Dispute over Honorary Doctorate for West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee

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The debate about conferring an Honorary Doctorate to the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is mired in controversy. In the United Kingdom there was a fierce debate on whether should be conferred an honorary doctorate by her alma mater, the University of Oxford, recalls Prof. Ashoka, citing his viewpoint on the subject. An exclusive for Different Truths.  

I was intrigued witnessing the news item about the controversy that has arisen over the decision to confer an Honorary Doctor of Letters to the West Bengal Chief Minister (CM), Mamata Banerjee. Apparently, the University of Calcutta has decided to felicitate the current CM which has raised hackles in a certain section of the population. Mamata’s acolytes are equally vociferous in denunciation of this move and this is leading to fierce debate and I do get the feeling that this is not going to die down soon.

It is only fair to declare my own position before embarking on an adumbrative exeleutherostomisation vis-a-vis Mamata. The lady belongs to my generation and I believe was an active Youth Congress (I) member in the mid 70’s when the likes of Sanjay Gandhi, late Priyaranjan Dasmunshi, Ambika Soni, etc., etc., ruled the roost during the when the country was converted into the biggest concentration camp the world has known in the post War period.

The phase ended with their defeat and the incompetence of the people who took over and the similarity of their inclinations lead to massive disillusionment and restoration of the Emergency culprits to power. Ironically many of them gravitated to other political formations including the BJP and those who remained with their parent political party were not only rehabilitated but richly rewarded with one of them even becoming the head of state.  But I must admit that despite my very active opposition to the Emergency, I had never heard of Mamata at that time. 

I left the Indian shores and when I returned, Mamata was one of the ministers in the government.  I watched her with a sense of bemusement as her very visible volatility saw her move from one political party to another retaining her political currency. The only other constant with her profile was her unrelenting opposition to the Communist government in her state, which seemed to be ensconced in her state permanently. As with other long-governing administrations, people were beginning to observe arrogance, nepotism, and corruption. Mamata was the most identifiable opposition to them so much so that even the normally suave Jyoti Basu once disparagingly called her a ‘chhagol’ (she-goat).

It was her ‘ekla chalo re’ (walk alone, a song by ) attitude and single-minded fixity of purpose that saw the end of the Communists in Bengal; and for that, she had my grudging admiration despite her many political somersaults.

The tragedy, however, was that this development according to many fuelled megalomania within her so much so that she had become almost an object of derision with many beginning to see her as just as corrupt and autocratic as her predecessor.  Her antipathy towards press can be explained away by her supporters. What is more difficult is her support of draconian measures like locking up a person who has cartooned her! Those traits, argue her detractors, make her an unworthy candidate for this honour.

I would like to go back to my days in the United Kingdom when there was a fierce debate on whether Margaret Thatcher should be conferred an honorary doctorate by her alma mater, the University of Oxford. Oxford has a tradition of conferring honorary doctorates in all its alumni who make it to the or President’s office anywhere in the world – even those who were thrown out for poor grades after just a term like Indira Gandhi. The only exception that was made was in Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s case for his role in the genocide in Bangladesh!  

Margaret Thatcher certainly did not fall into the same category as Bhutto. But she was a deeply polarising figure and deeply despised by many academics in Oxford for her deep cuts in the budget. Denis Noble, a very highly respected academic spearheaded the , which had the support of many, including this columnist. Eventually, it was decided that she was not going to be conferred the honour. 

Many people objected to this move but my own point is that Oxford could not have been seen to be supporting education cuts. I believe that the Oxford community was placed in an impossible situation. The only solution, many believed, was not to allow a university like Oxford to be placed in a no-win situation. I firmly believe that people holding political positions should not be considered for such awards lest they convey the impression that the honour was either bartered or could be seen as an of their positions. Once they demit the office they hold, a fairer assessment of their worthiness can be dispassionately made.

DISCLAIMER: My two honorary doctorates came from the in the countries I had no association with and I have never held any political office nor an academic hierarchical power!

©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad 

Photos from the Internet

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.