Manikandan Sivasankar Image Credit: ATIQ-UR-REHMAN/XPRESS

Dubai: A Sharjah resident is caught in limbo following his arrest early this month for allegedly defaming a university based in Dubai International Academic City.

Indian expatriate Manikandan Sivasankar, 37, a former senior lecturer at the Dubai campus of Manipal University, was arrested on May 5, apparently for blogging and posting videos against his former employers. He says he was terminated by the university ‘without solid grounds’ last year, just about three months into a contract that was renewed by the university on completion of a three-year term. He said his blogs, that he began writing since his termination last year, were “a personal diary” of his experiences in the university and the ‘deep emotional’ distress he underwent during and after his termination. However, what seems to be causing a storm now is several other questions the blog raises about the Indian university, including the status of its Dubai offshore campus and the degrees offered here.

“I have been seeking justice but I know I can’t take on such a big power on my own terms, so I resorted to expressing my feelings and my findings about the university in my personal blog,” Manikandan told XPRESS.

At 11.30pm on May 5, he was arrested at Dubai Airport when he returned from San Francisco where he is pursuing a Master’s Degree from HULT International Business School. “I was shocked when I was forced into a police van and taken to Rashidiya Police Station. Every assurance that I had an American visa, a UK visa and a business visa to live and work here in the UAE and that I was an international student fell on deaf ears,” Manikandan said.

“According to the police, I had committed “Ebda’al ra’I” (Arabic for stating an opinion) an Indian Consulate official said represents a case of defamation,” he said about his night-long ordeal at the police station. Manikandan’s wife Salome Jagannathan, a lecturer at a government college, deposited her passport as a bail guarantee.

Manikandan subsequently travelled to London but returned to Dubai after a five-day trip on May 26.

But with another trip to the British capital coming up in just about a fortnight, Manikandan is scared. “I am in no-man’s land. I would have ideally wanted to clear my name before flying back,” explained the lecturer who lives in Sharjah with his wife and six-year-old daughter.

“I feel terrible to have held my family at ransom and for something that I didn’t realise will cause so many problems,” said Manikandan who has been regularly posting videos and writings in his personal blog for over a year, protesting what he terms “a human rights violation” by his former employer.

Manikandan joined the Dubai campus of Manipal University in August 2008 and completed a three-year term before his visa was renewed under an unlimited contract in October 2011. However, in January 2012, he was suddenly asked to leave. His termination letter stated the sacking was part of a ‘structural re-organisation’.

“I was on invigilation duty when I was called and handed a termination letter stating I was not required by Manipal from the month of February, which was technically the very next day.

“So I virtually had no time to pack up and move,” he said, recalling his sacking on January 31, 2012.

“I was terminated without any reason. When I protested, they [Manipal Dubai] threatened to confiscate my passport,” alleged the man from Chennai. He challenged his dismissal in a Dubai court and won the case. In June 2012 the court ruled in his favour and in February this year he eventually received around Dh32,000 towards his end-of-service benefits.

But that wasn’t what Manikandan had begun his fight for. “I was upset that they had withheld my passport and threatened me which I thought was an abuse of human rights. My self-esteem had been hurt. I wanted them to be punished for harassing me, so acting on my legal firm’s advice, in July 2012 I filed a case in the Karnataka High Court as the parent Manipal University falls under their jurisdiction.”

Legality of Dubai campus

He also took his fight against his former university outside court, to his personal blogs.

“Going through the website of India’s University Grants Commission (UGC) (university regulator in India), I was stunned to see that Manipal had no approvals from the Government of India, Ministry of Human Resources and the UGC for an offshore campus. I had been teaching there for three years and yet I didn’t know about this. My immediate concern was for the students who had passed out or were about to pass out and this is what I had highlighted in my blog,” alleged Manikandan.

Manikandan told XPRESS that a director in the Indian Human Resources Ministry, K. Damayanthi, had submitted in Karnataka High Court that Manipal University’s campuses are to be restricted to India.

XPRESS has seen a copy of the sworn affidavit filed on March 28 this year.

It reads: “The campuses are to be restricted to Manipal and Mangalore. The provision in the MOA regarding setting up of campuses outside Mangalore and Manipal, whether within the country and outside, shall be deleted.”

This, Manikandan claimed, essentially means Manipal is not legally allowed to run offshore campuses.

When asked to comment on the affidavit, Dr B. Ramjee, Director of Manipal University, Dubai Campus, said: “In reference to the affidavit allegedly filed before the Karnataka High Court, we are in no position to verify the authenticity/credibility of the document. However, in case it is part of any larger writ petition filed before the honourable court (and the enclosed is just a part of it) - this matter is sub-judice and we are unable to comment on the same.”

Manikandan had also requested the Consulate General of India in Dubai to look into the issue.

On May 13, 2013, the Consulate wrote to Manipal University, Dubai Campus seeking a clarification on “the status of the Dubai campus of the university vis-a-vis the parent Manipal University in Karnataka”.

When XPRESS wrote to the Consulate asking if they have received a reply from Manipal, an official said: “Manipal University, Dubai Campus, is recognised by the University Grants Commission of India.”

But the consulate did not specify why it sought a clarification in the first place. Contesting the consulate’s defence of Manipal’s Dubai campus, Manikandan argued that website of UGC (http://www.ugc.ac.in/deemed_uniinfo.aspx?id=83) clearly says Manipal University has no permission for any offshore campus.

“I am not a crusader but a common man seeking the truth,” said Manikandan.

A sample of a degree awarded by Manipal in Dubai says Manipal is a ‘Deemed University’, meaning it can award degrees to students. However, both the UGC website and the HRD Ministry official’s affidavit state that this status is not extended to an offshore campus.

In India, Manipal enrols over 25,000 students across 23 disciplines and claims to be the country’s largest private university.

Manipal’s sprawling 750,000 square foot Dubai campus has “over 1,500 students from 26 nations across the globe”.

What is Manipal University saying?

A. Our institution as a matter of policy does not make any comments on issues already judicially adjudicated and disposed of or on matters sub-judice.

B. Our institution is duly authorised under the rules and regulations of the Indian Education authorities to operate as an Offshore Campus in Dubai.

C. We operate under the aegis of Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) of Dubai, as a duly established branch campus, meeting all the statutory requirements of the Dubai educational authorities.

D. The degrees granted by our institution are recognised and certified by KHDA.

KHDA response

A. Refer to the University Quality Assurance International board’s quality manual, which is available on our website. It includes full details of the criteria for branch campuses.

B. A branch campus can’t establish in Dubai without approval from the home campus, the regulators and the relevant quality assurance agency. Manipal University is authorised under the rules and regulations of the Indian education authorities to operate as an Offshore Campus in Dubai.

C. No university can either establish as a branch campus or a private university. In both cases they must be accredited by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research through the commission for academic accreditation.

D. KHDA conducts quality assurance checks on branch campuses in Dubai’s free zones on an annual basis. University branch campuses can register programmes offered in the home campuses. These are certified by KHDA for all private and public entities for all purposes in the Emirate.