There is a battle of wits currently underway in Kerala between Governor Arif Mohammad Khan and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left government in the state has sought to portray the tussle as Khan’s gubernatorial overreach, acting at the behest of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre.
However, despite all attempts of the state government to characterise it as an infringement on federalism, the core issue has nothing to do with the Raj Bhavan’s constitutional mandate; instead, it is the governor’s statutory authority as chancellor of universities that has put him on a collision course with the state government.
For all their partisanship, when it came to the appointment of vice-chancellors, the alternating Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala went largely above petty political considerations. An august tradition practised since the Travancore Maharaja’s days when Diwan C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer invited none other than Albert Einstein to be Travancore University’s first vice-chancellor, this saw a marked change after 2016 when Pinarayi Vijayan assumed power.
The downward spiral became pronounced when the education ministry was bifurcated in 2018 (divesting the higher education portfolio from C Raveendranath), in a marked departure from the past. Loyalty to the Marxist government became the primary qualification rather than academic heft in its aftermath.
Acute to chronic
The situation became chronic after Khan assumed office in 2019. Initially, both Vijayan and Khan were keen to maintain a cordial equation for the smooth conduct of affairs, but consequent to Vijayan winning a second term in 2021, things began to unravel. Within six months Khan found himself in a legal bind, after getting arm-twisted into reappointing Gopinath Ravindran, a Left fellow-traveller, as vice-chancellor of Kannur University.
It is important to recall here that Khan and Vijayan were virtually on the same page for almost two years. Although there were occasional differences – such as the disagreement over reading out a paragraph against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and on the (now-scrapped) farm laws in his address to the assembly in successive years – it never spiralled out of control. Things came to a head only in December 2021, when Khan acted “against his better judgement”, as he wrote in a letter to Vijayan, on Gopinath Ravindran’s reappointment.
Quid pro quo
Ravindran’s reappointment was problematic at multiple levels. Having already set in motion the appointment of a new vice-chancellor by constituting a search committee, the governor was made to scrap it and reappoint Ravindran, who had also crossed the mandated age limit by then. When Khan developed cold feet, Vijayan sent his own legal adviser to reassure the former, followed by unsolicited legal advice obtained from the state’s advocate-general. This was also preceded by two letters from the minister for higher education, R Bindu, to the governor requesting the same, apparently in her capacity as ‘pro-chancellor’, a position which doesn’t lend her any such privilege.
What made matters infinitely worse was the charge of quid pro quo made out by the UDF. Ravindran’s extension was interpreted as a reward for the unlawful appointment of Priya Varghese, spouse of the chief minister’s private secretary KK Ragesh, as associate professor, without possessing the basic qualification to apply for the post. The appointment has been quashed by the Kerala High Court since.
A broken promise
A visibly shaken governor mulled giving up chancellorship in its wake, which isn’t part of his constitutional mandate in any case. He shot off a series of letters to the chief minister asking him to take over as chancellor and relieve him of the burden. At this point, Khan was repeatedly assured by Vijayan (as the letter correspondence reveals) that his government did not envisage compromising with or curtailing the powers of the chancellor, as Khan had apprehended in the letter.
However, in a swift about-turn of sorts, the Left government went ahead and attempted just that. The first move was to try and amend the Kerala University Act to have its own nominee as the chairman of the search committee instead of the governor. When the proposal got leaked in the media, the government put it on the back burner, till a Kerala State University Law Reforms Commission constituted under N.K. Jayakumar gave its report, which recommended trimming the powers of the chancellor. The Kerala government went ahead and attempted another piecemeal legislation to curtail the governor’s powers on the basis of this report – first through the ordinance route and later when the governor refused to sign it, by passing a bill in the legislative assembly.
An ego tussle
The stage was set for a showdown and soon, it became personal. Even as Khan took to the media, the chief minister responded in kind, leaving no room for rapprochement. Khan’s sudden volte-face and its timing also left room for speculation that it was a case of frustration after being overlooked for the post of vice-president, his West Bengal counterpart Jagdeep Dhankar pipping him to the post.
Be that as it may, the governor had enough reasons even otherwise to get back at Vijayan. Khan’s ego also played a part, as he often lamented to his inner circle how the chief minister had belittled him and the governor’s office by not returning calls and letters.
The Supreme Court verdict
It was against this backdrop that a crucial Supreme Court verdict came as a fillip to Khan. Not only was the appointment of Rajasree M.S. as vice-chancellor of APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University struck down as void ab initio (“having no legal effect from inception), the same would also apply to all the other universities in Kerala where appointments did not follow the University Grants Commission (UGC) norms. This led to an extraordinary situation where the vice-chancellors of nine universities would have no option but to step down, with Khan holding all the chips.
The governor, as if by premonition, had already obtained a list of senior professors from these universities. In response, the LDF has set in motion a spate of protests against the Raj Bhavan. The protests are designed to make it a Kerala-versus-Centre issue, with a committee set up under Left fellow-traveller B Eqbal to ensure participation from the wider civil society.
The question of chancellorship
The LDF government has also moved in quickly to promulgate an ordinance – the assembly is not in session till December – to try and strip the governor of his chancellorship. But it is highly unlikely to get the assent of the governor, who voluntarily expressed his willingness to step down last year, when the chief minister persuaded him to continue. The state government will then introduce it as a bill in the assembly whenever it is in session, but that is unlikely to get concurrence. The governor can send it to the president, or hold it infinitely, as the constitution doesn’t stipulate any time limit on that. The LDF has also gone ahead and sought advice from constitutional expert Fali S Nariman for a hefty fee to try and preclude it. The cat-and-mouse game is set to continue.
True, the governor might have overstepped his mandate on a few occasions in his constitutional role but, at the core of his dispute with the Kerala government, is his role as chancellor, where he has sought to make amends and uphold the law.
The author is a Kerala-based journalist and columnist. He tweets @AnandKochukudy. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)