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MP, ex-colleagues draw attention to UPSC chief's career path

One of the incidents Manoj Soni’s former co-workers cited was hooliganism on Maharaja Sayajirao University campus in Baroda when he was vice-chancellor
Manoj Soni.
Manoj Soni.
File photo

Basant Kumar Mohanty   |   New Delhi   |   Published 19.04.22, 01:45 AM

An MP and several erstwhile colleagues of new UPSC chairperson Manoj Soni have drawn attention to his career path and some of the decisions attributed to him to underscore the potential pitfalls he should avoid to preserve the constitutional authority’s neutrality and independence under his leadership.

One of the incidents Soni’s former colleagues cited was hooliganism on the Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) campus in Baroda when he was vice-chancellor.

In 2007, a pro-Hindutva mob, which claimed that some of the works displayed at an art exam insulted Hindu gods and goddesses, had stormed the campus.

But an art student was arrested, the art faculty issued an apology ignoring the students’ defence of their work, and a professor who stood by them was suspended. The former colleagues feel that Soni did not intervene to protect the art student from the arrest and his stand may have had a role in the faculty issuing the apology.

Soni, who has since 2017 been a member of the Union Public Service Commission —which conducts exams to recruit high-level government officials such as IAS and IPS officers — was appointed chairperson this month.

Some of Soni’s former MSU colleagues underlined that the then Narendra Modi government in Gujarat had elevated him as vice-chancellor of the state-run university although he was only a reader — the equivalent of associate professor — at Sardar Patel University (SPU), Vallabh Vidyanagar. Soni was just 40 and had been reader for only a year, they said.

No rule in existence then was broken but his appointment went against the then convention of appointing senior professors as VCs. Under current UGC rules, only those with 10 years’ experience as professors can be appointed VC.

After MSU, Soni spent two consecutive terms as VC of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Open University. He then returned to SPU before taking voluntary retirement as an associate professor in 2016.

A brief description of Soni on the UPSC website says he was the youngest ever VC in India, and that he taught international relations at SPU.

In 2007, a BJP worker and others had barged into the venue of an exam-related display of students’ work, some of which depicted sexuality, said Shivaji Panikkar, who was dean in charge of the faculty of fine arts at MSU at the time. He stressed that it was not a public exhibition.

Panikkar agreed to speak to this newspaper on the condition that he would merely recount his personal experience, and his objective was not to cast aspersions on Soni’s suitability for the UPSC post or to speculate about the possible path the chairperson may pursue on his new assignment.

The campus invaders, who had brought along the media and police, created a ruckus saying Hindu gods and goddesses had been portrayed wrongly.

“If there were objectionable paintings, the teachers and external examiners would have been the appropriate authority to deal with it. If necessary, the students could have been punished,” Panikkar told The Telegraph.

“But the BJP worker forcibly entered the campus, manhandled the student and got the student arrested. I wanted support from the VC to protect the autonomy of the institution. No help came.”

Eventually, the display was closed and a press note was issued saying the faculty members apologised if anyone’s religious sentiments were hurt.

“After the university authorities failed to help and a student was put in jail, other students held an exhibition - with archival images of artworks from many parts of the world — to prove that sexuality, art and religion always coexisted across the world,” Panikkar said.

“It was this exhibition that the VC asked me to close. I explained that the students had the right to protest and educate the media, and said I would be unable to close this initiative. For this, I was given a suspension order.”

After waiting four years for reinstatement, Panikkar resigned and joined the Ambedkar University in Delhi. A departmental enquiry at MSU found him guilty of disobeying directives. Panikkar has moved the university tribunal, where the case is pending. The now retired academic is yet to receive his retirement benefits such as pension and gratuity.

“If the public and the police enter the campus on issues that are purely academic, I believe the independence of institutions will be threatened. It’s not good for the country or society,” Panikkar said.

Nikul Patel, general secretary of the MSU teachers’ association, said Soni’s tenure as VC had witnessed norms violations in the appointment of teachers.

He said a university notification —  No. ADE/5/2004-2005 -— had made a PhD degree a requirement for the post of reader. But 19 candidates were appointed readers at the faculty of technology and engineering during Soni’s tenure with the condition that they complete their PhD in seven years from the date of appointment.

Till now, he said, four of them had not fulfilled the condition.

Patel said protocol and ethics demanded that members of selection panels not hold ranks below that of the post for which the interview is conducted. However, several professors were interviewed and appointed by selection panels headed by Soni, he said.

Bharat Mehta, a senior faculty member at MSU and celebrated literary figure in Gujarati, said he had been denied a promotion to professor in 2006, presumably because he was a “Leftist”.

“My junior colleague got promoted to professor in the department of Gujarati. I had published 10 works on Gujarati literature. The next year I again applied for promotion to professor and the selection panel chose me, but the university syndicate sat on the recommendations,” Mehta said.

“Having received no information till 2010, I sent a legal notice demanding to know the result of the selection. I was awarded the promotion with effect from 2007.”

Jawhar Sircar, Trinamul MP in the Rajya Sabha and former Prasar Bharati CEO, said the art exam incident at MSU raised questions about Soni’s ideological neutrality as an administrator.

“The independence of constitutional authorities like the Election Commission and the CAG has been compromised with the appointment of people who often oblige the government through their actions and decisions,” Sircar said. “So far, the UPSC has managed to maintain its identity,” he added.

The Modi government had denied such charges when they were levelled earlier.

Sircar stressed that a chairman can influence the functions of the public service commission and “ensure that people who espouse the majoritarian view and Hindutva have a better chance of success in the UPSC exams”.

For instance, he said, “the exam questions can always be set in a way that supports a particular narrative on social issues like hijab-wearing or meat-eating”.

“Most candidates prepare for the exam in line with the expected answers, and the process of poisoning the mind sets in,” he added.

Sircar said it would be difficult for other members of the UPSC to oppose the chairperson if he persists in his stand.

An email was sent to Soni on April 12 seeking his comments on the allegations about his actions and support for Hindutva forces. Another email was sent the same day to the department of personnel and training, which processes the appointments to key UPSC posts, asking whether it had examined Soni’s track record at MSU. Responses are awaited.

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