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Kolkata: Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal government has been facing criticism from different corners for the midnight police action on an agitation by job seekers on Thursday.
Barely a few hours before forces from the Kolkata Police, armed with a court order, used force to drag demonstrators out of the venue, the chief minister had refused to comment on the ongoing agitation.
“Comments, if any, will come from Bratya [Basu, the education minister]. He knows the details,” she had said.
Basu, on his part, had told the media that the demonstrators should vacate the venue and that the doors of the court were open to them.
In the dead of the night, a huge contingent of police went to the venue at Karunamoyee in Kolkata’s eastern outskirts of Salt Lake. There was a scuffle with the agitators, leading to some of them receiving injuries.
Responding to the incident, film actor-director Aparna Sen wrote in a tweet, “The Trinamool govt is flouting the basic democratic rights of the hunger-strikers! Section 144 issued against a non-violent protest! Why? I strongly condemn the undemocratic and unethical action of the West Bengal govt!”
The Trinamool govt is flouting the basic democratic rights of the hunger-strikers! Section 144 issued against a non-violent protest! Why? I strongly condemn the undemocratic and unethical action of the West Bengal govt!
— Aparna Sen (@senaparna) October 21, 2022
The Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), the state’s largest human rights organisation, issued a statement condemning the police action and demanded that the state government publish a ‘white paper’ detailing all teaching recruitments since the Mamata Banerjee government came to power in 2011.
Several other prominent civil society personalities, including thespian Bibhas Chakraborty, public health activist Binayak Sen, physician Kunar Sarkar, theatre and film personalities Suman Mukhopadhyay, Kaushik Sen, Anirban Bhattacharya and Riddhi Sen, signed a statement condemning the police action.
Several other Left-leaning personalities, including music composer Debajyoti Mishra, filmmaker Anik Datta, actors Badsha Moitra and Sreelekha Mitra, took part in a protest rally on Friday.
The agitation that the police forcefully removed was one of the two sit-in demonstrations that were going on in the Salt Lakes area demanding recruitment in schools. One agitation was carried out by those who had passed the 2014 Teachers’ Eligibility Test (TET), while the other one was launched by those who passed the 2017 TET and opposed the demand of the 2014 batch.
The agitation of the 2014 batch continued for four days – including two and a half days of hunger strike – in front of the West Bengal Board of Primary Education’s office, where section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) had been imposed, banning the congregation of large groups. The Board had approached the high court for the removal of the agitation.
The court order for the removal of the gathering came on the grounds that section 144 CrPC had been imposed there.
During the hearing in the court, the judge even asked if the police were powerless. This prompted a section of human rights activists, including Sujato Bhadra, to allege in a statement that the court’s observations made the police more reckless.
Hearing the news of police action, several CPI(M), BJP and Congress leaders reached the venue at night. The CPI(M)’s youth wing, the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) and the BJP’s youth wing, the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) took out protest rallies in different parts of the state, including Kolkata, on Friday.
Job aspirants who were removed from the agitation venue, too, have approached the high court but are yet to get any order.
The recent agitations began after the West Bengal Board of Primary Education announced, at the end of September, that the recruitment process for 11,765 vacant positions would be notified soon.
At the core of the controversy lies the policy that passing the TET does not ensure that a candidate will get a job. Goutam Paul, the new president of the Board, had clarified that panels are prepared from among the successful candidates on the basis of scores.
For example, according to the state West Bengal Board of Primary Education, 20,01,301 candidates appeared in the 2014 TET, of whom 1,24,952 passed the test, and 1,18,821 persons applied for appointment. However, the panel for recruitment finally had 42,627 names.
They got another opportunity in 2020, when 29,665 persons applied for 16,500 vacant posts. Of them, 13,685 names made it to the panel and 13,564 persons finally got jobs.
In the 2017 TET, 1,89,514 persons appeared in the test, of whom 9,896 candidates passed. However, no job opportunity had appeared before them as of now.
“As per the National Council for Teachers’ Education (NCTE) guidelines, anyone who has passed the TET and has undergone training is eligible to apply. It does not matter which year the person passed, as long as the age limit of 40 years is not crossed,” Paul had said.
Soon after his announcement, making it clear that it would be a competition between candidates who had passed in different years, those who passed the 2014 TET demanded that they be given jobs on the basis of past interviews.
Achintya Samanta, one of those who passed the TET in 2014 but did not get a job, alleged that more than 2,000 candidates who had passed the 2014 TET had crossed the age limit of 40 years in the past eight years and therefore became ineligible for the recruitment.
“Our demand for priority to 2014 candidates is just. We have been waiting for eight years,” Samanta said.
“It is proven now that the 2016 recruitment was full of irregularities. Undeserving people bagged those jobs using illegal means and the deserving candidates are kept waiting,” alleged Arnab Saha, another 2014 batch candidate.
The 2017 TET batch strongly opposed this demand, saying no priority should be given to the 2014 batch. They argued that, as per guidelines, the 2017 TET candidates had also undergone training before taking the TET test and therefore they are more eligible for the vacant positions. The 2014 batch had undergone training afterwards.
“The 2014 batch got their chances twice, in 2016 and in 2020. We have not got a chance even once. They can’t demand any preference just because corruption has been found in the 2016 recruitment process,” he said.
Notably, it is the irregularities in the 2016 recruitment process that has landed the state government in a spot of embarrassment before the Calcutta high court and has sent the then education minister Partha Chatterjee and the then Prime Education Board-president-turned-TMC MLA Manik Bhattacharya behind bars.
Paul, the president of the Board, had ruled out treating any batch with priority or privilege, saying, “All are equal in our eyes.” The 2014 batch candidates were welcome to apply but they would have to take part in the interview process, Pal said.
Opposition parties, however, blamed the Mamata Banerjee government for the entire tussle between candidates of two batches. Without taking the side of either group, Meenakshi Mukherjee, the DYFI state unit president, said, “It happened because the government turned the teacher recruitment process into a farce. Neither was TET held regularly nor was recruitment. Besides, the recruitment has been found to be full of irregularities. The aggrieved candidates have every reason to be agitated.”
Paul, however, has assured that from now on, the TET will be conducted every year and recruitment will happen twice a year.
Meanwhile, the Calcutta high court had in September asked the Board to make the full list of all teachers recruited in 2016 and 2020 public, along with their full scores, to reveal any more irregularities if they existed.