THE GOVERNMENT asked President Ram Nath Kovind to overturn his decision on the appointment of Visva Bharati University Vice-Chancellor (V-C) only after he ignored HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar’s recommendation for the post and chose Swapan Kumar Dutta instead, according to official records accessed by The Indian Express under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
As reported by The Indian Express on February 23, Kovind, in an unprecedented move, withdrew his assent to Dutta’s selection as the head of Visva Bharati in Santiniketan, at the behest of the HRD Ministry. He also scrapped the panel of three finalists forwarded by the government last year.
While scrapping a panel for the V-C’s post is not unusual, this was the first time that Rashtrapati Bhavan received such a proposal from the government after the President had already approved the appointment of a candidate.
According to documents accessed by The Indian Express, Javadekar, in a proposal forwarded to Rashtrapati Bhavan on November 13, 2017, had backed the candidature of Sankar Kumar Nath for the top job.
Nath is a teacher of geophysics in the geology department at IIT-Kharagpur. Dutta, an agricultural scientist who served as acting V-C of Visva Bharati for close to two years, and P N Mishra of the Institute of Management Studies at Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya (DAVV) in Indore were the other candidates shortlisted for the position.
On January 25, the ministry received the file with Kovind’s approval for Dutta’s name. Although the standard practice is to bring out an order notifying the President’s decision, the HRD Ministry did not do that and, instead, sent another proposal to Rashtrapati Bhavan after two weeks, asking Kovind to reconsider his decision, saying that Dutta did not have the “leadership qualities and attributes suitable to the environment of Visva Bharati”.
The ministry justified its request on the ground that Datta’s appointment as professor in Visva Bharati was red-flagged by a fact-finding committee and, also, the government had recently received complaints accusing him of abetting irregularities in the selection of the university’s deputy registrar. “Besides, his term as in-charge V-C has witnessed a number of periodic agitations by the students and employees’ outfits, which reflect very poorly upon his administrative capabilities and leadership qualities,” said the ministry’s proposal of February 7.
“In particular, the fact that the NIRF ranking of Visva Bharati has fallen from 11 in 2016 to 19th position in 2017 during his tenure goes against him,” it said.
Further, making a case for scrapping the complete panel of finalists, the ministry argued that the public response to the selection process was unimpressive and the government had received only 101 applications for the post. The final panel, according to the government, did not have names “befitting the status and requirement of Visva Bharati”.
Visva Bharati is the only central university which has the Prime Minister as its Chancellor. The institution was founded by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore and its alumni list includes filmmaker Satyajit Ray and economist Amartya Sen.
It is not clear why the ministry did not urge the President to scrap the panel earlier if it felt that the three finalists were not worthy of the job.
Moreover, of the four arguments made by the government against Dutta’s selection, three (student agitation, NIRF ranking and the fact-finding committee red-flagging Dutta’s appointment as professor) were known to the government before it forwarded the panel to Kovind in November 2017.
On February 16, the President withdrew his assent to Dutta’s appointment and also scrapped the complete panel. The government then started the selection process afresh.