Controversies Surrounding our Politicians’ Degrees Reflect a Gap Between the Perception and Reality of India’s Education System

05 July, 2015

At a cursory glance, there does not appear to be much in common between Delhi’s former law minister Jitender Singh Tomar, Maharasthra’s education minister Vinod Tawde and Smriti Irani, the Human Resource Development (HRD) minister of India. Indeed, it may be reasonable to assume that there isn’t; except for the nature of the controversy that has been hounding these three politicians in recent times. In the past month, news in India has been replete with a flurry of revelations centred around legislators and ministers across the country who have been accused of exaggerating and even faking their educational qualifications.  

The forgery of a variety of essential documents—from birth and death certificates to driving licenses, ration cards, professional degrees and educational qualifications—is hardly a new phenomenon in India. Complex systems that have been designed and carefully preserved to aid the fabrication of necessary documents ae now identified as an inherent part of the “Indian way of life.”

These cases reveal a far deeper story about the state of India’s education system. It would be relevant to note that several of the elected representatives who are currently in the eye of the fake degree storm belong to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP); both of which are essentially non-elitist in terms of class.

Take for instance, the case of the AAP’s former law minister Jitender Singh Tomar. Accused of forging his educational degrees, the former law minister of Delhi claimed to have a Bachelor’s degree in Science from the Avadh University in Uttar Pradesh and a law degree from the Biswanath Singh Institute of Legal Studies (BSILS) Munger, which is affiliated to the Tilka Manjhi Bhagalpur University in Bihar. Both the universities presented conflicting versions on the authenticity of Tomar’s degrees. He is currently in judicial custody and has been charged with cheating, forgery and criminal conspiracy.

Meanwhile, the Delhi high court has also reportedly issued notices to AAP legislator Surender Singh for allegedly misrepresenting himself as a graduate from the Sikkim’s Manipal University in 2012. The university has denied having any record of Singh’s degree.This week, a court in Delhi also took cognisance of a complaint which claimed that AAP MLA Bhavna Gaur furnished the wrong information regarding her educational qualifications in two separate election affidavits.

In Maharashtra, the BJP’s Vinod Tawde is contending with allegations around the authenticity of the BE (Electronics) degree that was awarded to him in 1984 by Dyaneshwar Vidyapeeth, which is an educational trust and not a recognised university. The state’s water supplies and sanitation minister Babanrao Lonikar is also under scrutiny for providing differing educational qualifications in his election affidavits. In contrast to his affidavits filed in the 2004 and 2009 elections where Lonikar claimed to have completed the first year of his BA course, during last year’s election, he maintained having studied only till grade five.

Then there is the other kind of politician, who, though not hamstrung by class, has simply exaggerated her educational qualifications. Last month, Irani was charged with providing contradictory information about her academic credentials to the election commission; in her affidavit for the Lok Sabha election in 2004, Irani had stated that she was a Bachelor of Arts graduate from Delhi university. However, in her 2014 Lok Sabha election affidavit, she claimed to have been a Bachelor of Commerce (Part 1) graduate from Delhi University.

This recent spate of alleged forgeries and the ensuing narrative on the degrees under scrutiny is a result of the deeper processes of change within Indian society and its political class. These processes have marked a shift in the popular attitude towards education in India. It has now acquired the oft-repeated tag of being “aspirational”, becoming an instrument of upward mobility that allows emerging classes to move up the social hierarchy. This preoccupation with a certain kind of education is also reflected in the increasing attention that is paid to the perception of institutions and in a section of Indian parents who are willing to spend a significant amount of money to ensure that their children have access to reputed universities abroad.

