In an interview in 2016, Govind Ethiraj, the founder of IndiaSpend, BoomLive, and Factchecker, claimed, “Most of the fake news is originating from people aligned with the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party).” To expect nuanced understanding of political discourse, necessary for countering the bane of today’s politics, fake news, from this blatantly prejudiced viewpoint is a futile exercise. Yet, one is bound to at least expect a semblance of integrity and impartiality from a fact-checker certified by the International Fact Checking Network- Poynter Institute. It seems, however, these expectations are grossly misplaced.
On April 28, 2019, Editor- Internal Security, Times of India, Bharti Jain in a series of tweets claimed a number of irregularities in the Nalanda University project. Coming from a senior editor of a reputed national daily, the claims carried certain weight and for websites like us who source their news from such outlets, the claims were nothing short of a scoop. Despite the seeming irresistibility of the claims, and the seniority and position of authority they were coming from, we decided to dig deeper. Bharti Jain had made many claims in her tweets. After thorough research, we decided to do an article, not on the claims made by Bharti Jain but the entire Nalanda University controversy. Admittedly, we found that many of the claims made by Bharti Jain could not be verified from other sources. So we duly decided to discard the claims which were contradictory to other publicly available sources. Instead, we solely chose to focus on the Comptroller and Auditor General Report ending in March 2016 which had plenty of damning statements regarding the University’s controversial appointments and practices under the aegis of Amartya Sen. We included one quote, with due attribution, from Bharti Jain.
Despite the caution we had exercised and the due diligence accorded to the story, imagine our shock and horror when within few days, we received a notification stating that the article we had done on the Nalanda controversy was marked as ‘fake news’ by an ‘independent fact-checker’, BoomLive.
BoomLive has provided a complete list of claims and counterclaims in its fact-check. However, the only problem with the fact-check is that before including rightlog’s name, it seems they did not even bother to read the entire article.
BoomLive’s first ‘fact-check’ is about the misinformation on Amartya Sen’s salary and his administrative power (or lack thereof, according to the fact-check).
The problem with the fact-check is, we never included or claimed Dr. Sen’s salary in our article or any other perks he may or may not have received. We did, however, talk about his influence on crucial appointments.
And this is where BoomLive, in its zeal to anyhow term our article fake news, gets facts wrong. The BoomLive article categorically states that “In Indian universities, the position of Chancellor is ceremonial, and does not have any administrative functions” indicating that Dr. Sen was administrative in-charge only in theory not in practice. The article further hammers the point of Sen being a figurehead, “Therefore, Sen was never conferred the power to ‘run’ the institution.”
However, this is in stark contrast to the CAG report observations. The CAG report categorically states that in direct violation of the norms, “Chairman of the NMG [Amartya Sen], recommended (6 February 2009) three names (Dr. Gopa Sabharwal, Dr. Ramachandra Guha and Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta) on behalf of NMG to the MEA for appointment as first Rector of the University. Based on the above recommendations, MEA intimated (March 2009) Dr. Gopa Sabharwal, that she has been selected for the post of inaugural Rector of the Nalanda University. Hence, consideration of the names recommended by NMG was in violation of their terms of reference.” So, it seems despite not being ‘theoretically’ in power, Dr. Sen was influencing appointments at Nalanda University in practice. This aspect has been further corroborated in an article by Priyadarshi Dutta in Daily Pioneer (February 2015). Dutta writes, The two Comptroller and Auditor General audits undertaken as per Clause 32 (1) of the Nalanda University Act, 2010, nailed irregularities in the appointment of a Vice Chancellor, who was offered an exorbitant salary, with Mr Sen’s final approval.”
The CAG report further sheds light on the irregularities in appointments (which we had covered in our original article). It is necessary here to bust BoomLive’s claims of Dr. Sen being the ‘figurative head’ of Nalanda University. The CAG report notes, “Audit examination of records of the MEA revealed that although the terms of reference of NMG did not include recommendations for any appointment, NMG in its 6th meeting recommended (August 2010) single name of Dr. Gopa Sabharwal as Vice-Chancellor-designate for Nalanda University. The NMG also proposed salary of Rs 3.50 lakh per month plus other allowances. MEA, based on this recommendation, informed (9 September 2010) Dr. Gopa Sabharwal that the competent authorities have accorded approval for appointment as Vice Chancellor-designate with salary of Rs 2.00 lakh per month plus other allowances. She joined as Vice Chancellor designate of Nalanda University on 8 October 2010. However, the Visitor confirmed (March 2012) her appointment as Vice Chancellor with retrospective effect from 8 October 2010. Subsequently MEA (September 2012) informed Dr. Gopa Sabharwal that her confirmation date has been changed to 25 November 2010 i.e. from the date on which Nalanda University Act came into force.”
