The Gujarat High Court is hearing an important case related to the appointment of the Lokayukta in Gujarat. The issue is whether the Governor can appoint the Lokayukta at his discretion or whether appointment can be made only upon obtaining the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers led by the Chief Minister. During the period 2006-2010, the Gujarat state government submitted names of two prospective appointees for the post of Lokayukta to the Governor. But no appointment was made during this period. On August 26, 2011 the Governor appointed retired judge R.A.Mehta as Lokayukta, whose name was not among those submitted by the state government. The Gujarat state government moved the High Court to quash the appointment on the ground that the Governor made the appointment without the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers led by the Chief Minister. Section 3 of the Gujarat Lokayukta Act, provides in part that “the Governor shall by warrant under his hand and seal, appoint a person to be known as Lokayukta”. The Governor acted under this section to make the appointment of Lokayukta. However, the state government has argued that section 3 has to be understood in light of Article 163(1) of the Constitution. Article 163(1) provides that the Governor shall be aided and advised in the exercise of his functions by a Council of Ministers with the Chief Minister at the head. Thus, as per this line of argument, the Governor violated the provision of Article 163(1) when she failed to take the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers led by the Chief Minister before exercising the function of appointing the Lokayukta. At the time of writing this post, news reports suggested that the two judges hearing the case are divided over the issue. It remains to be seen whether this issue will be referred to a larger bench. The outcome of this case could have wider implications on the constitutional role of governors if it sets guideposts on the extent to which they act independent of the advice of the council of ministers.
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.