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Kolkata: Five months after West Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankhar alleged that the state government has appointed vice-chancellors in 25 state-run universities without his approval, despite the governor being the acharya or chancellor of the state-run universities, the Mamata Banerjee government on Monday moved a step closer to replacing the governor with the chief minister as the chancellor of all 31 state-run universities.
On Monday, the West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill was passed in the assembly with the support of 167 votes in favour and 55 votes against, of the total 239 MLAs present. Fifteen votes from the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and two votes from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLAs were declared cancelled.
This is the third instance in less than one year of a state assembly passing a Bill to curb the authority of the governor in matters related to universities. In December last year, the Shiv Sena-Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance government in Maharashtra passed a Bill taking away the governor’s power to appoint vice-chancellors, while the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DKM)-led Tamil Nadu government passed a similar Bill in April this year.
None of these Bills has received the approval of the respective governors.
West Bengal’s leader of the opposition, BJP MLA Suvendu Adhikari, has also said that they will request the governor not to sign the Bill.
West Bengal’s Bill cites the recommendations of the report of “Commission On Centre-State Relations“, headed by the former chief justice of India Madan Mohan Punchhi and advised the removal of the governor from the chair of chancellors of state universities.
On Monday, inside the West Bengal assembly, when the BJP MLAs opposed the Bill, education minister Bratya Basu said the Gujarat government, with Narendra Modi as chief minister, had taken a similar move in 2013, about a year before he became India’s prime minister.
In 2013, when the Gujarat assembly passed the controversial Gujarat Universities Laws (Amendment) Bill that was meant to take away all the powers of the governor as chancellor of the state’s 14 government-run universities – including the power to appoint vice-chancellors – the then governor, Congress veteran Kamla Beniwal, did not sign it. The Bill found the governor’s approval in 2015, 10 months after O.P. Kohli, who came from a BJP background, replaced Beniwal.
In its report published in 2010, the Punchhi commission noted that “there have been instances where, in selecting vice-chancellors, governors as chancellors have acted in their discretion, overruling the advice of the council of ministers” and said that the governor should not be “burdened with positions and powers which are not envisaged by the constitution and which may expose the office to controversies or public criticism.”
“Conferring statutory powers on the governor by the state legislatures have that potential and should be avoided,” the report opined, and added, “There is no need to perpetuate a situation where there would be a clash of functions and powers.”
On Monday, the state government also pointed at Dhankhar as the reason for the Bill being tabled. It was never required in the 11 years of Mamata Banerjee rule [before Dhankar became the governor], the education minister told the assembly, adding that Dhankhar’s repeated returning of Bills forced the government to take such a step.
On his part, Dhankhar can return the Bill to the state assembly and after the assembly sends it back, because education is listed in the concurrent list of subjects involving both the Union government and the states, he can send it to the Union government.
He has previously done the same with the Bill to rename West Bengal (removing ‘west’ from the name since there is now only one Bengal in India) and the Bill to set up a legislative council – both of which are pending before the Union government.
Adhikari told the media on Monday that the present Bill will meet the same fate. “The chief minister will retire but not be able to become chancellor,” he said.
The government can bring an ordinance but that would remain valid for six months only.
According to educationist Pabitra Sarkar, who served as the VC of Rabindra Bharati University during the Left Front rule, the post of chancellor should be abolished altogether.
“From my experience, I do not see any role of the chancellor apart from being present at the convocation and performing some other ornamental roles. There is no need for a permanent chancellor post and neither the governor nor the chief minister should be required to occupy such a post,” Sarkar told The Wire.
A prolonged battle
While the state government’s tussle with the governor has ranged a number of issues since Dhankhar assumed his chair in July 2019, the West Bengal government’s plan to remove the governor from the post of chancellor came to the light on December 24, 2021. Education minister Bratya Basu told the media that the government was taking legal opinion toward this purpose.
Incidentally, it was the same day Dhankhar had an outburst on the state of educational institutes in the state after chancellors and vice-chancellors of 11 private universities did not turn up at Raj Bhavan to attend a meeting the governor had called. The governor is also the ‘visitor’ of private universities.
“Education scenario @MamataOfficial worrisome as no Chancellor & VC of Pvt Univ turned up for meeting with Governor – Visitor. Shocking unionism,” an angry Dhankhar wrote on Twitter, besides posting a video statement.
