"I have not crossed the red line even once. But can I be a rubber stamp? Should I be a post office? Should I be sitting in Raj Bhavan at a time when Bengal is on fire, when the CBI office is under siege, when girls are being molested?"
West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar addresses questions over boundaries of a governor’s post and if he is overstepping them, says his guide is the Constitution and he is forced to step in due to the situation in Bengal, and adds that it is up to the Centre to decide what to do. The session was moderated by Political Editor & National Bureau Chief Ravish Tiwari.
RAVISH TIWARI: How do you look at your journey from a political worker to a constitutional functionary?
A governor is an easy punching bag. The moment governments of the state and the Centre are from different parties, it is easy to make statements, align them with a political ideology or party. My constitutional limitations are prescribed under Article 159. A governor is required to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. Second, he has to serve the people of the state. I have said on a number of occasions that I am not a stakeholder in politics. My core critical and non-compromising concern is that the governance in the state must be in accordance with constitutional prescriptions. A transgression of that is not acceptable.
On May 17, which I call a dark day in our constitutional democratic history, a sitting Chief Minister walked into the CBI office, was there for six hours, conducted a Cabinet meeting there and told CBI officials to release the four accused who were arrested after I accorded consent for prosecution. This is tampering with the essence of the Constitution… The CBI office was under siege. Prohibitory orders were in force. The crowd swelled. The Central forces were targeted with projectiles. Kolkata Police was just an onlooker.
I called Kolkata Police Commissioner Soumen Mitra and asked him what was happening. He said, ‘Sir, Section 144 is not implementable.’ How can we digest this? If there are prohibitory orders, they have to be enforced… Article 167 talks about informing the Governor. In my 22 months (as West Bengal Governor), in not a single case has this been respected. I do not wish to indicate here the personal difficulties they create for my office.
The most painful event happened on May 2. When results (of the state polls) started trickling in, violence was on an incremental trajectory — post-poll, retributive violence. I got in touch with the DGP of the state, Kolkata Police Commissioner… I told them they must contain the violence. The Chief Minister saw me on May 3. I questioned her. She took oath on May 5. You mark what I said that day (at the press conference). By that time, the situation had become very alarming. I told her, ‘Ma’am, I wish you well for a third term. With a mandate that speaks volumes, please take all the steps (to contain the violence in the state).’ I got only silence from her. There were four Cabinet meetings, the issue was not deliberated upon in any of them.
I said that I will visit the poll violence-affected areas. The state government said that I can step out of Raj Bhavan only on a programme given by them. I stepped out. They made no facilities available. I secured them from the Central government. What I saw in Cooch Behar, Nandigram… My tears dried up. Rows and rows of houses were vandalised, shops were looted. The destruction could be seen. Four states and one Union Territory had gone to the polls. Why did this happen only in West Bengal?
When I went to Cooch Behar, three generations of people caught my feet. Young boys were carrying placards. I don’t want to sensationlise the issue but they said we belong to a sect and therefore we are being persecuted. They said, save our lives. The women told me we are prepared to change our religion if that can be passport to life… Everywhere, I asked three questions: One, why did you not go to the police? The universal response was… we will walk into the police station as a victim but come out as an accused. Two, did anyone from the government come to you? They said none. Three, did any journalist come to you?…
I couldn’t continue the visits because a complete lockdown was clamped on May 16. What is being conveyed to me from all sources, I share it with the government. The government is too quick to call everything fake, including this post-poll violence. How come 2.3 crore people voted against us! How dare they vote according to their choice! The entire violence is to punish, discipline and deal a final blow to the right to franchise, and it is being done in full fury.
RAVISH TIWARI: But should a governor be making running commentary on state incidents on a day-to-day basis?
In Delhi, two narratives are afloat. One, the governor is at loggerheads with the Mamata Banerjee government. I take very strong exception to it. All members of the media put themselves in judgmental mode. I do not believe in confrontation; I believe in constructive suggestions. I am not in confrontation with the government. The government is in confrontation with me, which I’m trying to dilute and rationalise to have a working relationship. Let me give you instances. If a governor goes to the Assembly after due notice, can the gates be locked? It happened. Two, if the governor has to address the Assembly, should he not be the No. 1 speaker. I was at No. 6 on Constitution Day. If I address the Assembly, under the normal system, the proceedings are telecast live. In my case, these were blacked out. I have to appoint vice-chancellors — 20 have been appointed, I have no idea about it.
We are in a state where governance is far distanced from constitutional prescriptions, where the bureaucracy is 100% politicised. They are frontline political workers… Through background channels, I have tried to reason with every responsible person of the ruling party… They say we are helpless. (I asked them) Can you communicate with the leader? No (they said).
In West Bengal, the silence of the media, the inaction of the national media, is resulting in slippage of democracy. It is straining the democratic fabric to a level where it will be a challenge to its entire history… Every day I get videos of boys and girls, men and women, on the street, on rickshaws, proclaiming on loudspeakers that we made a mistake by voting for the Opposition (in West Bengal polls), we vow never to vote for them, please give us a reprieve.
