When E.M.S. Namboodiripad took over as Kerala’s first chief minister in 1957, he became the head of the first communist government of an Indian state. Yet, the veteran Marxist had no hesitation in appointing John Matthai, independent India’s first railways minister in the Jawaharlal Nehru cabinet and a former director of the Tatas, as the first vice-chancellor of the newly-formed University of Kerala. After assuming the new post, Matthai sought an appointment to meet the chief minister to discuss issues concerning the university. Namboodiripad responded that a vice-chancellor should not come to visit the chief minister. Instead, the chief minister met the vice-chancellor in his official chamber. This happened a long time ago when university vice-chancellors had not been dragged into political games.
For many years now, the posting of vice-chancellors has been a bone of political contention between state governments and respective governors, primarily when the Central and state governments are led by rival parties. At the core of the conflict is the role of governors as ex officio chancellors of state universities, a practice of colonial legacy but enshrined in the university statutes of most states after Independence. According to a researcher, the reason for this double role is “the power, pomp, and paraphernalia associated with governors in British India lent credence to the post of Chancellor.”
In Kerala, the state’s governor, Arif Mohammed Khan, has offered to quit his chancellorship in protest against the government’s intervention in the appointment of the vice-chancellor of Kannur University. States like West Bengal and Maharashtra have also recently witnessed similar fracas between governors and state governments. On December 15, the Maharashtra cabinet resolved to amend the Maharashtra Public Universities Act to curb the governor’s powers in appointing vice-chancellors.
Khan’s outburst follows the reappointment of Gopinath Ravindran as the vice-chancellor of Kannur University. First appointed to the post in 2017, Ravindran is a former member-secretary of the Indian Council of Historical Research and the head of the Department of History and Culture at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Khan is also miffed by the reconstitution of Kannur University’s 71 Boards of Studies without consulting him. In an unprecedented move, the governor has filed an affidavit against it in the Kerala High Court. The Raj Bhavan website states, “while as Governor he functions with the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers, as Chancellor he acts independently of the Council of Ministers and takes his own decisions on all University matters”.
The Kannur University Act 1996 says that “No Person who is more than sixty years of age shall be appointed as Vice-Chancellor.” But Ravindran was reappointed — the first time in Kerala — after he became 60 recently. This was even after the government had issued a notification for a new appointment and constituted a panel to select the next incumbent. Subsequently, the government changed its mind and decided to continue with Ravindran and dismissed the search committee. Bindu Radhakrishnan, the state higher education minister and the university’s pro-chancellor, wrote to the governor requesting Ravindran’s reappointment. The governor issued orders reappointing Ravindran on November 24. But two weeks later, Khan fired a letter to the chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, offering to quit as chancellor. He sarcastically asked Vijayan to assume chancellorship himself and smoothly carry out the government’s political objectives. On his approval of Ravindran’s reappointment, Khan stated, “I have fully realized that what I was being asked to do was not in accordance with rules and contrary to law. To avoid controversy with the government, I have signed the order (for the reappointment), but I have been feeling extremely uncomfortable after that.”
What appears to have changed the governor’s stand was the subsequent surfacing of an allegation regarding the selection of the wife of a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) as an associate professor at Kannur University. According to the Save University Campaign Committee, a whistle-blower group, Priya Varghese, the wife of K.K. Ragesh, the political secretary of the chief minister and a former Rajya Sabha member, was selected overlooking candidates with higher qualifications. The SUCC said that the vice-chancellor’s reappointment was a quid pro quo for Varghese’s selection. Ravindran has denied this but also sought legal opinion. According to the SUCC, the higher education minister, too, has violated laws by writing to the governor for reappointment. However, the Kerala High Court subsequently held there was nothing wrong with the minister writing to the governor.
Varghese’s selection has come on the heels of some other similarly controversial university appointments involving the wives of many other CPI(M) leaders, including M.B. Rajesh, the Speaker of the Kerala legislature. The governor has sought a report on these appointments from the university. University authorities have held that all the appointments were made on the basis of the merit of the candidates.
Despite the governor’s outburst, the chief minister has refused to take up the gauntlet. Vijayan replied that he would dispel the governor’s misconception through discussion. However, some other Left Democratic Front leaders were angered by the governor making public his correspondence with the government. “Governor should not force the government to strip him of his chancellorship,” warned Kanam Rajendran, the Communist Party of India’s state secretary. Both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party have accused the government of nepotism and violating the university’s autonomy.
The LDF feels that Khan’s plans are to impose the BJP’s agenda. He had earlier opposed the government’s attempts to pass a resolution in the state legislature against the Centre’s controversial farm laws and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. According to M.V. Jayarajan, the CPI(M)’s Kannur district secretary, the governor’s objections were made at the BJP’s behest. The BJP sees Ravindran as someone belonging to the left-wing school of historians like Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, K.N. Panikkar and others. Ravindran had quit as ICHR’s member-secretary in 2015 after the new council appointed by the Narendra Modi government scrapped the advisory panels, which had historians like Thapar and Habib. He had accused the then ICHR chairman, Y. Sudershan Rao, of following a ‘saffronization’ agenda. The United Progressive Alliance government made Ravindran the member-secretary in 2013.