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Mamata Banerjee: Poet, painter... education czarina

If Mamata Banerjee manages to get full control of the state’s universities, she will have an absolutely free hand to appoint and promote both academic and non-academic staff, and dictate syllabi.

May 29, 2022 / 08:06 AM IST
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. In May 2022, the Bangla Academy, a cultural body of the state government, awarded its first award to Banerjee for her “relentless literary pursuit” and her poetry anthology 'Kabita Bitan'. (Illustration: Moneycontrol)

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. In May 2022, the Bangla Academy, a cultural body of the state government, awarded its first award to Banerjee for her “relentless literary pursuit” and her poetry anthology 'Kabita Bitan'. (Illustration: Moneycontrol)

So Mamata Banerjee will now be the chancellor of all state-run universities in West Bengal. A proposal to this effect was passed unanimously by the state cabinet and it will be put to vote in the state assembly. Given the brute majority that the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has in the Vidhan Sabha, there is no doubt that the relevant Act will get amended.

All state-run universities in India have the state’s governor as their ex-officio chancellor. But relations between Banerjee and West Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankhar have been openly adversarial since the day Dhankhar took charge in July 2019. The amended bill will of course need to be approved by Dhankhar, but the state government has already announced that if the governor refuses, it will simply issue an ordinance and hand over the chancellorships to Banerjee.

Earlier this month, at a function to celebrate the birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, the Bangla Academy, a cultural body of the state government, awarded its first award to Banerjee for her “relentless literary pursuit” and her poetry anthology Kabita Bitan. State education minister Bratya Basu, who is also the chairperson of the Bangla Academy, announced the award and then received it humbly on her behalf, while Banerjee sat on the same stage and looked on.

Most of Banerjee’s poems—more appropriately, doggerels—are impossible to translate in any other language, and trust me, the world should see this as a blessing in disguise. She has also been a prolific painter—of very indifferent quality, but herself revealed in 2015 that she had till date sold some 300 paintings for Rs 9 crore, at an average price of Rs 3 lakh.

Now, in addition to being the most feted poet and painter in the state, Banerjee will be West Bengal’s unchallengeable education czarina. Not bad for someone who used to claim early in her political career that she had a PhD from the University of East Georgia in the United States for her research work on “the impact of the Mughal harem on state and policies”, till investigations revealed that there is no institute in America called University of East Georgia. By the mid-1980s, she had quietly deleted the doctorate from her biodata.

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Like many other sectors in West Bengal, education is in a mess. Last December, Dhankhar had taken to Twitter to allege that due process had not been followed in the appointment of vice-chancellors to 24 universities in the state. The most high-profile case that Banerjee’s critics cite is the appointment of Sonali Chakravarty Banerjee as vice-chancellor of Calcutta University—Chakravarty is the wife of Alapan Bandopadhyay, former chief secretary of the state and currently “chief adviser to the chief minister”.

Apart from universities, the state has been rocked in recent times by an alleged scam in recruitment for Group C and Group D posts in the School Education Department. A Calcutta High Court-established inquiry committee has recommended criminal proceedings against four West Bengal School Service Commission (WBSSC) officials, former and current, and a senior education department officer. The case is now with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

According to the committee’s report, the officials got answer sheets of hundreds of unsuccessful candidates re-evaluated, their marks raised, and recommended their appointment. The answer sheets were allegedly destroyed after the manipulation of marks. Reportedly, in the process, the culprits also illegally used data stored on Central government servers and forged signatures of Central government bureaucrats.

Last week, the CBI snapped the internet connections of the server room of the WBSSC’s office in Kolkata and sealed two rooms to eliminate chances of data on the system being altered or destroyed. The building is now being guarded by Central paramilitary forces.

If Banerjee manages to get full control of the state’s universities—which she may well be able to, unless the proposed bill violates University Grants Commission regulations—she will have an absolutely free hand to appoint and promote both academic and non-academic staff, and dictate syllabi and reading material (the 946 poems in Kabita Bitan will likely be mandatory reading). She has already been doing so with school textbooks, replacing traditional Bangla words like “neel” for “blue” with the Urdu-ized “aasmani”, and “ramdhenu” for “rainbow” with “rongdhenu”, apparently because the original word starts with “Ram” and so is communal.

Corruption is not the only angle in the alleged WBSSC scam—it is rumoured that candidates are willing to pay Rs 10 lakh or even more for a secure government school job. Schoolteachers also play a crucial part in India’s democratic process. In every election—from panchayat to Lok Sabha, they are called up for booth duty. In its 34-year rule in West Bengal, the Left front perfected the strategy of packing government schools with its cadres and sympathizers, and using them to try to rig elections. TMC is following in its footsteps.

Banerjee runs a dictatorial regime, with a pliant bureaucracy and police force. Now comes this blatant move to control higher education. It can only continue West Bengal’s downhill slide. Like Mamata’s literary ambitions, this seems to have been the relentless pursuit of all the state’s governments for more than 50 years now.
Sandipan Deb is an independent writer. Views are personal.
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