Category Archives: Indian Polity

Why we need Governors -Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Source : The Hindu

The case made by Mahatma Gandhi for their all-pervasive moral influence still holds

There is a disquiet in Raj Nivases and Bhavans today. What does the Constitution Bench’s order betoken? Are we, Lieutenant Governors and Governors must be thinking, redundant? Are we a mere ornament, like the chandelier overhead or the carpet underfoot? Is there nothing to our office, to us, than having an ADC escort us, a liveried chaperon wait on us, and callers address us as ‘Your Excellency’? Is signing the files that come to us in ‘aid and advice’ from our Chief Ministers and Ministers, receiving the President and Vice President and Prime Minister when they arrive at the airport, driving with them into the city, and then, after hosting a banquet for them, seeing them off our sole function?

Message from Bengal

The most telling answer to those questions has been provided by M.K. Gandhi. On October 30, 1946, Gandhi was in Calcutta. Consistently with his sense of etiquette, he called on the Governor. The last Governor of undivided — and communally disturbed — Bengal, Frederick Burrows, asked him, “What would you like me to do?” A popular government headed by Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy had been installed in the State and maintaining peace in the State was now the responsibility of the elected ministry. The answer to “What would you like me to do?” was courteous, but crisp. “Nothing, Your Excellency,” Gandhi said. He meant that after the British declaration to quit, the Governor’s position in India’s provinces was that of a constitutional head of state and he must “let” the representative government do its duty.

Gandhi’s advice was consistent with Walter Bagehot’s dictum about the Crown having ‘the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn’ but not to be the engine of government. And it anticipated the Supreme Court’s July 4, 2018 order. But did he mean that they should go, their offices and their carpets rolled up?

He did not.

And so, returning to the question posed at the head of this column, are Governors then a mere and rather costly superfluity? Is the Governor then, in a word, just a figurehead ?

Certainly not.

Now is that not odd, very odd?

Can someone, something or anyone, anything, that has no ‘role’ be yet valuable?

Curiously enough, yes.

Constituent Assembly debates

During the Constituent Assembly’s deliberations on the office of the Governor, the thoughtful S.N. Agrawal, then Principal of a College at Wardha, later better known as Shriman Narayan, a dedicated Gandhian who was later to be a Governor himself, reflected on it. In the last weeks of 1947 he wrote in an article: “In my opinion there is no necessity for a Governor. The Chief Minister should be able to take his place and peoples’ money to the tune of Rs 5000 a month for the sinecure of the Governor will be saved.” Gandhi, whose advice to Burrows we have noted, responded to Agrawal in Harijan (December 21, 1947) as follows: “There is much to be said in favour of the argument advanced by Principal Agrawal about the appointment of provincial Governors. I must confess that I have not been able to follow the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly… Much as I would like to spare every pice of the public treasury it would be bad economy to do away with provincial Governors and regard Chief Ministers as a perfect equivalent. Whist I would resent much power of interference to be given to Governors, I do not think that they should be mere figureheads. They should have enough power enabling them to influence ministerial policy for the better. In their detached position they would be able to see things in their proper perspective and thus prevent mistakes by their cabinets. Theirs must be an all-pervasive moral influence in their provinces.”

This has to be one of the best summations of the value of that office and, indeed, of the difference between ‘interference’ and ‘influence’.

A look at the attendees at one of the early conferences of Governors on May 8, 1949 would show present in the domed hall an array of Governors, each strong-minded but self-composed, not interested in putting his Chief Minister in the shade or himself in the limelight: the industrialist Homi Mody (United Provinces), the veteran non-Congress leader M.S. Aney (Bihar), the free-thinking lawyer Asaf Ali (Orissa), the old-time Congressman K.N. Katju (West Bengal), Bhavsinhji, the sagacious Maharaja of Bhavnagar (Madras), the ICS veteran C.M. Trivedi (Punjab). They did not look upon themselves as figureheads who could do nothing, nor as martinets who could do any and everything. They knew that they lacked power, but wielded influence, influence to do good, as the Governor General, Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of the day wanted them to, “without friction and without prejudice to the march of democracy.”

The key words to be taken away from those are ‘interference’ versus ‘influence’, ‘detached position’ versus ‘figurehead’, ‘perspective’ versus ‘prejudice’ and overarching all this, the key phrase: ‘all-pervasive moral influence’.

Vital positions

Governors and, for that matter, the President of India are vital, not because they can hold up or hold back anything — indeed, they should not and cannot — but because they can and should exert the moral voltage, the sense of the rightness and wrongness of things that would underscore the republican credence and democratic credentials of elected governments.

This is where the choice of the incumbent becomes crucial. I have given a few of the names of the first crop of Governors attending the Governors’ Conference in May 1949. ‘But,’ the despondent cynic may ask, ‘do we have such persons in our midst today?’ At first pulse, it may seem we do not, and that we are going through a drought in stature. But reflection would correct that thought. Women and men in education, commerce, administration, science, medicine, law and public life within and outside of politics, across parties, can surely be found who, as well-wishers, will strengthen and not threaten elected governments working ‘for the better’.

Chief Ministers and Prime Ministers head the government. Governors and Presidents head the state. Governments govern, states sustain. And in a democratic republic, the people power both. They do so, wanting the Chief Minister to act conscientiously and the Governor to act constitutionally, to ensure self-government is good government, swa-raj is also su-raj.

