“I do not want to mount a ride whose reins are not in my hands.” With these words, the businessman Zafar Yunus Sareshwala began his first public meeting in Hyderabad after he was appointed the fourth Chancellor of Maulana Azad National Urdu University (MANUU) on January 2, 2015. The 17-year-old Central university is the only institution of higher learning in the country formed specifically to promote the Urdu language. Its main 200-acre campus is located in Hyderabad’s HITEC City business district.
A jubilant Sareshwala went on to narrate an anecdote from the storied life of the ruthless 18th century Iranian Afsharid king Nader Shah to drive home the point that he would be an “active Chancellor and not a passive one”.
Sareshwala said: “When Nader Shah came to Delhi [in 1738-39], he ordered a massacre of its residents. The citizens of Delhi [then reeling under the humiliating defeat of the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah] pleaded for mercy and offered an elephant ride to Nader Shah as a gesture of grand welcome. But when Shah mounted the elephant and realised that the mahout would be in control, he immediately climbed down saying he would not ride anything that he cannot control.”
Obsession with control
But this obsession with control is precisely what bothers the university staff. They dislike Sareshwala’s style of leadership, which is marked by interference in “day-to-day” university affairs. What irks them more is his use of MANUU as a platform for political propaganda. The 1997 MANUU Act states the Chancellor’s only duty is to officiate at the annual convocation ceremony, as is the case in most state-run universities. A staff member asked: “If [President] Pranab Mukherjee were to tell Modi that he wanted to be an ‘active President’, what would happen? Would it not be a constitutional crisis? With his [Sareshwala’s] proximity to the Prime Minister, if he could make such important decisions as sanctioning Rs.500-600 crore for a major project, then he will go down in history as a proactive Chancellor.”
At the Hyderabad meeting, Sareshwala introduced himself as a Gujarati businessman who owns a BMW car dealership in Ahmedabad. His company, Parsoli Motors, is part of a revival plan following the gutting of his family’s Ahmedabad-based Islamic banking venture during the anti-Muslim riots in 2002. A November 8, 2006, report in Hindustan Times said Sareshwala, whose company pioneered Islamic banking in India, lost Rs.3.3 crore when employees fled the ambushed building that was catching fire. They left computer terminals on, without squaring off positions on the stock market. It was the deadliest blow to his family, which had lived for some 250 years in Ahmedabad and had suffered severe losses in the riots of 1969, 1985 and 1992.
Speaking to one of the guests, Sareshwala expressed his “reluctance” to officiate in his new position as he “was caught unawares and knows nothing about Urdu education”. Another guest said: “He [Sareshwala] seemed terribly embarrassed to have this handicap of being a sarkari [pro-establishment] Muslim.” But this has not stopped Sareshwala from using MANUU’s banner for what appear to be political campaigns, a charge he denies.
Sareshwala has repeated his intentions of “active” participation at several public events, like his countrywide roving “seminars” initiative called Taleem ki Taqat. Loosely translated from Urdu, it means the “power of knowledge”. Held in late September at MANUU, the much-publicised event, the third such following events held in Mumbai and Patna, saw the participation of Union Minority Affairs Minister Najma Heptulla and Telangana’s Deputy Chief Minister and Telangana Rashtra Samithi leader Mahmood Ali. Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao did not participate but was represented by his daughter and Telangana Rashtra Samithi Member of Parliament, Kalvakuntla Kavitha.
While all the speakers extolled the virtues of quality education, the Chief Imam of Chennai’s Makka Masjid, Shamsudeen Qasimi, called for ending reservation for minorities, described as “handouts” for a perceived sense of “victimhood”. This was swiftly rebutted by Kalvakuntla Kavitha, who said: “I have two sons. My elder son is healthy and doing well, whereas my younger one suffers from certain problems and is weak. As a mother is it not my responsibility to give him some extra attention?”
