Interview with HRD Minister Smriti Irani: ‘Congress trying to settle political scores through campuses’

"I don't harbour any ill feeling towards critics, who questioned my credentials to be HRD Minister. There is a now a grudging acceptance of my merit among them," said Smriti Irani

Written by Ritika Chopra | Updated: May 18, 2016 10:34:21 am
Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani. Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Q. The government completes two years. What do you think is your legacy?

When I got an opportunity to serve in this office, one of the biggest challenge was that HRD (ministry) was reduced to a political akhara (battlefield). The fact that states didn’t meet eye to eye with the Centre on many issues was perceived it to be an administrative and political challenge. I also saw that school education and higher education were working in silos. It was my effort to bridge these gaps in terms of dialogue not only with the states but also between education departments.

Q. Are you saying that a cohesive approach was absent in the previous regime?

Yes, because there was a lot of acrimony before. I think that one of the bright spots in my two years (as the HRD Minister) has been that not a single state raised its voice against the Government of India with regards to HRD initiatives, because they (decisions) had been taken with consensus.

Q. Have you been able to convince critics who questioned your credentials to head this ministry?

I don’t harbour any ill feeling towards them because, very rightfully so, I had no background not only in administration but even in academic administration. So there was a valid concern as to whether I will be able to fulfil the huge obligation and responsibilities. But over time I’ve seen a lot of critics change and say, yes, possibly she is delivering, though much is still left to be done. But at least now there is this grudging acceptance that this woman will get the job done. I’m grateful that my leadership had that kind of a belief in my capacity.

Read: Consulting experts to rethink no-detention policy: Smriti Irani

Q. What are your achievements?

There are a lot of legacy issues, especially in the higher education sphere. There was a challenge with regard to women and persons with disabilities, who wanted to pursue PhD, given they had to move from place to place but they could not carry their education with them. We facilitated that. For the first time this government waived off the IIT fees for students from economically weaker sections.

There was a hue and cry about (poor performance of Indian institutions in world) rankings and we explained to people that this is an issue which is a challenge for Our country because we have a language diversity which is not recognised internationally. While internationally educational institutions are given leverage or better ranking because of the number foreign students they teach, our institutions are mostly catering to Indian students only. That is why we had a national ranking framework.

One of the greatest engagements is the GIAN (Global Initiative of Academic Network) programme which the Prime Minister himself envisaged. Through GIAN we facilitated over 400 academicians to come to India and teach in our institutions.

Video: HRD Minister Smriti Irani Discusses Educational Policy & Her Personal Journey

Q. The Right to Education Act has been blamed for lowering the standards of school education. Do you agree?

I have seen the impact of the no-detention policy in school as a parent. I have seen when a child goes into the ninth grade, how suddenly they are confronted with this whole matrix of exams that they had faced before. Hence in the first semester, almost 90 per cent students in a subject in a class failed. The states have also highlighted this challenge. There is ample empirical evidence to suggest that this has led to detrimental impact on learning outcomes. We are consultation a legal team to give us the way forward. That is the only thing I can confirm.

Q. How does your ministry plan to check the increasing rate of suicides among students gearing up for entrance tests?

As the HRD Minister it doesn’t fall within my jurisdiction (to regulate). But as a facilitator, we have decided that all the question banks of the IITs (entrance exams) will be provided in the public domain free of cost. Also, all the subjects that some of the most celebrated IIT professors can teach will be made available free of cost, not only in English and Hindi, but in at least 12 to 13 languages. We are hopeful of doing this in the next one-and-half months.

Additionally the IIT Council has resolved that the entrance test will now be based strictly on the Class XII curriculum and not go beyond it, so that students are not compelled to visit coaching centres go beyond that concepts. These initiatives will help in reducing stress.

But society at large also needs to understand that we, as government, can provide you the tools and mechanism, parents will have to make a conscientious decision to engage with their children instead of pushing them to that brink where it becomes unbearable

Does the Centre plan to intervene on the matter of arbitrary fee hike by private schools?

Given that education is in the concurrent list, there is a constitutional maryada (limit) which the Government of India cannot overstep. But as a minister I am of the firm belief that fees for which no receipt is given is a matter of concern for me and my ministry. Fees which is arbitrarily hiked in the middle of the year, thereby holding the child’s future to hostage, is something which I find extremely legally distasteful. Given that these are issues on which I’m currently consulting a legal team, it would be incorrect to publicly declare something right now.

You are the first HRD Minister to sack a central university V-C. What prompted the government to do this?

