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RSS, Constitution and Administrative Roles: Kerala CM's Response to Governor's Presser

'When the government puts forward matters stipulated by the constitution and laws, the government expects the Governor to carry out his constitutional responsibility.'

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A day after Kerala governor Arif Mohammad Khan addressed a press conference to highlight allegations of executive excesses in the state universities, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan wrote a strong rebuttal accusing Khan of advancing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s political interests through his office.

Face-offs between Khan and the Kerala government have increasingly become frequent since December 2019 when the former first hit out at the state government for passing a resolution against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act in the assembly. Although the governor is bound by the constitution to accept executive decisions, Khan has constantly attempted to criticise or stall Vijayan government decisions.

Matters escalated when Khan – also the chancellor of Kannur University – addressed a press conference to register his protest against the reappointment of eminent historian Gopinath Ravindran as the vice-chancellor of the university and appointment of chief minister’s private secretary K.K. Ragesh’s wife Priya Varghese as associate professor in the Malayalam department. Vijayan, in his retort, said that all the appointments were done according to rules and alleged that Khan has been taking unilateral decisions at the university without consulting the state government, an instance of which was his order to constitute a search committee to find the next vice-chancellor of Kerala University.

In Khan’s two-hour press briefing on September 19, the governor accused the Vijayan government of multiple wrongdoings, branding the Left Democratic Front government as one following an “ideology of violence”. He also declared his intent to restrict the “government’s interference” in university matters. A day later, Vijayan responded by saying that the governor’s press conference against the state government was an “unprecedented” attempt to override executive powers guaranteed by the Indian constitution and went on to allege that Khan may be acting at the behest of the RSS and the Narendra Modi-led Centre.

Excerpts from Vijayan’s statement, translated from the original Malayalam to English, are produced below. 

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Yesterday’s press conference at Raj Bhavan was a very unusual event in Kerala. It can be said that it’s not just in Kerala but also, in the country itself. The uniqueness was that Raj Bhavan became the venue for it. Usually, when the Governor has to say something, he says it within the Raj Bhavan. There are formal channels of communication between the government and the Governor. Disagreements can also be communicated through such means. Instead, he chose to go public with it, that’s the reason this matter needs to be mentioned here.

According to the constitution of our country, the Governor is the constitutional head of the state. Executive power is vested in the elected government. The constitution stipulates that the Governor should act with the aid and advice of the Cabinet.

 He is not personally responsible for any law or decision signed by the Governor. That responsibility belongs to the government. In the 1974 Shamsher Singh case, the constitution bench of the Supreme Court clarified that the Governor should act only on the advice of the Cabinet. The judgment in this case also makes it clear that the Governor has no right to reject the decision of the Cabinet. 

In its report, the Sarkaria Commission in 1988, which studied Centre-State relations in the country, said that the Governor should be a detached figure. It means a person who is neither involved in active politics nor a member of the ruling party. 

Governors of various states have been behaving like agents of the Centre before. In the case of Hargovind Pant vs Raghukul Tilak, the Supreme Court clarified that the Governor is not an employee or an agent of the Central government. The consequence of ignoring such court judgments and constitutional conventions is disastrous. 

The Governor showered praise and love on the RSS in a press conference.

The Governor is a constitutional position and he should keep his distance from such organisations. He and his aides need to clarify whether it is correct to indicate that he is an RSS supporter in such a position. The serious allegation is that, contrary to what has been envisaged by various committees that have studied the constitution and Centre-state relations, the office of the Governor has been made a centre of political subterfuge. This is a matter of serious concern.

He said that he has been associated with the RSS since 1986. The V.P. Singh government, in which Arif Mohammad Khan was Minister, was brought down in 1990 by the BJP and Congress. The RSS overthrew the V.P. Singh government by raising the Mandal Commission issue. Does this not reveal that he was already associated with the RSS, when it pulled down the government of which he was a minister? 

A photograph, purportedly showing Arif Mohammed Khan, Satyapal Malik and V.P. Singh. Photo: Twitter/@shaziailmi

 The Kerala society in general and the left have a definite stance towards the RSS. They are considered advocates of communalism, hatred and sectarianism. RSS was banned when Gandhi ji was assassinated. The governor, who is worried about political murders in Kerala, is now glorifying the RSS, which has always been a party in the political murders and conflicts of Kerala. The stand of the Governor is unacceptable to anyone who has a sense of democracy and faith in the basic values upheld by the constitution.

An argument he made to justify his RSS affiliation was that the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had invited the RSS to take part in the Republic Day Parade in 1963. Is this in accordance with facts? Did the RSS march with the army in the Republic Day parade? In reply to India Today‘s Right to Information request in 2018, the answer from the BJP-ruled Union home ministry itself says there is no record of the RSS participating in such a Republic Day parade. It is reasonable to suspect that such false information is collected from the WhatsApp groups run by the Sangh Parivar.

Officers Training Camps (OTCs) are most important in the organisational training process of the RSS. Persons who have completed the first, second and third OTC have been sentenced in many murder cases in Kerala,. Yesterday, the Governor boasted that he was able to participate as the chief guest six times at the OTC where such training takes place. Do we need more evidence to understand what he is trying? 

