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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 43 October 15, 2022

Brewing Discontent Between the Governor and Left Democratic Front in Kerala: Does It Indicate the Fractures in Centre-State Relations and Academic Freedom? | Jos Chathukulam

Saturday 15 October 2022, by Jos Chathukulam

by Jos Chathukulam *

Abstract

The face-off between Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan and the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala is the latest one to shook the adversarial and competitive political landscape in Kerala. While it is being portrayed as a political slugfest, the reality is something else. It is not merely an issue between the Governor and the Chief Minister. The widening democratic deficit, the weakening of civil society, the stoic silence of public intellectuals and numerous attempts to scuttle academic freedom in the state are the underlining issues that have led to the tussle between the Kerala governor and Kerala Chief Minister. However, no one is discussing these issues. 

 Introduction 

The standoff between Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan led Left Democratic Front (LDF) is the latest controversy that is hogging the limelight in the state. The recent tussle between the Governor and Chief Minister is in connection with University Laws (Amendment) Act, 2022 and Kerala Lok Ayukta (Amendment) Act, 2022 and the attack against the Governor at the venue of Indian History Congress in Kannur University. Meanwhile, this is not the first time the Governor and the LDF locked horns. Since September 2019, that is ever since Arif Mohammed Khan assumed the office, things were not going smooth. Here is a brief timeline of the incidents that led to tussle between the Governor and the LDF government through the lens of checks and balances for a healthy democracy.

Incident at Indian History Congress

On December 28, 2019, a controversy erupted after Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan was allegedly heckled at Indian History Congress held at Kannur University. Historian Irfan Habib reportedly tried to disrupt Governor’s speech (Times News Network, December 28, 2019). The delegates at the Indian History Congress also raised slogans against the Governor for supporting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Recently the Governor said that police did not file a case in the attempt to attack him physically due to the instructions of the Chief Minister. Under Section 124 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), if anyone who tries to intimidate the President of India and Governors of States, it should be treated as a cognizable offence. In such a situation, a case should be filed against the persons who tried to attack the Governor, even if there is no complaint. The Governor also accused CM Vijayan’s personal secretary and former Rajya Sabha member K.K Ragesh of preventing the police from stopping the protestors at the venue. On September 19, 2022, the Governor also presented a video of the 2019 event before the media at a press conference held at Raj Bhavan (Express News Service, September 19, 2022). One may wonder as to why the Governor is making huge noise about the incident that took place three years ago. The explanation given by the Governor is that he felt that it was an accidental one at that time and only later he got the evidence to prove that it was indeed a pre-planned one. The Governor said in the press meet that there was indeed a conspiracy in connection with the unfortunate incidents that took place in the Indian History Congress.

Citizenship Amendment Act and Farm Laws

The Governor and the LDF government locked horns over CAA and Farm Laws. On January 2, 2020, Kerala Legislative Assembly passed a resolution demanding that CAA be revoked. The Governor said that the resolution has no constitutional validity as matters of citizenship are under the domain of union government. When the state government approached the Supreme Court to scrap the law, the Governor summoned Chief Secretary and sought an explanation. Meanwhile, on January 29, 2020, the Governor read out a paragraph (18th Paragraph of the Policy Speech) criticizing the CAA in the state Assembly. However, the Governor made it clear he has reservations against it and added that it was only to honour the wish of Chief Minister he decided to read it. Then in December 2020, the Governor initially turned down the Cabinet’s recommendation to convene Assembly to debate the farm laws introduced by the union government.

