The education system in West Bengal is "politicaly caged", Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar said on Thursday, a day after most vice-chancellors of state universities skipped a meeting called by him, and asserted he will seek an explanation for their absence.
Soon after, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said any ‘vindictive and explosive action’ against the state vice-chancellors will have its serious impact and see massive protests across the state, adding the governor was acting "more dangerously" than a BJP mouthpiece and it doesn't suit someone holding a constitutional post.
Dhankhar had convened an online meeting with the vice-chancellors to discuss the academic situation amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday. Barring one, all vice-chancellors had stayed away.
Dhankhar told reporters he will also ask the VCs, who were absent, about the academic problems being faced by students because of the outbreak of the disease. "I find there is tightening of this political cage in the education scenario in West Bengal," he said.
"I wanted to fathom the problems the universities and colleges are facing by calling a virtual meeting of VCs which they opposed tooth and nail for the reasons known to all," he said.
Amid frequent run-ins with the governor, the West Bengal government had recently amended the relevant rules relating to the powers of the governor as the chancellor of universities.
The new rules have vastly reduced the governor's role in the functioning of universities. Under the fresh set of rules, all communications between the governor and the universities have to be routed through the higher education department.
"Can education department and VCs self-proclaim they cannot be commanded by a chancellor? Are they not accountable When they become accountable?" Dhankhar said, voicing displeasure over the absence of the VCs from the meeting.
"The saddest elements in their entire gamut is that they completely forgot the students crisis amidst the pandemic," he said. He, however, placed the blame for the absence of the VCs on the state government.
Insisting that he had shown "utmost patience" while dealing with the vice-chancellors, who he treated as "my family", Dhankhar said the "unwholesome situation was created by the state government".
He also referred to another meeting with the VCs he had called on January 13 which failed to take off, after the education department objected to the governor calling such an interaction without informing it.
Dhankhar said his January 15 letter to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee about the VCs not attending the meeting went unanswered. Dhankhad said, in his letter to the chief minister, he had deprecated "judgemental aproach" and sought an end to such stalemate.
Dhankhar said the students were facing an "unprecedented crisis" and that he saw "gloom on the faces of young minds due to government apathy. Noncommittal government makes them more restive with each passing day."
Dismissing Dhankhar's charge against the government of being incommunicado, Banerjee said it seemed "we are servants". "We are in regular touch with the governor. I have spoken to him four times on Wednesday... It's as if we are servants and work taking salaries and we will have to answer (him) every moment. What will the (state) government do -- tackle COVID or continue answering his queries?" Banerjee said at a press conference in state secretariat 'Nabanna'.
The chief minister also assured the vice-chancellors of state-run universities that they do not have to worry after Dhankhar warned of action for skipping a meet he had called.
"The vice-chancellor should not worry. All of them are respected and they will continue to work in the manner they have been working. We are with them. They have our 100 per cent support," she said.
Banerjee had recently written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging him to re-examine the HRD ministry and UGC guidelines to hold college and university exams by September 2020 citing risks from the coronavirus disease. Dhankhar was apparently referring to that letter.
"Denying degrees means denying academic progression and jobs. Degrees cannot be given without evaluation which happens to be in the form of examinations. Exams can be held only when the courses have been completed," Dhankhar said.
"How long and how far the students of this state will be denied their rights in the situation when the state has completely failed in containing COVID-19 transmission?" he asked.
Dhankhar asked Banerjee, Education Minister Partha Chatterjee and all the VCs "who have been denying to come forth to grapple with these issues and problems so acutely faced by the students that where is their response to change with the crisis currently thrust on us."
"They must come out in black and white for which they have been elected selected and funded by the people," he said.
The governor said, in the interest of students and their education, he will have to set in motion "with utmost reluctance" action to "deal with their conduct in accordance with the applicable Act". Dhankhar, however, was silent about what that could be.
(With inputs from PTI)