These questions of propriety and dignity arise from the multiple honoris causa degrees of the present Union Minister for Human Resource Development, Dr Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, a renowned literary personality, former Chief Minister of Uttarakhand.
Fake universities and academic institutions will be rushing forward to award highest degrees to those who are in power. If people in power accept them it will lend undue credence to the bogus institutions and facilitate them to cheat millions.
During the 90s, the Open International University (OIU) of Colombo conferred a D.Litt on his for his contribution in literature. Same University gave D. Litt earlier for his contribution in the field of science. But the problem is that OIU was neither registered nor recognised as a foreign university nor as a domestic university in Sri Lanka. Its degree was declared to be invalid. He was also awarded two more D.Litt degrees by recognized Universities. Both, awarding to and acceptance of honoris causa by those in power raise questions of ethics and propriety.
The Universities are resisting the RTI requests about the educational degrees of the high-profile politicians holding power. While contesting elections, the political candidates claim that they have BA or MA and Doctorates in their affidavits, websites, CVs and press interviews, but some of them refuse to share details under RTI Act. The Government's attorneys are fighting writ petitions challenging the orders of Information Commissioners to disclose the degree related information of Prime Minister and former Minister for HRD, on the ground that such information is their private information. Similarly, when MA related information about present HRD Minister is sought, the Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna University refused to give saying it is 'third-party' information.
RTI reveals invalidity of degree
A journalist from the Statesman filed an RTI request with the High Commission of India in Colombo about the validity of UIO which gave D.Litt to Pokhriyal. The High Commission responded saying that the "Open International University for Complementary Medicines in Colombo (Sri Lanka) is not recognized by the UGC of Sri Lanka…. that University was unregistered…fake, bogus or dubious education institute operating from Colombo". Indian Government has also not recognised this Sri Lanka based University. The Council of Scientific & Industrial Research circulated a copy of a 1998 letter (CSIR letter No. 17/66/27/94-PPS dated 18.11.1998) to the heads of its national laboratory, which discloses, "I am directed to forward herewith a copy of Letter No.OE/D/98/1381 dated 27.8.98 from Dr. S.K. Jain, Director, Institute of Ethnobiology, C/o NBRI, Lucknow along with a copy of letter dated 12.8.98 from UGC regarding non-validity of D.Sc. Degree awarded by Open International University for Complementary Medicines, Colombo and informing that no recognition should be given to the Degree/Diploma or any other academic distinction conferred by this University, for your information and record."
The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is an autonomous research and development agency working in the areas of science and technology has categorically stated that any degree given by the university should not be recognised. Will the HRD Minister and that Ministry take note of it?
The affidavit filed for contesting the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Pokhriyal has disclosed about completing his masters from H.N.B Garhwal University but decided to mention his Doctor of Philosophy and Doctor of Literature degrees (both honorary), but it did not mention the university from where he obtained these academic qualifications.
After becoming Uttarakhand Chief Minister, he was conferred honorary degrees by the Graphic Era University and Uttarakhand Sanskrit University, which are recognized institutions.
BJP questions BJP Minister
A BJP (not Congress) leader from Himachal Pradesh Manoj Verma has filed a petition on 27th August 2019 before President of India to declare oath-taking of HRD Minister null and void as the degree was allegedly 'fake' and institution which awarded it was unrecognized. Verma's objection was to use of 'Dr' as prefix while taking oath. Verma also doubted the validity of Pokhriyal's MA and BA degrees. Pokhriyal's affidavit to the Election Commission, and his official website, claims that he did his master's from Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna (HNB) University, Garhwal, in Srinagar, Uttarakhand.
Answerability of Ministry
PS to HRD Minister, Mr. Purushottam in response to questions by a news portal (thewire.in) said the minister's BA degree was "not relevant" given that he had an MA from HNB Garhwal University, Srinagar in 1986 and that 'he was conferred Doctorate (Honoris Causa) from Graphic Era University (Deemed to be University), conferred Doctorate (Honoris Causa) by Uttarakhand Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya. He said that he did not have information about the BA at hand but undertook to provide later.
