By Inder Jit
(Released on 17 April 1984)
The Governors and their role are in the news again. Late last month, Mrs. Gandhi made most people sit up by her latest gubernatorial appointments and transfers. Mr. B.K. Nehru was shifted from Jammu and Kashmir to Gujarat and Mr. Jagmohan, Delhi’s Lt. Governor, named his successor. Mr. Bhishma Narain Singh was appointed Governor of Assam and Meghalaya, in place of Mr. Prakash Mehrotra. Mr. K.M. Chandy was moved from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh and Mr. P.G. Gavai appointed Lt Governor of Delhi. Now, Mr. Nehru has hit the headlines by reportedly “pulling up” Jammu and Kashmir’s young and impetuous Chief Minister, Dr. Farooq Abdullah, for causing him “embarrassment”. The Governor, he said, was supposed to be above party politics and non-partisan. Yet, the National Conference had “hijacked” a citizen’s function and subjected him to a flag-waving and slogan-shouting demonstration when he was taken out in a traditional boat procession for VVIPs to inaugurate the prestigious Sher-i-Kashmir Conference Centre on the Dal Lake.
Fortunately, Mr. Nehru, who is admired for his independence and capacity to call a spade a spade, did not stop at that. He also reacted sharply to the expectedly laudatory references made to him by the Chief Minister in standing up to the Centre and refusing to throw Dr. Abdullah out of office — first on the charge of rigging the elections in June last and later of having allowed anti-national and secessionist elements to undermine law and order and have a free run of the State. In the bargain, the Governor said something which deserves pointed attention both for its candidness and for a telling commentary on our times. The standards of public life, he said, had deteriorated to such an extent in India that anybody doing his assigned task was supposed to have performed an extraordinary feat. As Governor, he had only done his duty, which he had sworn to do and for which he had been paid. He advised the people to do their duty and not get diverted to making money or securing encomiums. These were things of transitory value.
Mr. Nehru was entitled to be modest — in keeping with his background and training. But he was being less than fair to Dr. Abdullah in taking in “indirect swipe,” to quote a leading New Delhi daily, for his complimentary references. Mr. Nehru, according to his conscience and style, may well feel that he was only doing his duty when he refused to oblige Mrs. Gandhi and her party — and put the Centre wise in regard to its wish to sack the Abdullah Government. Toppling a duly-constituted Government in Kashmir, he pointed out, was not as simple and easy as in the other States, where Governors were known to have even rubber stamped tailored “dismissal” reports provided by New Delhi. Kashmir had a Constitution of its own, even if the Indian Constitution extended to the State. Briefly, the Kashmir Constitution, read with the Indian Constitution, provided for Governor’s rule, not President’s rule. However, the truth is that Mr. Nehru took a stand which was wholly uncommon these days — and deserves to be applauded.
Much has been said and written about the Governors and their role over the past three decades. Addressing the annual conference of Governors a year ago, the President, Giani Zail Singh, stated: “I believe that Governors by virtue of their mature experience and objective perception of events can make valuable contribution to the administration of the State through impartial and sincere advice and counseling.” Earlier, on May 4, 1979, (the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court ruled that the Governor was “not an employee or servant of the Government of India” even if he was appointed by the President which, in effect, meant that Government of India. The Bench also held that the Governor’s office is “not subordinate or sub-servient to the Government of India. He is not amenable to the directions of the Government of India, nor is he accountable to them for the manner in which he carried out his functions and duties. His is an independent constitutional office which is not subject to the control of the Government of India…”
Unfortunately, a great deal of confusion continues in regard to the office of Governor — his powers, status and role. Things today are not what they were originally envisaged by the founding fathers of our Constitution. Few today are willing to follow the examples of boldness and selflessness set up even during the past decade or so. Foremost among these is the little known case of Mr. Dharma Vira who, as Governor of Karnataka, raised certain basic issues and preferred to go than compromise the dignity and honour of his office. These issues briefly framed in his book entitled Memoirs of a Civil Servant, are: Is the Governor just a mouthpiece of the Centre or has he the duty and the right to speak out if the State and its people’s interests are jeopardized? Mr. Dharma Vira, who had the privilege of working with both Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shashtri, is clear that, regardless of the consequence, it is the moral duty of a Governor to take up cudgels on behalf of the State and its people, especially under President’s Rule. A Governor who does not do so would not be worth his salt.