I think one needs to understand that this is not a happy step. Visva-Bharati has a glorious legacy. If there is a breakdown of law and order, it is incumbent upon the government and the Visitor (President) to take appropriate legal remedy to ensure that the institution’s reputation is reinstated.

What prompted the government to change its stand on the minority status of AMU in court?

It would be inappropriate for me to speak before the government’s affidavit is filed in court.

Why is it that your ministry has antagonised the student community across the country?

I think that fighting Amethi has its own cost. Recently The Indian Express also carried the letter of a student (of Hyderbad Central University) who enunciated how the Left and the Congress party have used incidents for their own political gains. The Congress party that lost at the booth seeks to settle political scores with this government through campuses.

What is your response to allegations of interference in university matters by the HRD ministry?

I think that whenever the BJP is in power with regards to education and culture, this attack is imminent. It is an ideological war, not a political one. There is that black shadow that will always hang on our heads; a shadow which the Left has very deftly crafted.

Do you think the Hyderbad University administration could have been more sensitive in addressing the concerns of Rohith Vemula and his friends?

In hindsight everything is 20-20, but let the (Judicial) Commission’s inquiry report come and only then a comment can be made.

The Opposition has accused you of lying in Parliament. Do you still maintain that the students did not allow medical help when Rohith Vemula’s body was discovered?

Every document that I gave was authenticated by me. Those documents were duly studied and found to be true and no (breach of) privilege was found against me. That in itself speaks volumes.

Your party maintains that the JNU issue was one of anti-national activities on campus. Do you agree?

My comments will come into the public domain once I’m not the HRD Minister. I feel very strongly about my country and stronger still about people who abuse my country.

But I will only say this, those who abused the office of the President sought refuge in it. Those who abused our Supreme Court sought refuge in it. That the very people you abused are the people you sought refuge in.

Your opponents in Parliament have pointed out as a BJP spokesperson your great strength was your ability to appear calm under pressure, but as a minister you appear to have lost some of that sang-froid..

I think my last speech in the Rajya Sabha was very subdued (laughs). I have never manufactured an aura and because I believe in plain speak, what you see is what you get. I think I have been a lightning rod not only for criticism but comments as well. Any other simpleton in my place would not have attracted so many comments. I have a legacy which I carry from my media career. That is why you will find that everybody will have an opinion about me.

Do you regret the way you engaged with Mayawati

I don’t regret anything (smiles)

There were reports of Ramdev wanting to set up a school board for Vedic learning. Does the government plan to implement it?

I don’t comment on reports.

Does the government plan to formalise the vedic education sector?

We are in the process of looking at some aspects containing vedic education and challenges which are attached to it, because this sector not only has no proper structure but also a lot of our wealth in vedic education is silently getting lost. Since it is in a process of consultation right now it would be inappropriate to talk about it publicly.

Why did your ministry advise IITs to introduce Sanskrit as an elective subject?

There was a mathematician in Cornell University who visited a math in Tamil Nadu in the late 90s and derived research with regard to sulbasutra which is, I think the oldest surviving geometry book. He took all that research and published a paper in Cornell in the department of mathematics, which was very celebrated. What our communication to the IITs said was that if you have scientific knowledge in that language, then feel free to use it. But the phobia with regards to Sanksrit is such that we had trigger happy journalists who printed whatever they wanted to till such time I gave a statement in parliament.

Your critics inside and outside the Parliament say you are pushing the RSS agenda. Your comments.

That will always happen. That is a phobia people have which I take with a pinch of salt.

There were reports of airbrushing Nehru from the Rajasthan textbooks. Your comments.

I am not representing Rajasthan government. You talk to them about it.

As a minister, what, in your view, was the contribution of Nehru?

We do celebrate Children’s Day every 14th of November. The very fact that this the same government that celebrated Jawaharlal Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary including ensuring the Prime Minister himself paid tribute to him says a lot about this government.

Has the ministry accepted ICHR chairman’s resignation?

I was not given a resignation. It seems in the letter there was permission sought to resign. I’m not in a capacity to give permission. I either respond to a particular step taken or not taken. Since nobody has left, how can that chair be empty.

Your name is doing the rounds as one of the contenders for the UP CM face. Is this a responsibility that you are willing to take?

My name does rounds for many things (Smiles). I don’t answer hypothetical questions.

The Prime Minister’s educational qualifications have been questioned by the Aam Aadmi Party. Your views.

Politics has sunk to a new low, but more than that I think it would be inappropriate for me as the minister in-charge to comment

Do you think Delhi University should release his degree now that there is a CIC order?

It would be inappropriate for me to say something of an institution that is autonomous of the government.

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