Interview

West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankar: ‘The only script I follow is the Constitution’

Print edition : March 13, 2020

West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankar, his wife, Sudesh Dhankar, and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata on February 17. Photo: by special arrangement

Interview with West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar.

FOR decades, relations between the government and Raj Bhavan in West Bengal have at best been delicate, both during the time of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front regime and during the Trinamool Congress rule. And since Jagdeep Dhankhar assumed office as the new Governor on July 30, 2019, the relations between the Governor and the head of the government have hit an all-time low.

Within days of taking charge, Dhankhar began to express his differences with the Mamata Banerjee government over issues ranging from the apparently trivial (the seating arrangement for the Governor during the Durga Puja carnival) to the serious (withholding his consent for two Bills alleging that the State government was not providing proper responses to his queries).

Although Dhankhar has avoided launching a personal attack on the Chief Minister or any members of her Cabinet, he has been unsparing in his criticism of the governance in the State, the law and order situation, the lack of democracy in Bengal, and the government’s sustained opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). The Trinamool, in turn, has accused Dhankhar of trying to run a “parallel government”, and acting on behalf of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The rift between the Governor and the government began when Union Minister Babul Supriyo, while attending a programme in Jadavpur University, found himself in the midst of a students’ protest. To the embarrassment of the State government, Dhankhar personally went to rescue Supriyo. The war of words that started then continued almost on a daily basis in the following months. 

On several occasions, Dhankhar felt that his position as the constitutional head of the State was being undermined by the State government. He felt “insulted” when he went to visit the State Assembly on December 5 and found the gate meant for the Governor of the State to enter through locked. The Assembly was adjourned at that time owing to the delay in the Governor clearing several Bills passed by the Assembly. On December 24, Dhankhar was prevented from presiding over the convocation at Jadavpur University by staff members affiliated to the Trinamool Congress. “The State government has brought a situation where the education system has been totally politicised,” Dhankhar said before being forced to leave the campus.

The Governor has also had to face protests by students for his pro-CAA stand. Even Vice Chancellors of the State’s universities did not respond to his invitation for a meeting to discuss the higher education situation in the State. Recently, when it came to Dhankhar’s notice that the convocation at Cooch Behar Panchanan Barma University was held without even informing him, he, as Chancellor of the university, issued a show-cause notice to the Vice Chancellor.

After several months of acrimony, there seemed to be a glimmer of hope for a rapprochement when on February 17, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called on the Governor at Raj Bhavan. The Governor described the meeting as “extremely satisfying”. This was the first one-on-one meeting between the two in the past six months.

In an exclusive interview to Frontline, the day before the Chief Minister met him, the Governor spoke candidly on a number of issues, including his perception of the law and order situation in the State and the bitter relations with the State government. “A partisan police and administration spells doom for honest, good governance,” he said.

Excerpts:

It is more than six months since you became the Governor of West Bengal. Earlier you had said that you were “worried about the state of democracy in West Bengal”. Has your perception changed in the past few months?

The critical law and order situation in the State has been a cause of serious concern and is worrisome. Political violence and violence otherwise is rampant. Identification of the administration, the police authorities in particular, with the ruling political dispensation is unfortunate. The partisan and discriminatory approach threatens the essence of democratic values. Efforts are required to urgently ensure that public authorities, including the police, are non-partisan, are away from political considerations, and act fairly and independently. There is a need to stop this nefarious approach in a deterrent manner. A partisan police and administration spells doom for honest, good governance.

In the State, there have been numerous instances that point towards a situation of “internal disturbance”. The enormity [of the problem] can be gauged from the situation that even the constitutional head, as Chancellor, could not attend the convocation of the University of Calcutta on January 28. This was a repeat of what happened a few weeks ago at Jadavpur University when a handful of people, in disregard of the law, could generate such a situation. The state machinery was apparently either silent or in support thereof. No consequences for those involved in open defiance of the law. This cannot be countenanced when we are governed by the law. This is outrageous breakdown of law and order and very close to anarchy. The government urgently needs to go into a correctional mode. 

The police authorities adopt a deeply partisan approach in their functioning and are working as an extension of the ruling party. Their systemic antagonist stance towards political workers not belonging to the ruling party is cause for concern and worry for all believers in democracy.

Protests against the CAA are raging everywhere in the country, including West Bengal. Do you think your criticism of Mamata Banerjee’s sustained protest against the law is warranted?

The CAA was enacted in fulfilment of the wish of Mahatma Gandhi who said “Hindus and Sikhs of Pakistan, who do not wish to live there, can come to India. It is the duty of the Government of India to ensure a normal life for them.” The enactment of the CAA is a befitting tribute by Members of Parliament to Mahatma Gandhi at a time when we are celebrating his 150th birth anniversary.

The state-sponsored agitation against laws emanating from and duly sanctified by Parliament is most unfortunate. Being held day in and day out with the Chief Minister on the streets, it is piercing the soul of our democracy. While protests by citizens as per the law and in a non-violent manner are permissible under the Constitution, the State and its functionaries under oath are in a different category. This action of the state actors has shamed democracy and calls for reversal.

