On 8 December, Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan wrote a hard-hitting letter to Chief Minister Pinyari Vijayan saying that he wants to step down as the Chancellor of state universities and that the Chief Minister should himself step into that slot. "Once the universities come under the direct control of the government, there will be no scope for anybody to make allegations of political interference", Governor Khan said in his letter to the Chief Minister.
Further, Governor Khan mentioned that it has become impossible for him as Chancellor to protect universities from continuous political interference and erosion of their autonomy. Feeling sorry for the poor state of affairs in state universities, Governor Khan went on to say: "But the recent developments and the manner in which pressure is brought upon me to do things in total violation of rules and procedures has deeply saddened me". In addition, Governor Khan also mentioned some alleged instances in his letter to the Chief Minister where the Governor alleges that the state government has violated the autonomy of the universities.
This development has ignited a debate about the Governor's role as Chancellor of state universities and his relationship with the elected government in the states. Several constitutional pundits, scholars, and political scientists believe that the time has come when the Governor should not be involved in the university affairs and these kinds of functions should be discharged by the Chief Minister himself with the assistance of the education minister.
Notably, the Governor's role as Chancellor of state universities is based on the colonial legacy. There is no provision in the Constitution about this. This role is a statutory role, assigned by the legislature to the Governor as a mark of respect since the Governor is the constitutional head of state government and considered politically neutral.
But, after independence, things are changed dramatically. Now the Governors do not enjoy the powers and privileges that they used to enjoy during the colonial times. Today, the Governor is a political appointee of the Centre who reports to the central powers that install him in the gubernatorial office. The Governor does not hold any security of tenure and can be removed at any time by the President without assigning any reason. In other words, the Governor depends on the Prime Minister to survive in his office. In states which are ruled by a political party different from the centre, the situation becomes more complex as the Governor mostly acts at the behest of his political masters and intervenes in the state administration.
Kerala is such an example. It is well-known that Governor Khan has locked horns with Chief Minister Pinyari Vijayan ever since he assumed office. In 2020, Governor Khan had turned down the recommendation of the state cabinet to discuss farm laws of the Central Government in the Assembly. He had also criticized the government when it had criticized the Citizenship Amendment Act passed by Parliament. Governor Khan also confronted the government on some other issues as and when needed.
This kind of situation of confrontation over the university matters has also been noted in some other states like West Bengal, Maharashtra, etc. In 2019, the West Bengal government had curtailed the Chancellor's powers in university affairs. Recently, the Mamata Banerjee government intimidated West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankar to divest him from the position of the Chancellor of state varsities. Some other governments are also planning to change the structure of university governance in their states to reduce the Governor's burden and interference in university matters. This will be helpful to reduce the confrontation between the Governor and Chancellor up to a large extent and will also save the honour of the gubernatorial office.
So, what is the solution to this problem?
A simple solution lies in changing the governance structure of the state universities. The Governor should be made free from the position of Chancellor of state universities and this role must be assigned to the Chief Minister by amending the University Acts of the states. Why should the Governor be overburdened with extra-constitutional duties? His role is ceremonial. Let him act as a constitutional head of the state and devote his full energy to the constitutional assignments. The administration of education in a State needs to be run by the elected government, collectively responsible to the Legislative Assembly.
For all omissions and commissions in executive affairs, the state government should be made liable. The Governor has no business to be involved in the administrative issues. He has some discretionary powers under the Constitution that he may exercise subject to the constitutional situations. The universities are established by the state governments, financed by the states, and serve the people of the state.
The universities need autonomy, but the Governor has no means to ensure and protect the autonomy of the universities as he acts as per the instructions of the Centre. It is very difficult to find a politically neutral Governor nowadays. Thus, the Governor should not be overburdened with positions and powers which are not envisaged by the Constitution and which may expose the office to unnecessary controversies or public criticism. The Kerala and West Bengal episodes reflect such a situation that should have been avoided. Conferring statutory powers on the Governor by State Legislatures has that potential and should be avoided by all possible means. The Chief Minister can act effectively as Chancellor of state varsities.
Given the above discussion, making the Governor the Chancellor of the state universities and thereby conferring statutory powers on him which may have had some relevance historically has ceased to be so with a change of times and circumstances and now the administrative system of the universities should be changed. The elected government headed by the Chief Minister will be interested in regulating university education and there is no need to perpetuate a situation where there would be a clash of functions, powers, and ambitions between the Governor and the government.
Thus, it would be better if the Chief Minister becomes the Chancellor of state universities and bears all responsibilities as per the government's business rules. Why should the Governor indulge in the issues that fall under the jurisdiction of the government? The Governor deserves respect, not the powers. The government retains the powers in a constitutional democracy, not the Governor. The State University Acts should be amended and the Chief Minister should become the ex-officio Chancellor of the varsities.
Dr. Lokendra Malik is an Advocate at the Supreme Court of India
[The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. Verdictum does not assume any responsibility or liability for the contents of the article.]