This Article is From Jun 29, 2015

Smriti Irani's College Degree is Not the Problem

One really can't blame Smriti Irani, our Education Minister, for the mess in education - since she is really not much educated herself. Oh, she did pass her school-leaving exams, but can't quite remember what degree course she applied for or at which University, although she does remember spending five days at Yale - and has a certificate to prove it. But does that really matter? After all, Kamaraj did not need a University degree to prove himself an outstanding Chief Minister, and both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi went to University abroad but returned without a degree.  

No, an education is no more required to be an Education Minister than a flying qualification is indispensable to being a Civil Aviation Minister. And God help us if a General were to become Defence Minister - for that would make us Pakistan.

Moreover, what Smriti lacks in graduation papers, she makes up for in fluency in both English and Hindi (and, I am told, in Marathi and Gujarati). She is articulate and self-confident in Parliament, and has a natural flair for the cut and thrust of public debate, which she deploys with great effect at the hustings. She made a considerable mark in her earlier career as a star of the small screen. Little wonder that she caught Modi's attention at such a young age, or that he should have opted for her to take the Human Resource Development (HRD) portfolio.

What surprises me is that a Minister of her personality and oratorical skills should be so mishandling the work entrusted to her. I suspect that has less to do with her own qualities of intellect and upbringing than with the forces that are attempting to control policy-making in her Ministry. The two forces I have been able to identify are the Sangh Parivar and the Prime Minister - the Parivar providing the Hindutva thrust and Modi the authoritarian mindset.

The worst display of Hindutva has been at the Indian Council of Historical Research where a wholly unqualified mythologist has been appointed Chairman, a post that should be earmarked for an outstanding academic with world-wide peer recognition, as has been the case so far. It is possible to be a right-wing intellectual and yet gain international recognition. Indeed, a large number of renowned Western mind-workers have been precisely that. For example, no one would dispute the intellectual stature of both Isaiah Berlin and Isaac Deuscher, representing between them the right-to-left spectrum of historiography and political philosophy; or of, say, the right-leaning Karl Popper and the left-leaning E.H. Carr. All four of them merit, and continue after their passing away to merit, prime niches for themselves in academia's Halls of Fame. Why not in India?

Of course, it cannot be gainsaid that most contemporary Indian historians who have earned the admiration of their peers world-wide have been to the left of centre, with little sympathy for the fantasies of Hindu or any other mythology. That can neither exclude the major role that right - and religiously-inclined Indian historians of high distinction have played in the past in the Rediscovery of Indian History from Imperial myth-making, nor the possibility of finding similarly inclined historians at present. It is not their leaning but their academic standing that is the moot point. After all, if two eminent economists like Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati can have such radically differing ideologies, or two great historian-novelists, such as VS Naipaul and Amitav Ghosh can belong to such diametrically opposed schools of thought, it should not be beyond the bounds of bureaucratic (or Ministerial) possibility to find a respectable right-wing Hindutva-inclined historian to match, say, Irfan Habib.

True, I am not immediately able to think of a single eminent Indian historian who bends towards the religious right. But then I am not the HRD Minister and do not possess the powerful search engines at the Minister's disposal. To take the easy way out of easing out a whole panoply of top historians merely because they are not devotees of Savarkar or Golwalkar, and bringing in someone of a different ilk precisely because he does not believe the aeroplane was invented by the Wright brothers, is to do the worst that any Minister who holds Smriti Irani's position could possibly do.

Similar outrages are in the process of being performed on school text books under the malevolent patronage of so-called historians like Dina Nath Batra, who is better suited to organize a crusade against Mohammad bin Qassim than teach genuine history to innocent young minds. The manipulation of syllabi, and the excising or inclusion of text books for ideological not academic reasons, apart from partisan packing of the Central Advisory Board for Education, is but the beginning of a process of twisting the Idea of India to fit a perverse ideological mindset. She might as well move the NCERT (National Centre for Educational Research and Training) from Delhi to Nagpur!

If it is Hindutva that is setting the work-agenda of the HRD Ministry, it is Moditva that is setting its authoritarian style of work. The attempt to shut the mouths of a student think-tank at IIT, Guindy is one example of the Emergency-style of functioning that Modi seems to have learned from Sanjay Gandhi circa 1975-77.

So is the manipulation of appointments and transfers of heads of Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). The current rumpus over the draft Bill to regulate the Indian Institutes of Management to make them subserve the diktats of the Government is but the latest example of Modtiva in action. Centralization of authority, authoritarianism in decision-making, undermining of academic freedom in the administration of institutions of excellence is being prioritized.

Universities are also under threat in the proposed Universities Bill. As Romila Thapar has remarked, "With standardization and centralization, Universities will become teaching shops and coaching schools". Is this the way to bring acche din to our burgeoning student population? For, to quote Prof. Thapar again, "Poor quality education and large numbers of young people who are unqualified for the jobs they seek doesn't make for a healthy society". That is the nub of the problem. If Smriti Irani does not recognize it, our so-called "demographic dividend" could turn into a "demographic disaster."

If, of course, the courts decide that her affidavits regarding her educational qualifications (or, at any rate, her attempts to secure them) disqualify her from continuing as Minister, they might put her out of her misery before she can inflict more on the country.

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha.)

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