New Delhi: In a move this Sunday that has snowballed into a political controversy, Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan asked the vice-chancellors (V-Cs) of nine state universities to tender their resignations, on the grounds that rules were flouted during their appointment.
When they refused to resign, Khan issued show-cause notices to them Monday, requiring them to respond by 3 November on their “legal right” to continue in office. The V-Cs then moved the Kerala High Court, and were allowed to continue in their posts until the governor passes a final order based on their responses to the notices. On Tuesday, Khan went on to serve notices to the V-Cs of two more universities.
Acting in his capacity as the chancellor of state-run universities, the governor Sunday had pointed to a Supreme Court ruling from last week, which set aside the appointment of the V-C of Kerala’s APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University. This was on the ground that the search committee had failed to recommend a panel of at least three names, in accordance with University Grants Commission (UGC) norms. Eight other V-Cs were then asked to resign.
Upholding the verdict of Hon'ble SupremeCourt dt 21.10.22 in Civil Appeal Nos.7634-7635 of 2022(@ SLP(c)Nos.21108-21109 of 2021) Hon'ble Governor Shri Arif Mohammed Khan has directed Vice Chancellors of 9 varsities in Kerala(see image) to tender resignation: PRO,KeralaRajBhavan pic.twitter.com/tsT5tQ9NJr
— Kerala Governor (@KeralaGovernor) October 23, 2022
In his letter to the nine V-Cs, Khan reportedly said that as they had been “either appointed from single-name panels or recommended by the search/ selection committee with non-academician as member,” they were not eligible to continue in their positions.
According to his letter, in most of the nine cases, the chief secretary was a member of the search committee, hinting at political interference in the appointments.
The governor’s actions have ruffled more than a few feathers in the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala, with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan alleging that Khan is “acting as a tool” of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The governor, on his part, has maintained that he is merely trying to take corrective action based on the word of the Supreme Court.
The latest fracas, however, is the latest in a series of run-ins between the LDF government and the governor, which have often centred on issues related to state universities.
How it all started
The governor’s call for VCs’ resignations came after the Supreme Court last week held that the appointment of a university vice-chancellor would be considered illegal if the search committee recommended only one name rather than three-five candidates, as mandated by the UGC regulations of 2013.
According to the UGC’s rules, the selection of a V-C “should be through proper identification of a panel of 3-5 names by a search committee through a public notification or a nomination or talent search process or in combination”.
The Supreme Court’s order came on the back of a petition from an aggrieved professor, P.S. Sreejith, who had applied for the post of V-C at the Kerala government-run APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University. The position had been advertised twice by the state.
Sreejith’s name was included in the shortlist after the first notification. However, following this, the search-cum-selection committee was dissolved, and Sreejith was not included in the second list released in December 2018.
In February 2019, M.S. Rajasree was appointed V-C. Subsequently, Sreejith found, with the help of a Right to Information (RTI) application, that there were anomalies in the selection process.
He first filed a petition in the Kerala High Court, which refused to quash the appointment, and then moved the Supreme Court, which vindicated his stance.
A two-judge bench of the Supreme Court found that the search committee had suggested only Rajasree’s name for the post of V-C. As a result, the chancellor “had no option to consider the names of the other candidates”, the bench said.
The court in its order also cited the university’s own rules, which stipulate that selection must be from a panel.
“The Committee shall unanimously recommend a panel of not less than three suitable persons from amongst the eminent persons in the field of engineering sciences,” states Section 13 (4) of the APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University Act, 2015.
The governor’s office then found the same issue in the selection process of eight other universities as well, and, citing the Supreme Court’s judgment, asked the VCs to tender their resignations.
ThePrint contacted the governor’s office, but no one was “available for a comment”.
In an interaction with the media Monday, the governor said that he had not sacked the V-Cs but suggested an “honourable exit” so that the “selection process can be started afresh”.
He also clarified that the move was not against the V-Cs, who he said had been working “quite efficiently”, but against the selection process. “Sadly… the SC has left me with no other option” he added.
