Calcutta, Feb. 18: The Mamata Banerjee government has advised colleges to suspend student elections for six months, betraying the first signs of panic after catching a Left tiger by its tail and being unable to let go of it.
The state government cited impending “public exams” for the freeze — that it was an “advisory” was slipped in as an afterthought once legal questions were raised — but there was little doubt the administration did not want to risk a replay of Garden Reach.
A Garden Reach college election process, though not the root, had lit the fire that led to the murder of a police officer and landed the Trinamul government in the biggest crisis it has faced so far.
Although the largely violent campus elections have yielded little benefit other than reflecting an obsession for total control over every walk of life, Mamata’s party has followed the Left in pursuing student politics with vigour. Some of the first missteps of the Mamata government were related to campus brutality, especially on teachers.
The government appeared so rattled by the Garden Reach incident that suggestions were made it would revive an attempt to cleanse campus elections on the basis of the Lyngdoh committee report that has been widely lauded but rarely implemented.
About an hour after education minister Bratya Basu announced the six-month suspension at Writers’ Buildings, chief minister Mamata Banerjee said: “There are many consecutive examinations and there are the elections. Both need police arrangements…. The panchayat elections, too, are near…. The college union elections have been suspended, considering the greater interest of the society.”
The chief minister met minister Basu and senior officials for an hour this afternoon before the decision was announced.
One source said the chief minister expressed concern about the violence around college polls. “Our image has already been hit. I cannot take chances anymore,” the source quoted the chief minister as saying.
When Mamata sought suggestions, Basu apparently popped the pill: push back all campus elections.
An hour after the meeting, the chief minister said: “Students often block roads during their agitation and it can inconvenience examinees.”
Mamata’s eagerness to avoid unrest was evident elsewhere too when she told her party not to descend on the streets to disrupt the Left-backed bandh on Wednesday. ( )
Basu, too, said: “The madarsa examinations are commencing on Tuesday. Thereafter, several examinations like Madhyamik, higher secondary, ICSE and CBSE are lined up. We are informing the vice-chancellors that student union elections be put off for six months.”
He denied the decision had anything to do with the Garden Reach violence.
Basu clarified that colleges and universities where elections have been held and the union has been constituted would not come under the purview of Monday’s advisory.
But when questions were raised about the legality of the bar, Basu toned down what had sounded like an order to an advisory. An official clarified that colleges were not bound to follow a government advisory.
Senior advocate and CPM leader Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya said that if it were an order, it was unlikely to stand court scrutiny. “College elections are not governed by the state. It is the college management which decides the election rules. The issue will certainly be challenged in court.”
Advocate Rabishankar Chatterjee said: “A minister’s advice is considered a government order. The statement saying that the colleges have only been advised to defer the polls is as good as ordering the college.”
A senior official at Jadavpur University hinted at moving court if the government insisted on pushing back the polls scheduled between March 14 and 28.
Basu told The Telegraph later: “The move is a step towards implementing the Lyngdoh committee’s recommendations to rid college elections of all violence. The education department had been pushing for it.”
The Lyngdoh panel had laid stress on minimum attendance, pass marks and vigil to keep parties and outsiders away. The state higher education council sent a report last July suggesting some of the Lyngdoh recommendations be implemented in Bengal but little has been done since then.
Many officials scoffed at Basu’s contention that the polls were being pushed back because of the examinations. Most campus elections in Bengal are held between October and March because this period doesn’t usually have major university exams.
According to one official, status quo at this stage would mean the Trinamul student wing would continue to rule most campuses. Of the 425 colleges in Bengal, the Trinamul wing controls the unions in more than 380.