The absence of vice-chancellor in a state University for quite some time is not unprecedented anymore in West Bengal as the state has seen such situations several times in the recent past. What is unprecedented about the current happenings in the University of Calcutta is the quashing of the reappointment of the vice-chancellor of the varsity by the Calcutta High Court and its endorsement by the apex court of the country.
The Supreme Court in its judgment on the appeal filed by the State Government and the incumbent challenging the order of the Calcutta High Court has clearly mentioned that the West Bengal government had chosen an illegal path to ‘usurp’ the power of the chancellor of the varsity, who till date, happens to be the Governor of the state. The verdict of the Supreme Court has called into question the fate of 23 other vice-chancellors of the state.
One case has already been filed challenging the validity of the appointments of some of these vice-chancellors and, one can presume, a few are awaiting submission.
If all these appointments are dismissed, unprecedented chaos will be created in the higher education sector of the state for which both the West Bengal state government and the present Vice President of the country, who was the chancellor of the state varsities when these vice-chancellors were appointed, will be held responsible.
Egotistic and immature actions on part of both the State government and the chancellor of the varsities have seriously damaged the reputation and dignity of the institutes concerned (including the oldest varsity of the country) and some of the vice-chancellors who deserve to be on the chair.
The State government sent its proposal for reappointing the existing vice chancellor of the University of Calcutta to the then-chancellor who sent back the proposal to the government seeking a few explanations.
The State government did not respond to the queries and the chancellor on his own extended the tenure of the vice chancellor for three months with a rider that the selection process for the new vice-chancellor must complete following the due process within this stipulated time.
Questioning the authority of the chancellor to appoint the vice chancellor without consulting the education minister of the State, the State government reappointed the existing vice chancellor of the varsity for a full term issuing an order signed by the special secretary of the government’s Higher Education Department.
The weapon that was used to regularise such a gross irregularity (as the State government, according to the University Act, cannot issue the appointment order without the chancellor’s approval) was the ‘removal of difficulty clause’ mentioned under section 60 of the Act of the varsity.
The apex court condemned such an act by strongly pointing out that a government cannot misuse the said clause for removing all obstacles that may arise due to restrictions imposed by the Act and Statute of a varsity. The path taken by the State government and the logic given by it before the bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Hima Kohli is not only ludicrous but also make one suspect the role of the bureaucrats who are supposed to advise the ministers and who ~ as we all know ~ practically run the government.
The bureaucrats who ignored the basic fact that the Act and the Statute of the University of Calcutta unambiguously declare the chancellor as the appointing authority for the vice-chancellor are either incompetent or completely subservient to the whims of power.
The State government in defence of its appeal has also argued in the apex court that reappointment is not a fresh appointment and that the state had taken over the power of appointing a vice chancellor from the chancellor by making necessary amendments to the existing Act.
Anyone who can read English and can read the Act and the amendments concerned will not at all be convinced by these reasons offered by the State government in its favour.
It is, therefore, no wonder that the apex court has made it clear that re-appointment is a fresh appointment since for each appointment against a vice chancellor’s post a new search committee is formed by the State government itself. The apex court has also pointed out that the amendments made to the existing Act for appointing vice-chancellors by the state government without even consulting the chancellor have not conferred the power of appointing the vice-chancellor from the chancellor onto the State government.
In fact, bureaucrats/ persons involved in making these amendments are responsible for the chaos created today. It is the duty of the bureaucrats to make the head of a ministry (and of the state too) understand that governance must not be abided by wish but by law.
If the State usurped the power of the chancellor by issuing an order of appointment for a vice-chancellor without taking his concurrence, the chancellor too broke the convention for appointing/re-appointing vice-chancellors by extending the tenure of the vice-chancellor without consulting the education minister and issuing such an order from his own office.
The convention in this regard has been one of understanding and mutual dependence of the Office of the Chancellor and the Government of West Bengal. For the post of vice-chancellor, the chancellor ticks a name suggested by the search committee appointed for the purpose by the government and the appointment letter is issued by the secretary of the Department of Education. Both the extension and re-appointment of the vice-chancellor of the University of Calcutta bypassed this convention. In fact, the State government took an incorrect path to appoint the vice chancellor of the University of Calcutta and twenty-three other vice-chancellors because the government was locked in a feud with the chancellor over a significant period of time on this issue in which both the parties looked rigid and inflexible. The then chancellor, one needs to be reminded, appointed a pro-vice-chancellor for the University of Burdwan also on his own and created a deadlock in this regard for some time in 2020.
When state power is captured by a political party, it is expected that the functioning of the government will safeguard the interests of the party in power, but the Governor of a state is expected to act in an unbiased way. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Education (a la Althusser) is, of course, the most important of the ideological state apparatuses in modern times. Nobody expects an apolitical existence of education as a material site.
It is also expected that different ideologies will fight against each other on this site to create and maintain their respective hegemony. Nobody, however, expects the chancellor to be a party to such a fight. In his “The Centre of Indian Culture,’ a lecture Tagore, considered to have the ideas for establishing Visva-Bharati (and for that matter any institute of higher education in India), Tagore said, “our educational institutes should be in the very heart of our society, connected with it by the living bonds of varied co-operation.” Lack of this cooperation can create unprecedented situations like the one that higher education in West Bengal is witnessing now.