Intrusive Governors have made universities the primary battleground in the war between a centralising Delhi and states invoking federalism

The running feud between the CPI(M)-led Kerala government and Governor Arif Mohammed Khan escalated on Wednesday, with the state Cabinet deciding to bring an ordinance to strip him of the position of Chancellor of all state universities.

At the heart of the dispute is the extent of authority that Governors can exercise as Chancellors, who are vested with powers ranging from vetting the legality of decisions taken by the executive councils of universities, to presiding over their convocation ceremonies.

“The ordinance is meant to amend the University Rules pertaining to the post of the Chancellor of universities in the state. The draft ordinance would remove the particular section from the University Rules that has made the Governor the ex-officio Chancellor of the 14 universities in Kerala,” the Kerala government said in a statement on Wednesday.

The geographical spread of such conflicts, largely identical in nature, has only grown over the past months, with more and more governors choosing to assert themselves, sparking confrontations with elected governments, worsening Centre-state relations.

In most states, statutes made by legislative Assemblies declare Governors as Chancellors, a practice that flows from the colonial period, when the Governor General had taken over as the Chancellor of the University of Calcutta, while the governors of Madras and Bombay performed similar roles in universities under their jurisdictions.

As Chakshu Roy of non-profit PRS Legislative Research pointed out, in a piece published in The Indian Express in August, Governors can make the case that since their appointment as Chancellor of a university is through legislative enactment, “they have the right to intervene in the university’s functioning, and their position as Chancellor was distinct from their role as a Governor”.

Thus, even in states like West Bengal, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, universities have emerged as the primary site of conflicts between state governments and their respective governors. In fact, in June, the Trinamool Congress-ruled West Bengal became the first state to attempt to remove the Governor from the position of Chancellor of all state universities.

The state went a step ahead and decided to replace the Governor with the Chief Minister as Chancellor, raising constitutional hurdles. In April, the DMK-governed Tamil Nadu passed two Bills to transfer to the state government the Governor’s power to appoint VCs of state universities.

In December 2021, the Maharashtra Assembly had cleared a Bill that sought to amend the Maharashtra Public Universities Act, 2016, by slicing the Governor’s role in appointing Vcs. Under the unamended Act, the state government had no say in the appointment of VCs.

Entry 66 of the Union List, which authorises the Centre to handle “coordination and determination of standards in institutions for higher education or research and scientific and technical institutions”, also leaves room for divergent interpretations. This is mainly because, as the standard-setting body, the UGC empowers the “visitor/chancellor”—which in most cases is the Governor of a state—to appoint the VC of a university, out of a panel of names recommended by the search-cum-selection committee.

Higher educational institutions, particularly those that receive funds from the UGC, are mandated to follow its regulations. As witnessed in recent times, the arrangement works well in the case of central universities, but runs into resistance, especially in states where non-BJP or non-NDA parties are in power.

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