A Chancellor and a politician: Crisis brews in Kerala's universities

Print edition : January 28, 2022

Governor Arif Mohammed Khan in Kochi on January 2. He would praise Kerala’s development achievements in public fora, while, at the same time, shooting sharp political barbs at the LDF government whenever he found an opportune moment. Photo: PTI

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan (right) with CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury in Thiruvananthapuram in May 2021. The Governor has left no one in doubt that along with the opposition, the LDF government has one more political element to contend with in Kerala. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The Governor delivering the policy address of the Kerala government amidst protest by UDF legislators in the Assembly in Thiruvananthapuram in February 2020. Photo: S. Mahinsha

R. Bindu, Higher Education Minister, at a function in Kerala University on October 29, 2021. As Pro-Chancellor of universities in the State, she reportedly asked the Chancellor to sanction Gopinath Ravindran’s reappointment as Kannur University Vice Chancellor, interpreting the provisions of the Kannur University Act in favour of an ‘extension’ of his services. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Gopinath Ravindran, Kannur Univeristy Vice Chancellor. Photo: The Hindu Archives

V.D. Satheesan, Opposition Leader. Photo: H. Vibhu

Governor Arif Mohammed Khan alleges political interference in universities in Kerala, declares he will no longer be the Chancellor and triggers a political and academic crisis in the Left-ruled State.

Ever since he took over as the Governor of Kerala in September 2019, Arif Mohammed Khan has kept himself in the limelight with his shrewd, critical responses to the politics, policies and programmes of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in the State.

Within months of assuming office, the seasoned politician, a former Union Minister who had been a member of the Congress, the Janata Dal, the Bahujan Samaj Party and eventually the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during a long political career, created a flutter in his new role as Governor by openly declaring his support for the BJP government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, even as widespread protests by the ruling and opposition parties were taking place across Kerala against it.

Referring to his responsibilities under the Constitution, and claiming that he was duty-bound to speak in support of a law passed by Parliament, Arif Mohammed Khan welcomed the Central government’s move to enact the CAA, inviting those protesting against it to a debate with him on the issue, and using every opportunity to deter the Left government’s efforts to register its protest against the Central government’s moves.

At about the same time he refused to sign an ordinance delimiting the wards in local bodies (where elections were to be held soon) reportedly telling a Minister who met him that if the State government could find the time to convene a special session of the Assembly to pass a resolution against the CAA, it could as well have convened the House to pass a law for the delimitation of the local body wards instead of promulgating an ordinance for it.

Unlike his predecessors, Arif Mohammed Khan also would pick on statements made by political party leaders for criticism. For instance, in response to a statement by Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), at a public meeting in Thiruvananthapuram, he said: “Yechury is asking that you abolish the office so that there is nobody to oversee whether rules are being followed or the Constitution is being followed or not. But the authority [to abolish the post of the Governor], that only the people of India can give them.”

Later, when he was asked to comment on Yechury’s statement about the post of the Governor being superfluous, he said: “Let them [the CPI(M)] ask the people of India to give them their trust so that they can do with the Constitution what they want to do. But today, they are not in a position to do that.”

It was such statements, unexpected from a Governor, that made Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan retort at a public meeting that when the British ruled India, Residents used to be appointed above rulers of the princely states. But, he said, “everyone should keep in mind that there are no such Residents now, who have more power over the State Assembly”.

Resolution against CAA

Soon, when the LDF government approached the Supreme Court with its Original Suit against the CAA under Article 131, the Governor registered his displeasure once again in not being informed beforehand about it or even about the Assembly resolution that was to be introduced against the CAA. Subsequently, when the government included its criticism of the CAA in the Governor’s policy address which he, as Governor, was meant to read out in the Assembly, Arif Mohammed Khan threatened to omit those portions from the address he would actually read, claiming that the government’s criticism of the CAA, a law passed by Parliament, was not a ‘policy’ but rather only its ‘view’.

Eventually, though he read out the prepared text, he added a personal justification to it. “I am going to read this paragraph although I hold the view that it does not come under the definition of ‘policy’ or ‘programme’ of the government. But the Chief Minister told me that this is the policy of the government. To honour his wish, I am going to read this out,” he told the Assembly, the first time, perhaps, that a Governor introduced his own critical remarks while making a policy address.

A temporary truce followed and the Governor seemed to blow hot and cold in his relationship with “his State government” (as he often liked to describe it) from then on. He would praise Kerala’s development achievements in public fora, especially in other parts of India, be the epitome of courtesy and decency in his personal dealings with the Chief Minister and other government and party leaders and an important campaigner against the practise of dowry, violence against women and other such social issues, while, at the same time, shooting sharp political barbs at the LDF government whenever, at frequent intervals, he found an opportune moment.

For over a year, however, the Governor-State government relationship seemed to be going without a hitch that some opposition parties alleged that it was all “a drama enacted by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan with the support of the BJP-nominated Governor”; that there was a secret pact between the Chief Minister and the Governor; and that “Khan is the bridge between Pinarayi and the BJP”, even as others continued to allege that “the Governor was acting like the State president of the BJP”.

