Row over Kerala VC appointments: Meet the man who unintentionally armed Governor Khan

The apex court annulled a VC's appointment based on PS Sreejith's petition; Governor cited ruling to seek resignation of other VCs.

ByK A Shaji

Published Oct 26, 2022 | 2:26 PMUpdatedOct 26, 2022 | 7:22 PM


Dr PS Sreejith is both happy and surprised. The Supreme Court order annulling the appointment of MS Rajashree as the vice-chancellor of APJ Abdul Kalam Kerala Technological University, he felt, has vindicated his stand.

He, however, did not expect the 21 October Supreme Court order to have a statewide ramification.

The court’s ruling armed Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan to take on the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government — a battle he has been waging for some time now.

After issuing an ultimatum to nine vice-chancellors in the state to resign, Governor Khan on Tuesday, 25 October, issued show-cause notices to two more, citing violation of University Grants Commission (UGC) norms in their appointments as vice-chancellors.

The spat between the Raj Bhavan and the Governor has reached a flashpoint, grabbing national attention. The man who unintentionally triggered the stand-off, however, is surprised.

“I did not expect that my complaint would initiate such a development rocking the entire higher education sector in Kerala,” he told South First.

Sreejith’s legal battle

The complaint he referred to was a petition he had filed before the Supreme Court, challenging a verdict of the Kerala High Court.


Dr PS Sreejith’s challenge of a VC appointment has helped Governor Khan in Kerala. (Supplied)

A former dean of the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT) and the present Principal of Kochi-based Rajagiri School of Engineering and Technology, Sreejith waged a lone legal battle against the government appointing Rajashree as the VC of APJ Abdul Kalam Kerala Technological University.

The Kerala High Court had earlier dismissed Sreejith’s contention. He was among the applicants for the post of vice-chancellor of the technological university. He applied for the post after seeing a notification published in a newspaper in 2018. He was then a dean at CUSAT.

“They (the Search Committee) shortlisted my name and invited me for an interview. But the interview was postponed without citing any valid reason. Though another date was fixed, the interview was not conducted on that day either. Then I learned that the Higher Education Department had dissolved the Search Committee. A fresh notification was issued, and a new Search Committee was formed. They began the process again without citing any reason,” he said.

He applied again. But his application was rejected without providing any reason. In February 2019, Sreejith saw newspaper reports on the appointment of Rajashree as the vice-chancellor.

“I felt they deliberately ignored my candidature. Those who had shortlisted me after the first notification refused to acknowledge my application. Later, I found some others who had applied to this post, too, were ignored,” Sreejith said.

Related: Historians slam Gov Khan for calling Kannur varsity VC a criminal

Never say die

Refusing to let it go, Sreejith filed several applications under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, seeking details about the appointment process. But the applications elicited no reply.

Sreejith then approached the RTI appellate authorities. But their interventions, too, failed. Authorities even refused to share with him the marks the first search committee had awarded to the candidates.

“I then went through the UGC rules. According to the rules, the Search Committee is bound to give a panel comprising not less than three names to the Chancellor for selecting the best candidate for the post of vice-chancellor. But the committee had proposed only a single name. Later I found that the Search Committee did not have experts from the higher education sector as mandated by the UGC,” Sreejith said.

The state chief secretary was one among the three members of the Search Committee that selected Rajashree. Sreejith alleged that the chief secretary’s involvement in the selection exposed the government’s interest in the case of the selected candidate.

“I decided to approach the court. Though a detailed petition was filed before a single bench of the high court in 2019, it dismissed my arguments, saying that the appointment was made as per specific rules in the statute of the university concerned and that it was not illegal. Then I approached the division bench. The bench also rejected my petition citing the same reason,” he added.

Case reaches Supreme Court

Sreejith initially considered quitting the battle after the high court rejected his petition twice. His advocate, however, encouraged him to appeal to the Supreme Court. The lawyer convinced him, saying that he had valid points and hence the apex court would ensure justice. He approached the Supreme Court in January 2022.

“We studied the UGS rules in detail. Several RTI applications were filed, and whatever information received was handed over to the advocate. Once I obtained the biodata of Rajashree, I compared it with mine. I found that I was more qualified. My attempts to know the marks scored by Rajashree and me from the committee failed since the authorities refused to share it with me,” Sreejith said.

However, the documents he sourced proved that he had topped the dropped first list. Meanwhile, his advocate collected details of recent Supreme Court verdicts that upheld UGC rules in appointments in West Bengal and Gujarat. Finally, they were able to convince the court.

Sreejith did not expect his legal battle would create such a controversy.

“I wanted to bring the issue to the public domain by fighting and losing the case. I have a strong biodata with high credentials. My research papers and PhD make me a better candidate. But they denied me justice. So I fought the case to the end,” he said.

Also read: Khan stonewalls amendments, Vijayan calls him ‘propagandist’

Governor issues show-cause notices

Meanwhile, Governor Khan, in his capacity as the Chancellor of all universities in the state, issued show-cause notices to Dr Saji Gopinath of the Kerala University of Digital Sciences, Innovation and Technology and Dr PM Murarak Pasha of the Sree Narayana Guru Open University.

Governor Arif Mohammad Khan

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan with Governor Arif Muhammad Khan. (South First)

The notices were issued on Tuesday, a day after the Kerala High Court had provided interim relief to nine other VCs, who the Governor had asked to resign.

The Governor directed them to reply to the notices before 5 pm, 4 November.

Citing a similar breach of regulations in their appointments, Khan, in an unprecedented move on Sunday, 23 October, had asked nine other vice-chancellors to put in their papers in less than 24 hours.

The vice-chancellors, apparently based on a government directive, defied the order, and instead approached the high court. The nine vice-chancellors included VP Mahadevan Pillai of the University of Kerala, whose tenure ended on Monday, 24 October.

Khan had pointed out that they were appointed from single-name panels, or recommended by Search Committees with non-academicians as its members.

The high court allowed the vice-chancellors to continue for the time being and directed the Governor to make a final call on their appointments based on their replies to the show-cause notices.

Khan leaves for Delhi

Meanwhile, the Governor left for Delhi after serving notices to two more vice-chancellors. He is expected back in the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, on 3 November. Khan will decide on the fate of the vice-chancellors after receiving their replies.

The nine vice-chancellors were served show-cause notices after they refused to quit by the Raj Bhavan-set deadline of 11.30 am, Monday, 24 October.

While asking the nine vice-chancellors to resign, the governor referred to the Supreme Court order that had annulled the appointment of Rajashree.

While holding her appointment null and void, the apex court had observed that the state should have recommended a panel of not less than three qualified people as the vice-chancellor. Instead, the state had forwarded only one name.

“Any appointment as a vice-chancellor made on the recommendation of the Search Committee, which is contrary to the provisions of the UGC regulations, shall be void ab initio (void from the outset),” the court ruled.

The verdict, it seems, helped the Governor to step up his offensive against the government. The government and the CPI(M) responded sharply to the Governor’s move, saying he had crossed all limits and has been trying to saffronise the higher education sector.