After repeated denials, the Union Government has admitted to the court that an IIM director it had appointed did not meet the minimum educational qualification criterion. This admission has come only after the person in question completed his five-year term last month – and, in fact, has got a second term.
On Monday, the Ministry of Education (MoE) filed an affidavit in the Punjab and Haryana High Court stating that Dheeraj Sharma was appointed the head of IIM-Rohtak despite securing a second division at the undergraduate level.
A first-class Bachelor’s degree was the prerequisite for the job. Sharma completed his term on February 9 this year.
The Indian Express had first flagged this alleged irregularity regarding his appointment in September 2021 and reported that Sharma did not provide his undergraduate degree to the Ministry despite three letters last year seeking the same.
In a fresh twist, which raises further questions of propriety, Sharma was reappointed for a second term by the institute’s Board of Governors (BoG) on February 28 this year under the IIM Act.
The new law came into effect on January 31, 2018, and gives sweeping powers to all 20 business schools, including the appointment of directors, chairpersons and Board members.
Before that, an IIM director was appointed with the prior approval of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) headed by the Prime Minister. The ACC had cleared Sharma’s first term as IIM-Rohtak director (which the government has now conceded was invalid) on February 10, 2017.
Sharma’s appointment had been challenged in the Punjab & Haryana High Court. The petitioner had alleged that the Director, among other things, misrepresented his educational qualifications and is ineligible to hold the post.
The MOE’s latest affidavit flies in the face of its defence of the appointment in court against allegations of ineligibility. A year ago, it had even urged the High Court to dismiss the plea saying the petitioners have no locus standi since none of the 60 applicants for the Director’s job had challenged the appointment.
In its first affidavit filed in February last year, the Ministry had said that Sharma’s appointment was done following due procedure and is “liable to be upheld.” This even as the government was still trying to get hold of Sharma’s undergraduate degree.
As first reported by The Indian Express on September 15, 2021, the MoE had written thrice to Sharma last year asking him for verified copies of his educational certificates to which he didn’t reply: the first letter on February 18, 2021 and two reminders on June 28 and December 15, 2021.
On February 9 this year, when he completed his five-year term, Sharma wrote to the MoE assuring he will provide a notarised affidavit stating he has a Bachelor’s degree from Delhi University in 1997; Master’s degree from BR Ambedkar University in 1999; and a Doctoral degree from Louisiana Tech University in 2006 and that he has worked as a full-time professor in a reputed institution for seven years. While he didn’t send his documents even after that, the Ministry received them from IIM-Rohtak on February 17, after Sharma completed his term.
“It may be seen that Dr Dheeraj Sharma has secured Second Division in the Bachelor’s degree, as against requirement of First Class Degree as per the Advertisement, and as such does not fulfil the eligibility criteria as laid down in the Advertisement for the post of Director, IIM Rohtak,” the government said in its affidavit filed Monday.
The affidavit also states that the Ministry is now “enquiring” as to how Sharma was appointed and fix responsibility.
Sources said the invalidity of Sharma’s first term was flagged by the MoE representative at the IIM-Rohtak BoG meeting on February 28 this year in which his reappointment was discussed and approved.
“Yes, the Ministry’s representative objected (to Sharma’s reappointment), but the Board didn’t accept it for two reasons. The first term was cleared by the (union) government and the Board had nothing to do with it (since this was before the IIM Act was passed). Second, the Ministry has been defending his appointment all along (in court) and is only contradicting itself now. This information (about the alleged invalidity of the first appointment) was sprung on the Board last minute,” said a BoG member who did not wish to be identified.
The Director’s post advertised by the IIM-Rohtak Board late last year does not mention any minimum qualification criterion for the candidate’s Bachelor’s degree. In 2017, when the government was in charge of IIM appointments, candidates were expected to have secured a first division in their undergraduate studies.
Higher Education Secretary Sanjay Murthy and Sharma did not respond to calls and text messages. Joint Secretary PK Banerjee said he wasn’t authorised to speak and asked for a questionnaire via email. However, he did not respond to the email.
“Truth has finally prevailed and I am happy about it. At the same time, it’s upsetting that it took the government this long to acknowledge that Dheeraj Sharma was not qualified for the job. It’s obvious that his ineligibility was deliberately overlooked by someone in the government and they tried their best to hide this. I could not have fought this battle without the help of Nirmalya Bandyopadhyay, who helped unearth this scandal,” said RTI activist and petitioner Amitava Chaudhuri.
According to the institute’s website, Sharma’s “primary research interests are ‘relationships’ in the business domain.” During his term as IIM-Rohtak Director, he co-authored several studies including one that predicted that the Tablighi Jamaat congregation held in New Delhi in March 2020 would increase coronavirus cases “exponentially”.