The high court on Tuesday set aside the state education department’s decision to re-appoint Sonali Chakravarti Banerjee as vice-chancellor of Calcutta University and said the order of re-appointment “has no legal force and is void in the eyes of law and non-existent”.
The division bench of Chief Justice Prakash Shrivastava and Justice Rajarshi Bharadwaj issued the order on a PIL that submitted that the state government had no power to reappoint a VC “as the power to appoint/reappoint lies with the chancellor”.
The governor is the ex-officio chancellor of all state universities. A bill passed by the Assembly in June makes the chief minister ex-officio chancellor of all state universities, but it has yet to become an act.
Tuesday’s court order says: “The order of the reappointment of respondent No. 4 as the vice-chancellor, Calcutta University, issued by the state government, has no legal force and is void in the eyes of law and non-existent, hence liable to be set aside.”
Calls and text messages to Chakravarti Banerjee seeking her reaction failed to elicit any response. Text messages to education minister Bratya Basu, too, went unanswered.
During the hearing, the bench held that the process adopted by the education department to reappoint Chakravarti Banerjee was “bad in law” as it violated the norms laid down for reappointment of a VC.
Advocate-general S.N. Mukherjee, appearing on behalf of the state, had cited various amendments to the Calcutta University Act, submitting that a provision in the law that required the government to follow a certain procedure for reappointment was dropped through an amendment.
While issuing an order on August 27, 2021, reappointing Chakravarti Banerjee as VC, the government invoked Section 60 of the act, which empowers the state government to pass necessary orders for “removal of difficulty”.
It became necessary to invoke the clause because the chancellor, then governorJagdeep Dhankhar, did not consent to the reappointment of Chakravarti Banerjee as CUVC, said an official.
Tuesday’s court order says:“The ‘removal of difficulty’clause, once frowned upon and nick-named as ‘Henry VIII Clause’ in scornful commemoration of the absolutist ways in which that English king got the ‘difficulties’ in enforcing his autocratic will removed....(It) now finds acceptance as a practical necessity, in several Indian statutes of the post-Independent era.”
It also says that by taking recourse to Section 60, the state could not have usurped the power of the governor.
“The communication of the governor dated August 17, 2021, indicates that he was not agreeable to such an appointment,” the order says.
Anindya Sundar Das, an alumnus of the university, had filed the PIL in January.
Chakravarti Banerjee was first appointed as CU VC on August 28, 2017, for four years.Her term expired on August 27, 2021.
Dhankhar, then chancellor, extended her tenure by three months with the rider that the selection process would commence and the next VC would be appointed following due process.
Suryaneel Das, the advocate on record for the petitioner, said a VC could be reappointed through the same procedure that was followed during the initial appointment.
The relevant section, according to Das, says the VC will be appointed by the chancellor from a panel of three names recommended in order of preference by a search committee constituted by the state government.
“Any reappointment without following the procedure prescribed under Section 8(1) of the act eliminates competition,” Das said.
Counsel for the state made an oral prayer for a stay on Tuesday’s order.
The prayer was rejected.