Friday, Dec 02, 2022

'A Dangerous Signal'

The eminent academic responds to the HRD ministry notice asking him to explain why he should not be removed as member of the UGC because of his affiliation to the Aam Aadmi Party

'A Dangerous Signal'
'A Dangerous Signal'

Shri M. Pallam Raju
Minister of Human Resource Development
Government of India,
New Delhi
September 10, 2013

Dear Shri Pallam Raju,

This refers to a notice [F.No. 7-1/2013-U1(A)] dated 4th September, 2013 signed by Mr. R.P. Sisodia, Joint Secretary in your Ministry. The notice asks me to explain why I should not be retired from the post of Member, University Grants Commission (UGC) with immediate effect for my ‘antecedents and credentials’ have altered and there is a ‘conflict of interest’ since I have joined a political party. When a TV channel asked you about this notice, you seemed surprised, and suggested that it was something done by the UGC, whose autonomy you respected. I sincerely hope that this extraordinary notice – apparently the first one in the 57 years of the history of the UGC – was not issued by your Joint Secretary without your knowledge and consent. I am attaching a copy in case it was (Annexure 1).

As I read the notice, I was amused, surprised and deeply saddened. I was amused by the idea that my ‘antecedents and credentials’ now stand ‘substantially altered’. I can understand why my credentials may have altered in the eyes of your government in the past few months, but it is not clear how that could affect my academic credentials that must have been the basis of my nomination to the UGC. Besides, I cannot possibly understand how even the powerful gaze of an almighty state could alter my antecedents, my history. I was also amused that a democratically elected government should regard participation in politics with this sense of suspicion and fright. For a moment, I did believe that you might not have actually seen this notice before it was issued.

I was surprised that it took your Ministry more than nine months to discover that I was active with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). I can only hope that your Ministry does not take that long to register media reports relevant to the state of education in our country. My sense of surprise was even deeper, for I had on my own informed your predecessor Shri Kapil Sibal (through a telephone call to V. Umashankar, his P.S.) about my intent to join the AAP, not yet formed in the first week of October last year. Through him I had conveyed my decision to resign from the advisory committees of the Ministry (confirmed in writing via an email dated 30th October, 2013, Annexure 2) and had enquired whether my continuation in a statutory body like the UGC was in conflict with any rules, norms or conventions. Mr. Umashankar got back to me next day to say that the Ministry respected the autonomy of institutions like the UGC, did not see any problem in my continuation and, in fact, valued my continued association with the UGC (as stated by him to The Indian Express dated September 6, 2013, Annexure 3). I got the same response in my subsequent discussions with Secretary (HE), Chairman UGC and my colleagues in the Commission and decided to continue working with the UGC. You can understand my sense of surprise, then, at receiving a notice that claims to discover what I had pro-actively communicated and repeatedly discussed.

Above all, I felt deeply saddened on reading this notice. I felt saddened not by what it said about me, but by what it said about those who wield power. It follows the protocols of a show-cause notice that the government issues to its employees, adopting the tone of a benefactor to a beneficiary. It assumes that membership of a body like the UGC is a favour that the government bestows upon someone, of whom it can demand an explanation. Regardless of the ruling party, this is the mindset that governments display in dealing with academics, scientists, artists, writers and sports-persons. This hubris of bureaucratic and political power saddens me – not just because it insults ideas, creativity and excellence – but also because itemaciates politics by delinking it from insight, innovation and energy.

Membership of the UGC is not something I asked for, or even thought about. The nomination came as a complete surprise to me. In fact, given my concerns about the reputation of the organisation following the Deemed University scandal, I sought advise and guidance from a number of friends and colleagues about whether I should associate myself with such an organisation. I was assured by the fact that this was a purely honorary position that carried no salary or perks. (The UGC does offer a sitting fee of Rs. 2000 per meeting, which I decided not to accept.) The mindset that informs your Ministry’s notice makes me sad, for it cannot even imagine that ‘posts’ like this carry little value for many teachers, researchers and other men and women of ideas in this country. To be honest, being relieved of this responsibility would leave me with more time for my research, for my family and for my duties as a citizen of this country.

Many thoughts crossed my mind as I confronted your Ministry’s demand for an explanation as to why I should not be ‘retired’ forthwith? Frankly, my first impulse was to say, “Thank you very much, please go ahead”, but I resisted that, because I take my responsibilities in bodies like this very seriously. It is one thing to step down on my own and quite another to submit to removal for wrong reasons and thus help set a bad precedent. I could say, “It’s pointless to offer explanations to a government that is out to target a political opponent”, but I won’t, for I cherish the autonomy of institutions like the UGC from the government, even if it is notional. Or I could offer my defence, as an accused does, but I won’t, for I refuse to be put in the dock. I have done no wrong, concealed nothing, nor violated any of the norms and values I uphold. I see no reason why I should offer anyone an explanation.

