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Beyond the 'Sleaze': The Problematic History of Governors in North East

V Shanmughanathan resigned as Meghalaya governor on January 26. (News18)

V Shanmughanathan resigned as Meghalaya governor on January 26. (News18)

Till about April 2015, as many as five states in the Northeast — Assam, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura — did not have permanent Governors.

News18 Sunday FeatureBetween July 2014 and May 2015, Mizoram's Raj Bhavan was always bustling with activity, but the state and its 11 lakh citizens hardly had anything to do with it. The hustle and bustle at the Governor's house came from the constant moving in and going out of its occupants. The state saw seven Governors in these 10 months. A new government was sworn in at the Centre and it was time to put its own men in Raj Bhavans across the country. Peaceful Mizoram, thus, became the shunting haven for the new BJP government.

The reason was simple. The state was peaceful and politically stable enough to not require active central monitoring. On the other hand, it was remote enough to be made to look like a punishment posting. A number of Governors were UPA appointees and the government did not want to be seen as sacking them. So Delhi chose to move them to this hill state.

Three-time Delhi chief minister and then Kerala governor Sheila Dikshit resigned from her position in August 2014, when she was shunted to Mizoram. Just days before her resignation, 82-year-old Maharashtra governor K Sankaranarayanan had resigned, refusing to take up the same Mizoram position. But why did the position fall vacant? It fell vacant because the Modi government sacked Kamala Beniwal, just a month after she was shifted here. Probably, the former Gujarat governor had refused to take the hint when she was given the transfer orders.

Mizoram wasn’t the only one. Till about April 2015, as many as five states in the Northeast — Assam, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura — did not have permanent Governors. Interestingly, all five states were Opposition-ruled, with the Left in Tripura and the Congress in the other four.

Recent Governors of Mizoram
NameTook officeLeft office
Vakkom PurushothamanSeptember 2, 2011July 6, 2014
Kamla BeniwalJuly 6, 2014August 6, 2014
Vinod Kumar Duggal (additional charge)August 8, 2014September 16, 2014
KK Paul (additional with Meghalaya)September 16, 2014January 8, 2015
Aziz QureshiJanuary 9, 2015March 28, 2015
Keshari Nath Tripathi (additional charge)April 4, 2015May 25,2015
Lt General (Retd) Nirbhay SharmaMay 26, 2015incumbent

The position of the Governor in the frontier state of Northeast India was always shrouded in controversy. Explaining the role of the Governor, Pradip Phanjoubam, author of The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers and editor of Manipur's English daily, Imphal Free Press, refers to Fali Nariman's seminal work in this regard. Pradip says, “It is ironic that the two roles of the Governor as defined in the Constitution are at odds with each other.”

Article 163 states that “there shall be a Council of Ministers with the Chief Minister at the head to aid and advise the Governor in the exercise of his functions.” But there are enough provisions which makes the Governor the 'eyes and ears' of the central government. Primarily, Article 156 makes it clear that the Governor remains in office at the pleasure of the President.

ALSO READ: When Meghalaya Governor V Shanmuganathan Was Undone by Popular Rage

Pradip, who dealt with this issue extensively in his book, explains how the suspicion of the architects of the Constitution over the behaviour of the princely states can be seen on the definition of the role of the Governor. “A young India was suspicious of how the states would behave, especially those in the frontier,” he says.

And then came the age of insurgency — former generals, retired IPS officers, ex-R&AW (Research and Analysis Wing) officers were chosen for the top offices of these states. With the Armed Forces’ Special Powers Act (AFSPA) imposed in most of the states, these ex-servicemen or law enforcement officers were Centre's men in the state. This was also the time when the Centre viewed the popular government of the state with suspicion.

The fact that President's Rule has been invoked over 120 times in the country and much more frequently in the northeastern states also shows why the Centre chose the law enforcers as state Governors in this area.

But the situation has changed over the last 10 years. Insurgency is at its lowest ebb, the militant groups have either been neutralised or brought to the table or there has been a significant fall in their operational power. And this has brought in another dimension to the Governor's office. Pradip Phanjoubam calls it the shift from “retired bureaucrats to unemployed sycophants”.

In fact, Angela Rangad, the head of TUR, the NGO which powered the movement against former Meghalaya governor V Shanmuganathan, goes a step further. Rangad says that in many cases, the Governor's office is used to protect the offenders, as they have the immunity in the Constitution. Speaking from Shillong, she says, “Earlier the governors were all ex-Army generals and IPS officers who came to police and often terrorised the region with the help of the Army. And now you have RSS pracharaks coming in as governors.”

ALSO READ: Meghalaya Governor Shanmughanathan Steps Down After Staff Accuse Him of Making Raj Bhavan 'Young Ladies Club'

This lack of cultural assimilation was particularly evident when V Shanmuganathan was made the Governor of Manipur. He drew the ire of the entire intelligentsia when on an August evening at the inauguration of the University of Culture and Manipur State Film and Television Institute, he asked the intellectuals to define ‘culture’ in 100 words. He said in return they could have the “honour” of having tea with him.

Later, award-winning Manipuri filmmaker Aribam Syam Sharma wrote an open letter to him saying: “I shall not attempt an answer to your question here so I forfeit any claim to tea with your excellency.” He went on to say “…in the culture of those assembled on that occasion, asking such a question — fit for school children — to those who have dedicated their lifetime, who are living embodiment of culture, is considered as uncultured in our culture.”

It was then that he was moved to Meghalaya, where the popular mutiny against him for allegedly “converting the Raj Bhavan into a ladies’ club”, forced the central government to ask for his resignation. It is debatable whether the government would have acted so promptly if there were no state elections around the corner.

It is not just him. The fiefdom of Tripura has been gifted to the loyal soldier of the Sangh in Bengal. Tathagata Roy, BJP leader from West Bengal, is known for his infamous and often communal tweets. Before he became the Governor, he had once tweeted: “I sometimes think how lucky I am, that I am nearly 70 and won’t live to see the Islamic takeover of West Bengal (sic).” While such direct attacks have stopped, his tweets continue to have deep communal overtones. Recently, he retweeted this post: “Dear Hindus Let's unite n come out to vote for Modi otherwise we will not get another @narendramodi to save us frm Malecha (sic).”

It is because of these incidents that many think the position of the Governor has become redundant. Kishalay Bhattacharjee, author and a senior journalist from the Northeast says, “Throwing out Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh Governor by staff shows that all is not lost. Now we need a sustained campaign to do away with the office of the Governor.” But there are those who point out that India, which is ultimately a union of states, needs a representative of the Centre in each of the states to maintain the federal structure.

Many, therefore, suggest that the solution lies in bringing in political propriety rather than legislations and in heeding the words of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee: return to Raj Dharma.

(More Sunday Features)