Two “eventful” years on, India’s education minister shunted from textbooks to textiles

Ending a two-year course in controversy.
Ending a two-year course in controversy.
Image: Reuters/Ahmad Masood
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Smriti Irani, India’s education minister, has been shunted from textbooks to textiles—her new ministry. The move was part of a cabinet reshuffle announced late on Tuesday (July 5) by prime minister Narendra Modi’s government. Environment minister Prakash Javadekar will replace Irani.

The move was so unexpected that The Times of India newspaper called it a “shocker.” The fact that Modi had earlier this week hinted that there would be no reshuffle but just an expansion only added to the intrigue.

Modi’s 25-month tenure has been marred by student agitations and human resources development (HRD) minister Irani, the youngest in his team, has shown little competence in handling them. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which heads the government, came out in Irani’s support.

“Smriti ji is a very hardworking member of the party. We have made certain changes. Her portfolio has been changed. It is true that there were controversies during her reign as HRD minister, but she has handled it very well carefully,” BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra said.

Not many are buying that, though.

Others suspect that in the garb of a reshuffle, Irani’s demotion-of-sorts to a less taxing ministry could be a move to free her up for extensive campaigning in Uttar Pradesh, a crucial state going to polls in 2017. Indeed, she could even be the party’s chief ministerial candidate there. 

When the former TV bahu (daughter-in-law) was selected to head the HRD ministry in 2014, Modi faced a backlash for handing the education sector to someone alleged to have no college education. Irani didn’t fail her critics, as her term, thus far, has been riddled with controversies.

June 2014: Touted as one of Delhi University’s most ambitious programs, the four-year undergraduate program was rolled back at Irani’s behest, angering an anxious student community.

August 2014: Irani claimed she had a degree from Yale University. Later, the said “degree” turned out to be a certificate for a week-long leadership program.

October 2014: Irani toyed with the idea of making canteens at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campuses strictly vegetarian. She was pilloried by members of the opposition who said the government had no right to interfere with students’ eating habits.

May 2015: Irani’s ministry banned the Ambedkar Periyar Student Circle, a student discussion forum at IIT-Madras, for criticizing the Modi government’s policies. Following protests, the ban was revoked.

June 2015: It was revealed that in 2004, Irani claimed to have earned a bachelor of arts degree through correspondence from the University of Delhi. A decade later, in an election affidavit, she had claimed to have earned a bachelor’s degree in commerce from the School of Open Learning, Delhi University.

January 2016: Rohit Vemula, a doctoral student of the Hyderabad university, committed suicide after authorities stopped his scholarship. University officials cited Vemula’s protests against the hanging of Yakub Memon, the 1993 Bombay blasts case convict, as the reason for stopping his scholarship. Irani was criticized for her mishandling of the case. It was alleged that her ministry had put pressure on university authorities to act against Vemula.

February 2016: During the “JNU-anti-nationalism row,” Irani was dubbed “Aunty National” for slapping sedition charges on six Jawarharlal Nehru University (JNU) students who had protested against the hanging of the 2001 parliament attack case convict Afzal Guru.