Her contextualising the economic backwardness of Muslims resonated with the audience. She also asked the imam to explain why Telangana’s Muslims were in a pitiable condition despite ruling the region for nearly 400 years. Her short speech was considered politically significant.
The imam is a powerful weapon in Sareshwala’s armour. He started a co-education civil services examination coaching centre within the mosque premises in Chennai a few years ago. At the Patna function, less than a month to go before the Bihar Assembly elections, one of the participants showered praise on him.
Writing in The New Indian Express , J.S. Rajput said: “An innovative imam from Chennai narrated how concerned he felt for the community as for decades no youth qualified in the Civil Services Examinations from Tamil Nadu. He began with a batch of 60 and every year, young Muslim boys and girls are doing well in [these] examinations. He exhorted the community to act, not complain or expect someone else to solve their issues. He was greatly applauded when he exhorted the community to move out of the shackles of minority-ism and reservations.” J.S. Rajput is the former National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) Director appointed by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) veteran Murli Manohar Joshi when he headed the Human Resource Ministry in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government. Rajput continues to face charges of nepotism and arbitrary appointments in the NCERT, one of them being his wife’s appointment as a Delhi University lecturer in politics.
Other speakers included Union Communications Minister and BJP MP Ravi Shankar Prasad. Sareshwala is one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s closest aides. He is seen as a person chosen by Modi to build bridges with the Muslim community. He is reviled by liberals as a turncoat (Sareshwala organised and led protests against Modi’s Gujarat government following the 2002 post-Godhra riots in Britain while he was residing there) and admired by Hindu conservatives for his “pragmatism”.
According to him, Taleem ki Taqat is “a movement to create awareness among Muslims that with education we can achieve anything”. It began with an event in Mumbai in early August where Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis promised to open more Urdu-medium higher education centres and offer the language as an option in all government-run schools. He even spoke of “modernising” madrasa education with the introduction of mathematics and science and promised to throw in an extra “Rs.500 crore for minorities’ education”.
A wary staff Most of the MANUU staff stayed away from the Hyderabad event. They say they were not consulted on the arrangements to be made and that they were only “told” that the university’s sports ground would be used for this purpose. None of the staff members Frontline spoke to wanted to go on record for fear of reprisals.
A university staff member who is privy to the way the public gathering was arranged and conducted said: “There were event managers who were flown in. It was a five-star event with a compere. About 10 rooms of the university’s guest house were booked in the Chancellor’s name.”
Another member said the “Pro-Vice Chancellor [Khwaja Shahid] was very clear that the event would not be under the aegis of MANUU. Bills for the guest rooms have been sent to Sareshwala’s Mumbai offices.”
It is still not known whether these bills have been cleared, but authorities said Sareshwala readily offered to pay them. Speaking to Frontline , Sareshwala said: “I never take TA [travel allowance] or any such thing from the university. Everything is at my own expense.”
It is his oft-repeated reply when asked about the source of funds for these events.
At a similar much-publicised event soon after his appointment, Sareshwala flew down “senior executives” from the Bombay Stock Exchange and Binani Cements and a few other companies and got the university to sign three memoranda of understanding (MoUs).
‘Gujarat model’ A February 13 press release quotes Sareshwala as saying: “After touring the campus and speaking with the faculty members, I realised there should be a direct link between students and the job market. I spoke to a few friends, and they have agreed to come on board with MANUU. Today’s signing of MoUs is an emulation of the Gujarat model of development where postponing is not acceptable.”
None of the faculty, including the Vice-Chancellor (VC), was kept abreast of the arrival of the corporate representatives or given draft copies of the documents to sign. The then Vice-Chancellor, Mohammed Miyan, who has retired, expressed his reluctance to formalise any agreement saying that the MoUs needed to be vetted. But Sareshwala brushed aside all apprehensions and “forced” a photo-op of the signing of the MoUs.