Send your reporters if you don’t believe me. This is in large numbers. Two, if you belong to a particular segment, you can live in own house only as a tenant. You can run your business only by paying an extortion fee. Village after village is under siege. All of this is being done to ensure two things: to preserve vote banks come what may, even as the cost of the Constitution being in flames. And two, no space, whatsoever, should be given to the Opposition… Democracy cannot survive if that space is denied by criminal elements, who are fully supported by the State apparatus. What we see is democracy taking its last breath.
AVISHEK G DASTIDAR: But how valid is the concern that your office is actually overreaching its mandate in the state?
I have not crossed the red line even once. But can I be a rubber stamp? Should I be a post office? Should I be sitting in Raj Bhavan at a time when Bengal is on fire, when the CBI office is under siege, when girls are being molested?
I sent a communication to the CM that appointment of the DGP has to be in accordance with the Supreme Court judgment and that the present DGP has not been appointed as per that mechanism… You constituted a committee for pandemic purchase of about `2,000 crore… You said there were illegalities. I’m asking only for the report. I have not got it for the last 14 months. For the Andal (airport) project, about 2,300 acres of land of farmers was taken. The government is giving loans, increasing its equity. I only asked them who is the beneficiary?… They tell me that projects (worth) `12 lakh crore are being undertaken. I ask them in which part of West Bengal is it happening, on which piece of land is this project going on? Governance cannot be so cosmetic. Governance cannot be on advertisements, governance cannot be of a type where you are not accountable. Accountability of the government is the first requirement in a democracy.
AVISHEK G DASTIDAR: So, what is the solution?
I have undertaken three things. I have interacted with the Chief Minister extensively. I have interacted with her party president and senior ministers and bureaucrats. Except her, no one can take the call. I respect their frankness to me that, yes, we are helpless. I have respect for other governors (who do not comment on day-to-day activities of the government)… But I can say without fear of contradiction: Maine bohot bardasht kiya hai (I have tolerated a lot)… I will continue to bear the brunt of it but it will be very difficult for me to not engage in course correction of the government.
SWEETY KUMARI: Mamata Banerjee has said that incidents highlighted by BJP leaders is the work of their IT cell. What is your response to that?
West Bengal has become a laboratory of violence. Has she ever condemned post-poll violence? No. Has she ever gone to any area to give any succour? No. Has any member of the State apparatus gone there? No. Has she assured any compensation? No.
Anjan Bandyopadhyay’s wife was appointed as advisor (to the state tourism development board). I am not against it. I am only telling the government, please look at the other 16,000 people (who died due to Covid-19) too. You cannot extend patronage because his brother happened to be chief secretary (Bandyopadhyay, editor of Bengali news channel Zee 24 Ghanta, and brother of Banerjee’s aide Alapan Bandyopadhyay, died in May following Covid). This is not governance…
Send your reporters, they will give you photographs of villages and towns that have been destroyed. In such a situation your silence is not appropriate (I told the CM). If a majority decides to remain silent at such a critical juncture, I have no doubt it will be silent forever… The fear quotient in the state of West Bengal is higher than seen under any authoritarian or dictatorial government.
RAVISH TIWARI: But if the situation is so bad, why appeal to the media, why not ask for Article 356 (president’s rule) for the state?
I think the assumption is not factually premised. My media interaction is minimal… I fear the day when the media will be in fear… You can take me as the Eklavya of the media, because you can ensure that even if democracy can’t blossom, at least it is sustained and not throttled or decimated… The fear quotient, the repression, oppression are so much… See the flight of young human capital from West Bengal, where are we? A state so gifted by nature, with many talented people, with a culture unrivalled in the world… Where are we? We are a police state at the moment.
I am in the august company of people who know governance more than I do. Issues of 356 are never to be discussed, debated or deliberated on a public platform… I don’t believe in takrav (confrontation), though you might think I believe in it. If the CM has made a suggestion, and I have a different point of view, 100% I have gone with her point of view. But certain things are non-negotiable, especially when the constitutional spirit is outraged. There are two kinds of people living in West Bengal today. Those who have a sound sleep, they have no fear of the law. The law enforcement agencies will be in their fear, they will be at their beck and call. The other category of people, I don’t want to name them, will have sleepless nights. They will be in fear of law enforcement agencies. Society is under control of rogue elements at the moment.
ATRI MITRA: The Monsoon Session of the Assembly is expected soon. Will you talk about post-poll violence in your inaugural speech?
The Chief Minister was worried (during the Budget session in 2020). She thought that the Governor would not read the speech given by the state government. When they gave me the speech, I said these are the parts of the speech which I want you to relook. She was unsure. So what was done? Media was cleared out. Live coverage was stopped… Suppose the speech before me (this time) is unconstitutional… I will have two things, the speech before me and Article 159 before me and will see at that point of time what has to be done. But if I get a speech which I disagree with… my job is not to create hurdles for the government. My job is to facilitate it. I’m sure as a responsible government and Chief Minister with that experience, we will get to it. But the text has not come to me yet.
