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Smriti Zubin Irani: “Dissent is the essence of democracy”

India’s Minister of Human Resource Development defends her country’s record

India’s most significant step forward in the education of girls was the construction of 463,000 toilets in schools across the country during the past year, India’s Human Resources Development Minister, Smriti Zubin Irani, told Tina Brown today.

During an interview at the Women In The World summit in New Delhi, Irani said catering to this most basic of needs not only encouraged girls to come to school but ensured they would stay there.

A mother of two and a successful actor as well as politician, Minister Irani sparked protest from the audience when she suggested, rather controversially, that women in India were not “dictated to” regarding their choice of attire and their movements.

As a member of a middle-class Indian family, she insisted that she had been taught that every woman decided her own destiny. Irani rebutted audience complaints saying that in the United States, young women had been asked not to wear provocative Halloween costumes, suggesting that the imposition of forms of dress code is a universal phenomenon, not confined to India.

Irani emphasized that education and wealth were not, going by statistics available with the National Crime Records Bureau, a deterrent against crimes against women. The “elite” locality of South Mumbai, for instance, had recorded the highest rate of female infanticide in the country. She also pointed out that the incidence of domestic abuse in urban centers tended to be higher than that in rural areas.

Currently India’s youngest Cabinet minister, Irani was candid about her rather eventful career, first as a TV star and then, as a politician. She credited TV producer Ekta Kapoor with having mentored her career in television (her most successful role was that of a matriarch). As for her meteoric political career, she expressed gratitude to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his “magnanimity” in having had faith in her.

He did this, she said, by first asking her to take on Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi in his pocket borough — an election she lost honorably — and later, when the Baratiya Janata Party (BJP) Government assumed office entrusting her with the education portfolio. This all occurred, she said, despite her initial opposition to him.

“I am a living example of PM Modi’s capacity to forgive and to recognize talent,” she observed.

Her change of heart occurred after Modi’s straightforward request that she judge him by his work rather than newspaper articles, particularly in the wake of the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in the state of Gujarat which had unfolded under his watch as chief minister.

Irani claimed her family was ideologically aligned with the Rashtriya Swaymasewak Sangh (RSS), the pan-Indian right-wing organization of which the BJP is the political wing. When she decided to enter the political arena in 2003, the BJP was her natural choice. At the time, she was US AID ambassador. The late Gopinath Munde, a minister in the Modi government at the time of his death, inducted her into the party.

A little over a decade later, during which she was elected to the Upper House of Parliament, she was pitched into an “impossible fight” in the 2014 general elections. She took on the heir to the Gandhi dynasty on his turf at a time when his government was in power at the centre. He was the entitled princeling, while she represented the common man.

“It was a fight between two ideas,” said Irani.

Minister Irani, who did not attend college, has often come under fire for her own lack of academic qualifications since assuming office in May, 2014. That very fact, she said, enabled her to appreciate the value of an education. Those who mocked her for her lack of academic attainment, clearly lacked the “humanity and humility” that ought to be the hallmark of an educated individual, she added.

Asked about fears regarding the revision of textbooks in Indian schools, Minister Irani categorically denied any move in that direction.

However, she deftly side-stepped a question on the state of Rajasthan expunging historical figures from the minority community from school textbooks and insisted that state governments were free to determine their own curriculum under federal law.

The Minister also observed that the Indian government was in the process of formulating a new education policy, based on community consultation nation-wide.

Her ministry had received inputs for the proposed policy from 96,800 villages (out of 600,000), all of which would be taken into account. In that sense, the new policy would truly represent the views of the people, she added.

Recently returned from UNESCO Leader’s Forum in Paris, Minister Irani said she had made it a point to visit and to express solidarity with the people of the city after the horrific terrorist attacks last week.

Regarding fears of freedom of expression being stifled in India, Irani observed: “Dissent is the essence of democracy.”

The Indian ethos was essentially secular, she said, with Prime Minister Modi taking the oath of office on the Constitution of India rather than a religious text.

Minister Irani then took a gentle stab at the US, pointing out that its currency carried the legend “In God We Trust”, while Indian currency features 17 languages and a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi.

“Indians come from diverse cultures, languages and ethos, but we stand as one before the rule of law.”

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