The debate on the Universities (Amendment) Bill, 2022, which seeks to remove the Governor as the Chancellor of universities, drew to the surface the Hamletian dilemma of the Congress party in the Assembly on Wednesday.
Should the party, like it usually does, go all out against the LDF Bill and risk being bracketed with the Sangh Parivar or should it lend support and risk cancelling itself out of the opposition space in the ongoing Government-Governor standoff.
After a three-hour debate the Bill was referred to the Subject Committee on Wednesday for further discussions.
As it turned out, the Congress was steered along a rocky middle path by Opposition Leader V D Satheesan. Abandoning his hitherto vague stand on the issue, Satheesan said the UDF was not against the removal of the Governor from the Chancellor's post.
Otherwise, he said the tabled Bill was riddled with legal inconsistencies, which he said the party would contest in court if by any chance the Governor gave his assent.
After some politically shrewd nudging by law minister P Rajeeve, Satheesan also said that the Governor had no right to withhold his assent to bills passed by the Legislature.
Crucial bills, including amendments to the Lok Ayukta Act and Universities Act, are still pending before the Governor.
This prompted Rajeeve to remark: "If this is the case then we should unanimously pass the Bill." The Opposition Leader said the removal of the Governor was just one aspect of the Bill.
The legal inconsistencies that riddle the legislation cannot be ignored, he said.
He said the Bill had provisions that were repugnant to the UGC Regulations, and therefore violated a spate of court verdicts starting with the Supreme Court verdict annulling the appointment of the Vice Chancellor of A P J Abdul Kalam Technological University.
Satheesan was referring to a specific provision in the tabled Bill that allows the Chancellor to authorise the Pro Vice Chancellor to discharge the functions of the Vice Chancellor in case the VC quits prematurely.
Under the UGC Regulations, the Pro VC's term ends the moment the VC demits office.
Recent court verdicts had consistently placed the UGC Regulations above Kerala's university laws.
The law minister conceded that a recent High Court verdict, too, had stressed this legal point. Rajeeve even hinted that this provision could undergo revision at the Subject Committee discussions.
Even while conceding the paramountcy of the Centre's UGC Regulations, even if only because the Supreme Court had said so, the minister wanted the Congress to state its position on what he termed a "larger political question".
"If a subordinate legislation under a central law, made by an authority other than a legislature, trumps a law passed by a state assembly, it could lead to dangerous consequences," Rajeeve said.
The UGC Regulations were drawn up by the University Grants Commission.
"The Centre can now issue regulations on any subject in the Concurrent List and, thereby, encroach upon the rights of states. I would like to know the Congress take on this," Rajeeve said.
Satheesan said that a government could only function on the basis of the existing rule of law and not on political rhetoric.
He said the overriding powers of the UGC Regulations had been conferred by the Supreme Court, no less.
The UDF legislators were also suspicious of the Government's motive in introducing the amendment.
It was felt that, like in the case of vice chancellors, the government would anoint its own men as chancellors and in the process would undermine the autonomy of higher education institutions.
The tabled Bill says that the government will appoint as Chancellor an academician of high repute or a person of eminence in any field of science, technology, medicine, social science, humanities, literature, art, culture or public administration.
No other qualifications have been prescribed. The manner of selection has also not been specified.
Rajeeve said if the government was eager to control the universities it could have appointed the Chief Minister as the Chancellor.
"In fact, that was the recommendation of the Shyam B Menon Commission (on higher education reforms)," he said. "As you can see, we did not take this route," he said
Satheesan sounded amused. "
Why should the CM assume the post and take up direct responsibility for all illegal decisions when he can easily get things done through a person of his choice," he said.
This prompted Rajeeve to hurl another poser. "So what do you suggest? Who should be the Chancellor," he asked.
The Opposition Leader said the question came a bit late. "You should have first consulted the Opposition before framing such a crucial piece of legislation. That has been the tradition of this House," he said and added: "If you can withdraw this bill and start a dialogue with us we are willing to offer our creative inputs."
Rajeeve did not press further.