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EDUCATION

Why have West Bengal’s Bills on new Chancellor of State universities triggered an outcry?

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Why have West Bengal’s Bills on new Chancellor of State universities triggered an outcry?

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee requesting Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar to start his inaugural address in the Assembly during the Budget session on March 7, amid a protest by BJP MLAs over violence during civic elections. 

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee requesting Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar to start his inaugural address in the Assembly during the Budget session on March 7, amid a protest by BJP MLAs over violence during civic elections.  | Photo Credit: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

West Bengal’s Bills to replace the Governor with the Chief Minister as Chancellor of State universities triggers an outcry from the opposition as also from intellectuals and academics.

The ongoing conflict between the West Bengal government and Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar took a new turn recently with the State government passing a series of Bills in an attempt to remove the Governor as Chancellor of State universities and put the Chief Minister in that post. The move was a swipe at the Governor, but it has sparked an outcry from the opposition parties and a sizeable section of the academia and intelligentsia.

Between June 13 and June 21, the government passed five pieces of legislation which will make the Chief Minister the Chancellor, replacing the Governor, in 31 State-aided universities, the Krishi Viswavidyalaya, the University of Animal and Fishery Sciences, and the West Bengal University of Health Sciences. Besides, the minister-in-charge of the Higher Education Department will replace the Governor as Visitor in 11 private universities. The “objects and reasons” section in the West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2022, refers to the Punch Commission report which recommended that Governors, in order to be able to discharge their constitutional obligations fairly and impartially, should not be “burdened” with positions and powers which are not envisaged under the Constitution and which may expose the office to controversies or public criticism. “Making the Governor the Chancellor of the Universities and thereby conferring powers on him which may have had some relevance historically has ceased to be so with the change of the circumstances,” the Bill stated.

Governor of West Bengal Jagdeep Dhankhar.
Governor of West Bengal Jagdeep Dhankhar. | Photo Credit: PTI Photo

This legislative exercise was a direct fallout of the relentless bickering between Raj Bhavan and the  government ever since Dhankhar assumed governorship in 2019. The face-off between the two started over issues relating to law and order and administration and soon spilled over into the field of higher education. Dhankhar alleged that  the government has not been following due procedure while appointing vice chancellors and even named 24 universities where they were chosen “in disregard of law”. The government claimed that the Governor’s intransigence impeded the proper functioning of the universities.

Omprakash Mishra, senior Trinamool Congress leader and Professor of International Relations, Jadavpur University, told Frontline: “For the past couple of years, there is a systematic attempt to derail decision processes in higher education in West Bengal by the Governor through an extraordinary outreach of his formal role as Chancellor of the universities. As such, remedial course of action through necessary legislative sanction had become imperative. It was more of a compulsion than a choice on the part of the State government. After all, selection committees for the Vice Chancellors, Dean of faculties and recruitment of teachers in the State could not be indefinitely postponed due to inaction, delay and disruption resorted to by the Chancellor.” He pointed out that the Governor’s role was to aid, advise and influence, but “if they are obstinate, they would be rendered obsolete”. In the case of a similar conflict between the Governor and the Government of Tamil Nadu, the State Assembly passed a Bill empowering the State government to appoint VCs to universities.

West Bengal Opposition leader Suvendu Adhikari.
West Bengal Opposition leader Suvendu Adhikari. | Photo Credit: PTI Photo

Opposition parties view the new laws, which await the Governor’s assent, as yet another attempt by the government to seize control of the higher educational system. According to the Leader of the Opposition, Suvendu Adhikari of the BJP, the State Assembly does not have the power to replace the Governor with the Chief Minister as Chancellor of universities because education is under the Concurrent List.

Several eminent citizens also voiced concern. In a joint statement, 40 artistes and intellectuals, including Kaushik Sen (actor), Samir Aich (painter),  Bibhas Chakraborty (thespian) and Raja Sen (director), wrote: “We all know about the imperatives of autonomy and freedom of educational institutions, and such a decision will deal a blow to that, and is against the spirit of democracy.”

“Academics worry that excessive government interference may be pernicious for the higher education system.”

Academics are worried that excessive interference by the government may be pernicious for the higher education system. According to Debasish Sarkar, eminent educationist and national executive member of the All India Federation of University and College Teachers Organisations (AIFUCTO), the government could have avoided the controversy by allowing an academic to hold the post of Chancellor. “The moment it is the Chief Minister or the Education Minister who takes up the post of Chancellor or Visitor, control of the university falls completely into the government’s hands, and this eliminates the scope for debate and discussion regarding administration,” he told Frontline.  He pointed out that the Chancellor’s is by and large an ornamental post; and the court council or the senate syndicate in universities have ensured the institutions have autonomy.

“At least with the Governor at the helm as Chancellor, there was a system of checks and balances in place. With the State government taking over the position, that is removed,” said Sarkar. Moreover, the inclusive structure of the court council and the senate syndicate, in which there is representation from practically all stakeholders including alumni, allows for more democratic and open-ended discussions and debates. The apprehension among a large section of academics is that under the new system, it will be nothing more than autocratic administration by the  government.

EXTENSION OF EARLIER ACT

Many feel that the new pieces of legislation are nothing more than an extension of the West Bengal Universities and Colleges (Administration and Regulation) Act, 2017, which gave the  government sweeping powers in administration in institutions of higher education. According to the 2017 Act, there shall be a governing body in every college headed by a president—a person “interested in education”, who shall be nominated by the  government from among the members of the governing body or from outside. Two persons are to be nominated by the government and one person by the West Bengal State Council of Higher Education. Even the tenure of the governing body shall be determined by the government from time to time.

College and university teachers protest in Kolkata in February 2017 demanding repeal of the West Bengal Universities and Colleges (Administration and Regulation) Act of 2017. The new Bills are seen as an extension of this Act.  
College and university teachers protest in Kolkata in February 2017 demanding repeal of the West Bengal Universities and Colleges (Administration and Regulation) Act of 2017. The new Bills are seen as an extension of this Act.   | Photo Credit: Ashok Bhaumik/PTI

The 2017 Act allows the government to introduce measures “for ensuring attendance, punctuality and work output”. It makes it mandatory for every employee of the college, including the Principal, to submit in a sealed envelope to the governing body, with a copy to the government, an annual declaration of their moveable and immovable properties. If the new Bills of 2022 finally become Acts, the government’s control over the universities will be absolute.

As of June 22, the Governor had not given his assent to the Bills. On June 21, the day the fifth Bill—the West Bengal University of Health Sciences (Amendment Bill), 2022—was passed, Dhankhar said: “I will consider all the Bills legally; I will consider all the Bills according to the Constitution. I will consider all the Bills taking note of the situation that education is in the Concurrent List. I will examine all these Bills in perspective of the University Grants Commission Act. I will pay attention to these Bills after taking note of Supreme Court decisions. I will act 100 per cent in accordance with law.”