The other day he had an emotional outburst about the incidents that happened three years ago at the Kannur Historical Congress. The History Congress was held at a time when there was a strong protest against the CAA, which was introduced to make India’s citizenship based on religion. The general sentiment and position of Kerala was against the Citizenship Amendment Act. It has not changed. Not only did the people protest in unison, the Kerala Assembly also passed a resolution against the CAA.

 Also read: At History Congress, Irfan Habib Leads Dissent Against Kerala Governor’s Defence of CAA</a>

In the History Congress, when the Governor distorted historical facts  in favour of the CAA, some delegates protested. When the person entrusted with protecting the Constitution spoke defending CAA, he faced a reaction from the academic community. 

Irfan Habib, who is an internationally respected historian, was called a “goonda” by the Governor. The Governor alleged that a 92-year old Irfan Habib made an attempt on his life. He also repeatedly called the Kannur University Vice Chancellor Gopinath Ravindran a “criminal.” Why does he speak against these two with such hatred? Because Irfan Habib and Gopinath Ravindran are on the list of persons hated by the RSS.

The Sangh Parivar is constantly trying to marginalise minorities by distorting history and rewriting mediaeval history in favour of the RSS. Irfan Habib, who was a professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University, is a person who resisted this effort, using the methodology of history.

Ever since the BJP came to power in 1998, attempts to saffronise textbooks have been launched on a massive scale. Irfan Habib fought brilliantly against it. He presented a resolution against the RSS agenda at the Indian History Congress in 1998.

Irfan Habib exposed the Hindutva agenda. He was the Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) in 1986-90. Later he became the General President of the Indian History Congress. Since then, the RSS has hounded the historian, who has come forward fearlessly to speak out his own opinions on historical facts at every stage – they see him as an enemy.

Arif Mohammad Khan and Irfan Habib. Photo: Twitter/@keralagovernor

Dr Gopinath Ravindran is one of the most eminent historians in the country. He was the Member Secretary of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), appointed by the second UPA government in 2013. The BJP came to power in 2014 with a complete saffron agenda. They started implementing this agenda from the ICHR. 

Dr Gopinath Ravindran strongly protested against saffronisation in the ICHR and resigned in protest from the post of ICHR Member Secretary in June 2015. There is nothing new or surprising about the Sangh Parivar attacking uncompromising historians. But the big question is: How can a person occupying the office of state Governor himself become a weapon in that attack?

A key factor in the ongoing dispute between Governors and state governments across the country is over the appointment of vice-chancellors in universities. In the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, the Legislative Assembly has brought an amendment that seeks to remove the Governor from the chancellorship. The Governor has not yet signed it. In Congress-ruled Rajasthan too, the government has passed a law removing the Governor from the chancellorship, but there, too, the Governor has not signed the Bill. 

The Sangh Parivar’s agenda is to take control of the higher education sector and thereby rewrite history the way they want. For them, universities are their political laboratories. In Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Bengal, all Governors are trying to appoint V-Cs with Sangh Parivar connections to universities. That is why the issue is constantly causing conflicts with state governments.

There is an attempt to unilaterally appoint a vice-chancellor in Kerala University. They are trying to take backseat control of Universities that are run with money from the state government’s exchequer. This is what is being objected to here. Should universities be left to become political laboratories of the RSS? In the choice between whether or not to stand up and fight, the secular community will choose the path of fighting back.

You may recall that the former state president of the Tamil Nadu Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad was appointed an associate professor at the Central University in Kasargod, superseding those who had the qualifications determined by UGC. This is a perfect example of the Sangh Parivar implementing its agenda through vice-chancellors.

The secular mind of Kerala will not give in to this agenda – that of first appointing the vice-chancellor and then filling the universities with the members of Sangh Parivar through that vice-chancellor. I say these things here to point out how much the Sangh Parivar is trying to change the universities and make high-ranking appointments in the universities in their favour. 

Shri Arif Mohammad Khan said in the press conference at Raj Bhavan yesterday that the state government was putting pressure on him. Let it be made unequivocally clear that the government has no interest, hidden or otherwise, to be gained by exerting pressure on him. When the government puts forward matters stipulated by the constitution and laws, the government expects the Governor to carry out his constitutional responsibility.

We heard him declare that he would “not sign” bills that he himself said he had “not read.” He himself needs to explain whether reaching a prejudiced decision of “not signing” without even reading [a document] indicates respect for the constitution or its denial.

The re-appointment of the vice-chancellor of Kannur University was mentioned repeatedly in the press conference. The re-appointment was a decision taken by him as chancellor. The decision taken by him was in accordance with Section 10 of the Kannur University Act, in which there is provision for re-appointment of an incumbent vice-chancellor. Pointing out that the re-appointment of the vice-chancellor is not in accordance with this provision, a quo warranto petition was filed before a single bench of the honourable high court. The petition was dismissed. The petitioners appealed before the division bench. That too was rejected. The present position is that the honourable high court has upheld the reappointment of the Kannur University vice-chancellor.

