Kerala Governor’s Withholding of Bills | Day 2: Governance of Kerala is suffering, Court must step in strongly, K.K. Venugopal argues

Pendency of bills before the Governor of Kerala

Today a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court heard the challenges with respect to Kerala Governor, Arif Mohammed Khan’s withholding of eight bills passed by the State Legislature. The petitioner had approached the Court with three asks. First, to direct the Governor to return a bill within a reasonable time. Second, for the Supreme Court to issue a declaration that the Governor has failed the exercise of his constitutional duties under Article 200. And finally, issue a mandamus to the Governor to dispose of the pending bills without delay. 

Yesterday, a day before the hearing was to be conducted, Khan assented to one law, the Kerala Public Health Bill, 2022 and referred the remaining seven to the President of India. Notably, the President is not bound by any deadline to consider the Bills. The remaining seven bills include five University Laws Amendment Bills, Kerala Co-operative Societies (Amendment) Bill and a Bill to amend the Kerala Lokayukta legislation. 

In the hearing today, Senior Advocate K.K. Venugopal, appearing for the petitioners, unsuccessfully sought a set of guidelines from the Court on the Governor’s powers and duties under Article 200. 

Chief Justice of Nepal, Bishowambhar Prasad Shrestha and Justice Hari Prasad Phuyal, Judge of the Supreme Court of Nepal joined Court Room 1 to observe the day’s proceedings.

Venugopal: Court must issue guidelines on grounds of Governor’s rejection, reference and deadline for assent of Bills

When the hearing began, the Bench pointed out that the question of inaction from the Governor had been dealt with by the Court recently in State of Punjab v Principal Secretary to the Governor of Punjab (2023). The “constitutional position” on the reasonable time within which the Governor has to give assent to the Bill is clear. CJI D.Y. Chandrachud stated that the Governor’s assent, though given after the Court’s intervention, had been given, indicating some positive action from his end. Venugopal suggested that the reference of the seven Bills to the President was “wholly improper”. “That cannot be dealt with in this petition,” the CJI responded.

Further, Venugopal stated that there is no single arbitrary power given to any constitutional authority. If the Governor is referring a bill to the president, he/she must give reasons for such reference. 

Venugopal also told the Court that there were an additional eight bills pending before the Governor. Of those, one is a money bill, which the governor is not authorised to reject. Venugopal argued that this inaction from the Governor will “completely subvert the functioning of the government and the governance of the state.” 

The petitioners then requested the Court to lay down guidelines on the power of the Governor under Article 200. The guidelines must, he said, stipulate when a bill can be reserved for the consideration of the President, and when the Governor is authorised to return the bill to the legislative assembly with a message, and the circumstances when a Governor may grant their assent to the bills so presented. 

The Attorney General argued that the petition is confined to a direction to the Governor to dispose of the Bills. 

Supreme Court: No need for guidelines at this stage

The Bench noted, with some displeasure, that the Governor took action only after the nudge from the Supreme Court. However, they stated that by assenting to one of the bills and reserving seven bills for the President’s consideration, the Governor has in fact satisfied one of the prayers of the petitioners. 

In light of this, the Court found that the need for guidelines, as sought by Venugopal, “does not strictly arise”. 

On the eight other pending bills, the court recorded the Attorney General’s assurance that they will take “necessary action”, specifically with the pending money bill.

CJI Chandrachud: “What was the Governor doing for two years?”

Venugopal for the petitioners argued that unfortunately, the governor is making himself an adversary by preventing the functioning of the government.

“There is some substance in what is being argued,” the CJI said, asking why the Governor was sitting on the bills for two years. Venkataramani responded that he “did not want to get into that question, because it opens up a very undesirable situation.”

“We will get into it,” the Bench insisted, saying that there is accountability by the Governor, and the Court to the Constitution. 

Mr. Venugopal sought permission to make an amendment to the petition, to include the broader issues raised after the developments of 28 November 2023. The Court allowed the request.