The Kerala government faced a significant setback as the Supreme Court nullified the reappointment of Dr Gopinathan Ravindran as the vice-chancellor (VC) of Kannur University in Kerala.
While quashing the Kerala government’s decision to re-appoint Gopinath Ravindran as the vice-chancellor, the apex court observed "unwarranted intervention of the State Government" in Gopinath being reappointed through a notification dated November 23, 2021. Additionally, the court noted that the Chancellor (Kerala Governor) "abdicated or surrendered" the statutory powers for re-appointing the vice-chancellor.
Background of the case
In 2021, Governor Arif Muhammad Khan, also serving as the chancellor, issued the re-appointment order for Gopinath Ravindran the day after his term had expired. This marked the first instance in the state where the governor re-appointed a vice-chancellor who had completed a four-year term in the same position for an additional four years. Following this appointment, the committee tasked with selecting a new VC was disbanded, leading to allegations of political interference in the re-appointment.
The appellants sought the annulment of the re-appointment, contending that, as per regulations, a person is eligible to serve as vice-chancellor only until the age of 60. Given that Ravindran, born on December 19, 1960, surpassed the age limit during his second appointment, they argued for its cancellation. Furthermore, they asserted that once a vice-chancellor's four-year term concludes, there is no provision for an extension, and the only recourse is a new appointment.
However, both a single bench and later the division bench of the Kerala High Court dismissed the appeal, stating that the reappointment adhered to the laws. Today, a three-member bench comprising Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala, and Justice Manoj Misra set aside the high court's order from February 23, 2022.
In October 2022, the Supreme Court, in a similar case, invalidated the reappointment of the vice-chancellor of Calcutta University. In that instance as well, the court's decision was based on the observation that the West Bengal State Government had "usurped the powers of the Chancellor."
What the petitioner says
Shino P. Jose, an Academic Council member of Kannur University and one of the petitioners in the case, stated to THE WEEK that the decision of the apex court marks a significant triumph against the favouritism, nepotism, and political interference exhibited by the Kerala government in the higher education sector. "We opted for legal avenues to address these issues, bringing our case to the Supreme Court to contest the reappointment of Gopinath Ravindran, believing he was functioning as a mere agent of the state government," he remarked.
"Upon scrutinizing his reappointment, we identified several legal flaws and subsequently approached the High Court. When the single bench verdict was delivered, Higher Education Minister R. Bindu challenged us, suggesting that petitioners could take the matter to higher courts. The recent Supreme Court decision acknowledges external intervention, a concern we consistently voiced from the outset. Both the Chancellor (Governor) and now the Supreme Court acknowledge this external influence. In light of this, the Higher Education Minister should take responsibility and resign from her post if any self-respect remains.
Impact of the verdict
The response from the Higher Education Minister to the verdict indicates her acceptance of it. However, she sought to shift the blame to the Chancellor (Governor), asserting that he should have exercised discretion in appointing the Vice-Chancellor. The minister explained, "The government merely submitted a proposal in accordance with the legal advice received from the Advocate General."
Similarly, M.V. Jayarajan, a veteran leader and CPI(M)'s Kannur district secretary, opined that in light of the verdict, the Governor has no right to retain his position. He emphasized, "Just like the vice-chancellor, the Governor should also step down."
Despite efforts by the party leadership to depict the verdict as not aimed at the government but rather at the Governor, it appears unlikely to successfully address the situation. Sasikumar, an educational activist associated with the Save Kerala University Forum, which tackles issues related to the politicization and alleged mafia control of higher education in Kerala, asserts that the verdict is a direct rebuke to the government.
In response to the verdict, Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan criticized Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan for pressuring him to approve Gopinath Ravindran's reappointment as vice-chancellor of Kannur University. The Governor reiterated that, despite reservations about the legality of the reappointment, he yielded to the decision due to the pressure exerted on him.
Governor Khan recounted that on November 21, 2021, just two days before Ravindran's term expiration, the Chief Minister's legal advisor and Officer on Special Duty (OSD) visited his office, presenting what they claimed to be the Advocate General's 'opinion.' According to the Governor, the CM met him the next day, reiterating the request.
Governor Khan mentioned that the government also submitted the signed legal opinion of the Advocate General, addressed to the Additional Chief Secretary of the Higher Education Department. This opinion suggested that it was legally permissible to annul the notification for appointing a Search Committee and allow the Pro-Chancellor (higher education minister) to propose the reappointment of the incumbent for another continuous term of four years.
Governor Khan clarified that, despite expressing concerns about its legality and irregularity, he accepted the proposal based on the legal advice provided by the Advocate General. According to Khan's account, he officially authorized the government to withdraw the October 27 notification, which established the selection panel. This action enabled the State Government to submit the necessary proposal for the reappointment of Gopinath Ravindran due to what Khan referred to as the "intervention" of the state government.
Interestingly, the timing of the verdict was opportune, occurring just a day after the Supreme Court strongly criticized Khan for delaying the approval of bills passed by the Kerala State Legislative Assembly for two years. A day before the Supreme Court was scheduled to consider the Kerala government's plea against the prolonged withholding of eight important bills by the Governor, Khan sent seven bills for the President's consideration. This move led Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to criticize the Governor, questioning his respect for the Supreme Court. With the recent verdict on the Kannur VC reappointment, Governor Khan appears to have seized an opportunity for retaliatory comments.