Political Interference in Universities

The excessive political interference in the universities and numerous attempts to scuttle academic freedom were the biggest issues that led to several conflicts between the Governor and the LDF government. The reappointment of Gopinath Ravindran as the Vice — Chancellor of Kannur University in November 2021 was one among them. It has been reported that the Kerala Governor was miffed with the reappointment of Kannur University Vice Chancellor, Gopinath Ravindran for another four years (The Hindu, December 11, 2021). As per the norms of University Grants Commission (UGC), a Search Committee for appointing Vice Chancellors should submit a panel of three candidates. However as per Kannur University norms, even the name of one candidate would suffice. When Gopinath was first appointed as the Vice Chancellor in 2017, the University norms were followed but while reappointing, the rules and norms were twisted (ONMANORAMA, December 14, 2021). The problem here is that though a three-member Search Committee was constituted to select a new Vice Chancellor for Kannur University for shortlisting the candidates, the Search Committee was disbanded after Kerala Governor accepted the state government’s recommendation to reappoint Gopinath. Meanwhile, the Kerala Governor said that he was forced to reappoint the Vice Chancellor under tremendous pressure and added that he had to withdraw the process to select a new Vice Chancellor. It has also been revealed that R. Bindu, Higher Education Minister in the LDF government also intervened in the reappointment of Vice Chancellor in Kannur University. It has been reported that the Minister wrote a letter to the Governor and asked him to cancel the notification he has issued to appoint the Search Committee and reappoint the Vice Chancellor (Times of India, December 14, 2021). Meanwhile, on December 15, 2021, Kerala High Court has dismissed a plea questioning the reappointment of the Vice Chancellor of Kannur University (The Indian Express, December 15, 2021). Though it might offer some relief to the state government, addressing the deficit in university governance is of great importance and more discussions and debates on this issue is needed (Chathukulam and Joseph, 2021). The rift between the LDF government and Kerala Governor over the increasing political interference in the functioning of universities to impinge upon the autonomy of higher education institutions in the state has been going over some time. Though there have been widespread accusations against the LDF government for rampant nepotism in various appointments in universities especially back door appointments to the kin of party leaders, it was for the first time, the Kerala Governor, who is also the ex-officio Chancellor of State Universities decided to openly confront the state government in this matter.

D.Litt Controversy

In January 2022, a controversy erupted over conferring D. Litt on the then President Ram Nath Kovind. The Governor in his capacity as the Chancellor of Government Universities gave a proposal to V P Mahadevan Pillai, Vice Chancellor of Kerala University, to confer upon an honorary doctorate in Literature to the then President of India. As per the University protocol, any matter concerning Honourary Doctorate has to discussed before University Syndicate. The Vice Chancellor of the Kerala University turned down the proposal by stating that Syndicate did not agree with it. The controversy did not end there as a letter purported to be written by V P Mahadevan Pillai to the Governor, informing that several Syndicate members turned down the proposal put forward by the Governor resulted in a mayhem. The poor language and phrasings in the letter shocked not only the Governor but also the general public as the shabbily hand-written letter created a furore even in social media over the poor language skills of a Vice Chancellor (Raghunath, 2022).

Lok Ayukta Bill 

The Governor refused to give consent to the Lok Ayukta Ordinance issued by the LDF government. The ordinance amended the Kerala Lok Ayukta Act of 1999, which envisaged to curb the power of the anti-corruption body. The Governor has made it clear a number of times that he will not give assent to the Lok Ayukta (Amendment) Bill as it would enable a public servant to accused of illegal actions to be a “judge in his own cause”. In the 1999 Act, the Governor was the competent authority in the case of any findings against the Chief Minister. But with the Amendment, the State Legislative Assembly becomes the competent authority. That is the Assembly will sit in judgement over the Lok Ayukta Recommendations against Chief Minister.

University Laws (Amendment) Bill

The University Laws (Amendment) Bill passed by the state assembly recently has also led to a face-off between the Governor and the LDF government. The Governor refused to give consent to the Amendment Bill citing it would lead to governmental and political interference in the autonomy of universities. It comes as no surprise as the Governor has been vociferously campaigning against the excessive political interference and erosion of academic freedom in the institutions of higher learning in the state. As per the University Laws (Amendment) Bill, the government has an upper hand in the selection of Vice — Chancellors. The Bill proposes expanding the three-member search committee to a five-member panel and in such a way that gives more space to the government for manipulation in the appointment of Vice-Chancellors. It has been alleged that such a move was made to ensure that the government would get more leverage in the selection of Vice Chancellors.

