The ‘Hindu’ Governor in Mumbai’s Raj Bhavan mocks the Constitution
Normally one would have expected President of India to sack Governor. But muted response to Maha Governor’s staggering conduct in mocking Constitution makes it appear like ‘business as usual’
Nothing that Governors say or do these days shock us any longer. But even then, the letter that Bhagat Singh Koshiyari, Governor of Maharashtra wrote this week to the state’s chief minister Uddhav Thackeray is staggering in its brazenness. Never before has a Governor, appointed to uphold the secular Constitution and having taken an oath to protect it, admitted his lack of faith in secularism. One possibly must thank Mr. Koshiyary therefore for dropping the fig leaf and putting this on record. He could have spoken to the Chief Minister, either over the phone or in person, and suggested that temples, shut down since March because of the pandemic, be opened. But ‘His Excellency’ could not resist the temptation of writing a rude and mocking letter, his language bordering on Constitutional impropriety. This is not how one Constitutional authority has normally addressed another, at least not in official communication. That is why this is a watershed moment in our political history. Governors, even those appointed by the BJP and with RSS affiliations, have till now been paying at least lip service to secularism. With Mr Koshiyari’s letter, that illusion has finally and possibly irrevocably been destroyed. The Governor’s implicit admission that he has no faith in secularism, that indeed he is not one of those ‘sickularists’ as secular liberals have come to be called, is therefore historic.
But it will be foolish to expect the Governor to tender an apology. It will also be wishful thinking to expect the President of India, the Prime Minister or the Union Cabinet to take note of the breach and send out a signal by removing the Governor forthwith. This is because the Governor and his secretariat would not have been emboldened to write a politically loaded letter without a nod from the Centre. The Governor was of course within his rights to seek information from the chief minister. He was also entitled to offer the chief minister his personal opinion and advice. But what he was not entitled to do was to mock the Indian Constitution. He aggressively reminded the chief minister in the letter of his ‘Hindu’ credentials and mockingly wondered if the CM had somehow turned ‘secular’ overnight. The Governor clearly believes that India is now a Hindu Rashtra and the state government cannot dare keep Hindu temples closed even for public safety.
Religious congregations, where people gather in large numbers, embrace and greet each other, sing and sit in close proximity are described by scientists as ‘super spreaders’ of the coronavirus and advise against such gatherings. Barely seven months ago, the Government, the BJP, and the media targeted the congregation of a Muslim sect, the Tablighi Jamaat, for spreading the virus. The decision to open up places of worship, therefore, cannot be taken casually and should have nothing to do with religion. But the Maharashtra Governor seems to have little faith in consultations or taking advice from the state government.
He is not the first Governor to have crossed the Lakshman Rekha. In recent years the Centre has packed Raj Bhavans with partisan politicians, who have aggressively and blatantly pursued the political agenda of the ruling party. This has been seen and noticed across the country, from the North-East to Karnataka, from Gujarat to Goa, from Bengal to Rajasthan and from Kashmir to Goa. In opposition ruled states the Governors have tried to destabilise the Government and install Governments of the same party as one ruling at the Centre. Ironically, the Bharatiya Janata Party in its own submissions to the Sarkaria Commission had suggested that Governors be appointed from a panel prepared by the state legislature. It had also demanded that the appointing authority of Governors should be an Inter-State Council and not the central government. Now that BJP has a brute majority in Parliament, it could easily incorporate the change.
Constitutional experts have often questioned the role and utility of the office of Governors. The institution, a colonial relic, has complicated and not eased administration or centre-state relations. Even as the chancellor of state universities, the role of the Governors has been suspect. Their discretionary powers have been used indiscriminately, leading to litigation and even adverse comments by the Supreme Court of India. Many of the inmates of Raj Bhavans have demeaned their office with their conduct and speech. Mr Koshiari’s uncivil letter may serve some useful purpose if it helps trigger a fresh debate on the office of the ‘Laat Sahib’. Viceroys have long gone but the Governors remain. It is time to discard the office to the dustbin of history.