Misuse of RTI by Authorities
Two provisions of RTI Act are under constant misuse by the politicians and universities. One is Section 8(1)(j) which exempts PIO from disclosing the personal information of the public servant, while the other is Section 11(1) which does not authorise the PIO to hide but mandates him to consult the third-party regarding the request for disclosure of third-party information.
Transparency alone is the way to quell controversies if the degrees are genuine. But why the University is not ready to disclose educational information of Pokhriyal? One RTI applicant R. Madhukant sought information on 2.6.2014 about Pokhriyal's MA degree, enrolment number and related copies of documents. There was no response from CPIO of University within the mandatory period- one month. First appeal was filed. Then the CPIO and First appellate Authority gives response on same day i.e., 16.08.2014 denying it as third-party information. This shows that authorities are not inclined to share any details and third-party is a lame excuse. First party is applicant, second is University, which says the Minister is the third-party and his educational information could not be revealed.
The RTI Act says if one person/authority has given some documents to the other in course of their official functioning need to consult that 'third-party' before deciding whether such information should be given in response to RTI requests. It is a statutory obligation of the PIO to get views of third party. If third-party objects to disclosure, the PIO can still examine disclosure in public interest. If authorities simply raise pretext of 'third party information', without consulting that third-party nor examining public interest factor. They generally share information about degrees to hundreds of RTI applicants, but degrees of politically powerful leaders are guarded as secrets. Most of the authorities (including PIOs, First Appellate Authorities and the Information Commissioners) do not hesitate to give conflicting orders about degrees of political leaders. It is indeed interesting subject for research scholars.
Another factor to be noted is that Pokhriyal did not give any of his document of piece of information to University to classify it as third party. The MA degree was given by University to Pokhriyal, not the reverse. University imparts education, conducts an evaluation and awards the degree in public. It is University's information that was sought by the RTI applicant.
The Degree related information could be neither personal nor information given by third party. From admissions to graduation, the Registrar must maintain register of records of every student and the purpose of registering is to maintain a public record, for reference and verification. Like land or property transaction documents, the degrees and related information also is in public domain. Though original degree certificate will be given to the candidate, its authentication details should be accessible in the register for verification and no law prohibits its disclosure.
There is neither merit nor legality in the contention of the University that degree related information was third party (Minister's) information. Assuming that it is third party information of Pokhriyal; the PIO under Section 11 (1) of RTI Act had a duty to consult him. Even if Pokhrial raises an objection against disclosure, it is the duty of PIO to examine independently the public interest factor and decide whether information was to be disclosed. There is no record to show that the PIO of HNBG University has taken any independent decision on these lines prescribed by RTI Act, nor he gave any reason for the rejection.
Legal consequences of false claims
The Supreme Court Bench of Justice A R Dave and Justice L Nageswara Rao in Civil Appeal No. 2649 of 2016 in Mairembam Prithviraj v. Pukhrem Sharat Chandra Singh, quashed the election of Manipur Congress MLA, Mairembam Prithviraj for falsely declaring in his nomination papers that he had an MBA degree. The Supreme Court held that right to vote would be meaningless unless citizens were well informed about the antecedents of candidates, including their educational qualification. The apex court has held that every voter has a fundamental right to know the educational qualifications of a candidate. The court noted that he made false declarations. This is in public interest for which even third-party-information should be disclosed.
Hence, the CIC (this author) directed the HNBG University (Srinagar, Uttarakhand) to provide complete information about the MA degree of Pokhriyal as available with the University, before 30th December 2016. Manoj Verma's petition to President says it was not furnished.
Using prefix of 'Dr' from honoris causa DLitt given by unrecognised, private and foreign university, or from a state university given to Pokhriyal, when he was holding a constitutional position, cannot be ethically justified. It may be unbecoming of a dignified public servant. The Ministry must give complete information about BA and MA of it's minister as the 'degree' of accountability demands in a democratic society. When a citizen wants to verify a degree of public servant, the University is legitimately expected to provide such an opportunity. University is not subordinate to the executive government. It should independently verify the status of its alumni and if the education is genuine they should take pride in it, and if not they have to correct the record, in addition to their disclosure obligations under RTI Act.
Prof Madabhushi Sridhar Acharyulu is Former Central Information Commissioner & Professor of Law at Bennett University.
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