Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan's role came under critical scrutiny by the Supreme Court which on Thursday quashed the reappointment of Gopinath Ravindran as the vice chancellor of Kannur University and said as the chancellor of the state's universities he cannot "merely rubber-stamp" an action taken elsewhere or endorse a decision made by someone else.
The top court was critical of the fact that the office of the chancellor, who is authorised to act in such matters, let the state government make “unwarranted intervention”.
A three-judge bench led by Chief justice D Y Chandrachud answered in the affirmative the question framed by the court: “Did the Chancellor abdicate or surrender his statutory power of reappointment of the Vice-Chancellor”.
The Kerala governor reacted to the judgement in Thiruvananthapuram where he accused Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan of pressuring him to reappoint Ravindran as the vice chancellor.
Khan, speaking to reporters, said state Higher Education Minister R Bindu was not to be blamed as it was Vijayan who used her for seeking Ravindran's reappointment.
"The rule of law requires that a statutory power vests in the body or authority where the statute so provides, and likewise, the discharge of the statutory duty is the responsibility of the body or authority to which it is entrusted. That body or authority cannot merely rubber-stamp an action taken elsewhere or simply endorse or ratify the decision of someone else," the apex court said in its 72-page judgement.
The top court, while delivering its judgement on an appeal, set aside the verdicts of a single judge bench and division bench of the Kerala High Court upholding Ravindran's reappointment. The appeal was filed by Dr Premachandran Keezoth and others challenging the high court verdicts.
In its judgement, the top court dealt extensively with the independent powers of the governor as chancellor of state universities, narrated the sequence of events leading to reappointment of Ravindran and expressed its unhappiness over the handling of the issue by Khan, saying he is not merely a “titular head”.
“The facts make it abundantly clear that there was no independent application of mind or satisfaction or judgment on the part of the Chancellor and the respondent No. 4 came to be reappointed only at the behest of the State Government...
“The Chancellor was required to discharge his statutory duties in accordance with law and guided by the dictates of his own judgment and not at the behest of anybody else. Law does not recognise any such extra constitutional interference in the exercise of statutory discretion. Any such interference amounts to dictation from political superior and has been condemned by courts on more than one occasion,” said the judgement penned by Justice Pardiwala.
The judgement referred to the Kannur University Act, 1996 and said the chancellor plays a very important role in the functioning of state universities.
“He is not merely a titular head. In the selection of the Vice Chancellor, he is the sole judge and his opinion is final in all respects. In reappointing the Vice-Chancellor, the main consideration to prevail upon the Chancellor is the interest of the university,” it said.
It referred to the affidavit filed by the office of Khan and said it was “quite perplexed with the stance of the Chancellor '' as he wanted the top court to allow the appeal and declare his order not sustainable in law.
“The Chancellor says so because according to him the reappointment of the respondent No. 4 is in conflict with the UGC Regulations,” it said and referred to the UGC Regulations on procedures for appointment of vice chancellors.
“The UGC Regulations are silent insofar as reappointment of the Vice-Chancellor is concerned. There is no specific procedure prescribed by the UGC under its regulations for the purpose of reappointment of Vice-Chancellor. The entire focus of the Chancellor is on the aforesaid. However, nothing has been said in the counter-affidavit filed on behalf of the Chancellor as regards Chancellor's own independent satisfaction or judgment for the purpose of reappointment of the respondent No. 4 as Vice Chancellor,” it said.
It is a well settled principle of administrative law that if a statute expressly confers a statutory power on a particular body or authority or imposes a statutory duty on the same, then such power must be exercised by that very body or authority itself and none other, it said.
“If the body or authority exercises the statutory power or performs the statutory duty acting at the behest, or on the dictate, of any other body or person, then this is regarded as an abdication of the statutory mandate and any decision taken on such basis is contrary to law and liable to be quashed.
“It is important to keep in mind that, in law, it matters not that the extraneous element is introduced (i.e., the advice, recommendation, approval, etc. of the person not empowered by the statute is obtained or given) in good faith or for the advancement of any goal or objection however laudable or desirable,” it said.
Referring to judgements, it said the governor is the ex officio chancellor of the university, therefore, by virtue of his office, he was not bound to act under the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers.
“Under Article 154 of the Constitution, the executive powers of the State are vested in the Governor which may be exercised by him either directly, or through officers subordinate to him, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution...,” it said.
The statute makes a clear-cut distinction between two distinct authorities, namely, the Chancellor and the State Government, it said, adding when the legislature intentionally makes such a distinction, the same must also be interpreted distinctly.
“While dealing with the case of the Vice-Chancellor, the Governor, being the Chancellor of the University, acts only in his personal capacity, and therefore, the powers and duties exercised and performed by him under a statute related to the University, as its Chancellor, have absolutely no relation to the exercise and performance of the powers and duties by him while he holds office as the Governor of the State,” it said.
The judgement concluded although the notification re-appointing Ravindran to the post of VC was issued by the Chancellor, the decision stood vitiated by the influence “of extraneous consideration, or to put it in other words, by the unwarranted intervention of the state government”.
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