Conflicting signals

Indeed, the Governor’s actions gave conflicting signals again when he first refused to give his assent for the LDF government’s plans to convene a one-day session of the State Assembly on December 31, 2020, to discuss and pass a unanimous resolution against the three controversial farm laws of the Central government against which farmers were holding their agitation on the borders of Delhi.

Arif Mohammed Khan questioned the nature of the emergency that warranted such a short special Assembly session while seeking the government’s response and stated in a letter to the Chief Minister that the government seemed to be wanting a special session to “discuss a problem for which you have no jurisdiction to offer any solution”.

The Governor would relent and give his sanction for the special session only after the State Cabinet reiterated its demand and insisted that “the Governor was bound by the advice of the Council of Ministers and that moving resolutions and conducting discussions in the Assembly cannot be regulated by gubernatorial powers”.

After several such incidents, which he would explain was not a “personal fight between him and the State government” and that he is “not important but what is important is the Constitution and the law of the land”, the Governor left no one in doubt that along with the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in the opposition and a weaker BJP State party, the ruling LDF government had one more political element to contend with in Kerala, especially when it walked the thin line on sensitive issues.

Thus, it came as no surprise when on December 8, 2021, Arif Mohammed Khan, who by virtue of his position is also the Chancellor of all the universities in the State, suddenly declared that he was having a “prick of conscience” and wrote to the Chief Minister declaring that he no longer wanted to continue as the Chancellor, thus bringing all important decision-making in universities in the State to a standstill.

In the letter, while expressing his anguish over what he described as “the existing scene in which universities are packed with political nominees and non-academics are taking academic decisions”, the Governor/Chancellor made an offer which any Chief Minister in Kerala would only hesitate to comply with.

The letter came at a time when reportedly there were moves in West Bengal, Maharashtra and Odisha to curb the powers of the Chancellor over State universities in order to give the State governments greater control. This was a matter of concern in academic circles because of its implications for the independence and autonomy of academic institutions.

Curiously, the Governor said in his letter to the Chief Minister: “My advice to you is to amend the Acts of the universities and you personally assume the position of the Chancellor, so that you can carry out your political objectives without any dependence on the Governor. Once the universities come under the direct control of the government, there will be no scope for anybody to make allegations of political interference.”

Amidst doubts raised by various quarters whether he was once again playing a political game against the LDF government, the Governor said that it had become impossible for him as Chancellor “to protect the universities from the baneful continuous political interference and erosion of their autonomy” and that he wanted to vacate the position of Chancellor. “You can ask the Advocate General to prepare a legal document through which the Governor can transfer the powers of Chancellor to the Chief Minister. I am confident it should not be difficult for the Advocate General to find a legal method to do so,” the four-page letter, mocking in its tone, said.

Kannur University Vice Chancellor

A significant instance of political intervention in universities the Governor was referring to was the reappointment of Professor Gopinath Ravindran as Vice Chancellor of Kannur University in November, even though by that time he had crossed the age of 60.

The Kannur University Act says that “no person who is more than sixty years of age shall be appointed as Vice Chancellor”. The Act, however, also says that the Vice Chancellor shall hold office for a term of four years from the date on which he enters upon his office and “shall be eligible for reappointment”, provided that a person shall not be appointed as Vice Chancellor for more than two terms.

It turned out that in a letter sent to the Chancellor, Higher Education Minister R. Bindu, who is also the Pro-Chancellor of universities in the State, had reportedly asked the Chancellor to sanction Ravindran’s reappointment, interpreting the provisions of the Kannur University Act in favour of an ‘extension’ of his services. The Minister had written the letter even though by that time a fresh notification for appointment of a new Vice Chancellor had been issued and a selection committee had been formed. The Governor himself had subsequently given his sanction for the reappointment and the Minister had requested him to cancel the selection process that was then under way and dissolve the search-cum-selection committee formed to find a new Vice Chancellor.

But Arif Mohammed Khan said in his letter to the Chief Minister: “I wish to make it clear that in the matter of Kannur University, I did something against my better judgment, but I do not wish to do such things anymore. And at the same time, I do not wish to pursue a course of conflict with my own government…. I fully realised that what I was being asked to do was not consistent with rules and was contrary to law but I had no intention to start any dispute with the State government. In order to avoid the controversy, I signed the order but I have been feeling extremely uncomfortable after that.”

By that time the issue of Ravindran’s reappointment was before the Kerala High Court and similar cases from other universities were also being raised before the courts.

In his letter, the Governor also referred to several other controversial instances, including the appointment process of the Vice Chancellor of the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit in Kalady, for which, contrary to University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines, the selection committee had recommended only a single name, even though it was supposed to provide a panel of three names for the Chancellor’s consideration.

The Governor also cited instances of the Higher Education Department not responding to reminders from the Chancellor’s office about the delay in payment of salary of the Vice Chancellor of the newly formed Sree Narayana Guru Open University and in the appointment of the faculty there, which made it impossible for the university to begin its academic programme even two years after its establishment.