There is only one way I can respond to this notice. I must assume that when your Ministry asks me for an explanation it truly wants my help in understanding why it should not use its statutory power to remove a member for the reasons stated in this notice. I must assume that your government has not made up its mind and is waiting for my answer to arrive at a decision. I must assume that you and I are engaged in a sincere search for truth. Allow me, in this spirit, to offer you a few reasons why your government may not wish to go ahead with the action it proposes in the notice:

1. Such an action would be contrary to the letter and spirit of the law, rules and regulations and the Code of Conduct that govern the membership of the UGC:

  1. The UGC Act 1956, does not bar membership of a political party or participation in politics for a member of the UGC.
  2. The UGC (Disqualification, Retirement and Conditions of Service of Members) Rules 1992 provide for only three grounds for possible disqualification: ‘Unsound mind’, ‘undischarged insolvent’ or undue ‘absence from any four consecutive meetings’. Your notice does not indicate that any of these grounds is being invoked in my case. And since membership of political party or participation in political activity are not mentioned as grounds for disqualification, such an action might be illegal.
  3. While the Chairman and Vice-chairman are covered by service conditions applicable to Central government servants (Clause 9 of the Rules above),other members are not. Therefore, the ban on political activities that holds for a government servant would not apply to other members of the Commission.
  4. It so happens that the UGC is now one of the few public institutions in this country to have adopted a formal conflict of interest policy that lays down clear do’s and don’ts for members of the Commission (adopted by the UGC in its 494TH meeting dated April 27, 2012, Annexure 4). According to this policy, ‘a conflict of interest may occur in situations where a personal relationship, professional affiliation or financial interests of the Commission member may compromise, or reasonably appear to compromise the independence of judgement which the Commission is expected to exercise’. In case of such a conflict it requires pro-active disclosure, recusal from proceedings and nonreceipt of any benefits from any institution that the UGC regulates. Membership of a political organisation or participation in a political activity is nowhere mentioned as violation of Code of Conduct for the Commission Members.
  5. Since I was never asked on my joining the Commission, or subsequently, to make any declaration about my political affiliation or activity, I had every reason to assume that I continue to enjoy my Fundamental Right to Freedom of speech and association. Even when I joined the Commission in July 2011, I was an ordinary member of the Samajwadi Jan Parishad, a less known registered political party. I left it to join Aam Aadmi Party in November 2012. There was no rule, regulation or proforma that required me to inform the UGC or the Ministry about my political affiliation or changes therein.

2. Positing a ‘conflict of interest’ between the Membership of the UGC and that of a political party is not just mistaken, it is also misleading for it takes attention away from some of the most pressing scandals involving conflict of interest in the higher education sector. While I must compliment your government for at last recognising ‘conflict of interest’ as a valid concern, your choice of the case to give effect to this newly found concern might surprise many.

