Students of Presidency University protest their union election being put on hold on Tuesday based on the government’s ‘advice’. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta
The government’s “advice” to colleges and universities to suspend student union elections for six months is nothing but an order couched in the polite language of a communiqué to educational institutions.
Presidency and Jadavpur universities, where union elections were due in March, received the advisory on Tuesday morning and almost immediately decided to put the polls on hold.
The advisory says: “With a view to preventing any untoward incidents over conduct of students’ union election and to ensure the maintenance of peace and tranquillity in and around educational institutions, especially keeping in view the approaching examination season, you are advised to, excepting in cases where there is a specific court order in this regard, keep in abeyance all processes related to elections to students’ unions in the universities and affiliated colleges, for the time being.”
Note that the advisory says “for the time being”, while education minister Bratya Basu had specified on Monday that the period of abeyance would be six months.
Going by the book, whether a college election is to be held, postponed or cancelled is entirely up to the institution. It is an internal decision in which the government of the day officially has no say unless there is a specific instance of breach of law and order requiring state intervention.
But advocate Rabishankar Chatterjee said there was little to doubt that education minister Basu’s “advice” amounted to an order. “A minister’s advice is always an order for his subordinates. In the present case, the college authorities are his subordinates because the minister’s department is in charge of the affairs of the institutions. The high court often asks the government to consider a particular case. This is an advice. But to the government, it is as good as an order. The state has to carry out the order of the court.”
Advocate Anindya Sundar Das pointed out a practical problem for the institutions if they went ahead with student polls as scheduled. “Suppose a college decides to hold a union election in defiance of the minister’s advice and faces a problem requiring police intervention, the government might refuse to help. The college will then have to approach a court seeking police cover for the election. “
The election at Presidency was slated for March 1, while polls in the arts, science and engineering and technology wings of JU were due on March 14, 19 and 22.
Officials at Presidency and JU said they feared “repercussions” if they defied the government’s advisory.
“The advisory says the decision has been taken to prevent untoward incidents related to union elections. Now if we hold elections exercising our autonomy and any untoward incident takes place, the government will put the entire blame on us. No institution can afford that,” a JU official said.
Do does that mean JU was bracing for trouble during the election anyway? “Trinamul’s student wing has floated units on our campus and the party has also made inroads into the employees’ associations. If these groups stoke trouble to teach us a lesson for defying the advisory, our hands would be tied,” the official said.
A JU teacher who oversees student elections said he wouldn’t be surprised if the police refused help to any college exercising its autonomy to hold a union election. “As far as JU is concerned, we recently defied the government’s advisory to introduce the common entrance test for postgraduate admission. Defying the election advisory too would certainly put us in the line of fire.”
According to an official at Presidency University, a more telling repercussion would be a cut in financial grants that state-aided universities receive from the government.
“Being a fledgling state-aided university, we rely heavily on government funding. If we ignore the advisory, we risk a slash in grants. This government has already cited a financial crunch to wash its hands of some grand commitments such as additional funding to turn Presidency into a world-class university,” the Presidency official.
Education minister Basu ruled out a rethink on Tuesday even as students protested the government’s move across campuses. “Those who are protesting don’t care about the lakhs of students due to write examinations in the next few months. All they want to do is stoke unrest on campuses,” he said.
Debarshi Chakrabarty, a third-year student at Presidency, said the government’s statement rang hollow in the light of the incident at Garden Reach incident. “If the government is so concerned about ensuring peace on campuses, it should have controlled the goons at Harimohan Ghose College.”
A police officer was shot dead outside the college last Tuesday during a political scuffle for control of the area, including the educational institution.
“The government’s concern about campus unrest has dawned right before elections in Presidency and JU, where the Trinamul students’ wing doesn’t have a presence,” said Sourya Deb , the chairman of the arts students’ union at JU.
Leader of the Opposition Surjya Kanta Mishra wrote to chief minister Mamata Banerjee on Tuesday, protesting the advisory. “It is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” he said.