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West Bengal: Governor vs. government (contd.)

EducationWorld August 2023 | Education News Magazine
Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)

Within a month of the public standoff between West Bengal Governor, Dr. C.V. Ananda Bose, and the Mamata Banerjee government over the issue of the former’s appointment of 11 interim vice chancellors of state government universities without consulting the education ministry (as reported on these pages last month), these two arms of government are at each other again. On July 1, Raj Bhavan (governor’s office) issued a circular mandating appointment of “student vice chancellors” from among extraordinarily meritorious postgrad and doctorate students in state government universities.

Protesting this mandate, state education minister Bratya Basu said: “UGC norms clearly state that anyone appointed as the vice chancellor of any state university will have to have minimum experience in the post of professor, which means a total teaching experience to the tune of 20 years.”

Moreover in the latest episode of the continuing showdown between Writers Building and Raj Bhavan, on July 19, the state government inducted former North Bengal University VC Omprakash Mishra into the university’s Executive Council. Earlier on July 2, Governor Bose had ordered an enquiry against Mishra based on allegations of irregularities during his tenure as vice chancellor.

Mishra’s appointment to the executive council is not undeserved. An alumnus of the top ranked Jawaharlal Nehru University, Mishra was former professor of international relations at Jadavpur University before he was appointed interim vice chancellor of North Bengal University (NBU) on September 29, 2022. A veteran Congress party leader, in 2019, he joined the TMC claiming it is the only party that could take on the rising BJP in the state. Mishra is also among former VCs, whose services were not extended by the governor, and who also issued a press statement against Governor Bose. Evidently, Mishra is being targeted for raising his voice against Raj Bhavan.

Clashes between Raj Bhavan and the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) government have been recurring issues since former governor — and currently the Vice President of India — Jagdeep Dhankar was appointed Governor of Bengal in 2019. While in his mainly ceremonial position, Dhankar held regular meetings with VCs, enquiring about their activities, assigning work and reminding them of their accountability towards the chancellor, i.e, the governor. In December 2019, the TMC government issued a GO (government order) requiring university VCs to route all communications with the Governor through the education ministry. On June 13, 2022, it also passed a West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2022, appointing the chief minister as the chancellor of all state government universities in lieu of the governor. Unsurprisingly, the Bill is pending in the Governor’s office for the latter’s assent.

Face-offs in academia have become frequent in several states over the past few years, prompting state governments to legislate laws curbing gubernatorial powers over state universities. In 2022, the Tamil Nadu assembly unanimously passed a Bill vesting the power to appoint vice chancellors in the state government. Several other states have also passed such bills in the recent past, including the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition in December 2021, and Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s LDF government in 2022. Moreover, Punjab’s AAP government unanimously passed the Punjab University Laws (Amendment) Bill 2023, vesting powers of the chancellor of 12 state-run universities in the chief minister.

Meanwhile in Bengal, with continuous rifts between the government and governor, disrupting the functioning of 25 state universities, policy decisions relating to recruitment, setting the academic calendar, infrastructure development, have been on hold.

And with the ruling TMC set to play a leading role in the new anti-BJP coalition of 26 political parties named the India National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) — an acronym reportedly coined by Banerjee herself, the stalemate in state government varsities is likely to continue.

Meanwhile with Banerjee focused on stitching the newly-formed INDIA coalition together, academics in West Bengal despair that education of its 28 million children and youth is on the back-burner even as teacher recruitment for the state’s 92,000 government schools and appointing VCs in the state’s 25 universities after their tenures ended in 2019, is still pending. There is snowballing anger, with academia demanding urgent remedial action and growing clamour that educational goals should not be seen through the prism of political colours.

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