The curious case of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s degree

It’s intriguing that every time an applicant asks for the details of PM Modi’s educational qualifications, universities run to court to get injunctions so they don’t have to part with the information

Getty images
Getty images
user

Tathagata Bhattacharya

Both Amit Shah, the BJP national president, and Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley grinned as they held up copies of a degree purportedly awarded by Delhi University to Prime Minister Narendra Modi way back in 1978. This proof, they said, would scotch the irresponsible and reckless allegations made by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who had accused Modi of fabricating the degree. The very next day, the Registrar of Delhi University told the media that records had indeed been verified and that the Bachelor of Arts degree awarded to Modi was authentic.

That should have set all doubts at rest. But they didn’t. And two years later, the controversy still simmers and the issue is still being heard by the Delhi High Court. The controversy is as much about the PM’s degree as the interpretation of the path-breaking Right to Information Act, its role and ambit. Can a citizen access records kept by a central university under the RTI Act?

Was the Central Information Commission (CIC) right in ordering Delhi University (DU) to facilitate inspection of records in its examination department? The Prime Minister, to an extent, contributed to the controversy. In more than one video clip that circulated on social media, most of them before the 2014 general election, he mocked himself for being ‘uneducated’. He had left home for the Himalayas and did not pursue education after school, he can be heard saying in one of the videos. In another, he said he did not have a formal education, never went to college but yet moved ahead in life! There are other videos in circulation though, in which Narendra Modi explains how he was persuaded by well wishers to complete his graduation. He did it through a correspondence course, he claimed.

The Prime Minister, to an extent, contributed to the controversy. In more than one video clip that circulated on social media, most of them before the 2014 general election, he mocked himself for being ‘uneducated’

But, doubts about his degrees weren’t restricted just to his BA degree awarded by DU, but also around his MA degree awarded by Gujarat University, which mentioned Modi had secured the PG degree in “Entire Political Science”, a subject that apparently does not exist and is not even taught in the university.

But while Gujarat High Court dismissed a plea to allow inspection of records on a technical ground, the case is still alive in the Delhi High Court where DU is putting up a spirited defence of its right to deny inspection of its records.

If there was a ‘Ripley’s Believe It Not’ compilation of the 10 most well-guarded secrets of the modern world, one can be rest assured that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s graduation degree would occupy one slot in the tally. After all, not many Indians who graduated in 1978 can boast of a computer-generated marksheet like the one BJP president Amit Shah and Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley waved at the media at the press meet in New Delhi in May 2016.

When, on August 27, 2015, RTI activist Neeraj Sharma filed an enquiry under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, seeking a certified copy of the pages of the relevant register where complete information about the results of all students, who had passed in Bachelor of Arts in 1978 from DU, along with roll number, names of students, father’s names and marks obtained, he did not understand he was stepping on an issue of national security. But he soon understood this was a different ball game altogether. After Delhi University refused to part with the information, Neeraj knocked on the doors of the CIC for redressal. It took the commission nine months to conduct a hearing on the matter and finally, on December 21, 2016, an order was passed by the CIC asking DU to furnish the details to the applicant. It would have been routine for DU to comply with the order of the CIC, but the university decided to move the Delhi High Court (HC) against the CIC order.

What is surprising is that Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Tushar Mehta is arguing for DU in court. This obviously gives rise to the suspicion that DU’s move to challenge the CIC order may have been prompted by orders from the political establishment. The University invoked exemptions under the RTI Act, related to breach of privacy [Section 8(1)(j)] and fiduciary relationship [Section 8(1) (e)] to argue that information related to results cannot be provided to citizens under the RTI Act. The HC stayed the order on January 23, 2017, and said the matter would be heard in subsequent hearings.

Doubts about PM Narendra Modi’s degrees weren’t restricted just to his BA degree awarded by Delhi University, but also around his MA degree awarded by Gujarat University, which mentioned Modi had secured the PG degree in “Entire Political Science”, a subject that apparently does not exist and is not even taught in the university

How come DU, which publishes results of hundreds of its examinations online, suddenly perceived the results of 1978 as personal is anyone’s guess but it was in this context that Anjali Bhardwaj, Nikhil Dey and Amrita Johri, all well-known activists and associated with the Right to Information movement from its early days, decided to step in. Bhardwaj and Dey are co-convenors of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) and Johri a working committee member of the same. They filed their intervention in the court before the hearing on April 24, 2017. Bhardwaj told National Herald, “Since the issue at hand, that is access to information under the RTI Act seeking results of those who appeared in an examination, involved wider public interest and the decision of the HC was likely to act as a precedent regarding access to information under the RTI Act, we decided to intervene.” When they felt the Judge might not allow the intervention, the three cited Supreme Court (SC) and HC judgments on allowing interventions. The Judge neither allowed nor denied the intervention and said it would be heard at the next hearing. On November 16, 2017, the Judge said that decision on the intervention would be taken when the matter was heard. Since DU had not filed any rejoinder, he closed the university’s right to file a rejoinder. Later, DU requested for additional time which was subsequently allowed in a hearing dated May 22, 2018. What transpired in the courtroom on May 22 is a pointer to the bind the government aka DU finds itself in.

