Soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government assumed power under the stewardship of Narendra Modi, the focus shifted to appointments, particularly in educational and research institutions. The government used its influence wherever possible to appoint persons of its choice to those posts.
The distinguishing feature of appointments made by previous governments was that people put in important positions could not be labelled as having a distinct political loyalty; their academic credentials were impeccable.
However, several of the new appointments made within a year drew a lot of attention for the wrong reasons. The first appointment that raised eyebrows was that of the chairperson of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR). Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, former head of the Department of History and Tourism Management in Kakatiya University, with little-known credentials in the area of history, took over as head of ICHR in July 2014. His firm belief in the caste system as expressed in a much-quoted blog of his seemed to be among one of the immediately motivating factors. His proximity to and membership of the Akhil Bharatiya Itihaas Sankalan Yojana, an organisation with known affiliations to the RSS, appeared to be a more important factor in his appointment to this prestigious institution. Gopinath Ravindran, member-Secretary of the ICHR, resigned in protest, even before the expiry of this term. A professor of history from Jamia Milia Islamia, Ravindran had joined the ICHR on deputation in 2013. In May 2015, the editorial board and advisory committee of Indian Historical Review were reconstituted and eminent historians such as Romila Thapar were purged.
In January 2015, Zafar Sareshwala, a Mumbai-based businessman and owner of Parsoli Corporation and known to be part of the campaign team that saw the return of the BJP under Narendra Modi to power, was appointed chancellor of Maulana Azad Urdu National University. Sareshwala, originally from Ahmedabad, had reportedly appeared on several news channels professing his support to the new government at the Centre. He was described by a leading newspaper as “the Muslim who bats for Modi”.
In June 2015 the government appointed Gajendra Chauhan president of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and chairman of its governing council, overlooking more accomplished claimants like Gulzar, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Shyam Benegal. Chauhan’s claim to fame was his proximity to the BJP and having acted in the epic television series, Mahabharat . For months, students sat in protest and went on an indefinite strike and even came to Delhi seeking a fair hearing from the Union government. Several renowned artists, including actors from the Mumbai film industry and FTII alumni, expressed concern over the choice of Chauhan. But nothing happened and Chauhan continues as president of the FTII.
In January 2016 the government cleared the decks for the appointment of Jagadesh Kumar, a professor of electrical engineering from IIT Delhi, to take over as vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University. He was known to have attended an event of the Vijnana Bharati, an organisation affiliated to the RSS. But his term was soon embroiled in controversy given the manner in which the JNU administration went overboard in dealing with students, implicating several of them in serious cases, including sedition.
Equally controversial was the appointment and tenure of the vice chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, Appa Rao Podile, who took over soon after the previous incumbent, an appointee of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government quit when the NDA assumed power. Podile’s role and the handling of the circumstances that led to the suicide of a Dalit scholar, Rohith Vemula, was nothing short of controversial. For months, the university concentrated more on disproving the Scheduled Caste status of the deceased student. As in the case of JNU, where an innocuous meeting was given a political complexion, leading to a prolonged standoff between the students and the administration and even the arrests of students, the circumstances that led to Vemula’s suspension and the harassment that drove him to suicide had distinct political overtones.
Despite repeated exhortations in Parliament requesting the Prime Minister’s intervention in finding a resolution to the unrest and chaos in two leading Central universities, Modi chose to remain silent. The decisions and actions of the administrative heads then were seen as having the tacit support of the leadership at the top.