On January 2, the NDA government appointed Zafar Sareshwala as the chancellor of Maulana Azad National University (MANU). Announcing his appointment, the central university in a press release said Sareshwala is a well-known industrialist and CEO and MD of Parsoli Corporation Ltd.
women's rights activist and former member of the Planning Commission Syeda Hameed. Apparently three other names were forwarded to President Pranab Mukherjee, who is the 'visitor' of the university, and he cleared Sareshwala's name, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's most high-profile Muslim aide.
The minutes of the meeting in which the names were discussed are yet to be made public, but according to the grapevine, the two other were actor Amitabh Bachchan and poet, lyricist and filmmaker Gulzar.
While a chancellor's post in a university is ceremonial, Sareshwala's appointment does send a "very disturbing signal to the country and the academic community", as a vice-chancellor of another reputed university told me over phone. "Now it seems you just need the right political clout to head reputed institutions".
The statutes of MANU clearly indicate who could be an ideal candidate for chancellorship: "The Chancellor shall be appointed by the Visitor from a panel of not less than three persons recommended by the Executive Council from amongst persons of eminence in the academic or public life in the country".
Sareshwala obviously doesn't fit the bill. He has a diploma in mechanical engineering and PG diploma in management and runs a school for girls.
In "public life" too, Sareshwala's slate is not clean: The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) in 2013 cancelled the broker registration of the Parsoli Corporation for violations of its regulations.
In 2010, Parsoli and its whole time directors Zafar Yunus Sareshwala and Uves Yunus Sareshwala were barred from the capital market by SEBI for seven years, for alleged fraudulent trading activities. Sareshwala alleges that it was nothing but political vendetta against him for being close to Modi.
Sareshwala's appointment is symptomatic of the government's attitude towards higher education and public institutions. In December 2014, the HRD ministry clashed with IIT-Delhi on the institute's facility in Mauritius, leading to the resignation of director RK Shevgaonkar. His resignation was allegedly due to government pressure. While the BJP accused Shevgaonkar of evading accountability for his role in setting up the institute in Mauritius, he had clarified that the institute entailed no financial cost to India. Shevgaonkar has been backed by the IIT-Delhi Chairman and the alumni of the reputed institute.
Then there is a serious conflict of interest in the appointment of Girish Chandra Tripathi as the vice-chancellor of Benaras Hindu University. He was appointed by a search-cum-selection committee headed by Justice (retired) Giridhar Malviya, grandson of Madan Mohan Malviya and also proposer of Modi's candidature from Varanasi.
According to reports, Malviya did not reveal his old friendship with Tripathi to the search panel. The HRD ministry also ignored the complaint, saying that it doesn't interfere in working of search and selection panel.
In an interview to Scroll, Sareshwala denied that his proximity to the PM is behind the appointment to MANU and had no idea about the announcement. He added that there are "fundamentals of managing things be it a company or a government".
Even though the chancellor' post is ceremonial and he does not have executive powers, a public figure can leverage his/her position and wide range of contacts to give a university direction and raise its stature in the academic circle.
Someone like Sareshwala--who speaks only a smattering of Urdu--may not be able to do so since he is a light weight even in his own constituency--the industry--and came into the limelight only after he started supporting Modi.
If the HRD ministry is serious about improving the standards of a university [MANU] that aims to "promote and develop the Urdu language, impart education and training in vocational and technical subjects through the medium of Urdu and provide wider access to people desirous of pursuing programmes of higher education and training in Urdu medium", it should have looked for a more worthy and dynamic person as its chancellor.
In fact, the community Sareshwala will now represent as a public leader is also aghast at this appointment. Many feels that the "government is determined to show who is in control and wants to rub it in your face".