Striking fear

Two Bills passed recently by the West Bengal Assembly, one to crush any voice of opposition and the other to wrest complete control of government-aided institutions of higher education, reflect the Trinamool Congress government’s authoritarian tendencies.

Published : Mar 01, 2017 12:30 IST

Congress and Left MLAs demonstrating against the property damage Bill after walking out of the Assembly on February 8.

Congress and Left MLAs demonstrating against the property damage Bill after walking out of the Assembly on February 8.

TWO back-to-back Bills passed in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly in the face of strong protests from opposition parties once again reflect the Trinamool Congress government’s totalitarian attitude and its tendency to suppress dissent. The West Bengal Maintenance of Public Order (Amendment) Bill, 2017, passed on February 8, imposes stringent conditions on those causing damage to public property during agitations and also a “payment of collective compensation on the inhabitants or other persons concerned”. The West Bengal Universities And Colleges (Administration and Regulation) Bill, 2017, passed the next day, gives sweeping powers to the State government over government-aided colleges and universities.

Penalising protest

There were angry and violent exchanges in the Assembly on February 8 when the government tried to pass the Bill on public order. Opposition legislators reminded the Trinamool Congress of the acts of vandalism by its legislators in the House in 2006 when the Left Front was in power. “Those who were law breakers before are now the law makers,” said Manoj Chakraborty, Chief Whip of the Congress Legislature Party. Speaker Biman Banerjee suspended the Congress’ Abdul Mannan, Leader of the Opposition, for two days. When he refused to leave, the Speaker ordered the security personnel to evict him from the House. In the scuffle that followed, Mannan, 61, collapsed and was hospitalised. The Congress and the Left staged a walkout and continued to protest during the rest of the Assembly session. The West Bengal Maintenance of Public Order (Amendment) Bill, 2017, was passed with voice vote.

The Bill is an amended version of the West Bengal Maintenance of Public Order Act, 1972, which was never invoked in the 34 years of the Left Front rule from 1977 to 2011. The amended legislation is more draconian. Its single most controversial aspect is the power that it vests in the State government to impose a “collective” penalty for damage to public property.

Section 15 B of the Bill lays down that “a person committing offence of mischief shall also be liable to pay the compensation to the extent of damage caused to the property as may be determined by the court”. The next section says the State government can impose collective compensation on not just the perpetrators of the offence but also the inhabitants of “any” area where the offence has taken place: “If after enquiry in the prescribed manner the State government is satisfied that the inhabitants of any area are concerned in, or abetting or instigating, the commission of the said offence or failing to render all assistance in their power to discover or apprehend the offender or offenders or suppressing material evidence of the commission of such offence, the State Government, may, by notification in the Official Gazette, impose a collective compensation on such inhabitants and apportion such compensation amongst the inhabitants in such manner as may be prescribed.”

There is a great deal of ambiguity in this section, particularly in the term “any area”. Constitutional experts have pointed out that in the event of a disturbance in a particular mouza, all inhabitants of not only the mouza but also the gram panchayat and even the entire bloc of the district concerned can be labelled as having had a hand in it if the State government chooses to see it that way. Moreover, it is not just the offenders who are liable to be penalised but also those who the government feels have failed to render all the assistance in their power to discover or apprehend the offenders. Practically anyone can be apprehended by the police under the clause, the opposition said. The Bill goes on to say that the collective compensation will be announced in the area concerned by “beat of drum or in such other manner as the State government many think best in the circumstances to bring the imposition of the collective compensation to the notice of the inhabitants of the said area”.

Sujan Chakraborty, senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and MLA from Jadavpur, told Frontline : “This is like a medieval law, and the power of the judiciary is being encroached upon by the State government. The purpose of the Bill is to punish any voice of opposition or protest, even those which may come from within the Trinamool. This has come at a time when the government is facing mounting protests on various fronts—be it on grounds of corruption, forcible land acquisition, or the deteriorating law and order situation.”

The Bill also states: “Any person aggrieved by the imposition of the collective compensation… may, within thirty days of the notification, file a petition before the State government or such other authority as it may specify in this behalf for being exempted from such compensation.” There is a feeling that the clause may be used to induct more people into the ruling party’s fold. Manoj Chakraborty told Frontline : “Essentially, what the State government is saying is, if you are indicted for opposing the government, you are being given the scope to be exempt from penalty if you join us. The Trinamool is doing all this now out of fear of losing power.”