Pension for Ministerial Staff

Owing to the tussle with the LDF government over the appointment of Hari S Kartha, a former pro-BJP journalist, in a key post in the Raj Bhavan, the Governor initially refused to sign the policy document of the government (Balan, 2022). At that time, Governor also pointed out the issue of pension to person staff to ministers in the state government. The Governor who can appoint only 11 personal staff members was shocked to learn the number of personal staff members (ranging from 19 — 33) for ministers in the state cabinet. The Governor was also surprised to learn that these personal staff members who are appointed on a co-terminus basis are even eligible for life — long pension after just two years in service. For those not in the know, it was in 1994, the United Democratic Front (UDF) led by Chief Minister K Karunakaran introduced pension for personal staffers in Kerala. Each minister in the state is eligible for 25 members as personal staff. The personal staffs are appointed from loyal party cadres of the ruling property. The appointment is made as per the recommendations from various party forums and units. The LDF government is also following this system more conscientiously to keep their party cadre happy by recruiting them as personal staff to ministers and making them eligible for life-long pension after just two years in service. The personal staff are appointed on a co-terminus basis (ministers change their staff every two and a half years to ensure more people are eligible). At present, CM Vijayan has 33 staff members, P A Mohammed Riyas, who is the Minister for Public Works and Tourism Department has 28 staff members. The pension system for ministers’ personal staff is causing a huge loss to the exchequer. It has been reported that in the last five years the LDF government had spent around Rs. 155 crore rupees (Vidyanandan, 2021). Many would wonder why the Governor might be interfering in this matter? The answer is that the Governor is oath- bound to devote himself to the service and well-being of the people of the state. The huge loss to the state exchequer will strain the finance of the state and it will have a negative impact on the welfare of the people.

A General Perspective: Is Governor a “Political Stooge” or a Non — Partisan Incumbent?

Article 153 of the Constitution says that there shall be a Governor of each state. The Governor is appointed by the President and is a nominee of the union government. The state executive is made up of the Governor, Chief Minister, Council of Ministers, and Advocate-General of State. The Governor functions as a bridge between the union and state government. The Governor is more of a titular role with discretionary (and not real) powers (Menon, 2020). Though the architects of the Constitution envisaged governor as a non-political, non-partisan incumbent, the reality is something else. There have been a number of instances where the Governors have overtly come out as agents of the Union government and by using their discretionary powers to aid and abet the fall or formation of favourable governments and locked horns with Chief Ministers from the Opposition Parties (Menon 2020). There have also been instances where Chief Ministers have showed retaliatory attitude against the Governors citing their excessive interference to destabilize the ruling state government. The tumultuous relationship between the former West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankar (the present Vice President of India) and Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal is one of the best examples in this regard. Dhankar has had differences with Trinamool Congress (TMC) government on a host of issues including the law and order situation in the state. There have been instances where the skirmish between the former West Bengal Governor and CM went beyond the corridors of legislative decorum and political etiquette. The media blackout of the West Bengal Governor’s speech in the State Assembly or the Chief Minister writing to President of India for the removal of the Governor are some examples where political leadership crossed the boundaries of administrative protocol and propriety (Deccan Herald, January 2, 2022). The West Bengal Education Minister indirectly referred to the Governor as Pagla Jagai (Madcap Jagai) by tweeting a satirical poem by noted poet Sukumar Ray (The Print, December 31, 2020). On June 14, 2022 the West Bengal Legislative Assembly even passed a number of Bills replacing the Governor with the Chief Minister as Chancellor of State-run universities (Borman, 2022). Jagdeep Dhankhar started using his official Twitter handle to post his critique of the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC government on various issues (Mitra 2022). The editorial in Trinamool Congress Mouthpiece Jago Bangla was published with the heading ‘Ter Paben’ (He will face the consequence). In Kerala, the Deshabhimani, the mouth piece of CPI (M) and Janayugam, the mouth piece of CPI launched scathing attacks against the Governor. Deshabhimani published a caricature mocking the Governor and an article penned by Party Secretary M V Govindan carried a picture of Arif Mohammed Khan in RSS outfit. Deshabhimani also published a detailed article on Arif Mohammed Khan’s involvement in the infamous Jain Hawala Case (Prashanth, 2022). Janayugam, the mouth piece of CPI in Kerala called Governor as “Blackmail Politician” and accused the Governor of turning Raj Bhavans into Goonda Raj Bhavans (Janayugam, September 20, 2022). Meanwhile, when compared with the frosty relationship between Jagdeep Dhankar and Mamata Banerjee, the scenario is Kerala is slightly better as the Kerala’s Left Democratic Front has been more restrained than that of the West Bengal administration. Though there have been instances where Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Governor Arif Mohammed Khan locked horns on various occasions, they have so far maintained a functional relationship. There are also some parallels between Jagdheep Dhankar and Arif Mohmmed Khan. Apart from their common political orientation and background, Dhankar and Khan are the two Governors that have come out openly against the state governments like never before in the recent times. Both of them have been accused by the respective state governments of dancing to the tunes of the BJP government at the centre and have been criticized for their association with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Meanwhile, both of them have been open and vocal about their close association with RSS and it needs to be respected. The problem here is not with their political orientation or their close ties with RSS but with fact that they knowingly become scapegoats in the “ larger malaise of degrading relations between the union and states ruled by parties opposed to the BJP, aggravated by an insatiable yearning of the former for centralisation of power” (The Hindu, December 4, 2021). No other government in the past has sought to construct a centralising narrative for the nation as the current one at the Centre and no government in the past has been as intolerant towards its diversity (The Hindu, December 4, 2020). Here comes the situation where Governor appears to have a critical, instrumental role in cementing smooth centre — state relations. Electoral majority is the foundation of representative democracy, but institutional checks and balances are also its integral parts (The Hindu, September 22, 2022).

