The West Bengal government’s decision to make the Chief Minister the Chancellor of State-run universities, instead of the Governor, appears to be an outcome of the severely strained relations between Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. They have often differed on issues concerning the appointment of Vice-Chancellors and the functioning of universities. Mr. Dhankhar had alleged that VCs were appointed without the approval of the Chancellor, the appointing authority; on some occasions, VCs had not turned up for a meeting with the Governor-Chancellor. Friction has arisen elsewhere too. Tamil Nadu recently passed Bills to empower the State government, instead of the Chancellor, to appoint VCs. It also passed a separate Bill to establish a new university for alternative systems of medicine with the Chief Minister as its Chancellor. The Bills are yet to receive the Governor’s assent. In Kerala, there is a different kind of controversy, with Governor Arif Mohammed Khan asking the Chief Minister to take over the Chancellor’s role in the light of alleged political interference in the functioning of universities. These developments underscore that the conferment of statutory roles to Governors may be a source of friction between elected regimes and Governors who are seen as agents of the Centre.
The original intent of making Governors hold the office of Chancellor and vesting some statutory powers on them was to insulate universities from political influence. Even in the 1980s, as noted by the Justice R.S. Sarkaria Commission, the use of discretion by some Governors in some university appointments had come in for criticism. It acknowledged the distinction between the Governor’s constitutional role and the statutory role performed as a Chancellor, and also underlined that the Chancellor is not obliged to seek the government’s advice. However, it did say there was an obvious advantage in the Governor consulting the Chief Minister or the Minister concerned. The Justice M.M. Punchhi Commission, which examined Centre-State relations decades later, was quite forthcoming in its 2010 report. Noting that the Governor should not be “burdened with positions and powers... which may expose the office to controversies or public criticism”, it advised against conferring statutory powers on the Governor. It felt that the practice of making the Governor the Chancellor of universities ceased to have relevance. Quite presciently, it took note of the potential for friction: “... Ministers will naturally be interested in regulating university education, and there is no need to perpetuate a situation where there would be a clash of functions and powers.” The time may have come for all States to reconsider having the Governor as the Chancellor. However, they should also find alternative means of protecting university autonomy so that ruling parties do not exercise undue influence on the functioning of universities.