Bengal govt curtails Governor’s powers as chancellor of state universities
The acrimony between West Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankhar and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government took an unprecedented turn on Tuesday when the latter curtailed his powers as chancellor of state universities through a set of new rules.
This happened on a day when TMC lawmakers in the Rajya Sabha demanded Dhankar’s removal and staged a walkout.
The Bengal governor is chancellor of all state universities by default with Visva Bharati, a Central university, being the sole exception. Ever since he assumed office on July 30, Dhankhar and TMC leaders have been at loggerheads on a host of issues with chief minister Mamata Banerjee calling him “an agent” of the Centre.
In a major move, the Assembly on Tuesday saw the placing of a set of news rules that curbed the governor’s role as chancellor of state-run universities. Some powers of the vice-chancellors were also curtailed.
The higher education department, headed by minister Partha Chatterjee, issued a gazette notification that abolished the chancellor’s secretariat, reduced the chancellor’s role in choosing vice-chancellors, took away his power to convene meeting of the highest bodies of the universities or take action against vice-chancellors.
“In case of appointment of the vice chancellor of a university, the chancellor shall maintain the order of preference of names placed before him,” read the notification. Till now, the government used to send three names to the governor who was free to choose any one.
The new rules, named West Bengal State Universities (Terms and Conditions of Service of the Vice Chancellor & the Manner and Procedure of Official Communication) Rules, 2019, were introduced to the West Bengal Universities and Colleges (Administration and Regulation) Act, 2017.
Ironically, the rules were notified in the name of the governor since he is the constitutional head of the state.
Tuesday also witnessed TMC legislators staging agitation near B R Ambedkar’s statue in the Assembly alleging that Dhankhar had unnecessarily withheld a bill relating to formation of a state commission for scheduled castes and tribes.
Dhankhar shot back by writing a letter to Assembly Speaker Biman Banerjee, saying that after receiving the bill last month he wanted to know from the government why the commission was necessary as national commissions for SCs and STs were already functional but did not get any reply till Tuesday. The letter was made available to the media as well.
“I take prompt action on every legislative matter. Please do not drag me into politics. I am here to work,” Dhankhar told the media in the evening.
“I am neither a rubber stamp nor a post office. I will fight it out. I am concerned about welfare of SCs and STs. Those who are shedding crocodile tears (for the bill) should do some introspection. Even chief minister Mamata Banerjee will feel bad when she comes to know why the bill was delayed,” said Dhankhar.
He insisted that it is the government which has been targeting him.
“I am not fighting the government. The government is fighting me. The Constitutional head of the state found the gates of the Assembly closed. It was a dark day in history,” said Dhankhar, referring to his visit to the Assembly on Thursday while the House was adjourned.
The Speaker adjourned the session on December 4 and 5, saying crucial bills scheduled to be placed in the House were not cleared by the governor.
Asked about the higher education department drafting new rules to curtail his powers as chancellor, Dhankhar said, “I am not aware of that and hence cannot comment.”
The TMC retaliated with parliamentary affairs minister Partha Chatterjee accusing the governor of leaking his letter to the Speaker to the media.
“The fact that the governor’s letter (to the Speaker) was released to the media shows what role the governor is actually playing. People are not blind,” Chatterjee said.
The opposition CPI (M) said the government circumvented a debate in the assembly by bringing in the changes as rules.
“The rules relating to universities have literally turned these institutions into extended offices of the government. Since these were placed in the Assembly as rules there is no provision for debate or the governor’s assent,” said CPI (M)’s Sujan Chakraborty who is leader of the Left parties in the Assembly. “In the past we successfully opposed a bill that sought to curtail autonomy of universities,” he added.
One of the rules says, “Every communication proposed to be made by the chancellor to any state-aided university shall be routed through the department and action on such communication shall be taken once the same is endorsed by the department. However, there shall be no chancellor’s secretariat.”
“The meeting of the senate/ court or the syndicate/ executive council or the governing board or of any other bodies or authorities of the university, as the case may be, shall be convened by the vice chancellor with an intimation to the department and the department, may intimate the same wherever necessary, to the chancellor for record,” reads another section of the notification.
“Any complaint received by the chancellor regarding the affairs of any state-aided university shall be forwarded to the department and the department, if deems fit, may cause an enquiry or investigation on such complaint and may recommend appropriate action to be taken in this regard as per procedure prescribed in rule,” says another proposed rule.
Biswanath Chakraborty, a professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University, said, “This is like chopping off the head to cure a headache. Undoubtedly, there are some problems with the Governor’s unusually proactive role but instead of trying to look for a way out, the government chose to altogether undermine the role of the Governor, which at times comes handy in providing checks and balances.”