The ASG opposed the intervention and argued that the intervenors had no 'locus'. Delhi University called Bhardwaj, Dey and Johri “meddlesome interlopers” and “busybodies” who were allegedly trying to intervene in the matter for “extraneous reasons.” When the Judge asked if DU would have any objection if the intervenors assisted the court as amicus, this too was opposed and the counsel pleaded for the matter to be listed after the vacations. The matter is now listed for August 23. Johri told NH that DU kept on asking how a one-and-a-half page intervention, devoid of any merit, could be allowed. “They had used this plea last time also. Even in the earlier hearing, we had pointed out that the intervention was 24-pages-long and only the affidavit for additional documents was one-and-a-half pages. After the last hearing, we had again served them a copy. Finally the Judge had to say that the court records showed it was a very detailed intervention and not some 2-page note. The DU counsel then said that in that case he was not prepared because he had not looked at the whole thing! We also handed over additional documents showing that even today DU displays results of hundreds of exams online.”

Also, if the High Court’s observation in a case relating to the Class X and XII results of Textiles Minister Smriti Irani is anything to go by, DU’s case hinging on the element of privacy and fiduciary capacity may not hold much water. The court’s observation, as reported by PTI, came in February, 2018 during the hearing of a CBSE plea that challenged a CIC direction allowing inspection of Union Minister Smriti Irani’s class X and XII records to an applicant under the RTI Act. “Are all the CBSE marks of students available in the public domain today? If it is possible today, then you cannot say there is a right of privacy qua results of earlier students,” PTI quoted Justice Vibhu Bakhru’s observations.

“It is obvious that the DU plea has little legal merit. If you are putting up results of thousands of students online, the results of 1978 suddenly can’t become private. And by the same argument, the ground for fiduciary capacity too does not stand as if it’s a matter of trust, then trust has been broken in case of thousands and lakhs of students. I guess the ASG is fully aware of the sticky legal wicket on which this DU plea is standing and, therefore, is indulging in delaying tactics,” said a senior advocate on the ground of anonymity as the matter is sub-judice.

Incidentally, Roshan Shah, a Canadian citizen and an Overseas Citizen of India, had filed an RTI in 2013 with Gujarat University seeking the details of Narendra Modi’s educational qualifications. It never came. In 2014, he sent a similar application to the Prime Minister’s Office which replied that it did not have the documents. The suspicion about Modi’s educational degrees is not completely unfounded. He used to leave the marital status column on the election affidavit blank and only put his wife Jashodaben’s name after a Supreme Court ruling that candidates had to fill their affidavits in full. He has been claiming for long in his speeches and interviews that he does not have any family.

The controversy over the Prime Minister’s educational qualification has already lasted for more than five years. One hopes that the court will soon put an end to it.

Not many Indians who graduated in 1978 can boast of a computer-generated marksheet like the one BJP president Amit Shah and Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley waved at the media at the press meet in New Delhi in May 2016

A timeline of PM Narendra Modi's degree row…

May, 2016: Amit Shah and Arun Jaitley flash copies of Narendra Modi’s degree from DU

May, 2016: DU Registrar Tarun Das tells the media that records have been checked, the PM’s degree is authentic and volunteers his roll number and other details

May, 2016: BJP spokesman Shrikant Sharma, now a minister in Uttar Pradesh, says that minor discrepancies in the mark sheet and degree of the PM were clerical errors

May, 2016: Aam Aadmi Party questions BJP’s claims and points out that the degree mentions 1979 while the marksheet is from 1978

January, 2017: The Central Information Commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu orders DU to allow inspection of records pertaining to 1978

January, 2017: Acharyulu is divested of his charge of HRD ministry at the CIC

March, 2017: DU’s School of Open Learning in response to an RTI application says that it does not have records of 1978 as records are maintained only for one year and then weeded out

March, 2018: DU tells Delhi High Court that it cannot disclose details of students who had taken the BA examination in 1978 under the RTI Act as it holds the details in a fiduciary capacity

May, 2018: ASG Tushar Mehta appears for DU in the Delhi High Court and opposes the court’s suggestion that intervenors assist the court as amicus, on the ground that the intervenors were strangers and publicity seekers

May, 2018: Lawyers for intervenors inform the court that their interest lay in a proper interpretation of the RTI Act and its jurisdiction

For all the latest India News, Follow India Section.

Published: 16 Jun 2018, 12:00 PM
next