It is very clear that NMG, headed by Dr. Sen, not only influenced appointments in direct violation of the University Statutes but also retrospectively changed the date of V-C’s appointment which enabled her to accrue undue salary and benefits.
The NMG itself, headed by Dr. Sen, was appointed for only 9 months until the submission of a detailed project report but that project report was repeatedly delayed and the NMG’s tenure repeatedly extended. Eventually, NMG was transformed into Nalanda University governing body which was to be in power for one year but kept getting extensions. Curiously enough, the rule for Chancellor’s appointment was outlined in University Statute, 2012 notified on March 2012. However, Dr. Sen was appointed the Chancellor by the governing body he was leading during the third governing body meeting held in Beijing in October 2011.
In the face of evidence and observations by the CAG, it would be indeed very naïve to imagine that Dr. Sen was ‘figurative head’ of Nalanda University with no real ‘administrative power’ as the BoomLive article claims. It is indeed downright misleading to assert that.
In fact, the very governing body that Dr. Sen headed had come under scrutiny by the Finance Ministry…of UPA government in 2014. The finance ministry had raised concerns about “the huge expenditure being incurred on maintaining the governing body of the university, known earlier as the Nalanda Mentor Group, as well as the tax-free salaries to the tune of $80,000 dollars per year to some of the top functionaries of the university.”
Instead of providing clarity on the issue, Dr. Sen had threatened to resign if the government refuses to ‘quash the objections of financial mismanagement’. Ultimately, the finance ministry under UPA did back down and Dr. Sen’s reign continued over the Nalanda University.
The incident, however, raises the question if Dr. Sen was indeed a ‘figurative head’ and was not ‘running’ the institution then why did he refuse any sort of scrutiny over governing body’s financial (mis)management? Is it not, then, dishonesty on the part of BoomLive to claim that Dr. Sen was not actually ‘running’ the institution?
Irregularities in appointments aside, the CAG report had also included several other damning indictments of NMG (later Governing Body) headed by Dr. Sen, which we covered in our article with due attribution to CAG document. With regard to Dr. Sen, we did not make any claims that were not in the CAG report itself.
The second point marked by BoomLive fact-check is that ‘total expenditure incurred was Rs. 2729 crore’. However, we did not include any sort of expenditure of specific amount in our article instead focusing on procedural and administrative irregularities mentioned in the CAG report.
The third point in the BoomLive fact-check ‘busts’ the claims of Dr Gopa Sabharwal, Dr Anjana Sharma, Nayanjot Lahiri and Upinder Singh from Delhi University being made faculties.
As has been established, Dr. Gopa Sabharwal was appointed the Vice-Chancellor which we have covered in our article. Apart from these, except Upinder Singh, we have not mentioned any names provided here. As far as Upinder Singh’s appointment is concerned, it was reported by Bihar Times and later covered by One India which we have cited in our article. Upinder Singh’s appointment as faculty was also covered by Scroll.in (February 2015) citing Bihar Times article. As is evident, we had three different sources corroborating that fact and we chose to include it in our report. Citing a fact which has been reported by three different reputed outlets can hardly be termed fake news and even if it could be, the onus of the report’s veracity is on the original source.
The fourth contentious point BoomLive raises in its fact-check is the appointment of Daman Singh and Amrit Singh, Dr. Manmohan Singh’s daughters, as honorary faculty at Nalanda University. This is the only point we chose to include in our article. As we have mentioned earlier, senior editor of a reputed national daily was making the claim and unlike the previous points, we did not find any contradictory evidence to this claim and as such relying on the Bharti Jain’s tweet, we chose to include this point. Notably, Bharti Jain has neither deleted this particular tweet nor she has offered any retractions. We had properly attributed this particular statement to Bharti Jain and we stand by with our original decision.
Coming to the last point of BoomLive article, it contradicts the claims that ‘after 2014, when Modi arrived, all these fraud were stopped and Amartya Sen was thrown out of Nalanda University (sic)’.
We had made no such claims in our article.
It is very clear by now that the inclusion of rightlog’s name in this sham of a fact-check by BoomLive was driven by malicious agenda and it is indeed very likely that BoomLive did not even bother to go through the article before terming it as ‘fake news.’ The fact-check by BoomLive is riddled with inaccuracies (as has been earlier pointed out) and in fact, can be characterized as fake news given their selective omission and inclusion of facts and context. The CAG report which formed the basis of our article and which is perhaps the most authoritative and exhaustive account of Dr. Sen’s (mis)management of Nalanda University, is not even mentioned in its fact-check.
The point of the entire fact-check is not to find the truth but to somehow tag rightlog as a fake news peddler. It is a shoddily executed hatchet job by well-placed mercenaries, a clear abuse of whatever little power they have.
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