Taking the cue from a statement that Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan made last year during a confrontation with the southern state’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the West Bengal Cabinet on Thursday decided to introduce a Bill to appoint CM Mamata Banerjee as the Chancellor of all state-run universities.
This has raised fears about the autonomy of state-run universities being compromised and sets the stage for another confrontation between the Trinamool Congress (TMC)-led administration and Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, who has repeatedly clashed with the government since he assumed charge in 2019. At present, the Governor is the Chancellor of 17 universities in West Bengal.
Last December, Dhankhar twice convened a meeting at the Raj Bhavan with the V-Cs of private universities — once on December 18 and then on December 23 — but both times the institutions’ heads were a no-show. Earlier in 2021, a meeting with the vice-chancellors and executive heads of state universities did not take place when the invitees did not turn up.
After the December meetings did not occur, the Governor took to social media to decry the “shocking unionism” and criticised the government for ignoring him while appointing V-Cs. “I direct all these appointments be revisited. UGC (University Grants Commission) needs to engage into serious probe about private universities as I find they are in breach of several regulations, particularly qua the visitor. It cannot be put under the control of the government, it has to be in accordance with the law of the land.”
He made a similar claim this January too, alleging that 25 vice-chancellors in the state had been appointed “illegally” without his approval. Labelling the appointment of Calcutta University V-C Sonali Chakravarti for a second term as “a classic case of patronage”, Dhankhar claimed that he had directed the government to withdraw the appointment on September 16.
Following Dhankhar’s outburst in December, state education minister Bratya Basu said the state administration was considering a proposal to nominate CM Mamata Banerjee as the interim Chancellor of all state universities. The Bengal minister referred to a letter that Khan had written to Vijayan two weeks earlier saying he wanted to step down as the Chancellor of state universities and the Kerala CM could step into the role. Vijayan, however, did not heed the comments.
Basu told the media, “Instead of cooperating with the state government, the Governor is showing only hostility. If files are kept pending for his assent for an indefinite time and he continues to show little cooperation, we can think of implementing what the Governor of Kerala has said … if needed, we will look at the Constitutional aspect of it and seek legal opinion to have the Chief Minister as the Chancellor of the state universities for an interim period. If the statements of Kerala Governor is applicable for that state, it can be applicable for all states under the federal structure.”
This was not the first time the TMC government had clashed with Dhankhar over his alleged interference in the functioning of state universities. In December 2019, the state administration clipped his powers as Chancellor by amending the existing rules and ensuring that all communications between him and the V-Cs got routed through the education department.
The Governor has shared a turbulent relationship with the government since taking charge in July 2019. The first signs of a strain appeared within two months when Dhankhar rushed to the rescue of then BJP leader and Union Minister Babul Supriyo (now a TMC MLA) when he faced a group of hostile students at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. Since that incident, Dhankhar has not been invited to convocations of several state universities despite being their Chancellor. Last month, at a convocation ceremony of the Institute of Cost Accountants of India in Kolkata, Dhankhar raised this matter and claimed that some V-Cs “avoid” him.
Fears for institutional autonomy
The Trinamool government’s proposed Bill has raised fears about the autonomy of state-run universities getting compromised. “In central universities, the Chancellor is appointed based on the statute of respective institutions. As a result, the Prime Minister is not the Chancellor of all central universities. But the way the state government is attempting to make the Chief Minister the Chancellor of all state universities is unprecedented in the country,” said Union Minister of State for Education Subhas Sarkar.
While in most central universities the President acts as the “Visitor”, the Prime Minister is the Chancellor only at Visva-Bharati University (VBU).
Senior CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty described the TMC government’s proposed move as unfortunate. Referring to rhymes Mamata Banerjee once composed for a children’s book, he added, “From Epang, Opang, Jhapang to dang dang. Now, Nabanna (state secretariat) will control the vice-chancellors. This is not only amusing but unfortunate as well.”
State BJP spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya also lashed out at the state administration. “This has been done to divert people’s attention from the monumental corruption in the education sector and several appointment scams. The state government is acting like a Union Territory.”
The party’s Bengal co-in-charge Amit Malviya tweeted, “Mamata Banerjee’s decision to replace the Governor as Chancellor of state Universities with the CM is an attempt to evade accountability and transparency. The move is intended to distract from the SSC scam and cover up gross irregularities in the Universities. CM is paranoid.”
He added, “It is not just an assault on federalism but a brazen attempt to foist people with inadequate credentials as Vice-Chancellors, who are expected to politicise education. Several appointments made by the WB Govt, in gross violation of regulations, are already facing legal challenge.”
Raising questions about the proposed Bill, former Presidency College (now Presidency University) principal Amal Mukhopadhyay said, “The Chief Minister is the administrative head of the state. If that person is made the Chancellor then the interference from the government will increase. The vice-chancellor on the other hand will be compelled to abide by the decisions and instructions of the government.”
But historian and Indologist Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri said the proposed change would not harm the autonomy of the education institutions. “The Governor should have played the role of a supportive guardian. Can we see it happening? Besides the government takes every decision while the Governor acts as a signing authority. Then what is the difference if the Chief Minister becomes to singing authority?”
TMC state general secretary Kunal Ghosh dismissed the Opposition’s criticism and pointed to the arrangement at Visva-Bharati. “If the Prime Minister can be the Chancellor of Visva-Bharati University, then what is the problem in Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee becoming the Chancellor of state universities? This is nothing but the double standard of the Opposition parties. The Opposition should first ask the PM to resign as the Chancellor of VBU before criticising the state government.”