HRD Ministry

Sectarian agenda

Print edition : February 19, 2016

Members of the All India Students' Association during the 'Occupy UGC' march against government policies in higher education, in New Delhi on December 9, 2015. Photo: Manvender Vashist/PTI

Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani addressing a press conference regarding the suicide of Rohith Vemula, in New Delhi on January 20. Photo: Vijay Verma/PTI

The MHRD has been blatant in its efforts to privatise and saffronise higher education and brooks no opposition from organisations such as the ASA that oppose its agenda.

TO many students and teachers across the country, the hounding of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) by the Union Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD) seemed unprecedented. Ever since the ASA, like many other groups in India, opposed and protested against the hanging of the Mumbai blast accused Yakub Memon last year in the University of Hyderabad (UoH), also known as Hyderabad Central University (HCU), the Sangh Parivar left no stone unturned to pressure the MHRD to take action against the student group. The regional vice-president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Nandanam Diwakar, and Member of Parliament from Secunderabad and Union Minister of Labour and Employment Bandaru Dattatreya thought it fit to write to the MHRD against the alleged “anti-national” activities of the ASA and demand action against the group.

To everyone’s surprise, the MHRD promptly issued five notices to the university administration to take action against the group, a pressure tactic that eventually led to the suspension of Rohith Vemula and his friends. Vemula’s suicide, many believe, was abetted by the MHRD’s persistence in clamping down on political activism on the university campus. A mid-level official at the MHRD told Frontline: “As an official in the MHRD for over 20 years now, I have not seen a Minister taking such keen interest in routine internal matters of a university. All universities have a history of political activism of various hues. Right in the national capital Delhi, we see anti-establishment politics constantly in universities such as Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia. Successive governments have never perceived these protests as threats. It is a matter of shame that this government feels intimidated by protesting students.”

In the last one year, the government has clamped down on various Ambedkarite political groups. First, IIT Madras banned the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, only to revoke the ban later after widespread criticism. And now, the ASA has become the target of the Sangh Parivar. Political observers believe that Sangh Parivar ideologues find the critique of society advanced by Ambedkarite groups hard to tackle. “Sangh Parivar ideologues have successfully constructed a political rhetoric against the politics of secularism over the last few years. However, they have still not managed to evolve a political language to counter Dalit groups, which persistently campaign against Brahminism within the Sangh Parivar,” said a political observer based in New Delhi.

While the BJP has chosen to ally with political parties that champion the cause of social justice in electoral politics, it has been generally apathetic about Ambedkarite groups that bring in militant anti-Brahminism to the political discourse, creating severe roadblocks for the Hindutva brand of politics.

Ever since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power, Ambedkarite groups such as the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association, the United Dalit Students Forum, the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle and the ASA have raised their voice on various university campuses against the government’s efforts to saffronise education. Most of these groups believe that the saffronisation of education is a way of reinforcing Brahminical hegemony over educational institutions. “The tag of being a ‘casteist-communal’ party is naturally threatening for the BJP as it has been evolving ways to bring Dalits and Other Backward Classes [OBCs] into the Hindutva fold. The MHRD’s letters to the UoH demanding action against the ASA is reflective of this perceived threat, a churlish tactic that obviously backfired,” said the political observer.

Such nervous action by the MHRD in the last one year has also diverted the public’s attention from the government’s blatant efforts to privatise and saffronise education. Said Tapas Ranjan Saha, a Delhi University professor: “The focus of higher education, as the government has stated time and again, is not knowledge, but skill. Skill development is naturally entwined with the commercialisation of higher education. This goal gives the government enough space to overlook problems of exclusion and isolation of marginalised students on university campuses. Why would the government suddenly decide to take away the meagre fellowship given to students pursuing higher education?”

The ongoing “Occupy UGC” agitation by students in New Delhi to protest against the MHRD’s decision to scrap non-NET fellowships for research scholars is a case in point. The agitation started on October 21, 2015, after the UGC decided to scrap these fellowships. But the MHRD has been literally sleeping on it. The agitation has turned ugly at times, with the students facing water cannons, manhandling by insensitive police personnel and extreme hardship as they continue to sit outside the UGC headquarters in extreme cold conditions, but the government has paid no heed.

The provocation for the agitation was a recommendation made by the UGC in October last year to cancel a set of non-NET fellowships given to students engaged in research at the MPhil and PhD levels. The UGC-sponsored Non-National Eligibility Test (UGC Non-NET) Fellowship Scheme was started in 2008 to encourage research in universities in India. It proved to be a lifeline for researchers who did not have access to other scholarships. According to the protesting students, this fellowship encouraged students from different socio-economic backgrounds to pursue higher education and research, though the fellowship amount was meagre—Rs. 5,000 for MPhil Students, and Rs.8,000 for PhD students.

Ironically, the students were demanding an increase in the fellowship amount when the UGC decided to scrap the fellowships altogether. The UGC, it may be mentioned, comes directly under the MHRD. Following protests, HRD Minister Smriti Irani assured a group of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad students that a committee would be formed to review the decision. But nothing has been heard on the matter since then. The protesting students have been unsuccessfully demanding a meeting with the UGC Chairman to put their views across. They have not been given any update on the committee’s activities either. Some students were informally told that the committee would meet on January 16, but no such meeting was held that day.

