In the last few weeks, after the 16th Lok Sabha election, there has been some debate around powers of the central government to remove Governors. News reports have suggested that the central government is seeking resignations of Governors, who were appointed by the previous central government. In this blog, we briefly look at the key constitutional provisions, the law laid down by the Supreme Court, and some recommendations made by different commissions that have examined this issue. What does the Constitution say? As per Article 155 and Article 156 of the Constitution, a Governor of a state is an appointee of the President, and he or she holds office “during the pleasure of the President”. If a Governor continues to enjoy the “pleasure of the President”, he or she can be in office for a term of five years. Because the President is bound to act on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers under Article 74 of the Constitution, in effect it is the central government that appoints and removes the Governors. “Pleasure of the President” merely refers to this will and wish of the central government. The Supreme Court’s interpretation In 2010, a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court interpreted these provisions and laid down some binding principles (B.P. Singhal v. Union of India). In this case, the newly elected central government had removed the Governors of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana and Goa in July, 2004 after the 14th Lok Sabha election. When these removals were challenged, the Supreme Court held:
In summary, this means that the central government enjoys the power to remove Governors of the different states, as long as it does not act arbitrarily, without reason, or in bad faith. Recommendations of Various Commissions Three important commissions have examined this issue. The Sarkaria Commission (1988) recommended that Governors must not be removed before completion of their five year tenure, except in rare and compelling circumstances. This was meant to provide Governors with a measure of security of tenure, so that they could carry out their duties without fear or favour. If such rare and compelling circumstances did exist, the Commission said that the procedure of removal must allow the Governors an opportunity to explain their conduct, and the central government must give fair consideration to such explanation. It was further recommended that Governors should be informed of the grounds of their removal. The Venkatachaliah Commission (2002) similarly recommended that ordinarily Governors should be allowed to complete their five year term. If they have to be removed before completion of their term, the central government should do so only after consultation with the Chief Minister. The Punchhi Commission (2010) suggested that the phrase “during the pleasure of the President” should be deleted from the Constitution, because a Governor should not be removed at the will of the central government; instead he or she should be removed only by a resolution of the state legislature. The above recommendations however were never made into law by Parliament. Therefore, they are not binding on the central government.
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.