The doctrine of separation of powers implies that each pillar of democracy – the executive, legislature and the judiciary – perform separate functions and act as separate entities. The executive is vested with the power to make policy decisions and implement laws. The legislature is empowered to issue enactments. The judiciary is responsible for adjudicating disputes. The doctrine is a part of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution even though it is not specifically mentioned in its text. Thus, no law may be passed and no amendment may be made to the Constitution deviating from the doctrine. Different agencies impose checks and balances upon each other but may not transgress upon each other’s functions. Thus, the judiciary exercises judicial review over executive and legislative action, and the legislature reviews the functioning of the executive. There have been some cases where the courts have issued laws and policy related orders through their judgements. These include the Vishakha case where guidelines on sexual harassment were issued by the Supreme Court, the order of the Court directing the Centre to distribute food grains (2010) and the appointment of the Special Investigation Team to replace the High Level Committee established by the Centre for investigating black money deposits in Swiss Banks. In 1983 when Justice Bhagwati introduced public interest litigation in India, Justice Pathak in the same judgement warned against the “temptation of crossing into territory which properly pertains to the Legislature or to the Executive Government”. Justice Katju in 2007 noted that, “Courts cannot create rights where none exist nor can they go on making orders which are incapable of enforcement or violative of other laws or settled legal principles. With a view to see that judicial activism does not become judicial adventurism the courts must act with caution and proper restraint. It needs to be remembered that courts cannot run the government. The judiciary should act only as an alarm bell; it should ensure that the executive has become alive to perform its duties.”  While there has been some discussion on the issue of activism by the judiciary, it must be noted that there are also instances of the legislature using its law making powers to reverse the outcome of some judgements. (M.J. Antony has referred to a few in his article in the Business Standard here.) We discuss below some recent instances of the legislature overturning judicial pronouncements by passing laws with retrospective effect. On September 7, 2011 the Parliament passed the Customs Amendment and Validation Bill, 2011 which retrospectively validates all duties imposed and actions taken by certain customs officials who were not authorized under the Customs Act to do the stated acts. Some of the duties imposed were in fact challenged before the Supreme Court in Commissioner of Customs vs. Sayed Ali in 2011. The Supreme Court struck down the levy of duties since these were imposed by unauthorised officials. By passing the Customs Bill, 2011 the Parliament circumvented the judgement and amended the Act to authorize certain officials to levy duties retrospectively, even those that had been held to be illegal by the SC. Another instance of the legislature overriding the decision of the Supreme Court was seen in the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2009 which was passed into an Act. The Supreme Court had ruled that the price at which the Centre shall buy sugar from the mill shall include the statutory minimum price (SMP) and an additional amount of profits that the mills share with farmers. The Amendment allowed the Centre to pay a fair and remunerative price (FRP) instead of the SMP. It also did away with the requirement to pay the additional amount. The amendment applied to all transactions for purchase of sugar by the Centre since 1974. In effect, the amendment overruled the Court decision. The executive tried to sidestep the Apex Court decision through the Enemy Property (Amendment and Validation) Ordinance, 2010. The Court had issued a writ to the Custodian of Enemy Property to return possession of certain properties to the legal heir of the owner. Subsequently the Executive issued an Ordinance under which all properties that were divested from the Custodian in favour of legal heirs by a Court order were reverted to him. The Ordinance lapsed and a Bill was introduced in the Parliament. The Bill is currently being examined by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs. These examples highlight some instances where the legislature has acted to reverse judicial pronouncements. The judiciary has also acted in several instances in the grey areas separating its role from that of the executive and the legislature. The doctrine of separation of powers is not codified in the Indian constitution. Indeed, it may be difficult to draw a strict line demarcating the separation. However, it may be necessary for each pillar of the State to evolve a healthy convention that respects the domain of the others.
 Keshavananda Bharti vs. State of Kerala AIR 1973 SC 1461
 Bandhua Mukti Morcha AIR 1984 SC 802
 Aravali Golf Club vs. Chander Hass (2008) 1 SCC (L&S) 289
 Supreme Court in Commissioner of Customs vs. Sayed Ali (2011) 3 SCC 537
 Mahalakshmi Mills vs. Union of India (2009) 16 SCC 569
On June 13, 2022, the West Bengal government passed a Bill to replace the Governor with the Chief Minister, as the Chancellor of 31 state public universities (such as Calcutta University, Jadavpur University). As per the All India Survey on Higher Education (2019-20), state public universities provide higher education to almost 85% of all students enrolled in higher education in India. In this blog, we discuss the role of the Governor in state public universities.
What is the role of the Chancellor in public universities?
State public universities are established through laws passed by state legislatures. In most laws the Governor has been designated as the Chancellor of these universities. The Chancellor functions as the head of public universities, and appoints the Vice-Chancellor of the university. Further, the Chancellor can declare invalid, any university proceeding which is not as per existing laws. In some states (such as Bihar, Gujarat, and Jharkhand), the Chancellor has the power to conduct inspections in the university. The Chancellor also presides over the convocation of the university, and confirms proposals for conferring honorary degrees. This is different in Telangana, where the Chancellor is appointed by the state government.
The Chancellor presides over the meetings of various university bodies (such as the Court/Senate of the university). The Court/Senate decides on matters of general policy related to the development of the university, such as: (i) establishing new university departments, (ii) conferring and withdrawing degrees and titles, and (iii) instituting fellowships.
The West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2022 designates the Chief Minister of West Bengal as the Chancellor of the 31 public universities in the state. Further, the Chief Minister (instead of the Governor) will be the head of these universities, and preside over the meetings of university bodies (such as Court/Senate).
Does the Governor have discretion in his capacity as Chancellor?
In 1997, the Supreme Court held that the Governor was not bound by the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers, while discharging duties of a separate statutory office (such as the Chancellor).
The Sarkaria and Puunchi Commission also dealt with the role of the Governor in educational institutions. Both Commissions concurred that while discharging statutory functions, the Governor is not legally bound by the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers. However, it may be advantageous for the Governor to consult the concerned Minister. The Sarkaria Commission recommended that state legislatures should avoid conferring statutory powers on the Governor, which were not envisaged by the Constitution. The Puunchi Commission observed that the role of Governor as the Chancellor may expose the office to controversies or public criticism. Hence, the role of the Governor should be restricted to constitutional provisions only. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2022 also mentions this recommendation given by the Puunchi Commission.
Recently, some states have taken steps to reduce the oversight of the Governor in state public universities. In April 2022, the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly passed two Bills, to transfer the power of appointing the Vice-Chancellor (in public universities) from the Governor, to the state government. As of June 8, 2022, these Bills have not received the Governor’s assent.
In 2021, Maharashtra amended the process to appoint the Vice Chancellor of state public universities. Prior to the amendment, a Search Committee forwarded a panel of at least five names to the Chancellor (who is the Governor). The Chancellor could then appoint one of the persons from the suggested panel as Vice-Chancellor, or ask for a fresh panel of names to be recommended. The 2021 amendment mandated the Search Committee to first forward the panel of names to the state government, which would recommend a panel of two names (from the original panel) to the Chancellor. The Chancellor must appoint one of the two names from the panel as Vice-Chancellor within thirty days. As per the amendment, the Chancellor has no option of asking for a fresh panel of names to be recommended.