The agitation, which has received support from organisations across India and abroad, is now intensifying, with students resorting to a postcard and signature campaign. Hundreds of postcards are being sent to the MHRD every day and signatures are being collected from all over the country to demand an increase in non-NET fellowships. The students have given an all-India university strike call for February 18. The rationale for scrapping the fellowship is beyond comprehension when what is really needed is an increase in the fellowship amount; it should also be made available in all Central and State universities. Efforts to get the reaction of MHRD officials proved futile.

Many education experts feel that the current focus on skill development will only cater to the needs of the corporate sector. A Delhi University professor said: “The government has set up a panel to create a new education policy. T.S.R. Subramanian, the former Cabinet Secretary who heads the panel, spoke on national television that his focus would be to reinstate lost Indian values in education. J.S. Rajput, former Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), who spearheaded the controversial rewriting of history textbooks during the first NDA government, is also a member of the panel, which is full of technocrats. The government is clearly working on the twin objectives of commercialisation and saffronisation of education. This will have a significant impact in future.” While the government is gradually institutionalising these drastic reforms in higher education, the MHRD has made itself inaccessible to the academic community. It has diverted attention from these issues by meddling in the routine affairs of universities, gagging political groups, and appointing Hindutva ideologues in important administrative positions.

Explosive issue

Such decisions by the MHRD has, again, polarised the political environment on religious lines, a long-time strategy of the Sangh Parivar. Another issue that has the potential to become explosive and prove disastrous in the field of higher education is the government’s meddling with the minority status of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI). These two universities, instituted by an Act of Parliament, enjoy minority institution status, which gives them the right to have 50 per cent reservation for Muslim students. Though AMU does not have 50 per cent reservation for Muslims, it gives preference to local students irrespective of their faith. JMI, on the other hand, gives 50 per cent reservation to Muslims. According to experts, this has actually proved to be of great help in encouraging Muslim students to enrol for higher education. Though the matter is in the Supreme Court, the earlier United Progressive Alliance government had given an affidavit, allowing the continuation of the minority status for these two institutions. The NDA government, however, changed that affidavit on January 11, 2016, saying that AMU and JMI are not minority institutions because they were set up by an Act of Parliament, not by Muslims, and are funded by the Central government.

Experts, however, are of the opinion that the government’s revision of the affidavit reflects a narrow and distorted reading of the Constitution because Article 30(1) gives minorities the right to establish and run schools, colleges and universities, and the Constitution enjoins it upon the government to provide them funding so that minorities can flourish. According to P.L. Punia, Chairman of the National Scheduled Caste Commission and a Rajya Sabha member of the Congress party, the Constitution itself makes it obligatory for the government to fund minority educational institutions, and the NDA government was twisting facts to further its sectarian agenda.

The government’s move to strip AMU and JMI of their minority status came in for flak at a meeting organised by prominent lawyers and alumni of AMU at Allahabad on January 24. The meeting adopted a resolution condemning the “unnecessary interference” in the affairs of AMU and JMI and urged the MHRD to keep away from “vote-bank politics”. It termed the Centre’s move “sinister vote bank politics to promote an unholy agenda and dilute the special character of these two premier seats of learning”.

The resolution also said: “The interference in routine internal affairs of any university by the MHRD is against the mission for which the MHRD was created on September 26, 1985, through the 174th Amendment to the Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961.” The meeting was attended by prominent lawyers of the Allahabad High Court and members of the AMU Old Boys Association, and the signatories included Zafaryab Zilani, Additional Advocate General of the government of Uttar Pradesh, and convener of the Babri Masjid Action Committee. The resolution also asked the MHRD and the Government of India to comply with and follow its own reasoning, which was raised before the Supreme Court while the special leave petitions were filed on its behalf against the judgment of the Allahabad High Court of 2005, which ruled that AMU was not a minority institution. (The ruling was subsequently stayed by the Supreme Court.) “Any change in the stand of government will undermine the majesty of law and will affect overall atmosphere in the country,” the resolution stated.

While the MHRD is faced with such vexatious issues and ostensibly has no time to deal with them and has no resources to give paltry amounts as fellowships to students pursuing higher education and research, it has the time and the resources to indulge in frivolities such as setting up a committee to find ways and means of introducing courses on the science and art of yoga in Indian universities. At a meeting of Vice-Chancellors on January 2 in Bengaluru, chaired by the HRD Minister, it was decided to set up Departments of Yogic Art and Science in universities across India. According to an MHRD order, it was decided to constitute a committee to introduce yoga education in universities, which will be headed by Prof. H.R. Nagendra, who is the Chancellor of the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana in Bengaluru. Apparently, he is the yoga guru of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The 12-member committee will prescribe the syllabus for conducting NET in yogic art and science. The committee is expected to submit its first report by the end of February.

While there can be no serious objection to introducing yoga education in colleges and universities, the sense of priority displayed by the NDA government is baffling. Instead of dealing with important issues that will impact students and the well-being of the higher education sector itself, it is perceived as taking up matters that can at best be described as peripheral.

The attitude of the MHRD towards higher education is not only playing havoc with the lives of Dalit students but threatening to spoil the academic ambience in universities across India, jeopardising the careers of students across castes, communities and religions.