Education scenario @MamataOfficial worrisome as no Chancellor & VC of Pvt Univ turned up for meeting with Governor-Visitor. Shocking unionism @AdamasUniversi1 @AmityUni @BrainwareTweet @jis_university @TnuEdu @E_Learning_SSU @snuindia @sxukolkata @svu_official @IIC_TIU @ugc_india pic.twitter.com/U8jw3HKM9i
— Governor West Bengal Jagdeep Dhankhar (@jdhankhar1) December 24, 2021
It was also the time when the Maharashtra government was planning to introduce a Bill to remove the governor from having any power in the affairs of varsities. Finally, the decision was approved by the state cabinet on June 5.
However, the actual tussle over universities began soon after Dhankhar took charge as governor in July 2019. Dhankhar had taken a special interest in universities right from the beginning and had met the VCs at Raj Bhavan on September 4, during which he advised them to send him a monthly report about the varsity’s activities. The meeting left the impression on some VCs that “he wanted to have a clear idea about how far he could go to apply his authority on campuses.”
The tension between him and the state government peaked after September 19, 2019, when groups of leftist students in Jadavpur University (JU) gheraoed Babul Supriyo, then a junior Union minister who went to the campus to attend a programme organised by the newly opened unit of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
While the leftist students were protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), ABVP organisers were seen vandalising the student union room of the arts faculty. The governor had asked the vice-chancellor, Suranjan Das, to call in the police to clear the gherao but the VC declined. Das had always maintained that he was against calling in the police and, going by the law, the police cannot enter a university campus without permission from the VC. Dhankhar was criticised for not condemning the vandalism allegedly carried out by ABVP workers.
Dhankhar took strong exception to Das’s denial and threatened to take action against him but the Jadavpur University Teachers’ Association (JUTA) as well as all the students’ bodies stood by the VC.
Dhankhar’s attempts to establish his authority on the functioning of the JU continued for a few more months, peaking in mid-December when the JU executive committee decided to change the format of the convocation so that the governor does not have to be present – a decision taken in the face of students’ threat of boycott if Dhankhar was to be present. Dhankhar termed the decision illegal and asked the VC to organise the event as supposed to, making it clear that he meant to be present at the event.
It is in this context that in December of that year the state government took the first steps toward curbing the governor’s authority over universities. It reframed Rules under the West Bengal Universities and Colleges (Administration and Regulation) Act, 2017 – which did not require the governor’s signature, though was issued in the name of the governor.
The rules took away his power to convene meetings of the highest bodies of the universities or take action against vice-chancellors, abolished the chancellor’s secretariat, stating that the VC’s communications to the chancellor will have to be routed through the education department, and mandated the chancellor to “maintain the order of preference of names placed before him” when choosing vice-chancellors.
Meanwhile, even though the JU convocation was organised on December 24 as per Dhankhar’s instructions, leftist student protesters and TMC-backed employees’ union members did not allow him to enter the campus – protesting his “partisan attitude” and his pro-CAA stance.
An angry Dhankhar informed the press that very day that he had called for a meeting of all VCs on January 13. However, none turned up. This tussle was revived in June 2020, when Dhankhar asked all the VCs of state-run universities to attend a virtual meeting.
Tension peaked in July, when Dharkhar wrote to Banerjee on July 9, saying the VCs not attending the conference called by the government “will send (a) wrong signal all over the country” and that their “non-attendance would be a serious matter in law.”
Banerjee responded on July 14, saying that the VCs and universities are governed by their own statute and rules. “They take guidance from (the) higher education department as their administrative department. You have already met the higher education minister and secretary yesterday and discussed the matter with them.” she wrote.
Responding to her letter, Dhankhar first wrote on Twitter on July 14 that he was looking forward to the proposed ‘virtual conference’ scheduled the next day and that “the conduct of VCs in not indicating open ended issues of students (is) not appreciated. Surely not in sync with their office.” He also wrote a letter to all the VCs asking them to be present at the video conference.
On July 15, he wrote on Twitter, “Keeping Student Welfare uppermost in mind VCs must attend VIRTUAL CONFERENCE and desist partisan stance. Taking positive approach for sake of education and students had an over reach @MamataOfficial. “POLITICAL CAGING” of education would ve disastrous and suicidal.”
However, none of the VCs attended it.
Instead, the Upacharya Parishad, a body of vice-chancellors, issued a strongly-worded statement, saying that the VCs received “a humiliating letter” from the governor on July 13 and an “intimidating letter” the next day. “Upacharya Parishad considers it extremely unfortunate to receive such communications from the office of the Hon’ble Chancellor during this critical national crisis (the pandemic),” the statement said.
The battle calmed down for some time, only to resurface at some intervals, over one varsity or another.