This is not a recent phenomenon. The 1990s witnessed an intersection of the emerging interests of the underprivileged classes and their assertive presence in different spheres that encompassed economics, politics and society. In 1990, the agitation over Mandal commission report that ensured 27 percent reservation in central government jobs for backward castes in addition to the 22.5 percent that already been set apart for Scheduled Castes and Tribes, ruptured upper-class, upper-caste monopoly over power structures in the parliament and in assemblies. As Christophe Jafferlot, aFrench political scientist, noted, “It gave rise to counter mobilisation among the OBCs (Other Backward Caste), who for the first time formed a common front to defend the quotas they were in danger of having taken away from them. This abstract administrative category, ‘the OBC’, thus acquired political substance not from the inside, but under the influence of external opposition, by being faced with the Other, the upper castes.” The changing political equations were evident in the increasing number of elected OBC representatives which went up from 11 percent in 1984 to 25 percent in 1996, while that of upper caste legislators fell from 47 percent to 35 percent.

Simultaneously, the ushering in of economic liberalisation shifted India’s development trajectory, pushing the country in the direction of a knowledge-based economy. The central government launched into a drive to spread literacy and accelerate the enrolment of children in primary schools.The National Literacy Mission that began in 1988 deepened its roots in the 1990s when there was a competitive scramble to declare districts “fully literate.” This was followed by the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) in 1994, and the Sarva SikhaAbhiyan in 2000-2001, to achieve the universalisation of elementary education. 

It could be argued that this shift in attitude was first noted formally in the Public Report of Basic Education (PROBE)—an evaluation of the education system in India based on a survey in five states: Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himanchal Pradesh—that was authored by economists Anuradha De and Jean Dreze in 1999. Through its interviews with parents, teachers and children, the report highlighted a growing desire for education. It said, “the general pattern is not one of parental indifference. On the contrary, the ‘typical’ father and mother are very keen that their children should receive a good education. It is another matter that they do not always have much faith in the schooling system's ability to impart such education…" The report’s findings busted the myth that the aspiration for education was confined to the well-heeled middle classes while the underprivileged families preferred to send their children to fields and factories rather than to schools.

Today, as we witness a deepening of these multiple processes and their outcomes, we are in a moment of flux. India has achieved remarkable progress in primary school enrolment. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s “Education for All” report that studied the period between 2000 and 2015, stated: “Since 2000, when countries committed themselves to the global education goals, India has reduced its out of school children by over 90 percent and Universal Primary Education has been achieved. This year India is predicted to be the only country in South and West Asia to have an equal ratio of girls to boys in both primary and secondary education.”

However, the dichotomy contained in these encouraging figures is that despite near universal enrolment levels,the quality of education available to the majority of children in India continues to remain abysmal. The latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) that was published in January 2015 by Pratham—a non-profit organisation in the education sector—observed that the learning levels of students in India’s schools are continuing to decline. The first ASER report published in 2005 had revealed that only three out of five children in grade five or 60 percent were able to read text meant for students in grade two. The 2015 report, which surveyed 577 rural districts, shows that only 48 percent of the students who were interviewed from grade five were able to read text that was meant for students in grade two. Similarly, arithmetic continues to remain a formidable challenge. According to the 2015 report, only 44.1 percent of the students who were interviewed from grade eight were able to work on sums that involved division, as opposed to 46 percent in 2013. As Pratham’s president, Madhav Chavan observed, neither the separate tax to fund education nor the government’s Right to Education law has made any real impact within classrooms.

A large chunk of our subaltern political representatives today, are the products of this deeply flawed education system. As education has become synonymous with what scholars often call “cultural capital,” it is scarcely surprising that those who find themselves in the corridors of power without the adequate markers, would turn to manufactured pasts as a means of legitimising their positions. The chequered educational graph of these politicans and the virtually non-existent institutions that they claim to have studied in, could indicate the schism between their aspiration for education and what they were able to avail within the constraints of the eco-system they were operating in.

While political battles will— rightly or wrongly—be fought around these issues, such controversies are unlikely to go away any time soon. Instead of focusing on the surface level deception carried out by the ministers in question, we would do well to pause and ask what these revelations say about India’s transformation over the last twenty years. At a time when the Prime Minister is engaged in his own version of purely surface-level politics, it is helpful to remember the larger issues at stake. After all, there’s no app for those.

Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi.