The West Bengal Assembly on Monday passed a Bill that will replace the Governor with the Chief Minister as chancellor of all the state-run universities. In the 294-member Assembly, the Bill was passed by 183-40 votes, with BJP MLAs opposing it.
Introducing the Bill – The West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2022 – in the Assembly, Education Minister Bratya Basu said there was “nothing wrong” in the chief minister taking over as the chancellor of the state-run universities. “Why can’t the chief minister be the chancellor of state universities if the Prime Minister is the chancellor of a central university like Visva-Bharati? You can go through the recommendations of the Punchhi Commission… The Governor, who is the present chancellor, has violated protocols on various occasions,” Basu said.
Regarding the Punchhi Commission’s report, the Bill stated: “It is not out of place to mention that the Punchhi Commission in its report recommended that to be able to discharge the constitutional obligations fairly and impartially, the Governor 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.”
During the two-hour long debate on the Bill, both Basu and former education minister Partha Chatterjee cited the example of states like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu which too have taken similar steps.
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“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 Punchhi Commission is also of the view that the Governor should not be assigned functions casually under any statutes. His role should be confined to the Constitutional provisions only,” the Bill stated.
Opposing the Bill, the BJP members alleged that appointing the chief minister as chancellor would lead to direct “political interference” in the state’s higher education system.
“The government spoke about Punchhi Commission, but they did not mention that the commission was against politicisation of educational institutions. If the chief minister becomes chancellor, then the universities will come under direct political control,” BJP MLA Agnimitra Paul said.
Accusing the TMC government of interfering in every sector, Paul said: “The state government wants to control everything. The decision to appoint the CM as chancellor of universities is being taken to facilitate direct interference of the ruling party in the state’s education system.”
With the Bill’s passage in the Assembly, it will be sent to Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar for his assent.
While some believe that Dhankhar would delay in giving his assent to the Bill, minister Basu said: “Jagdeep Dhankhar is the Governor of the whole state. He is also my Governor. If the majority members of the Assembly are for the change in the chancellor, then why would the Governor not give his assent to the Bill?”
However, BJP MLA and Leader of Opposition Suvendu Adhikari claimed that the Bill would not get the Centre’s required nod. “Education is in the concurrent list in the Constitution. So, they have to take consent of the Governor and the Central Government. They will not get that. Like the Bill proposing changing the name of the state and many other Bills, this too will not get assent. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s dream to become chancellor of the state universities will remain a pipe dream,” he said.
Adhikari’s remark triggered strong reactions from the ruling TMC, which claimed that it proves that Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar and the BJP are hand in glove.
“Hence proved! What we have been saying all along is now in front of everyone! Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar and BJP are hand in glove to consistently hamper the development of West Bengal. Today, Suvendu Adhikari openly admitted how they influence the office of Governor,” the TMC tweeted from its official handle.
On May 26, the state Cabinet gave its nod to make the Chief Minister the chancellor of all state-run universities, including all state-aided universities, replacing the Governor. The government’s move came amid a series of confrontations between Governor Dhankhar and the TMC government in the state over several issues, ranging from law and order to education. Earlier this year, Dhankhar had a public outburst after vice-chancellors of state universities skipped a meeting called by him. The Raj Bhavan and the government had also a tiff over the appointment of vice-chancellors.