In Bengal govt-Governor standoff, one pending Bill hangs on ‘optical illusion’

Ravik Bhattacharya
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The Governor was sent the lynching Bill for his consideration on September 13, a fortnight after the Assembly had passed it.

AFTER being adjourned for two days last week, the West Bengal Assembly’s winter session was concluded sine die on Tuesday, over the unprecedented reason of “delay” by the Governor on Bills. One of the Bills under contention is a legislation against lynching, over which Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar and the Mamata Banerjee government have exchanged a series of letters since August, with the Law Department citing “optical illusion” as an explanation in one communication.

The West Bengal (Prevention of Lynching) Bill was passed by the Assembly on August 30, just over a month after Dhankhar took over as Governor. The Bill contained provision for death penalty, unlike the draft that had life term as the severest punishment.

The Governor is yet to clear the Bill.

The Indian Express accessed the official communication over the legislation between the government and Raj Bhavan. On October 18, the state government’s Law Department attributed the “error” to “optical illusion”.

The relations between the two constitutional bodies has hit a new low, with the Governor seeing his entry to the Assembly blocked and the government curbing his powers as chancellor of universities. On Tuesday, the Trinamool Congress walked out of Parliament demanding Dhankhar’s recall.

The Governor was sent the lynching Bill for his consideration on September 13, a fortnight after the Assembly had passed it. On September 17, Congress MLA and leader of the opposition Abdul Mannan and Left Front leader Sujan Chakraborty met the Governor and alleged “serious procedural lapses”, saying the draft circulated on August 28 and the Bill that was passed were different.

On September 18, Dhankhar demanded an explanation from the secretary of the Assembly, who said the Assembly Secretariat was not involved in the circulation of the draft or passing of the Bill.

On September 26, the Governor demanded that “a status report... be secured urgently from the department which initiated the process of obtaining recommendations (over the draft bill)”. Accordingly, the Home Department sought a report on the recommendations, tagging, ‘accord priority’. The next day, Raj Bhawan wrote to the state Home Department.

On September 30, the special secretary of the Home and Hill Affairs Department wrote to the Governor saying it was after the Bill had been sent to the Law Department for printing and circulated in the Assembly that they had discovered the discrepancy. The Home Secretary added, “It was noticed that three words, viz ‘death sentence or’, were missing from the printed version of the (draft) Bill.” The communication accepted that “inadvertently a printing error crept in”.

On October 1, Dhankhar sought a status report from the Law Department. After two weeks, it replied, saying, “The Bill as published in the Kolkata gazette for the first time, was sent to the WBLA (West Bengal Legislative Assembly) without modification as above (change) in Clause 7 (c) was solely due to optical illusion while proofreading was undertaken. When the unintentional omission was identified, the correct Bill was published in the Kolkata gazette and instantaneously sent to the WBLA.”

The back-and-forth continued. On October 23, the Governor summoned the Law Department Secretary, seeking a briefing. Seven days later, the Law Secretary finally met the Governor, who then sought a written report, which was sent on November 5.

This Law Department note was sent to the WBLA Secretary for his response, and he reiterated on November 13 that his department was not involved in circulating or passing the Bill.

On November 14, the Governor sought the Assembly proceedings regarding the Bill. On November 21, the Assembly secretary detailed the proceedings concerning the unrevised Bill.

On November 26, Dhankhar sought the final Assembly proceedings, to which a reply is awaited.

On December 1, the Governor wrote, “It would thus appear that the response rendered on behalf of the government that a mistake has in fact been committed... the issue could be resolved only by looking at the final proceedings of the House, which according to the response of the secretary WBLA are under preparation.”

Apart from the lynching Bill, the West Bengal State Commission for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Bill, 2019; West Bengal Lifts, Escalators and Traveletors Bill, 2019; West Bengal Municipal Amendment Bill, 2019; and The Hindi University, West Bengal Bill, 2019, are awaiting Governor Dhankhar’s assent. Some of these are finance Bills which need to be placed to him before the Assembly can pass them.

Dhankhar told The Indian Express that he was only exercising his duties as the constitutional head of state. “My hands are tied. I have to go through the Bills properly. The Opposition highlighted lapses and I sought a clarification from the government. I cannot give assent blindly.”

Accusing the Governor of acting at the behest of Opposition leaders, Chandrima Bhattacharya, West Bengal Minister of State, Health and Family Welfare, said, “The draft of the West Bengal (Prevention of Lynching) Bill, 2019, had an error. In the Assembly, the error was rectified and an error-free Bill was introduced. Later, after discussion, it was passed. The Governor is deliberately creating road blocks in the functioning of the government and Assembly.”

West Bengal was the third state to introduce a lynching Bill. Both Rajasthan and Manipur Bills have life imprisonment as punishment.

The Congress said the Governor was only acting as per the Constitution. “If he has doubts regarding a Bill, he is free to ask questions. What the state government is doing will not harm the Governor but the image of the state government,” Congress MLA Manoj Chakraborty said.

Sujan Chakraborty, who had met the Governor over the Bill and is the leader of the Left Front Legislative Party, said, “During the Left Front regime, then governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi acted almost as an opposition party. Still, the government gave him and his position due respect.”

(With input from Atri Mitra)