  1. The Ministry’s notice says that my continued association with the UGC has ‘created a conflict of interest’. It does not specify exactly what this conflict is. The UGC is not the Election Commission and does not regulate political parties. It does not entertain any representation from political parties. So, there is no direct or obvious conflict of interest. I do hope that the Ministry does not view a difference with the ruling party in policy or even political position to be a ‘conflict of interest’.
  2. Perhaps the Ministry thinks there is an indirect conflict of interest here. A party member is committed to a set of values and ideals and to a certain course of action to actualise these. These commitments do condition her worldview, her priorities. Sometimes it may lead to partisanship and a temptation to use the institution for narrow gains. But are these dangers unique to the membership of political party? Don't they affect equally anyone with formal or informal membership of any other association? At any rate these danger are much less relevant in the case of non-executive members of bodies like the UGC. Besides, your Ministry has had a long tradition of appointing academics with clear political affiliations to highest positions in bodies like the ICSSR, ICHR and the IIAS.
  3. Or are you assuming that any involvement with politics creates conflict of interest for any member of a body like the UGC? I hope not, for such an assumption goes against the logic of democracy. I for one have not found my politics to be an obstacle or a shackle. More than my work in Political Science, it is my engagement with politics that has given me a perspective on subjects like higher education. Scholars on education tell us that the real problem in this field is not too much politics, but the absence of a coherent ‘political agenda for education’. As someone who has worked on elections, I can say that the day education becomes an effective electoral issue -- like bijali, sadak and paani -- would indeed be a great leap forward in our democracy. So we need more politics, not less. The only thing to ensure is that we allow for healthy debate across conflicting political perspectives.
  4. There is in any case no conflict between the program, policies and ideology of Aam Aadmi Party and the UGC’s mandate of maintaining standards of Higher Education. Aam Aadmi Party is wedded to the philosophy embedded in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. It seeks to achieve high quality of context-relevant, education for Indians irrespective of their means or accident of their birth. There is no way, therefore, that the membership of such a party can be in conflict with the objectives of the UGC.
  5. No matter which of the subtle interpretations mentioned above inform your ministry’s notice, it is curious that your Ministry focuses on this and not on the brazen conflict of interest has been the bane of Higher Education policy in our country. I believe that there are more than 100 honourable Members of Parliament who own or run private Higher Educational Institutions. The media often connects their vested interests with the nonpassage of any effective and meaningful legislation that regulates these private institutions. I do not know if your government is contemplating any action to curb this blatant conflict of interest. Many courageous whistle-blowers have brought out other instances of conflict of interest, within many institutions of Higher Education, including the IITs. Closer home, your Ministry had nominated a number of persons who own or run private universities and other private institutions as Members of the UGC itself. One of them continues to be a Member. There was a time in not too distant a past when your government had packed the UGC with such Members; those who needed to be regulated became the regulators. I need not recount here tales of the Deemed University scandal that rocked the UGC as a result of those nominations. It might look rather odd that a government that did nothing to prevent, and actually perpetuated, this brazen conflict of interest, has now discovered such a conflict in a decidedly less obvious case. Someone might wonder if your government would have acted with similar zeal if I had joined the Congress party or has done so with similarly placed functionaries who have joined the ruling party.
  6. It is not for me to talk about my role in the Commission in the last two years, but if you speak to your own officers or my other colleagues in the Commission, they might concur that if anything I was instrumental in identifying and preventing conflicts of interest from affecting the functioning of the UGC.

3. Finally, this decision would set a dangerous precedent and deter autonomous bodies from functioning autonomously, for it would send a message that any independent member of an autonomous body who dares to disagree with the Ministry would be thrown out. You may not have had time to go into the intricacies of the functioning of the Commission in the last few months. Therefore, allow me to place on record some of the positions taken by me that maybe perceived to be responsible for the notice issues by your Ministry:

  1. On 11March, 2013 in the 482nd meeting of the Commission, I objected to the dilution of the minimum requirements for twinning arrangements with foreign institutions from earlier specifications of ‘top 500 globally ranked institutions’ to a more vague criteria of ‘highest grade’ institutions. I also opposed post-facto doctoring of minutes of this meeting to dilute the minimum grade required for institutions.
  2. In the same meeting, I disagreed with the Ministry’s proposal to amend the UGC regulations governing the minimum qualifications for Appointment of Teachers, etc., 2010. In a sub-committee meeting called to resolve this matter on 18 March 2013, Mr. R.P. Sisodia, J.S. in your Ministry insisted that the API scores, which were objected to by teachers and academics all over the country, be retained. He suggested that the Commission members might not be interested in maintaining highest standards of education. When I and other colleagues objected to Mr.Sisodia’s insinuation, he took personal affront. The minutes of the meeting were never prepared and the Ministry’s preferred version was simply notified, by-passing the Commission. I objected to this amendment on procedural as well as substantive grounds and requested that my dissent be recorded.
  3. On 29 April, 2013 I sent a written request for the Commission to consider University of Delhi’s proposed Four Year Under-graduate Program (FYUP) in its meeting scheduled for May 10, 2013. I could not attend that meeting and discovered much later that this item was not discussed at all.
  4. On 10June, 2013 I wrote to the Chairman (with a copy to all members) to record my disquiet with a number of decisions taken in the meeting held on 10 May, 2013 and about procedural flaws in the decision-making process. Besides listing some of the points mentioned above, I questioned summary discontinuation of schemes like Centre for the Study of Social Inclusion and Exclusion. I requested a full discussion on the relationship between the UGC and the MHRD, and ways to protect the autonomy of the UGC.
  5. On 31 July, 2013, in the 494th meeting of the Commission I raised several issues under ‘Any other matter’. This included the FYUP of the University of Delhi, non-filling of a large number of vacancies in Central Universities, especially DU and the Ministry’s announcement regarding autonomous status to some leading colleges that by-passed the UGC. All these matters were discussed in the Commission but were subsequently erased from the minutes.
  6. In the same meeting the Chairman brought an unusual proposal drafted in unseemly haste to set up an Inter-University Centre on Teacher Education in J.N. University, Kakinada. I thought it was travesty of Justice Verma Committee’s report to set-up the country’s apex body on research on Teacher Education in a university that does not even have a Department of Education. This haste and lack of due diligence in setting this up in the Minister’s home constituency reflected poorly on the UGC.I objected to the proposal on procedural and substantive grounds and insisted on recording my note of dissent if the proposal was pushed through. The Commission agreed to defer the item. However, the draft minutes recorded that the Commission granted in principle approval. Even before the draft minutes could be circulated and checked, the decision was conveyed to the Sub-group on Implementation of the J.S. Verma Committee set up by the Supreme Court.
  7. On 4 August, 2013, I spoke to the Chairman to register my objection to the draft minutes of the Commission’s meeting held on 31 July and demanded complete re-drafting. I followed this up with a letter to the same effect on 7 August, 2013. Two other Members of the Commission endorsed this request, yet these disputed minutes were placed on the Commission’s website even before the deadline for comments on draft minutes was over. I requested that no action be taken on disputed items and requisitioned an emergency meeting of the Commission to resolve this impasse. I objected again when the UGC secretariat went ahead and issued orders on some of the disputed matters.

