Row over Kerala Finance Minister’s speech: Kerala Chief Minister disagrees with the Governor’s reason for ‘withdrawing’ his pleasure against him

The latest tussle between the Governor and the Chief Minister comes close on the heels of the Kerala High Court quashing on Monday the former’s communication to the Vice-Chancellors of eight universities to quit.


THE Kerala Governor, Arif Mohammed Khan, took an unprecedented action on Wednesday by writing to the Kerala Chief Minister (‘CM’), Pinarayi Vijayan that the state Finance Minister, K.N. Balagopal, ceased to enjoy his pleasure, allegedly because he deliberately violated the oath of his office, and undermined the unity and integrity of India. 

The Governor has reportedly referred to Balagopal’s statement earlier in which he insinuated that the Governor, who comes from Uttar Pradesh, may find it difficult to understand universities in Kerala. Balagopal reportedly underlined that universities in Kerala are democratic institutions capable of academic discussions and bringing about significant change. 

The Chief Minister, in his reply to the Governor, claimed that there is nothing objectionable in Balagopal’s speech and it did not warrant the cessation of his pleasure. 

The Governor’s letter merely hoped that the CM would consider the matter with the seriousness it deserved and take action which is constitutionally appropriate. To this, the CM’s specific reply was that he disagreed with the Governor on this after examining the matter in the light of constitutional practices as well as the tradition of our country and the precedents.

The question of withdrawal of pleasure by a constitutional authority which appoints another first arose in the case of the then Tamil Nadu Governor, the late Prabhudas Patwari, who was appointed as the Governor by the Janata Party Government at the Centre post-Emergency. In October 1980, after Indira Gandhi returned to power as Prime Minister, the then President withdrew his pleasure, without giving Patwari the option to resign. The dismissal of Patwari without any valid reason was an instance of political abuse of Article 156(1) of the Constitution, which states that a Governor “shall hold office during the pleasure of the President”.

However, although Ministers hold office at the pleasure of the Governor, under Article 164(1) of the Constitution, they cannot be dismissed by the Governor, by withdrawing their pleasure, as stated by former secretary-general of the Lok Sabha, P.D.T. Achary. According to him, the pleasure of the Governor is coterminous with the majority enjoyed by the Council of Ministers, headed by the Chief Minister in the assembly. 

The High Court’s quashing of Governor’s communication

The Kerala High Court has quashed the communication of Governor Khan, who is also the chancellor of state-run universities, directing the Vice-Chancellors (‘VC’) of eight universities to tender their resignations, declaring that they ceased to hold the office from October 21.

Ruling on a batch of eight petitions filed by the VCs of the Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam; the University Of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram; the University Of Calicut, Cochin; the University of Science & Technology; Thunchath; the Ezhuthachan Malayalam University; the Sree Sankaracharya University Of Sanskrit, Kalady; the Kannur University; and the Kerala University Of Fisheries And Ocean Studies, a single-judge bench of Justice Devan Ramachandran held that no one could be legally forced to tender resignation. 

On October 23, the chancellor issued an analogously-worded communication to each of them, informing them that “they are all ceased to be the Vice Chancellor of respective University with effect from 21.10.2022” (sic), and thus asking them to “submit your resignation by 11.30 a.m. on 24.10.2022” (sic).

When senior advocate Jaju Babu, for the Chancellor, sought to explain the order by submitting that the Chancellor was only offering advice, so as to save the VCs from the fate of being removed from their office ab initio, Justice Ramachandran observed that the court could not grant imprimatur to any such advice, and for that reason alone, the impugned communications/order from the Chancellor would have to fail.

Justice Ramachandran also took exception to the Chancellor declaring that the VCs in question ceased to be in office from October 21. He noted that no such ‘declaration’ could have been made by the Chancellor without following due procedure. He also pointed out that if, as per the conclusions of the Supreme Court decision from last week in Professor (Dr.) Sreejith P.S. versus Dr.Rajasree M.S. & Ors. had any or all of the vitiating factors stated therein become attached to the petitioners, or to any one of them, their appointments are not illegal or untenable from October 21 alone, the Supreme Court having specifically used the phrase ‘void ab initio‘. 

In Professor Sreejith’s case, the Supreme Court quashed the appointment of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Technological University VC Dr. Rajasree M.S., saying that as per University Grants Commission norms, the Search Committee constituted by the state should have recommended a panel of not less than three suitable people among eminent people in the field of engineering or science to the chancellor for selection of the VC, but instead, it sent only one name. The Supreme Court had declared the appointment ‘void ab initio‘. 

Banking on this decision, the Chancellor wanted the nine VCs to submit their resignation since according to him, they are also similarly placed. When Justice Ramachandran pointed out how the Governor-cum-chancellor could have said “ceased to be in office w.e.f. October 21”, Babu turned the table and submitted that the Chancellor has now issued fresh notices to each of the petitioners, asking them to show cause as to why action could not be taken against them. Justice Ramachandran thus was of the opinion that in so far as the order of the chancellor seeking resignation was concerned, which alone was under challenge before him, it lost its relevance in view of the show-cause notices having been issued to the VCs subsequently.

The high court accordingly opined: “This is unmistakable because, once the Chancellor apparently has offered the petitioners an opportunity to show cause against certain action proposed by him, it ineluctably means that they are still in service and certainly eligible to continue as Vice Chancellors until such time as their term of office expires, or until they are removed as per law.

When the counsel for petitioners sought to make objections to the show-cause notices, Justice Ramachandran said this was not available for them to urge so in these writ petitions because the said show-cause notices are not under challenge. 

Click here to view the Kerala High Court’s judgment.