A look back at Smriti Irani’s contoversial legacy as education minister

In a major Modi cabinet rejig last month, Smriti Irani was demoted from the high profile HRD ministry to the low profile Textiles ministry. If her appointment as education minister was surprising earlier, her sudden demotion to Textiles is no less so.

During her stint, Irani, who is the youngest Cabinet Minister in the Council, found herself mired by controversies, right from the very beginning. In spite of objections by the RSS, she was personally chosen by Prime Minister Modi and handed the high profile Human Resource Development Ministry portfolio.

The first controversy that was sparked off was her alleged lack of a college degree which put to shame her designation as education minister. A case was filed against Irani for making contradictory claims about her education documents filed in different years with the Election Commission.

In her April 2004 affidavit to the EC Irani said she completed her BA in 1996 through a long-distance or correspondence programme from Delhi University. In 2014, ahead of the general elections, she claimed she had completed a bachelor’s degree in commerce from the School of Open Learning, Delhi University.

She claimed to have a degree from Yale but it was revealed by the university that she had only attended a week-long programme, the India-Yale Parliamentary Leadership Program, in 2013.

Secondly, she scrapped the four-year format at the Delhi University and went back with the three-year format, which was against the wishes of the VC and UG. She also had differences with the Niti Ayog over accreditation and other issues. Experts say Irani took Niti Ayog as interference.

Smriti Irani was also often mired in controversies against Congress, Trinamool Congress and Left leaders besides occasional skirmishes with the Sangh Parivar elements.

Besides being found engaging in heated exchange of words with opposition members in Parliament, Irani did not quite go down well with RSS leaders too as they found her difficult to deal with both in casual and formal consultations.

Then she took a major risk when her ministry replaced German with Sanskrit as the third language in Kendriya Vidyalayas in 2014.

Former IIT director R K Shevgaonkar and IIT Bombay chairman Anil Kakodkar both resigned because of what they saw as interference in the internal affairs of the institutions by Irani.

The HRD Ministry also reversed the UPA’s government’s stand on Aligarh Muslim University’s minority status. Recently, it filed an affidavit in Supreme Court stating that AMU cannot be a minority institution as the Constitution doesn’t allow the Centre to set up and run such a university.

The former Cabinet secretary T S R Subramanian also had expressed his unhappiness over the HRD Ministry not making public the report on the new education policy. Subramanian has headed the committee that drafted the report.

Irani is also the first education minister under whom two central university vice-chancellors were sacked for alleged financial and administrative irregularities.

Major controversies that racked her tenure were the protests that erupted in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus in Delhi and also the students’ protest over the death of scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad.

The Opposition alleged that the HRD ministry was to blame for the suicide because of the pressure they were putting on Dalit students, including Vemula, by sending five reminders to the Hyderabad university’s vice-chancellor on a complaint from labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya. Opposition parties alleged Irani distorted facts.

Angry protests and campus violence have been reported from various other universities too.

In the JNU students’ union case where students shouted seditious slogans, Irani tried to defend the central government’s actions in arresting the students, leading to the Opposition labeling her ‘Aunty National’.

It is not as if in all these skirmishes and controversies, Irani’s legacy as HRD Minister is totally devoid of any tangible results. The ministry launched the Global Initiative of Academic Network (GIAN), under which scholars from abroad were recruited in higher education. Also the system of an indigenous ranking framework for universities and educational institutes were among her achievements.

The ministry also cleared pending appointments, including the posts of eight vice-chancellors at central universities and the heads of AICTE, NCERT and Indian Council of Philosophical Research.

Probably, her most notable achievement was the completion of the Swachh Vidyalaya target, the initiative to build over four lakh toilets in government schools.

The actress-turned-politician however, was divested of her portfolio by Modi in consultation with BJP chief Amit Shah and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and probably the silent participation of the RSS.

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