Trouble between the Centre and Mr. Dharma Vira arose when Karnataka was under President’s rule and the State ran up a huge overdraft. Mr. Dharma Vira persuaded the Centre late in 1971 to promise a special accommodation of Rs.105 crores for the Fourth Five Year Plan. But it later changed its mind and decided to extend a special allocation of Rs.45 crores only. Mr. Dharma Vira reacted sharply when the news leaked in the Press. He said the arrangement of clearance of the overdraft which was based on the receipt of the special accommodation could in the circumstances not operate. The Press overplayed the statement. Some quoted Mr. Dharma Vira as saying that the Centre was welcome to “mortgage the State”. The statement elated the people of Karnataka. The Governor was, after all, standing up for the State. Clearance of overdraft without special accommodation would have meant a brake on development. The statement caused a stir in New Delhi and a senior officer close to the Prime Minister even described it as a “rebellion.”
The President, Mr. Giri, was thereupon advised to call Mr. Dharma Vira to New Delhi and “to place him on the mat.” Accordingly, Mr. Dharma Vira proceeded to Delhi after cancelling all engagements. He explained to the President that he had never said that the State Government would not repay the overdraft and that he had been misreported. The President appeared satisfied with the “explanation” but suggested that he might also see the Prime Minister. Two days before Republic Day, he sought an interview with the Prime Minister. But repeated enquiries from the Prime Minister’s Secretariat about the interview failed to elicit any reply. He then wrote a long personal letter to the Prime Minister explaining the entire incident. However, there was still no message from her end. Mr. Dharma Vira then left for Bangalore in the morning of January 25 — so as to be back in the State capital in time for Republic Day.
Immediately on return to Bangalore, Mr. Dharma Vira received a call from the President’s Secretary, Dr. Nagendra Singh, informing him that the Prime Minister had taken his departure from Delhi “without waiting for her reply as a personal affront.” Mr. Dharma Vira told him tht he had no choice but to return to Bangalore and added: “The Prime Minister saw my letter on the night of January 24. Had she desired to meet me I could have been asked to stay on.” But when Dr. Nagendra Singh repeated the Prime Minister’s view that he should have stayed on, Mr. Dharma Vira frankly told him: “Well, Nagu, I am not the Prime Minister’s Chaprasi!” The episode, according to Mr. Dharma Vira, involved a question of propriety. How long is a senior and busy functionary expected to await even the Prime Minister’s pleasure? Is the Prime Minister entitled to treat high dignitaries such as a Governor with scant courtesy and expect him to cool his heels for days on end? Does the Governor owe nothing to the maintenance of the dignity of the high office he holds?
Mr. Dharma Vira was clear in his mind and acted accordingly. Five days later, on January 30, he left Bangalore by train after the completion of his tenure. The return journey to New Delhi had its own story. It is customary on such occasions for the departing Governor to leave by a saloon so as to enable him to carry his luggage, dependents etc and also to maintain the dignity of the office. When he left West Bengal as Governor, all difficulties in the way of attachment of the saloon to fast-moving trains were waived by the Government. This time, however, these restrictions were refused to be waived by the Railway Minister! Much else happened on return to New Delhi, whereby hangs another story. No effort was spared, including a CBI probe, to embarrass and humiliate Mr. Dharma Vira. But he emerged unscathed. Alas, there are not many like Mr. Dharma Vira today who are willing to stand up for the honour of their high office, stay above party politics and put country before self. Some seem willing to be treated even as chaprasis. — INFA