Kannur University. Photo: kannuruniversity.ac.in

Executive decisions are subject to judicial review under our constitutional system. Judicial review is part of the basic structure of the constitution. That is, those who believe that an executive decision is flawed can approach the judiciary to review it. But does it show respect for the constitution and its values to say that an executive decision is wrong even after the constitutional courts have upheld it? That a person who has taken an oath to protect and defend the constitution is saying that increases the seriousness of the matter manyfold.

Bills that are introduced in the legislative assembly, which comprises members elected by the people, are debated and passed by voting. Bills are passed after a detailed discussion of all aspects by members of the ruling party and opposition. The sentiment of the people is reflected in the legislature. Bills thus passed are submitted to the Governor. The constitution spells out exactly what the Governor has to do once Bills are submitted. Under Article 200, he can give or withhold assent to the Bill, or submit it to the President for consideration, or else send the Bill back to the assembly with the amendments he suggests. If the latter option is adopted, the Governor is bound to approve the Bill if the assembly passes it again in its original form.

Is it in accordance with the constitution [for the Governor] to come before the media and declare that he will not sign certain Bills?

Is it administratively appropriate? If it is claimed that the constitution allows Bills to be kept indefinitely, it must be said that that it is not in accordance with the view of the framers of the constitution. The members of our Constituent Assembly had faith that the Governors in a democratic system acting on the advice of elected governments would not be like the Governors of a colonial system.

In 1935, the British government passed the Government of India Act. Section 163 of the Act stipulated that if the then Provinces asked for permission to borrow, permission would be granted without delay. However, Article 293 of our constitution does not include a provision for a time limit. When this matter came up for discussion in the Constituent Assembly, it was said that there was no need for such a provision in a democratic system.

This means that state governments elected in a democratic system are not in the same position as provinces in a colonial system. On the 75th anniversary of Independence, while celebrating “Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav,” if anyone thinks that even today the states of our republic are equivalent to the colonial provinces, it would be appropriate to change that perception. 

The Sarkaria Commission report discusses the kind of person that should hold the post of Governor. The book The Governor, Sage or Saboteur written by eminent legal expert Soli Sorabjee has detailed comments on the duties of the Governor and on who should be a Governor. Jawaharlal Nehru expressed the opinion in the Constituent Assembly that the Governor should be acceptable to the state and at the same time should be a personality aloof from political issues. Other members of the Constituent Assembly expressed the same opinion.

The constituent assembly, in one of its meetings. Photo: Journal of Indian Law and Society/The Wire

The framers of the constitution would have never imagined that there would come a situation where the state government would be criticised by the Raj Bhavan. A person who took an oath to maintain and protect a constitution made by the people for the people would never dream of doing that. 

The Governor’s criticisms are purely political. In a parliamentary democracy, the opposition political parties and the people have the right and duty to criticise the government and the ruling party. But should the honourable Governor, who discharges constitutional duties with the help and advice of the government, discharge the duties of the central ruling party or the opposition leaders of the state?

Also read: In Arif Mohammed Khan’s Steadfast Opposition to Kerala Govt, a Hint of His Usual Politics

The Governor was the one who released the correspondence between him and the Chief Minister the other day. I do not now raise the question of whether it was correct to do so. The morality of this issue can be discussed separately. But why is it that neither the Governor nor the media that got hold of the letters were able to point out even a single word in any of those letters  that can be used to blame the government or the chief minister? It is clear that this government did not ask the Governor to do anything unlawful. 

Kerala is a progressive state at different levels. Our development model is admired both in the country and abroad. It has also received the approval of the Niti Aayog. The Sangh Parivar has always tried to belittle it for political purposes. That effort is meant to destroy the progress of this state. One must consider how dangerous it is for a person who is in a position to refer to the state government as “my government” to be even a sympathiser of such wrong-doers.

He was heard repeating the phrase “foreign idea.”The Governor’s complaint is that communism is an idea imported from abroad. And what is the origin of the capitalist system that exists in this day? It came from Europe. How did that come about? Capitalism and imperialism have a centuries-long history in India of bloody oppression, colonisation, and plunder. Communists in India have a proud history of struggle against colonisation and exploitation, a struggle that continues into the present day. We have to understand that the  ideological conviction that compromised with imperialism will not be able to comprehend this anti-imperialist legacy

 He has also forgotten that the parliamentary democracy and cabinet form of democracy that underpins his position as Governor are ideas borrowed from abroad. Or is it the position that nothing will be accepted that came from abroad? Such a position should be considered a reflection of totalitarian consciousness. 

The constitution is the essence of this country. India is a vast land that was scattered into hundreds of native kingdoms and British territories. It is our constitution that unites its diverse cultures and ideologies to make a single India. The preamble of that constitution says that we, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic. We are all working to keep this country that way and to halt the spread of the politics of communalism and hatred that will destroy that essence.

The government’s concern is the people and this country. Our attitude is not to create confrontation. There may be differences of opinion. There are methods to express and resolve it prescribed by the constitution, rules, and regulations. Such possibilities must be explored.

Pinarayi Vijayan is the chief minister of Kerala and a member of the politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).