Am I a spokesperson of any political party? Maximum people who reached out to Raj Bhavan during my tenure have been from the Congress and Communist parties. The Congress’s Leader of Opposition invited me to his house. I will be happy to go to the house of any minister of the TMC government if they get permission to invite me.
DIPANKAR GHOSE: You keep saying people of Bengal are living in fear. The BJP raised these issues consistently during the elections, of people living in fear, of cut money, extortion, you too spoke about pre-poll violence. Still the TMC returned with a big mandate. Do you think the people of Bengal agree with you?
The moment the code of conduct came into force, I was alive to the fact that anything I say might have political implications. Scrupulously, I kept away from it… When the scale of violence was less, I appreciated it… in a very low-profile manner… But the moment it was over, and on May 2 I found that it might get out of control, I stepped in. I am extremely concerned at the stand taken by Mamata Banerjee that till May 5, it was the Election Commission that had control. No one with knowledge of the law will subscribe to this. She continued to be CM, with the same powers, when the model code of conduct was withdrawn on May 3… No mandate, howsoever emphatic, allows you to throttle, decimate Opposition… No mandate can allow you to discipline, punish a voter for voting against you.
MANOJ C G: In Delhi, you met the NHRC chief after having complained about human rights violations in Bengal. Isn’t it unusual for a Governor to do that?
Human rights issues are very critical for the state of West Bengal. I am not there to discuss those with the NHRC Chairman, they are his cup of tea. I know Justice (Arun) Mishra, respect him for long, the entire family was recovering from Covid…
RAJ KAMAL JHA: Given the current level of distrust, what is the way forward for Raj Bhavan and the government? Say, a ceasefire on both sides?
Your question has the answer to all the problems. But it takes two sides… I had said this once to Mamataji, we have good communication. She is a very strong communicator, one-to-one… publicly of course she is a great orator. I pointedly looked into her eyes and asked her, ‘Ma’am, can you tell me one instance where I took a step and you reacted’. It’s always the other way around… I am forced to react. As a matter of fact, my reaction time is calibrated in a manner that there can be course-correction in between… I would be very happy to go into sleep mode if there can be brainstorming within… It’s a good suggestion, a ceasefire, dialogue is the only way out… There has to be a consensual approach, cooperation, coordination. There cannot be space for confrontation, there can be space for disagreement, for other points of view… I am pleading with all sane minds… It is time for them to ensure that constitutional functionaries, be it the Governor or the CM, take proactive steps so that there is a meeting ground. I am prepared to be judged very harshly…
RAJ KAMAL JHA: Your predecessor Keshari Nath Tripathi had a different equation with the state government. What did he tell you when you took charge?
Keshari Nathji suffered at the hands of Ma’am (Banerjee) like never before. I was lucky… Just check what happened when he went to Asansol after a communal riot… There is no one who has been spared. I am perhaps at the merciful end…
On May 29, newspapers had a report that Banerjee had a one-to-one meeting with the PM. There was no such meeting, what happened was less than a minute, and in the committee room. I was aghast… I checked my report. At 11.16 pm, she sent me a message and we talked. She said, ‘I will not attend… because Suvendu Adhikari is there’. I said he is Leader of the Opposition… I called her the next morning, said you must not boycott, it (the meeting) will be good for us, for the Constitution, the rule of law, for the state… the position of the PM of the country cannot be compromised.
RAVISH TIWARI: But do you think you are going beyond your role?
…The Governor is not there to judicially or administratively review a government’s decisions… that is their domain, why, when, whether or whether not. I come into the picture the moment constitutional provisions are decimated. As of date, the scale, consequences, psychological stress of violence is shaming democracy.
RAVISH TIWARI: So are you blaming the Home Ministry, or Amit Shah, for not acting on your reports to the Centre?
What I am telling you, I have discussed with all the people in command. I don’t blame anyone…
LIZ MATHEW: Do you think the Governor’s role should be reviewed?
My hands are full in West Bengal, I have too many irons in the fire, those who want to think about it, can do so. Every institution has to function as per the Constitution.
RAVISH TIWARI: Given the lawlessness you allege in Bengal, do you think the courts there are mute spectators to what is happening?
Our democracy thrives on separation of powers… it is the core structure. Every institution must operate within its own domain, and one must have respect for the other… I will give you an example… One day, I receive information of two ordinances on the same day… So I go to my office from my residence… how can I delay it? But the Assembly was in session, and a government cannot issue an ordinance when this is so… The session had been ‘on’ for 11 months! Because if they prorogue it, they can’t convene it without the Governor coming into the picture…
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Sainik School, Purulia, has made several representations regarding its needs. You are from a Sainik School too. Would you take up the issues of the school?
I have visited that school. The Governor of West Bengal doesn’t have much discretionary funds, but still I gave `11 lakh.