The protracted Kerala Government-Raj Bhavan stand-off over university Senate nominations and gubernatorial delay in signing Bills passed by the legislature into law came to a head on December 21 (Thursday) with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan writing a letter to President Droupadi Murmu seeking the immediate recall of Governor Arif Mohammed Khan.
The government’s uncustomary demand capped a season of bitter disagreement between Mr. Khan and Mr. Vijayan that often transformed into public wars of words and tit-for-tat accusations bordering on the personal.
Mr. Khan’s arguably norm-breaking approach to students protesting against the Chancellor’s alleged bid to stack the Senates of State-funded universities with Sangh Parivar nominees was the tipping point that prompted the government to demand that the Centre summon back the Governor.
Discomfitingly for the Kerala Government, Mr. Khan had thrown down the gauntlet to Students Federation of India (SFI) activists by stepping out of his official car during a black flag protest in Thiruvananthapuram on December 11. Later, Mr Khan accused Mr Vijayan of inciting SFI activists to harm “me physically”.
An irate Mr. Khan had also painted a grim picture of the State’s law and order situation, alleging that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] “criminals” ruled the roads.
On December 16, Mr. Khan camped at the Calicut University campus guest house in Malappuram in a direct dare to the SFI.
Consequently, the SFI swamped the campus with protests demanding that Mr. Khan “go back”. The activists also placed banners and posters across the campus, accusing Mr. Khan of being the cat’s paw of the Sangh Parivar and drawing an ideological equivalency between the Governor and Hindu majoritarian nationalist ideologue V.D. Savarkar.
Relations between Mr. Khan and Mr. Vijayan plummeted to an antagonistic low, with Raj Bhavan breaking conventionalities and issuing a communique blaming the Chief Minister for the banners “defaming” the Chancellor and stating that the circumstances signalled the “beginning of the collapse of the Constitutional machinery in the State”.
The government responded by accusing Mr. Khan of repeatedly breaking protocol, using harsh words to disparage the State, portraying protesting students as criminals and recurrently resorting to wilfully provocative acts to vitiate Kerala’s peaceful atmosphere.
The government defended the SFI protests by pointing out that the posts of the Chancellor and Governor were not on the same Constitutional scale.
It argued that the Legislative Assembly had created the Chancellor’s post through a statute of law. It accused Raj Bhavan of misconstruing a democratic student protest against the Chancellor as a comment on the titular head of State.
Earlier, Mr. Vijayan had said that Mr. Khan’s “public posturing, sabre-rattling statements and provocative actions on the street”, including an unannounced visit sans police escort to the iconic S.M. Street in Kozhikode, had constrained the government to request the Centre to recall him. He also alleged that Mr. Khan repeatedly lowered the gubernatorial office’s high public stature.
The government and Mr. Khan had also sparred over the Governor’s decision to reserve seven Bills passed by the Assembly for the President’s consideration after refusing to sign them into law for nearly two years.
Raj Bhavan’s contentious move came after the Supreme Court asked Mr. Khan’s office to factor in its latest judgment holding Governors responsible for acting within the four corners of the State legislature without flexing a non-existent veto power over Bills presented to them for assent.
The decision surprised the government and worsened its fraught relationship with Raj Bhavan.
Mr. Khan had also vexed the government by questioning the rationale of the Cabinet’s flagship public outreach programme Navakerala Sadas.