Governor controversy

Governor as obstacle: Resentment against R.N. Ravi grows in Tamil Nadu

Print edition : May 20, 2022

Chief Minister M.K. Stalin with Governor R.N. Ravi at Raj Bhavan, in Chennai on March 15, 2022. Photo: PTI

Governor R.N. Ravi speaking at the conference of Vice Chancellors of Universities in Tamil Nadu, at Raj Bhavan in Udhagamandalam on April 25, 2022. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi’s tendency to undermine the elected government comes to the fore yet again with his meeting of university Vice Chancellors, giving rise to much resentment in the State.

Not a week goes by in India without a representative of one non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ruled State or the other publicly denouncing or criticising the ‘agent of the Centre’ in their State, namely the Governor. In the last week of April it was the turn of the Tamil Nadu Governor, 70-year-old R.N. Ravi, a former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer who worked in the Intelligence Bureau and was later appointed Deputy National Security Advisor. He has also served as the Governor of Nagaland.

Ravi had organised a meeting of Vice Chancellors (VCs) and professors of Tamil Nadu universities in the cool climes of Udhagamandalam on April 25 and 26, where the Governor’s summer residence, the Raj Bhavan, is located. A senior State government representative said that Raj Bhavan had not formally informed the government of this meeting. A senior Minister said: “He is running a parallel government and is not concerned of any issue that the State government brings to his notice.”

A release issued by the Raj Bhavan on April 22 on the conference said that “the aim” was to “come up with ideas and Action Plan for India’s role in emerging world order and India to be World Leader by 2047”.

It added that Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar, Chairman, University Grants Commission, and Sridhar Vembu, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Zoho Corporation, would be delivering special addresses.

While Jagadesh Kumar’s presence was understandable, the invitation to Sridhar Vembu, a CEO who is also interested in rural development, raised eyebrows and was seen as yet another instance of a BJP-appointed Governor providing airtime to someone considered a right-wing sympathiser.

In a photo shared by the official Raj Bhavan social media handle, Sridhar Vembu was seen talking about rural empowerment and revival. In a slide he says:“Rural revival is about creating balance through production of manufactured goods in rural areas.”

Although the Zoho CEO is known for boosting his corporate’s presence in rural areas as well as rural development work, a professor said: “Does this make him an expert in rural development? Can he lecture to a group of academic experts on the subject? He, sure, can talk about his company, which is his primary concern.”

Also read: Tamil Nadu government, Governor lock horns

But R.N. Ravi thinks otherwise. A tweet from the Raj Bhavan handle praised him, saying: “Padmashri Sridhar Vembu’s ideas and experiment to revive rural economy and its ecosystem was a hit among the VCs. Hon’ble Governor thanked him for promoting Tamil language in software technology and training.”

When West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar tried something similar in 2021, the ruling Trinamool Congress government ensured that not a single VC turned up for the meeting.

The Raj Bhavan in Chennai said on Twitter that on the inaugural day of the meeting, the Governor “urged VCs to implement the National Education Policy in its true spirit to transform higher education in tune with the need of the time”.

It must be noted that both the previous All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government and the present Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government have firmly opposed the language policy outlined in the NEP and have resolved that Tamil Nadu will not yield on the issue of imposition of a language in the State.

The Supreme Court has, through several orders and oral observations, established that the Governor, as head of state, should act on the advice of the Council of Ministers, but this is often followed in the breach because of the wide room for interpretation of the Constitution.

On April 27, while hearing the case of the release of A.G. Perarivalan, convicted in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the Supreme Court described as “bizarre” the Tamil Nadu Governor’s decision to ignore the State Cabinet’s binding advice in the case of Perarivalan.

According to a report in The Hindu, the court said: “Under what provision can the Governor refer a decision of the State Cabinet to the President? If at all the Governor disagrees with the State Cabinet decision to release him, the proper course for him would be to refer it back to the Cabinet and not forward it to the President, who is bound by the aid and advice of the Centre….We prima facie find the Governor’s action wrong.”

The State government had also given such binding advice in the case of withdrawal of NEET (National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test), the entrance exam for admission to graduate courses in medicine, which the governor has so far chosen to ignore.

Government’s response

Even as the Governor was busy with preparations for the hill station retreat, the M.K. Stalin government was ready with its response: remove the Governor’s powers to appoint VCs. Just as the inaugural session of the VCs’ conference was being wound up in the Udhagamandalam Raj Bhavan, the State Government adopted two Bills on April 25 that sought to make the State government the authority to appoint VCs to 13 Tamil Nadu universities.

The AIADMK, which is the main opposition party, and the BJP staged a walkout in protest against the Bills. Higher Education Minister K. Ponmudi introduced the Bills. Speaking on the issues surrounding the Bill, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin said: “In the past four years, the Governor is functioning as if he is the sole authority to appoint VCs and has not been consulting the elected State governments….The government has not been able to appoint VCs for universities under its control and this has led to confusion.”

