold assembly elections next year, the Opposition targeted the CM’s remarks. Sharing the video on its official X account, AAP said: “Those who were elected by the public to serve, today they are making fun of the public. The woman’s crime was that she sought a factory for employment.” Many party leaders, especially those from Haryana, shared the video clip on social media.

Haryana CM had allegedly mocked the woman at a public event when she asked him for a factory in her neighbouring village saying that she would be sent on the Chandrayaan-4 mission. Two days after coming under criticism for mocking the woman who sought a factory for a women’s self-help group in a Hisar village, Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar had a video conversation with her and told her that he was joking earlier.

Suman Bhatol, who had raised her demand for the construction of a factory during an interaction with the CM at his Jan Samvad event at Hisar’s Thuran village, claimed that now the CM has agreed to construct a building on 200 square yards of land in Bhatol, with a hall, an office and a machine for the self-help group. She added that the CM described her as “brave and fearless woman”. The woman said she felt better after the CM talked to her. Suman said that after this, the MLA also honoured her at the village’s chaupal and CM was like her father or brother.