The country has to congratulate the Aam Aadmi Party and its leader, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, for having elicited from the Supreme Court a benchmark ruling. But it can do more. It can reflect on how, as a Chief Minister actuates a popular mandate, the Governor exercises that “all-pervasive moral influence”, both together providing the people in their jurisdiction the assurance that they are in secure and mutually composed, not conflicted, hands.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor of history and 
politics, Ashoka University

GST and the Indian nation-state

ऋभु वशिष्ठ (Ribhu Vashishtha)

Surendranath Banerjee’s newspaper the Bengalee made the point on 18th January, 1902:

“The agitation for political rights may bind the various nationalities of India together for a time. The community of interests may cease when these rights are achieved. But the commercial union of the various Indian nationalities, once established, will never cease to exist. Commercial and industrial activity is, therefore, a mighty factor in the formation of a great Indian union.”

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Emperor Ashoka on free speech

Source : Rajeev Bhargava ;

Civility in public speech is a perfect antidote to the mutual estrangement between communities creeping into our society

Should members of one religious community have a right to freely criticise other religious communities? Why not? Indeed, they must. Should this right be absolute? No right is absolute, but if our speech never upsets other groups, then why have it as a right? So, does discussion on the subject end here? No, because having a right is different from exercising it. So we need to ask if there are circumstances when it is wise not to, when it is better to waive its exercise instead? And if we feel compelled to criticise others, to ask in what form we should do so?

Should there not be some informal social norms, an ethos that helps us judge when and how to exercise the right to criticise other groups?

One thinker who squarely addressed the issue of norms of free speech was Emperor Ashoka in third century B.C.E. This should not surprise us. For a start, there was great religio-philosophical diversity in his time (followers of Vedic Brahmanism, Upanishadic philosophers, Jains, Ajivikas, Buddhists, to name just a few groups).

Message for the ages

These included those who made ritual sacrifice central to their ethic and those who didn’t; those who believed in gods and goddesses and those who did not; those who thought ritual sacrifice was sufficient for a good life and those who differed; those who believed in the theory of karma and others who didn’t; those who evaluated karma negatively (to act is to acquire demerit) and those who did not; those who affirmed and those who denied radical asceticism; those who linked self-fulfilment to compassion towards others and those who did not. This deep diversity must have generated conflict, particularly because Ashoka tried to ensure that all these groups lived together, sharing the same public domain, rather than live separately in ghettoes.

What form did conflicts take? In Ashoka’s time, writing was virtually non-existent. Everyone lived in a vibrant oral culture. The entire complex of Art, Philosophy, and ‘Religion’ — poetry, our deepest metaphysical thoughts, acts honouring gods and goddesses — were spoken, composed, recited, sung, chanted and heard. Words were believed to have magical potency. They could beckon gods to help us tide over problems, create something out of nothing, empower or disempower others, turn them into stone, even kill them. They could be weapons or an elixir — soothe or cause grievous hurt, bring us together or pull us apart.

In such a strong oral culture, social conflict frequently took the form of verbal duels, speech fights, word-wars, verbal tongue-lashing of adversaries in intellectual combats. Moreover, vitriolic reciprocal name-calling existed alongside fulsome expression of self-praise and excessive bragging about one’s own prowess.

Managing the tongue

If words fall off the tongue effortlessly, tumble out inadvertently and, what is worse, carelessly, it is imperative that unguarded speech be checked, that words be enunciated with great care and thought in public.

And that is exactly what Ashoka advised — free speech must be regulated by vācāgati (the artful management of the tongue), a social norm of a specific kind of samyama (self-restraint). While coexisting religious communities might invariably find each other irksome, this negative response, Ashoka argued, must not be privatised or repressed. It may enter the public but only on meeting certain conditions.

To begin with, speech critical of others may be freely expressed only if there are good reasons to do so. Second, even when good reasons exist for criticism, one may criticise only on appropriate occasions. And finally, even on an appropriate occasion, one must never be immoderate. Critique must never belittle or humiliate others. Only moderate criticism on appropriate public occasions is justified. Thus, there is a multi-layered, ever-deepening restraint on negative speech against others — self-restraint for the sake of others.

With this, Ashoka had evolved an original norm of civility, but he did not stop here. He further asserted that one must not extol one’s religion/philosophy without good reason. Undue praise of one’s community is as morally objectionable as unmerited criticism of the other.

Moreover, even when there is good reason to praise one’s own perspective, it too should be done only on appropriate occasions, and even then, never immoderately. Excessive self-glorification is a way to make others feel small. Indeed, blaming other groups out of devotion to one’s own world view and unreflective, uncritical self-praise, argued Ashoka, damages one’s own community. By offending and thereby estranging others, such speech undermines the capacity for mutual interaction and possible influence. Thus, there must an equally be a multi-textured, ever-deepening restraint on oneself — self-restraint for the sake of one’s own self.

A shared ethos

For Ashoka, our duties towards others cannot be neatly separated from the virtues we cultivate in ourselves. Our moral concern for others can’t be hived off from our ethical regard for ourselves. So, if Ashoka were alive today, he would argue that a crucial precondition of exercising one’s right to the free criticism of other groups is a robust ethos of self-restraint. A social norm of civility in public speech is a perfect antidote to the mutual estrangement between communities now creeping into our society.

GST and the Indian nation-state

Surendranath Banerjee’s newspaper the Bengalee made the point on 18th January, 1902:

“The agitation for political rights may bind the various nationalities of India together for a time. The community of interests may cease when these rights are achieved. But the commercial union of the various Indian nationalities, once established, will never cease to exist. Commercial and industrial activity is, therefore, a mighty factor in the formation of a great Indian union.”