The governor’s rationale for demanding the V-Cs’ resignation has been met with scepticism from various quarters of the state government.
CPI-M leader and Kerala excise minister M.B. Rajesh told ThePrint that the governor had applied the Supreme Court order for one V-C to all the others “without substantial proof”.
“The verdict cannot be automatically applied to all V-Cs. It was only limited to the particular case of one university on a petition filed against it,” he said.
“Second, nobody has challenged the appointment of other V-Cs and hence they are not questionable in any form. V-Cs can be removed only on two grounds, which aremisconduct and misgovernance — and in these cases, neither of the two has been applied,” he added.
The strongest reaction came from CM Pinarayi Vijayan, who alleged that Khan was “misusing” his position as chancellor to “exercise more power than he holds” and encroaching on V-Cs’ powers.
“It’s undemocratic… governor’s post is not to move against the government, but to uphold the Constitution’s dignity. He’s acting as a tool of the RSS,” Vijayan added.
The state’s law minister, P. Rajeev, has also lashed out at Khan, saying that “nowhere in the UGC rules does it say that the governor should be the chancellor of universities”.
Last month, the Kerala assembly had passed a bill curtailing the powers of the governor as chancellor of state universities. The move was preceded by a tussle between Khan and Kerala’s CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government over various issues related to university appointments.
Khan, who was sworn in as Kerala governor in September 2019, is a former Union minister who famously quit the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet over the Shah Bano case. His subsequent political career included a stint in the BJP.
Since his tenure in Kerala began, Khan has had several run-ins with the Pinarayi Vijayan government, including in 2020 when he asked the state government to submit a report on why it had moved the Supreme Court against the Citizenship Amendment Act before informing him.
In February this year, a minor controversy arose when the governor appointed a BJP state committee member called Hari S. Kartha to his staff. The government cleared it, but not without making a point that this was ‘against norms’.
Earlier this month, too, there was a flare-up when Khan said he could sack LDF ministers who tried to “lower the dignity” of the governor’s office, leading to accusations of overreach from the state government.
Hon’ble Governor Shri Arif Mohammed Khan said:“The CM and Council of Ministers have every right to advise Governor.But statements of individual ministers that lower the dignity of the office of the Governor,can invite action including withdrawal of pleasure”:PRO,KeralaRajBhavan
— Kerala Governor (@KeralaGovernor) October 17, 2022
Khan’s comment reportedly came after state higher education minister R. Bindu criticised him for removing 15 senate members of the University of Kerala.
The LDF has now announced a series of protests next month against the governor.
“The governor proceeds by declaring that he is an RSS supporter. His intervention in the university issue is autocratic. Senate members were withdrawn to bring in RSS members. The governor is attempting to control the higher education sector. The aim [of the protests] is to build resistance against this,” CPI(M) state secretary M.V. Govindan said Sunday evening.
A former V-C of a state university in Kerala said on condition of anonymity that he believed the governor’s latest move was political.
“The governor seems to have sensed a political opportunity in using a general observation about the appointment of V-Cs in the recent SC judgment, which is why he initially demanded that all other Kerala VCs resign. He and the government were not on good terms, especially after the government made a big noise about the appointment of Hari S. Kartha in [Khan’s] staff.”
‘Both CPI(M) and governor at fault’
The Congress, the main opposition party in the state, has taken the stance that the governor as well as the CPI(M) are to blame for the ongoing controversy.
“There is a tussle between the governor and LDF. In the beginning when they had good relations, the CM gave a lot of files to the governor, and he signed all the files… These V-C appointments also [Khan] has only signed. He has only made mistakes and now he is blaming the government,” Congress MP Kodikunnil Suresh told ThePrint.
According to Suresh, the CPI(M) had been appointing its own people in government universities and the governor’s office had gone along with it.
“The government had sent proposals for V-C selection to Raj Bhawan and they did not verify anything and the V-Cs were appointed. Now, the governor is saying that the government has made a mistake. The governor is also wrong and the government is also wrong. Now they are involved in a political tussle,” he added.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)