Arif Mohammed Khan also raised questions regarding a recent amendment suggested by the government in the university law to take away the power of the Chancellor to appoint the University Appellate Tribunal and the requirement to consult the High Court on the matter. He said that it had become impossible for him as Chancellor to protect the universities from “continuous political interference” and “erosion of their autonomy”. During his last two-and-a-half years as Chancellor, he said, he had watched the situation with dismay. “But the recent developments and the manner in which pressure is brought upon me to do things in total violation of rules and procedures has deeply saddened me.’’

At the time of writing this report, nearly a month had passed after the Governor wrote to the Chief Minister and he had since then refused to involve himself in the affairs of the universities or take any decision as Chancellor. As he told the media, a notice from the Kerala High Court on a petition against the reappointment of Ravindran served at the Chancellor’s office was promptly forwarded to the Chief Minister’s Office.

Meanwhile, during his interactions with the media, the Governor kept reiterating that he was not able to work as Chancellor in an atmosphere of excess of political interference in the universities and where the autonomy of universities was being eroded. “I have requested that the government bring an ordinance, you become the Chancellor, let anybody become the Chancellor, but for me it is not possible to see this kind of political interference.... I have already said that,” Arif Khan said.

Chief Minister’s response

Except for a brief response by the Chief Minister soon after the Governor sent his letter, the State government and the leaders of the ruling CPI(M) have generally refrained from commenting on the issue. On December 12, the day after the contents of the Governor’s letter became public, the Chief Minister told presspersons in Kannur that the government had no intention to take over the powers of the Governor as Chancellor of universities, that an open confrontation with the Governor was not the policy of his government and that the government wanted the Governor to continue as Chancellor. “I hope that the Governor would not stick to his stand [stepping down as Chancellor]. Misunderstandings can be resolved through discussions,’’ he said.

He also denied that the government had tried to interfere in the functioning of universities or tried to force the Governor to do things against his conscience. Pinarayi Vijayan, however, said that after giving sanction for the reappointment of Ravindran as the Vice Chancellor of Kannur University, it was not proper for the Governor to speak against it. “The condemnation of his own decision at this stage may be due to political reasons,’’ Vijayan said.

‘A more serious issue’

Clearly, the Governor has put the LDF government in a fix by refusing to continue as Chancellor and thus creating a crisis in the administration of the State’s universities. By the new year, immediately after President Ram Nath Kovind’s visit to the State on December 22, the Governor had dug in his heels and began demanding that the government call a special session of the Assembly to relieve him of the duties of the Chancellor. While speaking to presspersons January 4, Arif Mohammed Khan also added another dimension to the controversy by hinting that “a more serious issue” was involved that also led to his refusal to continue functioning as the Chancellor but that he could not discuss it in public because “it involved the dignity of national institutions”. He said: “Something definitely has happened which has made me to take the decision that I do not want to continue as the Chancellor. Something has happened. But I won’t discuss it. Why will I not discuss it? Because it involves national institutions.”

As both the government and the Chancellor came in for criticism from the opposition UDF parties, senior Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala issued a statement giving a clue to the resolution of the mystery and raising six questions, important among them, (1) whether the Chancellor had given a direction to the Vice Chancellor of Kerala University to take steps to confer an honorary DLitt degree on President Ram Nath Kovind during his visit to Thiruvananthapuram on December 23; (2) whether the Vice Chancellor had rejected the request because of the intervention of the LDF government?; (3) whether instead of forwarding the Chancellor’s request to the University’s Syndicate for consideration, the Vice Chancellor had submitted it to the State government seeking its opinion?; and (4) whether the government had any right to interfere in a matter involving the conferment of an honorary DLitt degree to any person?

The Governor, the State government and Kerala University authorities have refused to confirm whether the issue of the honorary DLitt degree was behind the quarrel between them. Even as Arif Mohammed Khan kept reiterating his stand that he had ceased to function as Chancellor from December 8, V.D. Satheesan, Leader of the Opposition, said the Governor needed to explain how he could lawfully take such a stand at all. The opposition also demanded a judicial inquiry into the appointment of Vice Chancellors in the universities in Kerala.

Satheesan alleged that the Governor had raised the issue of denying Honorary DLitt to the President to divert attention from the “real issue”. “Ideally, the Governor should have sought the Vice Chancellor's resignation or expelled him from office. The government had filed an affidavit in the High Court that the Kannur [University] Vice Chancellor's appointment had the Chancellor's approval. The High Court has subsequently issued a notice to the Chancellor who seemed to be reluctant to give an affidavit that disputed the government’s testimony. Instead, he has forwarded the High Court’s notice to the Chief Minister’s office,” Satheesan said.

Meanwhile, the State government got a reprieve of sorts when a Single Bench of the Kerala High Court dismissed a plea filed by some members of the Kannur University Senate and Academic Council against the reappointment of Ravindran as Vice Chancellor. The court said that ‘re-appointment’ was different from ‘appointment’ and the procedure adopted for the latter need not be followed when reappointing someone. The petitioners have, however, gone on appeal to the Division Bench against the Single Bench’s order.

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