Kolkata: In a major setback for the government of West Bengal, the Supreme Court (SC) Tuesday refused to interfere with a Calcutta High Court order which had declared the reappointment of Calcutta University Vice-Chancellor Sonali Chakravarti Bandopadhyay — wife of a former top IAS officer who was seen to have snubbed Prime Minister Narendra Modi — as “legally void”.
Sonali, the first woman V-C of Calcutta University, is daughter of eminent Bengali poet Nirendranath Chakravarti. She is also the wife of former West Bengal Chief Secretary Alapan Bandopadhyay who is currently the chief advisor to CM Mamata Banerjee.
The former IAS officer was in the midst of a centre-state tussle last year after he didn’t receive the Prime Minister at Kalaikunda air base during his visit for a review meeting following Cyclone Yaas in May, 2021. Nor did he attend the meeting. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, accompanied by Bandopadhyay, had submitted a file to the PM and left the meeting venue.
He was recalled from the state on the same day but the Mamata Banerjee government had refused to release the 1987-batch officer who retired on 31 May, he was then appointed principal advisor to the chief minister.
The former IAS officer is also currently fighting a legal battle against the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), which last year accused him of indulging in conduct “unbecoming of an IAS officer”, for missing the review meeting with the Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, on 27 August last year, the Mamata Banerjee government re-appointed Sonali the Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University and issued a notification to that effect. The reappointment came the same day her previous tenure as Calcutta University V-C was ending.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court bench of Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice Hima Kohli came down heavily on the Government of West Bengal over Sonali’s reappointment.
It also referred to a letter dated 17 August, 2021, by then West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, where he had written to the CM, “I need to indicate here that without being a participant in selection, and consequent selection, an incumbent Vice-Chancellor cannot get another term in view of section 8(2)(a) of the Calcutta University Act, 1979.”
With the Supreme Court refusing to interfere in the Calcutta High Court order overturning her reappointment, Sonali now looks set to lose her post as Calcutta University Vice Chancellor.
ThePrint reached Sonali over calls, text and WhatsApp, but receive no response till the time of publication of this report. ThePrint also reached Education Minister Bratya Basu ove telephone, text message and email, but received no response. An email was sent by ThePrint to Manish Jain, principal secretary, West Bengal Education Department, but no response was received till the time of publication of this article.
‘Loopholes’ in Sonali’s reappointment
In February this year, Anindya Sundar Das, an advocate and alumnus of Calcutta University, moved the Calcutta High Court against Sonali’s reappointment.
“The Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University’s reappointment was done without following the due process and eligibility criteria. The Calcutta High Court heard my PIL and in its order asked the V-C to step down immediately. She had to cease work immediately and today the Supreme Court also upheld the HC order. She must step down”, Das told ThePrint.
In an order dated 13 September, 2021, the Calcutta HC had overturned Sonali’s reappointment as the Calcutta University Vice-Chancellor, with a bench comprising Chief Justice Prakash Srivastava and Justice Rajarshi Bharadwaj holding the reappointment to be not in accordance with the law.
The SC in its order Tuesday, also held that “The State government chose the incorrect path under Section 60 by misusing the “removal of difficulty clause” to usurp the power of the Chancellor to make the appointment. A government cannot misuse the “removal of difficulty clause” to remove all obstacles in its path which arise due to statutory restrictions. Allowing such actions would be antithetical to the rule of law”.
Section 60 of the Calcutta University Act of 1979 refers to a scenario where there are difficulties in giving effect to the provisions of the Act “on account of any lacunae or omission” in its provisions or for any other reason whatsoever.
According to the Section, in such cases, the State government is empowered to do anything which appears to it to be necessary for removing the difficulty, notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained elsewhere in the Act or any other law.
A Vice-Chancellor of a top university under the West Bengal government told ThePrint on condition of anonymity, “In the case of an appointment of a Vice-Chancellor, one, it requires a signature of the Chancellor and two, it needs to follow guidelines of the UGC. My reading of the SC order, which clearly says how Section 60 of the Calcutta University Act 1979 was misused by the West Bengal government, is that all V-Cs have to go like Sonali.”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)