The statement of objects and reasons of the Chennai University Act, 1923 (Tamil Nadu Act VII of 1923) stated: “In the Gujarat University Act, 1949 (Act 50 of 1949) and the Telangana Universities Act, 1991 (Act 4 of 1991), the respective State government have power to appoint the Vice Chancellor of University. As per the Karnataka State Universities Act, 2000 (Act 29 of 2001), the Vice Chancellor shall be appointed by the Chancellor with the concurrence of the State Government. It is considered that in line with the aforesaid other State University laws, the Government of Tamil Nadu should be empowered to appoint the Vice Chancellor of the Chennai University.”

Also read: Governors doing the Centre’s bidding

A similar reasoning was given in the second Bill.

In effect, the government only sought to transfer the power to appoint VCs from the Governor to the government. This was in the making for a while after the Governor rejected a panel of names suggested by the present government for the post of VC of the Tamil Nadu Dr. MGR Medical University. However, the Governor unilaterally extended the tenure of the current VC until December 2022.

But this Bill also needs the Governor’s consent. Given the manner in which the Governor has treated issues of importance to the State government, this Bill is also likely to share shelf space with similar Bills that the Governor has refused to sign or forward to the President for his consideration. This is not a one-off incident. The appointment of VCs is an issue that Governors are taking in other opposition-ruled States too.

Sriram, a political analyst, noted on Twitter: “The Constitution lays down just two qualifications for the appointment of a person as a Governor: should be a citizen of India and should have completed the age of 35 years.”

He added: “Essentially, the Centre can recommend anybody for President to appoint [as Governor]. This arrangement literally leads to Governors acting at the behest of the ruling party at the Centre, and Raj Bhavans turning to be places where the party that rules the Centre can easily operate out of.”

DMK’s stand

The DMK has been complaining about the attitude of the governor for long. On March 15, T.R. Baalu, the DMK’s parliamentary party leader, raised the issue in Parliament. He said that as many as seven Bills were passed by the Tamil Nadu Assembly and sent to the Governor for the President’s assent after M.K. Stalin took over as Chief Minister. He said: “Not one Bill has been sent by the Governor for President’s assent. Are we running a jungle raj?” One of the many Bills that the Governor is sitting on is the Bill seeking exemption for Tamil Nadu students from NEET. R.N. Ravi sent back the NEET Bill to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly Speaker on February 1, and issued a press release to the effect on February 3 this year.

Exactly a week later, the Tamil Nadu Assembly readopted the NEET Bill and sent it back to the Governor, this time after talking about the powers of the office of the Governor publicly, and reminding him that he had no business returning the Bill to the Assembly. He has since been sitting on the Bill. In all, the Governor has not acted on as many as 11 Bills, a government official said.

On April 14, senior Ministers Thangam Thennarasu and Ma. Subramanian, along with an official, met the Governor to press him on forwarding the anti-NEET Bill. Thangam Thennarasu told Frontline: “The Governor was very courteous and listened to us patiently.”

Following the refusal of the Governor to commit to a time frame to forward the NEET Bill to the President, the DMK and its allies decided to boycott the tea party event organised by the Governor on April 14. This was an unprecedented step taken by the DMK and its allies to protest the “undemocratic actions” of the Governor. The AIADMK and the BJP participated in the event.

Also read: Governing the Governors

Earlier, when the Chief Minister had met the Governor on March 15, he had asked the Governor to forward the Bill to the President. That did not happen.

The Tamil Nadu Government had passed the anti-NEET Bill on September 13, 2021. The Governor sat on it for 142 days before returning it to the Speaker of the Assembly.

On January 31, when the Chief Minister met the Prime Minister, he raised the issue of the Governor sitting on the Bill. On February 8, the Bill was passed for a second time.

Speaking at a meeting on April 25, Stalin said: “We are not asking the Governor to approve the [NEET] Bill. He does not have the powers. We are only asking him to send it to the President. Just as Asiriyar [Dravidar Kazhagam President K. Veeramani] said, the Governor should do the job of a postman.”

Representatives of the allies of the DMK, who spoke on the Bill in the Assembly on April 25, roundly criticised the Governor’s actions. This is the first time in the history of the Tamil Nadu Assembly that a Governor is being criticised by MLAs in session after Assembly session. When the anti-NEET Bill was passed again, many MLAs criticised the actions of the Governor, prompting Speaker M. Appavoo to caution some who went overboard.

The Governor is inviting criticism from various other quarters. D. Ravikumar, Member of Parliament, tweeted: “The Union government, which says there should be no signs of British rule, should advise the Governor of Tamil Nadu to abandon the traditional Ooty camp system of the British Raj and hand over the bungalow to the Government of Tamil Nadu.”

The DMK government and its allies have consistently highlighted the problems that arise from Governor Ravi’s tendency to function independent of the State government, in contravention of the letter and spirit of cooperative federalism. They have promised to take the issue to the people in a mass outreach programme, stating that the Governor’s act of delaying assent to Bills passed by an elected government is against the will of the people. But there has been no corrective action from Delhi. In fact, going by the actions of R.N. Ravi, it appears that the instructions from his bosses in Delhi are clear: bog down the State government as much as possible.