Row over a choice

Published : Dec 05, 2003 00:00 IST

Problems arise over the appointment of an interim Member-Secretary in the Indian Council of Historical Research as the HRD Ministry replaces the Chairman's choice with its own nominee.

THE autonomy of government-funded social research institutions, which is central to their independent functioning, has increasingly come under strain in recent times. The worst affected in this regard is perhaps the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), given its run-ins with the Ministry of Human Resource Development. The most recent one is about what is described as a "resolvable administrative issue".

The bone of contention in this round is the appointment of the ICHR Member-Secretary. The post fell vacant in September when the incumbent, R.C. Aggarwal, joined the National Museum. Under the rules the ICHR Chairperson makes the final appointment, and in the interim a qualified person is delegated to perform the functions of Member-Secretary. What is a routine affair metamorphosed into a full-blown controversy this time on account of the Ministry's interference. When the Ministry failed to obtain a consensus on its candidate, it decided to appoint a person from outside the list, Kapil Kumar, who is also the nominee of the University Grants Commission to the ICHR. He was not acceptable to the ICHR Chairman, M.G.S. Narayanan, who had already passed on the responsibilities to another person.

Soon after Aggarwal left, Narayanan wrote to the Ministry to depute an officer as an ad hoc arrangement to perform the functions of the Member-Secretary. Of the three names suggested by the Ministry, Narayanan gave his consent to two. Instead of deputing one of them, the Ministry chose Kapil Kumar, who also happens to be the Director of the School of Social Sciences, Indira Gandhi National Open University.

The manner in which Kapil Kumar was "appointed" was not acceptable to Narayanan, who maintained that proper procedure had not been followed. Narayanan's choice was P.K. Shukla, the senior-most Director in the ICHR, who was not acceptable to the Ministry. When Narayanan found that the day-to-day work of the ICHR suffered, he deputed Shukla as empowered under the ICHR's Memorandum of Association (MoA). Shukla had begun performing the responsibilities of Member-Secretary even before the Ministry announced Kapil Kumar's name and without any extra remuneration. The selection procedure for making a regular appointment to the post of Member-Secretary had also been initiated.

On October 15, the Ministry, through an order, informed Narayanan that Kapil Kumar had been entrusted with additional responsibility as Member-Secretary under Rule 16(b) of the MoA. He was also told that his official memo of September 26, appointing Shukla, stood superseded. Any action taken by Shukla on the basis of the Chairperson's order, the Ministry said, would be considered illegal and he would be liable for disciplinary action or criminal proceedings, as the case may be.

Rule 16 of the MoA is clear on the functions of the government and the Chairman. Rule 16(a) says that the Government of India may give directives to the ICHR in respect of its broad policies and programmes. Rule 16(b) says that if at any time a difficulty arises in the functioning of the ICHR because of any lacunae in the MoA or the rules, or the failure of any of their provisions to operate, the GOI shall have the powers to give directives to resolve the difficulty and such directives shall be binding on the officers and authorities of the Council. As far as the first part is concerned, there appears to be no "broad policy or programme" involved in the decision of filling the post of Member-Secretary.

The second part does not fit the situation, as there has been no apparent lacuna or vacuum that pre-empted the government's intervention. The crisis, if any has been created by the Ministry, first by declining to respond to the Chairman's repeated pleas to appoint an interim Member-Secretary and second by imposing its own candidate after the Chairperson had taken the initiative to appoint a person. By doing so it was clearly seen to be tampering with the Council's autonomy. The Service Regulations of the ICHR (1989) do not confer on the Ministry the power to appoint the Member-Secretary. The Chairman is not only the appointing authority, but also the "Controlling Authority" for the post.

In a long missive to the Ministry, Narayanan expressed his strong disapproval over the manner in which the Ministry's candidate had imposed himself on the affairs of the Council. He wrote: "If only the Ministry had consulted the Chairman before suggesting the name of Professor Kapil Kumar as Member-Secretary, I could have informed that he was unfit for the high office because his conduct in Council meetings was, to say the least, undesirable. From the beginning, he went on making wild and baseless allegations against the Member-Secretary and the Chairman, shouting and snoring alternatively in the Council meetings, and trying to obstruct the smooth functioning of the Council... . It is unfortunate that the Ministry has rewarded such a person by proposing his name to work as Member-Secretary even for a short while. It would appear (I hope this is not true) that he has been chosen to fight the Chairman and disrupt office work by his misconduct and thus bring discredit to the Council. Such an attempt to interfere with the autonomy of the Council is regretted."

Narayanan was emphatic that Kapil Kumar cannot take charge as Member-Secretary until he got an office order from the Chairman, which empowered him to hold such a post. But Kapil Kumar, who joined duty on October 15, has been issuing office orders as well as instructions to the bank not to honour cheques signed by Shukla. The Chairman clearly sees this as an attempt to prevent normal transactions and to paralyse the functioning of the office. Narayanan wrote to the Ministry to cancel Kapil Kumar's nomination in order to enable the smooth functioning of the ICHR.

Narayanan was appointed ICHR chairperson under the tutelage of Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi. But as an independent historian committed to history, he made the mistake of criticising some history textbooks of the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT). It is said that since then he has become persona non grata for the government. In this war of attrition, historical research is no doubt the main casualty.

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