Out of line: On West Bengal Governor's visit to violence-hit areas

Governor Dhankhar’s visit to violence-hit areas is a breach of constitutional propriety

There is little doubt that West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar’s visit to areas hit by post-poll violence in Cooch Behar constitutes a grave transgression of the bounds of constitutional propriety. A habitual critic of the Mamata Banerjee regime, he has been given to ignoring the principle that constitutional heads should not air their differences with the elected regimes in public. As recently as December 2020, Ms. Banerjee had appealed to the President to recall the Governor for political statements that she believed were being made by him at the behest of the BJP-led Union government. One would have thought that a fresh election, in which Ms. Banerjee’s TMC has won a resounding victory, would be a reminder, if one was needed at all, that the norms of representative government ought to be a natural restraint on Mr. Dhankhar’s gubernatorial propensity to speak out of turn and step out of line.

There was a time when another West Bengal Governor, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, came in for some criticism for setting aside the restraints of constitutional office by expressing “cold horror” at the police firing that left 14 protesters dead at Nandigram in 2007. Some may believe that the gubernatorial office ought not to be an impediment to the incumbent yielding to the moral urge to condemn incidents of rare enormity. Yet, the larger principle that the Governor should not offer public comment on situations best handled by the representative regime ought to hold good in all circumstances. In the case of Mr. Dhankhar, what worsens his persistent criticism of the TMC regime is the unfortunate congruency between his words and the interests of the BJP. His visit to Cooch Behar can be seen as an action louder even than his words in derogation of the elected regime. A visit to a scene of violence by the Governor cannot be justified as a gesture to show solidarity with victims. M. Channa Reddy, as Tamil Nadu Governor, shocked the AIADMK regime in 1993 by visiting the RSS headquarters in Chennai after a bomb exploded there. It may be argued that the present situation in West Bengal is different from those in which other Governors had shed the restraints of their office. Post-election violence is something that should not be witnessed at all in an electoral democracy. West Bengal is certainly out of step with the rest of the country in allowing post-poll celebrations to degenerate into triumphalism and attacks on the losing side. Yet, the onus is on Ms. Banerjee to restore order and end the violence, even if she believed that the extent of the violence was being exaggerated by the Opposition. Regardless of one’s view of a regime’s inaction, there should be no departure from the principle that any advice or warning the Governor wants to give to the elected government ought to be in private and in confidence.



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