Dealing a serious blow to Kerala government, the apex court stated that there was an unwarranted intervention by the state government.
The Supreme Court on Thursday, 30 November, set aside the reappointment of Dr Gopinath Ravindran as the vice-chancellor (VC) of Kannur University in Kerala.
The top court set aside the reappointment after quashing the state government’s 23 November 2021 notification circumventing the University Grants Commission (UGC) norms applicable to all institutions of higher learning in the country.
Dealing a serious blow to Kerala’s Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government, the apex court stated that there was an unwarranted intervention by the state government.
Quashing the notification reappointing Ravindran, a bench comprising Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala, and Justice Manoj Misra said: “We have reached the conclusion that although the notification reappointing the respondent No 4 (Dr Gopinath Ravindran ) to the post of Vice-Chancellor was issued by the Chancellor yet the decision stood vitiated by the influence of extraneous considerations or to put it in other words by the unwarranted intervention of the state government.”
The bench further held that “there was no independent application of mind or satisfaction or judgement on the part of the Chancellor and Dr Gopinath Ravindran (R-4) came to be reappointed only at the behest of the state Government”.
It added: “Under the scheme of the Kannur University Act, 1996 and the statutes, the Chancellor plays a very important role. He is not merely a titular head. In the selection of the Vice-Chancellor, he is the sole judge and his opinion is final in all respects. In reappointing the Vice-Chancellor, the main consideration to prevail upon the Chancellor is the interest of the university.”
Making a distinction between the Chancellor and the Governor — two offices vested in the same person — Justice Pardiwala speaking for the bench said: “It is the Chancellor who has been conferred with the competence under the Kannur University Act 1996 to appoint or reappoint a Vice-Chancellor.”
“No other person even the Pro-Chancellor or any superior authority can interfere with the functioning of the statutory authority and if any decision is taken by a statutory authority at the behest or on a suggestion of a person who has no statutory role to play, the same would be patently illegal,” he added.
The judgement said that the Chancellor was “required to discharge his statutory duties in accordance with law and guided by the dictates of his own judgment and not at the behest of anybody else. Law does not recognise any such extra constitutional interference in the exercise of statutory discretion. Any such interference amounts to dictation from political superior and has been condemned by courts on more than one occasions.”
The bench said this answering four questions.
(i) Whether reappointment is permissible in respect of a tenure post?
(ii) Whether the outer age limit of 60 years for the appointment of VC as stipulated under sub-section (9) of Section 10 of the Act 1996 to be made applicable even in the case of reappointment of the VC for one more term of four years?
(iii) Whether the reappointment of the VC has to follow the same process as a fresh appointment by setting up a selection committee under Section 10(1) of the Act 1996?
(iv) Did the Chancellor abdicate or surrender his statutory power of reappointment of the VC?
The bench said this while setting aside the February 2022 Kerala High Court judgment upholding the reappointment of Ravindran as Kannur University VC. The top court said this while answering four questions framed by it while adjudicating the challenge to the high court judgment.
Answering the four questions, Justice Pardiwala said that for tenure posts there could not be a reappointment, 60 year age cap wouldn’t apply for reappointment, and for reappointment it was not necessary to have a selection committee.
Answering the fourth question, the court said that it had allowed the challenge to the high court judgment, and stated that the Chancellor abdicated or surrendered his power rendering the entire decision process bad.
Finding flaws with the process that was followed, the court said, “Although the notification for reappointment was issued by the Chancellor, yet the decision stood vitiated by the influence or extraneous consideration, or to put it in other words, by the unwarranted intervention of the state government.”
The court stated this relying on the press note issued by the Kerala Governor’s office which said, “Kerala Raj Bhawan strongly refutes some news reports that it was on the directions of the Hon’ble Governor that the name of Dr Gopinath Ravindran was suggested. The truth is that the same was initiated by the Chief Minister and the Higher Education Minister.”
Responding to the Supreme Court’s order, Governor Arif Mohammad Khan reiterated on Thursday that pressure from Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had forced him to approve the reappointment of Ravindran.
Speaking to the media in Thiruvananthapuram, Khan stated that this has always been his opinion.
“If you recall the entire sequence of events that led to the appointment of the VC, the chief minister himself came to my office first. Kannur was his home district,” he said.
“I informed him that the procedure had already begun and that the choice would be made by the selection panel. ‘Once I receive their recommendation, I will consult with you and consider your input before appointing the VC’, I said.”
“Three days after the procedure began, his legal advisor and the OSD (officer on special duty) visited my office. They told me there was no need to go through the process because I had already pledged to accommodate the CM’s desires. But I reminded them that the law required us to go through the procedure. Then they informed me that, based on the legal advice they had received, the procedure could be halted.”
“When I inquired as to who provided that opinion, they presented an unsigned letter from the AG (Attorney General).”