I do not know what prompted your Ministry to issue this Notice when it did so, but in view of the sequence narrated above it is quite likely that most academics and fair minded observers might view this notice as retaliation for my daring to question the diktats of the Ministry and the desires of its Minister. This would be a dangerous signal, as it might undermine whatever remains of free speech and autonomy in these autonomous institutions. This would be unfortunate, not so much for the persons who occupied positions in these autonomous bodies, but above all for the UGC and the government. Unfortunately, most good academics take a dim view of such bodies and are unenthusiastic to associate with them. This action might reinforce this perception. The real loser would be the government and the UGC.

The UGC was set up precisely because of a recognition that there was some wisdom outside the Ministry; that the Ministry needed to involve independent minded academics in the framing of the Higher Education Policy while maintaining an ‘arm’s length’ relationship with such autonomous bodies. Doing away with this autonomy will erase the distinction between the UGC, the government and the ruling party. It might seem today that these distinctions are fictional, but I’m sure you would agree with me that these are the sacred fictions that liberal democracies live by.

I must confess that I do not care very much for the Ministry’s decision in this case involving my membership, but I’m sure you would not allow short-term bureaucratic expediency or political partisanship to erode institutions that have a life beyond you and me. Allow me to remind you of a different time in our country’s history, just after independence. Acharya Narendra Deva, a renowned scholar of Budhdhism and the national President of Socialist Party, the leading opposition party of the day, was appointed the Vice Chancellor of two universities consecutively. From what I know, Jawaharlal Nehru was instrumental in persuading Acharyaji to take up this position. Party politics may have travelled a long way since then, but I would like to believe that the inheritors of that legacy would not wish to undo everything that Nehru did.

I’m sorry for inflicting such a long response to a short missive that had perhaps escaped your attention in the first place. I hope the two put together make for interesting reading, if not today, perhaps later. We have met briefly, if pleasantly, but have not had to time to sit down to discuss substantive matters. I look forward to an opportunity to do so. Given the public debate that this issue has generated, I am taking the liberty of releasing this response to the public.

With Regards
Yours sincerely

CSDS, 29 Rajpur Road,
Delhi 110054

R. P. Sisodia,
Joint Secretary,
Department of Higher Education,
Ministry of Human Resource Development

Annexures Part 1 by OutlookMagazine

Annexures Part 2 by OutlookMagazine


Outlook Newsletters


Read More from Outlook

Lament Of Separation: Songs Of Habba Khatun, Last Queen Of Kashmir, Still Echo In Valley

Lament Of Separation: Songs Of Habba Khatun, Last Queen Of Kashmir, Still Echo In Valley

In happy times and sad, Habba Khatun’s sensuous songs make both young and old emotional. With the never-ending conflict bringing tragedies to every doorstep, Habba’s lyrics of separation amplify their mourning.

How Indian Laws Govern People’s Right To Love And Live

How Indian Laws Govern People’s Right To Love And Live

In India, only those relationships between a man and a woman are considered to be legitimate when there is a marriage between the two.

Kohli Quits Test Captaincy, Leaves Leadership Vacuum

Kohli Quits Test Captaincy, Leaves Leadership Vacuum

Virat Kohli, 33, had recently stepped down as India's T20I captain and was subsequently removed as the ODI captain.

UP Elections 2022: How Congress Is Harnessing Power Of 'Persecuted' Women To Counter BJP

UP Elections 2022: How Congress Is Harnessing Power Of 'Persecuted' Women To Counter BJP

A Mahila Congress leader, who is the face of the ‘Ladki Hoon, Lad Sakti Hoon’ campaign, however, has accused the party of anti-women bias after she was denied a ticket.