Why Arif Mohammed Khan as a Governor Matters?

In the case of academic freedom, there has been no one except Arif Mohammed Khan, who have championed extensively for the protection of academic freedom in the state. However, it is disappointing to note that the academic community as a whole have not offered their full -fledged support to the Governor, who is also the Chancellor of the Govt Universities. The stoic silence of the academic community in the state is a big disappointment. However, owing to fear and political vendetta, many academicians and intellectuals are forced to remain silent on such issues. It is also shocking to note that many academicians do not even know what is academic freedom and why it matters? The academic community in the state owes a great deal to the present Kerala Governor for exposing how the excessive political interference, rent-seeking culture, nepotism and violence in institutions of higher learning are curbing their academic freedom. It is also shocking to note that despite repeated requests from the Governor to stop the political interference to preserve academic freedom, the Kerala government is considering the proposal of the Shyam B Menon Commission which was appointed to suggest reforms in the higher education sector. The Menon Commission has proposed to appoint a separate Chancellor for each university in the state. The Menon Commission has also put forward the recommendation that the Chief Minister shall be the Visitor of public universities in the state of Kerala. Thus, the role of the Governor as the ex-officio Chancellor of universities will be replaced if the recommendation is accepted. The Menon Commission also proposes a Board of Regents consisting of the government nominees and others will appoint the Vice — Chancellor of the university on the recommendations of the “Search — cum- Selection Committee consisting of a nominee of the Visitor (that is Chief Minister), a nominee of Board of Regents and a nominee of University Grants Commission (UGC). If the recommendations of the Menon Commission are implemented it would normalize the excessive political interference. At a time when excessive political interference in institutions of higher learning in the state is growing as a menace, one would be shocked to learn that the Menon Commission is putting forward the recommendations that will increase the political interference in the day to day functioning of the universities. Do the members of Menon Commission suffer from retrograde amnesia? The Menon Commission Report further states that the principal officers of the University will be the Visitor, the Chancellor, the Vice Chancellor, the Pro Vice Chancellor, supported by the Registrar, the Finance Officer, the Deans and the Heads of departments.” How can the Commission say that the ‘Visitor’ being the Chief Minister of the State is the ‘Principal Officers of the University’? The nomenclature of ‘Visitor’ and ‘Board of Regents’ are part of the colonist mind setting of the members of the Menon Commission. In a federal polity, whatever may be the political tensions and strains, the Governor may be right option to be the Chancellor /Visitor of a public university. There should be Checks and Balances for a workable democracy. Earlier, Dr N K Jayakumar Commission also proposed to trim the Chancellor’s powers by forming a judicial tribunal. It is also disappointing to note that the academic community in the state is completely silent on these three Commission reports that are aimed at bringing in “reforms” in the higher education sector in the state and the deficit in academic freedom is the major reason. Even media is not proactively discussing the recommendations.