“That letter was refused by me. So they asked for more time. These two persons arrived at my office a few days later. The OSD was merely there to support the legal advisor, who was doing all of the talking. They produced the letter from the (Higher) Education Minister (R Bindu) recommending Prof Gopinath’s reappointment, which was accompanied by a duly signed opinion from the AG.”
“I told them that what they were asking me to do was illegal, but since they had the AG’s signed opinion, I agreed.”
“However, I informed them that it was illegal and in violation of the law.”
“I wrote to the CM that evening or the next day, stating that what he forced me to do was illegal. And that he would continue to put pressure on me in other areas. As a result, I asked him to establish alternative arrangements and remove me as chancellor of state universities.”
“It wasn’t the education minister, but the pressure came directly from the CM. Yes, she did write the letter to me, but it was the CM’s legal advisor who brought it to my attention. She used to write to me as pro-chancellor. However, all of the pressure came from the CM,” Khan explained.
Previously, the Kerala High Court upheld the reappointment, stating that the procedure had followed the Kannur University Act of 1996. The high court reasoned that the UGC regulations and restrictions were followed during the initial appointment and would not be mandatory during the reappointment. It stated that the UGC’s age condition was not applicable in the case of Ravindran because it was a reappointment.
Premachandran Keezhoth, a Kannur University Senate member, and Shino P Jose, a member of the Academic Council (Management Studies), submitted the quo warranto writ suit that led to the Supreme Court’s ruling.
According to them, Ravindran’s reappointment was not based on an impartial appraisal or consideration of his services, and the decision was made at the request of the state government. As a result, the reappointment violated UGC norms.
Counsels for Keezhoth and Jose argued in court that the appointment should be reversed since he was over 60 years old and the appointment was made without a search committee, which violated the 2018 UGC guidelines.
They contended that the LDF government reappointed Ravindran as VC in November 2021 by ignoring Section 10(9) of the Kannur University Act, which set the upper age limit for candidates for the VC’s post at 60 years.
First, the two teachers filed an appeal with the Kerala High Court against the reappointment. The petition was denied in favour of the government by a single bench of the Kerala High Court, compelling the two teachers to appeal to the division bench.
On 23 February 2022, the Kerala High Court’s division bench of then Chief Justice S Manikumar and Judge Shaji P Chaly endorsed Ravindran’s reappointment, stating that it had been granted by the Governor.
When Khan reappointed Ravindran for four years, beginning on 24 November 2021, it was the first reappointment in the history of the state’s higher education sector.
This was done even though the government had formed a search committee to select candidates for the post of VC, with 30 November set as the deadline for candidates to submit their applications.
The Save University Campaign Committee, a higher education whistleblower group, had already sent a letter to the Governor opposing this reappointment.
According to the committee, the appointment could only be considered a political incentive for laying the groundwork for the suspected, unlawful appointment of CPI(M) leader KK Ragesh’s wife as an associate professor at Kannur University’s Malayalam department. Ragesh is still the chief minister’s private secretary.
“According to the University Act, the candidate chosen as vice chancellor must be under 60 years old at the time of appointment.”
However, the Governor confirmed the government’s request on the grounds that “because Ravindran is a reappointment, the UGC’s age bar need not apply in his case,” according to the campaign committee.
Gopinath Ravindran was a history professor at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi before becoming the vice chancellor of Kannur University.
In 1982, he graduated with honours from St Stephen’s College and went on to get his MA, MPhil, and Ph.D. at the JNU Centre for Historical Studies.
Ravindran began his teaching career in 1987 at St Stephan’s College in New Delhi before moving to Jamia Millia University the following year.
In 2001–2003, he conducted post-doctoral research at the London School of Economics’ Department of Social Policy.
Between 2013 and 2015, he was the member secretary of the Indian Council of Historical Research in New Delhi.
Ravindran made headlines in 2015 when he resigned from his position as member secretary of the ICHR in the middle of his tenure due to disagreements with council chairman YS Rao, particularly over the latter’s decision to abolish an advisory group of which historian Romila Thapar was a member.
Kerala’s leftists see Ravindran as one of India’s premier historians, with a specialisation in Kerala’s agrarian history and historical demography.
During the controversy, it was also claimed that re-appointing Kannur University VC would make other VCs more vulnerable to political interference on a pay-for-play basis.
Following the reappointment, disagreements arose between the Governor and Ravindran, culminating with Khan labelling him a criminal.
Khan further stated that Ravindran organised heckling against him when he went to Kannur University on 28 December 2019, to inaugurate the 80th edition of the Indian History Congress.
Those who attended the event, however, categorically refuted the claim and confirmed that Ravindran was not even present during the protests that Khan faced for repeating the BJP’s position on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
According to them, Khan was seen attempting to revenge historian Irfan Habib and others who objected when he set aside the prepared text for the inaugural speech and engaged in extempore responses to some of the earlier speakers, including the then CPI (M) Rajya Sabha member KK Ragesh.