Tuesday, September 07, 2004

indian official whose university reforms have irked the opposition faces defamation lawsuit

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in September 2004).

A Hindu-supremacist group has filed a criminal defamation lawsuit against India's minister in charge of education for suggesting that the group was involved in the 1948 assassination of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the revered architect of Indian independence.

The group, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, known as the RSS, filed the lawsuit in Haryana State, which borders New Delhi, and has threatened to file similar suits across India, a step that would require the minister to make personal appearances in each court.

The minister, Arjun Singh, said last month that if the RSS's "biggest achievement was the killing of Gandhi, then you can expect what national purpose it can serve." The RSS, the ideological backbone of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which ran the previous government, first demanded an apology and then filed the lawsuit.

Mr. Singh, who as the minister of human-resource development oversees the Department of Education, did not apologize. Instead, he issued a written statement saying that the RSS's "philosophy of hate and violence" had killed Gandhi, who was shot to death by a Hindu fanatic.

Mr. Singh also said that his conviction that the RSS had played a role in the assassination had been strengthened over the years "because of the various acts members of this organization (RSS) inflicted on the society."

"I am aware of their (RSS) expertise in murder and mayhem," he added.

The RSS dismissed Mr. Singh's statement as "mere rhetoric."

"We still believe he is blaming the RSS, and that is a patent lie," said Ram Madhav, the RSS spokesman. "We won't take it lying down."

He added that the RSS had filed the lawsuit in criminal court because "this is not about monetary compensation." If found guilty, he said, Mr. Singh could be imprisoned.

The RSS and the Bharatiya Janata Party have taken aim at Mr. Singh because he has reversed a number of BJP policies since he took office following his Congress Party's victory in national elections in May.

Among other things, Mr. Singh has revoked a drastic tuition cut that the previous government forced upon the country's six prestigious management institutes; scrapped a controversial order, also issued by the BJP government, that required private donations to public universities to be routed through a special government agency; and allowed India's universities to seek collaborations with their foreign counterparts without obtaining the government's permission.

In addition, Mr. Singh has ordered the replacement of high-school history textbooks that the previous government had changed to reflect a Hindu-supremacist viewpoint.

The RSS's spokesman, Mr. Madhav, said that those actions were part of a "political vendetta" by Mr. Singh.

The case will be heard on November 11.