The recent cabinet reshuffle cut short Smriti Irani’s tenure as minister of human resource development (HRD), bringing in Prakash Javadekar instead.
Her reassignment to the textile ministry is largely seen as a demotion, and likely stemmed from the many controversies during her two years, the most recent being her ministry’s handling of the suicide of a Dalit scholar in Hyderabad and the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) sedition issue.
But the many students at JNU, who were among her staunch critics, are sceptical of the change, and feel the move is cosmetic.
“New HRD minister Prakash Javadekar has said that he’ll take forward initiatives of Smriti ji. But what was done in her tenure? There was cut in higher education budget and then 55% fund cut to University Grants Commission. Internal autonomy of universities were infringed upon which led to Hyderabad University movement and then JNU,” said JNU’s controversial students union president, Kanhaiya Kumar.
Kumar was among those directly impacted from the JNU row. He was jailed for almost two months on charges of sedition, which are yet to be proved. The case is still ongoing.
As the controversy snowballed into a political storm, Irani’s over-zealous pitch for patriotism prompted the opposition to dub her ‘aunty national’.
Though Kumar was quick to wish the minister “bye bye”, he said the changes were made with eyes on the upcoming elections. Further, he claimed the changes will only lead to increased instances of caste oppression in educational institutes, and more Dalits being “murdered institutionally”.
“Students will be targeted in false cases, cut in education budget will be continued. Ignoring merit, on the basis of likes and dislikes, flatterers will be rewarded and given important posts and responsibilities in educational institutions… This simply means that this cabinet reshuffle has nothing to do with the betterment of the country, but to get better result in the coming election,” Kumar accused.
Vice-president of the union, Shehla Rashid Shora, said that the reshuffle wouldn’t amount to much so long as policies continued to be dictated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and corporates.
“Prakash Javedkar has been an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activist. What will be his stand on student politics? The government has been constantly attacking students who are raising their demands, by saying that students shouldn’t do politics. What is Javedkar’s stand on this?” she asked.
For their part, students will continue with their core demands of increasing a budget allocation for education, restoration of student unions and enactment of the Rohith Act – a law against caste discrimination in educational institutes, she added.
The ABVP though welcomed the move.
“We are confident that just the way Smriti Irani took the ministry to a new height, the same will be done by Prakash Javedkar. We hope that our education policy continues to show Sankrit and Indianness,” said Saurabh Sharma of the right-wing student body affiliated to the RSS.
Sharma, who was the main complainant in the sedition case, is the only ABVP member in the JNU student union.
University staff in dilemma
At Delhi University (DU), the former HRD minister was favoured by the staff as she had the four-year undergraduate programme scrapped. DU teachers had also met the minister on several occasions with demands to remove the former vice chancellor Dinesh Singh, among other things.
However, the JNU controversy bred discontent. Further, the UGC’s third amendment regulation that cut down teaching positions by 50% froze the cordial relations. The DU Teacher’s Association had boycotted the evaluation of term papers in protest.
“It is a good thing that has happened. When on several occasions we went to meet Irani with our issues, she refused. How can the minister not hear teachers when they were out in the streets? She certainly lacked vision to improve the education,” said an association member who refused to be named.
But, Javadekar does not inspire much confidence either.
“The new minister does not have any experience in the field so we are really worried. He is the one who has been forefront in giving approvals to big projects which would hamper the environment. We just hope he does not encourage privatisation in education as well, that is what we have been resisting,” said a teacher at Hansraj College on the condition of anonymity.
Some groups, though, are counting on Javadekar’s experience as a senior political activist and a parliamentarian to be an asset to the education ministry.
“We are hopeful he will take expeditious and effective steps to clear the cobwebs and mess created by governments since 2008. As a consequence of those policies, academic processes – teaching learning, research and innovation – suffered huge losses. Teachers have suffered owing to continued temporary, ad hoc appointments, no promotions, anti-Academic Performance Indicators,” said A K Bhagi, DU executive council member and president of the National Democratic Teachers Front.