For once, the Left and the Right are in agreement, celebrating as they are together the removal of Smriti Irani from the Ministry of Human Resource Development. But let it be said at the very outset – it is extremely unfair to blame Irani alone for our campuses simmering and sizzling over the last two years.
No doubt, she is abrasive, pesky, given to throwing tantrums, so typical of stars from the entertainment world, loves to play to the gallery, and perhaps became arrogant as she zoomed into the Cabinet at a young age. It’s also possible that all these traits came to the fore out of her nervousness in handling a brief for which she didn’t have the requisite experience.
But really, can she be blamed for the controversy which erupted in Jawaharlal Nehru University and dragged on for weeks? Let us face the bitter truth: Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya – all of them callow but intelligent – couldn’t have been arrested on the charge of sedition at Irani’s behest. Nor could she possibly have asked some of the TV channels to beam what was allegedly doctored video footage.
Ask yourself: Could she have been the person who goaded Delhi’s BJP MLA, OP Sharma, to assault the CPI activist on the day Kanhaiya Kumar was to appear in a lower court? Or, for that matter, could she have encouraged lawyers to thump journalists? You got to be kidding to think she was.
It required a hyperactive Delhi Police to swoop down on JNU, arrest the students and file FIRs against them for fanning sedition. It’s a method Delhi Police have perfected in handling the MLAs of Aam Aadmi Party as well.
Everyone knows the Delhi Police is answerable to the Union Home Ministry, not HRD. No less than Home Minister Rajnath Singh was quoted telling the media, “I also want to make it clear that the JNU incident has the support of LeT chief Hafiz Saeed. We should also understand this reality that Hafiz Saeed has supported this incident and it is extremely unfortunate.”
True, Singh made his remark to the media based on a message sent from a fake twitter account. But it does tell you about the enthusiasm in the BJP to milk the JNU controversy to its advantage. In those days, innumerable BJP-RSS leaders told journalists, off-the-record obviously, that they were delighted to have been given an issue which could push the suicide of Rohith Vemula out of the headlines. They said that the shouting of slogans favouring azadi for Kashmir would be unacceptable to the people, who would therefore back the crackdown on universities.
It wasn’t Irani alone who was hyperventilating on nationalism and the anti-nationalistic orientation of some JNU students. When she ferociously, and insensitively, defended the arrest of JNU students in Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted a link and advised, “Do hear this speech by Smriti Irani.” For a minister – and a young one at that – it must not only have sounded as an encouragement, but also a signal to her to persist with her feisty style.
It, no doubt, sent her into an overdrive – for instance, asking universities to fly the tricolour at a certain height. She justified the idea saying it would instill nationalism in the young. A stupid notion, indeed.
But this notion of hers was far less dangerous than the statements BJP ministers and MPs are inclined to making. For instance, BJP MP Hukum Singh falsely claimed that the migration from Kairana, in west UP, was because of a Muslim underworld don threatening people with extortion. The list of BJP MPs making provocative remarks is long – and Irani’s quips simply pale in comparison.
Yes, Irani and her ministry did drive Hyderabad Central University (HCU) students to desperation, as seems to have been the case with Rohith Vemula. And she compounded her error by trying to prove that Vemula wasn’t a Dalit but OBC, as if this in anyway would have rendered his death less tragic.
But there were other BJP leaders who parroted Irani’s tune as well. And, anyway, the fire there was lit because of the letter Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya wrote to the HRD ministry, claiming that the HCU had become a hub of anti-national activities.
The Central Universities have been in ferment not only because of attempts to impose a conservative code on them, or to make them blindingly nationalistic, or to enable the ABVP to establish its hegemony over campus politics. They are in ferment because of the BJP-Sangh’s desire to align pedagogy with Hindutva.
For instance, it isn’t Irani who discovered the virtue of rewriting history, or the pressing need to teach students to view India’s past in the neat binary of Hindus and Muslims. This has always been the project of the RSS. Even under NDA I, HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi showed a penchant to revise textbooks with insertions of study material perceived as dubious.
From this perspective, Irani was merely implementing what has always been the Sangh’s project, albeit in a style both arrogant and abrasive, perhaps mistakenly believing that the BJP’s majority in the Lok Sabha will scare the academia into submission.
Her successor, Prakash Javadekar, will presumably adopt a softer, reconciliatory style in executing the Sangh’s project. But the Left-liberals, busy celebrating the departure of Irani, might discover his style to be a bigger horror – remember Javadekar single-handedly has changed more environmental rules than any other minister before.
It is almost inevitable that the Sangh will persist in saffronising education. As inevitable will be the opposition from sections in Central Universities, both for ideological and academic reasons. And so you might wonder why Irani was demoted.
It is possible Irani has been shifted out of the HRD Ministry because she has come to symbolise the misery and hardships encountered by Dalits, the intellectuals among whom blame her for the suicide of Vemula. As the Modi government woos Dalits before the UP election, demotion of Irani could mollify them. Others say she was shown the door because she had taken to opposing the idea of greater privatisation of the education sector.
All this is speculation. What is certain, however, is that she alone can’t be blamed for India’s campus troubles, to which her own party stalwarts contributed no less.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.