When asked about the progress of the MOUs, Sareshwala criticised the university staff for not working at his pace. “I brought the very top people, like the CEOs, but the follow-up process was very slow.”
He claimed that he managed to get jobs for a couple of students, despite such “hurdles”, through campus recruitment, which he says “had never happened before”. University officials refute this, saying that campus placements have been taking place for some time now, although there is no permanent recruitment cell on the premises. They also said no progress had been made following the signing of the MoUs.
However, for every criticism, Sareshwala has a catchy rebuttal. Should the Chancellor “not get jobs for the students who study at the University he serves?” he asks. “Is it not the duty of any citizen [and] not just the Chancellor’s?”
A retired staff member accused Sareshwala of making false statements to the media. He said: “I saw an interview on YouTube where he claimed that he brought Rs.225 crore to the university. He says things like ‘I keep going to the university campus and give directions to the VC on things to do in the university’, putting undue pressure on the VC through social media and the press. He could directly, officially talk to the VC. He has the moral authority to do that, but these sort of public statements are uncalled for.” Sareshwala said he was referring to the amount of Rs.205 crore which was sanctioned as part of the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-2012) but “has come to MANUU only in the third year” of the 12th Five Year Plan, indirectly accusing the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) II government for the delay.
Criticism of appointments made during the UPA II government is also a running theme in Sareshwala’s interactions. For instance, he compares his contributions to those of former Chancellor Syeda Saiyidain Hameed, who was also a member of the now-defunct Planning Commission.
MANUU staff see in his words and deeds an undercurrent of political opportunism. A non-teaching staff member said: “At the back of all this is to sell Modi to Muslims. And Modi is the most difficult product to be sold to Muslims, and Sareshwala thought this was the way to do it.”
MANUU’s staff, however, admitted that much needs to be done at the university. One of the biggest challenges has been finding Urdu-proficient teachers of higher education. A staff member who is in his 60s said: “The worst thing that has happened to Urdu is how it has been disconnected from employment. Urdu is hardly used anymore in government communication. My sons would not speak in Urdu as I speak, or write the way I do. Availability of books and translation is a huge problem.”
Urdu is the sixth most widely spoken language among the 22 Scheduled Languages of the country. Over five crore Indians have listed it as their mother tongue, according to the decadal Linguistic Survey of India, which was last conducted in 2001. But this constitutes only a little over 5 per cent of the population and has shown a gradual decline over the years, from about half a percentage point more in 1971.
Also, MANUU has hardly contributed to translating Urdu literature into other languages. And there are charges of embezzlement against Director of Distance Education Iqbal Ahmed to the tune of Rs.37 lakh in the printing of study material for the department’s programmes. An in-house vigilance inquiry initiated by the incumbent Chief Vigilance Officer is looking into the charges of exaggerated estimates of cost of printing and fudging numbers of printed books and distribution levelled against Ahmed three years ago. This led to strikes and lockouts by students supported by the employees and staff.
The Distance Education department is one of the university’s most important and successful departments with an on-paper enrolment of over 1.5 lakh students nationwide. It has nine regional and six subregional centres to provide academic and administrative support to students.
One of the university’s major milestones was the successful establishment of the Haroon Khan Sherwani Centre for Deccan Studies in 2012. It symbolised the coming of age of Deccan studies as a separate discipline of inquiry looking holistically into the development of thought, culture and society of the plateau region as distinct from the rest of southern India.
Late last year, the Executive Council of MANUU forwarded six names to the President, who is the appointing authority for all top university positions. (In practice, the President’s approval is largely ceremonial. The appointments are done in consultation with the Union Human Resource Ministry.) The list of potential candidates sent by the council included names of the Wipro founder Azim Premji, the actor Amitabh Bachchan and the lyricist Gulzar. “The last of the six names was Zafar Yunus Sareshwala. By doing that, we shot ourselves in the foot. Sareshwala has misunderstood his job, grossly. He thought that the Chancellor means the VC,” a staff member lamented.