President Ram Nath Kovind’s unprecedented decision to retract the appointment of Swapan Kumar Dutta as head of Santiniketan’s Visva Bharati University comes at a time when apprehensions of government meddling in higher educational institutions are rapidly gaining ground across the country. The president is the visitor and the prime minister is chancellor of the Visva Bharati University, founded by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
Kovind’s retraction comes after the Ministry of Human Resource Development asked him to reconsider his earlier approval to Dutta’s appointment, reported the Indian Express.
Towards the end of last year, the president had received a panel of three names forwarded by the HRD ministry for the university’s vice chancellor’s post. The panel included the names of Dutta, then the acting VC of Visva Bharati University, who is an agricultural scientist; P.N. Mishra of the Institute of Management Studies at Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya (DAVV) in Indore; and Sankar Kumar Nath of the geophysics and geology department at IIT Kharagpur. Last month, Kovind approved the appointment of Dutta as VC. Strangely, however, the appointment order was not issued.
Adding to the confusion and uncertainty, HRD ministry sent a note to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, requesting Kovind to re-examine his decision. The ministry also sought the president’s permission to cancel the first panel of names and put together a fresh list of recommended names.
Dutta’s case bears similarity to the appointment of scientist Anil Kakodkar as chairman of IIT Roorkee, approved by the Rashtrapati Bhavan in July 2017. Formal notice certifying the appointment, however, is yet to come.
The HRD ministry has defended its clumsy handling of the Visva Bharati case on the grounds that Dutta lacked adequate skills and qualification. Why then did the ministry include his name in the panel in the first place? Moreover, Kovind, in his capacity as the university’s visitor, could have run a background check on Datta before giving the go-ahead to his appointment.
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Dutta had been the acting VC since February 2016, after then HRD minister Smriti Irani sacked Sushanta Dattagupta, who was at that time the university’s VC. It was the first time that the head of a central university was sacked by government.
The curious developments surrounding Bengal’s Visva Bharati University draw attention to two critical concerns. First is the HRD ministry’s continued interference in institutions of higher education, which is rapidly eroding their autonomy. Equally worrying is the volte face by the president, who is also the visitor to 46 other central universities. The second worrying issue relates to the state of affairs in the Visva Bharati University itself. The present Trinamool Congress regime as well as the previous Left Front regime stand guilty of political interference in higher educational institutions, which in the past has, and still is, hurting academic standard as well as institutional autonomy.
That Visva Bharati has been without a regular head for two years is a telling comment on the central government’s lack of concern for the state of affairs. The university’s administration has been petitioning the HRD ministry to expedite the appointment of a regular VC. The Centre’s indifference has resulted in a policy paralysis, with recruitment processes grinding to a halt.
To add to this dysfunctionality, the university, for quite some time now, has been careening from one controversy to another. For instance, the authorities’ decision to revive a goshala in the campus last year triggered a huge controversy, splitting the academic community down the middle. The decision was spurred by the possibility of Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting the campus. In 2016, an inconsequential controversy broke out over giving permission to use the campus as a site for shooting the film Upasana Griha (Prayer Hall), which had the BJP MP Babul Supriyo as one of its actors.