 Conclusion 

The Governor is oath-bound topreserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the Law and to ensure that the business of the state is carried out in accordance with Constitution and the Law. The Governor is also oath-bound to devote himself to the service and well- being of the people of the state. As an ex-officio Chancellor, ensuring academic freedom in institutions of higher learning falls under Governor’s purview and there is nothing wrong in that. While Constitution-makers envisaged the role of a Governor as an elder statesman who can counsel the government and ensure the state is run as per the provisions of the Constitution, the self-complacent attitude of the LDF government regarding their governance style prevents them from accepting any sort of advice from the Governor. While the allegations raised by the Governor puts the ruling LDF government on defensive, a lot of debate and discussions are going on as to whether a Governor, who is an unelected appointee of the union government has the mandate to enforce standards of governance. Though the issue remains highly political on one side, the widening democratic deficit, eroding cooperative federalism, the weakening of civil society, the stoic silence of public intellectuals and numerous attempts to scuttle academic freedom in the state are the underlining issues that have led to the tussle between the Kerala governor and Kerala Chief Minister. However, no one is ready to discuss the root causes that triggered the face-off between the Governor and the Chief Minister. The self -complacent attitude regarding the Kerala model of development and the achievements that resulted from it often prevents the state from adopting sustainable and inclusive way of approaching and handling various issues and problems and it often prevents course correction wherever needed. Going by the way things are unfolding in the state over the last one month, it is the LDF that is gaining the maximum political advantage from the showdown with the Governor and the media in the state remains wary to throw their weight behind the Governor.

(Author: Jos Chathukulam is former Professor, Sri. Ramakrishna Hegde Chair on Decentralization and Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bengaluru and currently the Director, Centre for Rural Management (CRM), Kottayam, Kerala. He can be contacted at joschathukulam[at]gmail.com.)

References 

  • Balan, Saritha. (2022, March 1). Explained: The Kerala Ministers’ Personal Staff Pension Row, The News Minute.
  • Barman, Roy Sourav. (2022, June 14). Explained: Bengal passes Bill replacing Governor with CM as state university Chancellor. What are the constitutional and political issues here? The Indian Express.
  • Chathukulam, Jos and Joseph, Manasi (2021, December 17). What is Ailing the Institutions of Higher Learning in Kerala? Mainstream Weekly, VOL LX No 1.
  • Commission for Reforms in Higher Education — 2022. (Shyam B Menon Commission). Final Report, Higher Education Department, Government of Kerala.
  • Deccan Herald. (2022, January 2). West Bengal Governor Dhankar vs Mamata: A Continuous Battle of Will, Deccan Herald.
  • George, Babu Sarath. (2021, December 10). Governor Lashes out at Higher Education Policy. The Hindu.
  • Menon, K Amarnath. (2020, September 26). A War of Attrition, India Today.
  • Mitra, Ari. (2022, February 4). Open War Between Mamata and Dhankhar Hits a Bitter Flashpoint, The Indian Express.
  • Janayugam. (2022, September 20). Malinamakkapadunna Raj Bhavans. Janayugam.
  • ONMANORAMA Correspondent. (2021, December 14). Recruitment Norms Thrown to the Wind as Kerala Universities Accommodate CPM acolytes. ONMANORAMA.
  • Prashanth, M. (2022, August 30). Arif Mohammad Khan, The Highest Beneficiary of Jain Havala, Received Rs. 7 Cr In Bribe, Deshabhimani.
  • Read more: https://www.deshabhimani.com/english/news/kerala/book-revelation-arif-muhammed-khan-the-highest-beneficiary-of-jain-havala-received-rs-7-cr-in-bribe/7005
  • Raghunath, Arjun. (2022, January 10). Kerala University Vice Chancellor under fire for ’linguistic abilities’, Deccan Herald.
  • The Hindu. (2021, December 11). Varsity Postings: Governor’s Letter Triggers an Uproar, The Hindu.
  • The Hindu. (2021, December 4). Needless Fracas: On Governors vs Kerala and West Bengal Governments, The Hindu.
  • The Hindu. (2022, September 22). Talking Governor, The Hindu.
  • The New Indian Express. (2022, September 19). Kerala Governor Shares with Media Video Clip of 2019 Heckling Incident, The New Indian Express.
  • The Print. (2021, December 30). West Bengal Education Minister Tweets Satirical Poetry to Take a Jibe at Dhankhar, The Print.
  • Times News Network (2019, December 28). Kerala Governor Says Eminent Historian Irfan Habib Tried to Disrupt His Speech, Times of India.
  • Times News Network. (2021, December 14). Kerala Minister R Bindhu Wrote to Governor Twice, Pushed for Kannur University VC’s Reappointment. Times of India.
  • Vidhyadharan, Sovi. (2021, December 11). Kerala VC Postings: Governor Sees Red over Government’s Interference. The New Indian Express.
  • Vidyanandan S M. (2021, June 2). Salary of Minsters’ Personal Staff Bleeds Kerala Coffer, Rs 155 crore in last 5 years alone, The New Indian Express.
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