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Third Degree Honours

Alas, the liberal chic that LSE/SOAS imparts is not Varun's to claim

Third Degree Honours
In the puzzle that is Varun Gandhi, the oddest piece, for me, was his education. As the story was being told, today’s sullen, vengeful Hindutvavadi was, only a few years ago, a carefree student in England. That he diligently completed his bachelor’s at the London School of Economics (LSE) and went on to a master’s at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Both are renowned institutions, steeped in the liberal democratic tradition we associate with Ambedkar (an LSE graduate) rather than Bal Thackeray.

As the controversy generated by Varun’s campaign speeches refused to die down, his degrees were applied, detergent-like, to wash off the saffron stain on his character. They were mentioned by the newswires; soon they popped up in the Washington Times and the London First Post. And they evolved and grew. From the Calcutta Telegraph, readers learnt that Varun’s "MPhil dissertation at SOAS" was "on decentralisation, with eastern UP districts as the case study."

A degree in economics from LSE and one in public policy from SOAS is actually a ‘double-action’ stain-remover; a combination that should appeal to both the right and the left. The right likes the rigorous, technical, presumably neoliberal disposition of an LSE-trained economist. The left appreciates time spent at the ‘World Centre for Tolerance Studies’, as SOAS is sometimes known.

To me, however, all of this made Varun’s adventures with Islamophobia seem not so much frightening as puzzling in the extreme. Was this an "Alice in Saffronland" who had inexplicably jumped into the Hindu heart of darkness shouting "Off with his hands"? In other words, the degrees made Varun look less guilty, but also very incongruous: an England-returned babalog with an awful Hindi accent dressed up as a hollering Hindu demagogue.

This incongruity fascinated me. Over in London, appalled students and faculty of LSE and SOAS were signing an online statement dissociating themselves from this new Varun. His campaign, they said, was "antithetical to the values promoted by our institutions, and to our beliefs about responsible leadership". Curious to hear more reactions, I e-mailed just about every scholar in either college with an interest in India. Mostly by luck, I received two revealing replies. The first was from an alumni relations officer at SOAS. "Feroze Varun Gandhi withdrew from his MSc programme," she said, "He did not actually graduate from SOAS."

My antennae shot up. I prodded the faculty at LSE and heard, finally, from the political scientist Sumantra Bose. "It is important—indeed essential—to note that Mr Gandhi was never a regular undergraduate," he wrote. "His connection to LSE was through a distance-learning provision." In fact, he had applied to LSE and been rejected. It took a few moments to add one and one: both of Varun’s college credentials were faked.

However, no record existed of Varun officially claiming the degrees attributed to him. If this was just bragging by his entourage, then no harm done, and no liability. But I was certain it went further. I had a hunch the stain-remover would be used on judges too. Varun’s lawyers had indeed filed a writ petition in the Allahabad High Court, asking that firs against him be dropped. The contents were verified by a sworn affidavit from Varun. I had to see this petition.

After bothering enough people, I found myself calling up Varun’s counsel in Allahabad, sweet-talking him into sharing a copy. He handed it to an Indian Express correspondent, who read out over the phone: "That the petitioner is a well-educated and peace-loving citizen and has done his BSc Economics from the LSE...and thereafter went on to do his MSc in public policy at SOAS...."

Who knows if Varun was telling the truth about who he is when he swore on the Gita that he would conduct public amputations, if need be. But he was certainly not telling the truth when he swore an affidavit to the high court. This is perjury, and the public prosecutor’s office in Allahabad may pursue the charge. Meanwhile, Varun has been doing some real learning at that great university of life, the Indian prison.

(The writer is a journalist currently enrolled in a master’s programme at Oxford University.)


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