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, while participating in the discussion on the Bill, declared: “We are not afraid of anybody. This decision has been taken for the welfare of the people.”

The political commentator and social scientist Biswanath Chakraborty felt the new Bill exemplified Mamata Banerjee’s brand of politics. “This is typical of Mamata’s style of politics. When she was in the opposition, it was total opposition. She did not participate in any political dialogue with the ruling party then. Now, when in power, she works on the same principle—she wants to exert absolute control. There is no middle path for her,” he told Frontline .

Right from the time when Mamata Banerjee assumed power for the first time in 2011, she has made it clear that dissent will not be tolerated. A university professor was sent to jail for circulating an innocuous cartoon about the Chief Minister; a college student was branded a Maoist supporter for asking a question that Mamata Banerjee found uncomfortable on a news channel; a hapless farmer was arrested by the State police when at a public rally he interrupted the Chief Minister’s speech complaining about the rise in fertilizer prices. Such cases abound in the six years of Trinamool rule in West Bengal.

Control on colleges

The West Bengal Universities And Colleges (Administration and Regulation) Bill, 2017, gives the State government overriding powers on practically all aspects of the functioning and administration of government-aided colleges and universities. The government can intervene in matters ranging from the nomination of the president of an institution’s governing body and the dissolution of the said body to the revision of pay scales of teachers. The government will even lay down the rules and procedures of students union elections.

The Bill’s Statement of Objects and Reasons claims that its aim is to “improve the functioning of the state-aided universities and government-aided colleges of West Bengal, and to bring about a certain uniformity and standardisation in the rules, practices, procedures, etc.” Political observers and educationists, however, feel the move blatantly infringes on the autonomy of institutions of higher education and attempts to destroy the unique characteristics of each institution.

At the very onset, what most stakeholders in higher education find objectionable is the proposed composition of the governing body. The Bill states that the president shall be a person “interested in education” and will be nominated by the government. A professor of a government-aided college told Frontline : “Anybody can be ‘interested in education’ and not necessarily an educationist. This allows the government to nominate anyone it chooses, not on the basis of credentials or even educational qualifications but on political affiliation. The objective of the Trinamool government is clear—it is trying to push its own people into governing bodies to seize complete control of the institutions. This will be ruinous for the higher educational system. ”

Biswanath Chakraborty pointed out that in quite a few countries educational institutions continued to work unhindered even when the state faced a crisis. “This can take place only if these institutions of higher learning are allowed to retain their autonomy,” he said.

This is not the first attempt by the present dispensation to seize complete control of government-aided institutes of higher education. On an earlier occasion, State Education Minister Partha Chatterjee tried to justify the government’s constant meddling in the functioning of various institutions with this blunt comment: “Since we pay the salaries we have every right to interfere in their affairs.” His language was more temperate when he introduced the Bill in the Assembly, but the spirit was much the same: “This Bill was framed with the intention of straightening the back of the education system in the State.”

Debashish Sarkar, Principal of Chandannagar College and a national executive committee member of the All India Federation of University and College Teachers Organisation, told Frontline : “For better or for worse, our education system is a legacy of the British system. All over the country there is a basic structure in the higher education system, which ensures two parameters—democratic functioning and autonomy for institutions. If the number of government-nominated members in an institution increases, then every successive government will try to push its own agenda, and ultimately the ambience for education will suffer and the institution itself will become a victim of politics.”

The new Bill is undoubtedly the biggest setback so far to the autonomy of government-aided institutions of higher education. One section states that the government “may by order, from time to time, revise the scale of pay attached to the post of teachers, officer or of non-teaching employees or sanction any new allowance thereof”.

Sarkar pointed out that from 1986 onwards, since the establishment of the Mehrotra Committee, the first of the four central Pay Review Committees that have been set up till date, recruitment norms, promotion policies, and pay structure of teachers in government and government-aided institutions and universities were decided at the all-India level. “The Mehrotra Committee [1986], the Rastogi Committee [1996] and the Chadha Committee [2006] had given their evaluations and recommendations for every 10 years to the UGC [University Grants Commission], which in turn submitted its own findings to the Ministry of Human Resource Development. The Ministry, after gazette notifications, sent the recommendations to the State Chief Secretaries, and the State governments implemented them. This is the general practice, so there is no space here for intervention by the State.” The State can intervene in the case of non-teaching employees but not the teaching staff.

Legal experts believe that there will be a spate of cases challenging the Bills and these will stall the ruling party’s plans.

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