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Above: CPI (M) activists lay siege to Raj Bhavan to protest against the TN governor

The constant tussle between TN governor Banwarilal Purohit and the DMK came to a head when 192 partymen were sent to jail and sets the course for further tensions

~By R Ramasubramanian in Chennai

In an unprecedented move with far-reaching consequences, Raj Bhavan, the office-cum-residence of Tamil Nadu governor Banwarilal Purohit, issued a statement on June 24 sternly warning those preventing the governor from exercising the powers given to him under the Constitution of India. The statement was issued in the name of a joint director of Raj Bhavan and interestingly, did not mention his name.

The three-page press release said: “The office of the governor is protected under IPC 124. Attempts to restrain the governor from exercising any of the lawful powers by means of criminal force or attempts to overawe such governor, shall be punished with imprisonment of up to seven years and a fine.” Though the press release did not name any opposition party, it was obvious that the warning was directed at the DMK.

The immediate provocation for this hard-hitting statement was a sudden siege of Raj Bhavan by over 1,000 DMK activists led by the opposition leader and DMK’s president MK Stalin on June 23. This was after the arrest and remand of 192 of its cadres in Namakkal district for showing black flags to the governor when he went there as part of his “regular review” meetings. Stalin and the DMK activists were arrested by the police and later let off.

The main reason for the DMK’s protest was what they describe as the direct intervention of the governor in the functioning of the AIADMK-led government headed by Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisami. Ever since Purohit was sworn in as governor of Tamil Nadu on October 6, 2017, he has been touring districts at periodical intervals. These meetings are attended by district collectors, superintendents of police, corporation commissioners and other senior government functionaries. These were described as “review meetings” in government circles and the media. The DMK has been opposing this from the beginning and they describe this as nothing but parallel governance. After a few statements, the DMK started staging black flag protests against the governor to whichever district he went to.

A senior Raj Bhavan official, who did not want to be named, told India Legal: “On June 23, when the governor visited Nammakkal district, the DMK staged a massive protest and showed black flags. At one point, a few bamboo sticks with party flags were thrown at the car carrying the governor. During previous protests, the police would arrest the DMK activists showing these black flags and release them in the evening. But this time, the government decided to handle the protestors in a different way and hence, 192 DMK activists were arrested and produced in a magistrate court in Namakkal and sent to prison for 15 days. This incident angered the DMK and that is why without giving any proper notice, they laid siege on the Raj Bhavan.”

But the DMK is unfazed. “We will not be cowed down by these threats. Let them put us in jail for life. We will continue our protests till the governor stops his parallel governance,” said Stalin. It is interesting to note that the DMK is the only political party consistently opposing the governor’s activities. Friendly parties, including the Congress, CPI, CPM and Dalit party Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi are showing minimal resistance to his behaviour. As of now, he has visited 19 districts out of 32 in the state. In its June 24 press release, the Raj Bhavan made it clear that the visits of the governor would continue.

Meanwhile, the AIADMK has maintained a stoic silence. Former Congress MLA A Balaraman told India Legal: “This is the main point that we have to keep in mind. In any other state, including BJP-ruled ones, if the governor goes directly to the districts and conducts meetings with the collector and other local officials at regular intervals, it wouldn’t be allowed by any elected government because this is parallel governance by the governor. No elected government would allow this if it has some self-respect. But the tragedy here is that after Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5, 2016, the AIADMK has lost not only their one and only leader, but also their self-respect.”

Former top civil servants too have found the governor’s actions disturbing. K Balachandran, former additional chief secretary of West Bengal, said: “The governor has a right to call any secretary, including the chief secretary and the DGP, on a particular issue and ask them to show important files related to the governance of the state. The Constitution has given this power to the governor. But a governor visiting districts and convening periodic meetings with officials there is neither allowed in the Constitution nor is it a convention. During natural disasters such as massive drought or floods or in case of a complete collapse of law and order, the governor can directly interfere and ask for complete details from any official of any rank because extraordinary situations demand extraordinary answers. But there is no extraordinary situation prevailing in Tamil Nadu today. So the governor’s attitude cannot be accepted in any democracy.”

Ever since he took office, Banwarilal Purohit has been in the limelight, mainly for the wrong reasons. Two months ago, after addressing a press conference in Raj Bhavan, he inappropriately patted the cheek of a woman journalist even as several TV channels were telecasting it live.  After huge protests from several quarters, Purohit tendered an unconditional apology to the journalist the next day.

In addition, Purohit’s name has cropped up in an alleged sex racket. In April, an audio tape started doing the rounds about a woman assistant professor Nirmala Devi in a private college under Madurai Kamaraj University in Virudhunagar district. She, alleged the video, would lure women students and send them to higher officials for marks and other favours. In the video, she claimed that she knew Purohit very well.

Under mounting pressure from various quarters, the government ordered a probe by the Crime Branch Criminal Investigation Department into the matter and Nirmala Devi was arrested on April 16.

This generated a storm in political circles in Tamil Nadu. Opposition parties demanded action against Purohit. State CPM secretary K Balakrishnan demanded that the centre immediately recall the governor. Opposition parties alleged that Purohit was himself involved in this sex racket and hence, he should not continue as governor.

Meanwhile, Purohit appointed R Santhanam, a retired IAS officer, as chairman of a committee to go into the scandal and give a report to him. The opposition ridiculed the move and asked how the governor could appoint a committee to look into an issue when he himself was believed to be part of the sex racket. Stalin has pressed for a court-monitored CBI investigation into the issue, which has become fodder for the opposition to attack the BJP, the only party supporting Purohit. It has termed the whole issue as a deeper conspiracy to malign Purohit and the Modi government. However, there are few takers for this theory.

The growing powers of centre-appointed governors and L-Gs can also be seen in Delhi, Puducherry and J&K, bringing them in direct confrontation with the lawfully appointed chief ministers. Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal’s battle with the present L-G, Anil Baijal, and former L-G Najeeb Jung had virtually brought the administration to a standstill in the capital. While some sort of peace has been established with the “striking” bureaucrats, it is obvious that uneasy lies the head that wears the crown here. In Puducherry too, L-G Kiran Bedi has had constant run-ins with chief minister V Narayanasamy over her interference. Though he had appealed to the centre, it has not got any results and he plans now to take the issue to court. In J&K, with the state now under governor’s rule, the writ of NN Vohra runs large.

The BJP-ruled centre is obviously flexing its muscles in various states through its governors and the last has not been heard of these tussles, be it in Tamil Nadu or elsewhere.

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