The utilisation of State funds for fuelling a political agitation is a serious wrong that generates serious consequences for those concerned. This is betrayal of the trust reposed in them by the law. This has happened in a blatant manner in the State in several ways. Crores of rupees has been spent on advertisements in the print and visual/TV media that advance the agenda of the ruling party. The theme of the advertisement is virtually a tag line of the ruling dispensation in the State, i.e., “No CAA, No NRC, No NPR.” This is not permissible and is a legal outrage. Such blatant misuse of public funds is bound to generate serious consequences in law for those concerned.

There has already been a judicial intervention mandating a stop to this. The logical way forward needs to be expedited so that the law takes its own course on the fast track against this grave infraction of law and propriety. Moreover, the involvement of senior administrative and police functionaries of the State in the advertisement on the side of the Chief Minister unmistakably points to their total politicisation and ingratiation with the ruling dispensation. This is a serious issue of conduct and reflects poorly on governance. The administration down the line takes a big hit as a consequence of this grave constitutional violation. The adverse impact of this has been noticed and felt. The fact that constitutional functionaries are engaging in street agitations is antithetical to both governance and democracy. The Chief Minister’s inflammatory statements are an outrage on her oath of office. I urge introspection in the interest of democracy. Taking note of the situation, I am engaged, as obligated by my oath, in accordance with the law, in an effort to enforce accountability.

Why do you think an opposition leader and Chief Minister of a non-BJP State cannot launch a protest against a law she believes is “unconstitutional”?

I have a constitutional issue with that. Can a Chief Minister, having taken the oath under the Constitution, take to agitation against a law that has validly emanated from Parliament? In my considered opinion, no. It can lead to consequences that can capsize democracy. The oath under the Constitution is unqualified, and, in my opinion, a person, having taken the oath of office as Chief Minister, cannot agitate against a law validly made by Parliament. If an elected Chief Minister is taking to the streets agitating against a law, he or she is generating a dangerous situation for democratic functioning.

You have always insisted that you are not at loggerheads with the State government, yet we see the relations between the State government and Raj Bhavan at the nadir. What do you think has led to this situation? Do you see relations improving in the near future?

I never initiated any conflict; and as to why the relations have deteriorated, you have to ask the other side. The Governor goes to the State Assembly after informing the Speaker only to find that the gate [the gate meant for the Governor to enter] is locked. I visit a university in my capacity of Chancellor only to find that the Vice Chancellor’s office is locked. How is it that on Constitution Day, the Governor could speak only after five other speakers? According to protocol, no one else can speak before him. I have even been accused of running a parallel government by none other than the Chief Minister of the State. Can anyone point out which aspect of governance this Governor is running? I have been under constant attack by Ministers of the State government, yet I have never made any personal attack against anyone here. The only script I follow is the Indian Constitution, and no one else’s script.

But I am very hopeful that relations will improve.

On at least two occasions you were prevented from attending the convocations of two major universities—Jadavpur University and the University of Calcutta—by students protesting against the CAA. What do you have to say about that?

While I would also like to share my happiness on the conferment of the Degree of DLitt (Honoris Causa) by the University of Calcutta on the Nobel Laureate Professor Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, I must also express my pain and anguish at the unseemly incidents that tarnished the prestige of the 163-year-old university and at the presence of the hidden hand of state actors. The reputation of West Bengal was sullied and our democratic fabric tainted. A handful of people prevented the Chancellor, who also happens to be the Governor, from delivering the convocation address at this great university on what would have been an iconic occasion. The authorities failed to discharge even minimal obligations. The stance of the state machinery as silent spectators indicates worrisome lawlessness and raises serious questions about law and order in the State. The situation in a sense comes very close to “internal disturbance”. Those who failed in the discharge of their duties on this occasion, embarrassing the constitutional head and shaming democracy, need to be dealt with in an exemplary manner.

You have repeatedly expressed concern over the state of higher education in Bengal, particularly at the university level. You have also expressed a wish to meet the Vice Chancellors. Do you feel there has been a lack of reciprocation from their end?

Our educational institutions of repute are facing the threat of virtual decimation due to political shackles and policy paralysis. The spectacle of Vice Chancellors sitting on political dharna by the side of a Minister is painful. It is not permissible either. The defiant attitude of the Vice Chancellors and the government towards the Chancellor is unacceptable. I am looking into all aspects for needful actions.

In spite of all the criticisms you levelled against the State government on the subject of law and order, you stuck to the speech that the State government had prepared at the beginning of the Budget session of the Assembly. You read: “The law and order situation in the State was peaceful in the preceding year. No major untoward incident was reported from any part of Bengal. Communal harmony was maintained throughout the State.” Do you agree with what you read out?

Constitutionally and conventionally, under Article 176 of the Constitution, the speech is made available to the constitutional head by the government of the day, as was done in this case. This speech is read as such, unless there are extraordinary circumstances. I upheld the constitutional prescription. You will not see me crossing the line as far as the Constitution is concerned in any way.

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