Controversial education minister Smriti Irani ‘demoted’
Her redeployment to the textiles ministry took many political analysts by surprise. It brings to an end a combative style of interaction with university leaders and students, and what was often seen as promoting a nationalist Hindu agenda in university curricula.
In particular Irani was roundly criticised for her handling of campus unrest at Hyderabad Central University after the suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vemula earlier this year, and for weeks of student protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University or JNU in New Delhi.
Political commentators in New Delhi suggested these two debacles had led to her downfall, as they made the minister and by extension the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party unpopular among young people and Dalits – groups that are expected to be crucial to garner votes in the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state.
A high profile minister who was the youngest in Modi’s cabinet, Irani was the main loser in the 5 July reshuffle after she was demoted to a smaller and less significant ministry, where she will have little outlet for the pugnacious style and firebrand oratory characteristic of her stint at the HRD ministry, analysts said.
Bengaluru-based Ramachandra Guha, a historian who previously taught at Yale University and the London School of Economics, told broadcaster NDTV that Irani had damaged the HRD ministry’s credibility during her tenure.
“The academic community will welcome her exit,” he said.
Guha said Irani had failed to accept that university campuses must be centres of questioning and discourse. “Both Hyderabad University and JNU have a first-rate science faculty but she was against them because she thought they were communist campuses,” he maintained.
Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at Hyderabad Central University, committed suicide in January after he and five other low caste Dalit students had been suspended the previous September following a clash with the youth wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Vemula had said the suspended students were being persecuted because they were low caste. The university authorities were accused of acting under pressure from Irani, and Irani herself was blamed for the suicide – although she denied any role in the debacle in a fiery speech to parliament.
In February she defended police action against JNU students, including its popular student union president Kanhaiya Kumar, who were facing sedition charges for mourning the execution of a Kashmiri militant for the 2001 attack on India’s parliament building.
Kumar welcomed Irani’s departure from the HRD ministry via Twitter on Tuesday. But he said her departure did not mean justice had been served to Vemula.
Irani, a former television soap star, had been in the HRD ministry post for two years but was widely seen by academics as inflexible. Many regarded her as unqualified to deal with universities as she had only completed one year of a correspondence course from Delhi University.
She courted controversy when she claimed she had a degree from Yale University. Evidence later showed she had only attended a six-day leadership programme at Yale in June 2013.
Irani also incurred the ire of academics within weeks of becoming minister in June 2014, when her push to reverse Delhi University’s plan to offer American-style four-year degrees was seen as a threat to the university’s autonomy.
New minister conciliatory
Irani is replaced by the current environment minister Prakash Javadekar, who takes over the HRD minister portfolio on Thursday. Javadekar is a more low-key politician who steered the country’s environment policy at the Paris climate change talks last December.
Javadekar was “polite, at least, and respected by scholars and scientists”, Guha said.
Analysts said Javadekar seemed keen to mend fences with the education sectors. He said that he would consult Irani, Modi and others before drawing up a roadmap for the education sector. “I will build upon the several good initiatives taken up by Smriti Irani,” he stated on Tuesday, as the reshuffle was announced.
He added education was not a subject for “party politics” and that he was open to suggestions from everyone – a conciliatory tone that was a clear contrast from Irani’s style.
Javadekar also said the country’s new education policy had to be “student-centric”.
JNU’s Kanhaiya Kumar warned the incoming minister not to act against the interest of students. He said in an open letter to Javadekar: “You already announced that you will be following in the footsteps of your predecessor – which means campus violence will continue and deaths of Dalit scholars will go [on] unabated and allocation of funds in every budget will shrink. Don't allow that to happen.”
Irani leaves some unfinished business at the ministry. She had reportedly been at odds with the Prime Minister’s Office over the degree of autonomy the government’s 13 proposed world-class universities should enjoy. The proposals announced in this year’s budget will now be steered by her successor.
But Irani's supporters said she notched up some achievements. Notably, she initiated the first ranking of Indian universities.
On Wednesday, as she was leaving the post, Irani described her stint as HRD minister as “satisfactory and fruitful”.