SC pulls up Kerala govt for interfering with appointment of Kannur University VC
Dr Gopinath Ravindran’s re-appointment as the varsity V-C was made on November 23, 2021, for four years, by the Kerala government which was challenged before the Kerala high court
The Supreme Court on Thursday pulled up the Kerala government for its “unwarranted interference” with the Governor’s power to appoint the Vice Chancellor of Kannur University.
Quashing the re-appointment of Dr Gopinath Raveendran as the Vice-Chancellor of Kannur University by the state, the Court observed that it was made without any independent application of mind by Governor Arif Mohammed Khan in his capacity as Chancellor of the University.
Ravindran’s re-appointment as the varsity V-C was made on November 23, 2021, for four years, by the Kerala government which was challenged before the Kerala high court by Premachandran Keezhoth and Shino P Jose– members of the Senate and Academic Council of Kannur University. The duo moved the top court after the high court turned down their petition on February 23 last year.
Allowing the plea, a bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud said, “Although the notification reappointing the respondent (Ravindran) to the post of Vice-Chancellor was issued by the Chancellor, yet the decision stood vitiated by the influence of extraneous considerations or to put it in other words by the unwarranted intervention of the State Government.”
It held, “As a consequence, the notification dated November 23, 2021, reappointing the respondent as the Vice-Chancellor of the Kannur University is hereby quashed.”
The Court considered the provisions of the Kannur University Act, 1996, and held– “...only the Chancellor is competent to appoint or re-appoint the V-C”. the Court further warned the Kerala government stating that any interference in this regard will be “patently illegal” and vitiate the decision-making process.
The bench, also comprising justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra said, “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 rubberstamp an action taken elsewhere or simply endorse or ratify the decision of someone else.”
In the present case, the Court noted that in November 2021, as the four-year tenure of Ravindran came to an end, the Governor initiated the process of selecting the new V-C and formed a selection committee.
Even the state government issued a circular seeking eligible candidates to apply. However, in a surprising turn of events, the state minister for higher education, who is also the Pro-Chancellor of Kannur University, recommended Ravindran’s re-appointment and withdrew the circular issued seeking fresh names. The Governor obtained the view of the Advocate General and a day later issued the notification re-appointing the incumbent.
Justice Pardiwala, writing the judgment for the bench, said, “No other person even the Pro-Chancellor or any superior authority can interfere with the functioning of the statutory authority and if any decision is taken by a statutory authority at the behest or on a suggestion of a person who has no statutory role to play, the same would be patently illegal....Thus, it is the decision-making process, which vitiated the entire process of reappointment of Gopinath Ravindran as the Vice-Chancellor. The case on hand is not one of mere irregularity.”
For arriving at this conclusion, the Court framed four questions – whether re-appointment is permissible in a tenure post, whether the outer age limit of 60 years for appointment of V-C shall govern re-appointment as well, whether re-appointment has to follow the same process as an appointment under the University Grants Commission (UGC) regulations, and finally if the Governor abdicated or surrendered his statutory power of re-appointment of V-C.
On the first three questions, the Court held in favour of the state government and said that re-appointment is possible in a tenure post and while making this decision, the age limit of 60 years will not get in the way.
The UGC regulations stipulated forming a selection committee for the appointment of V-C. This was provided under Section 10 of the 1996 Act. Although the Act provided for re-appointment, it did not specify the process. The Court held that “it is not necessary to follow the procedure of appointment as laid down in Section 10 of the 1996 Act for reappointment”.
The Governor was represented in the matter by attorney general R Venkataramani who supported the petitioners and held the re-appointment order issued by him to be illegal as it was in conflict with the UGC regulations.
The bench was “perplexed” at this stand taken by the Governor. Examining the nature of power exercised by the Governor as Chancellor, justice Pardiwala, penning the 72-page judgment said, “While dealing with the case of the Vice-Chancellor, the Governor, being the Chancellor of the University, acts only in his personal capacity.”
“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,” the Court held.
The decision further held that the powers and duties exercised and performed by the Governor acting as Chancellor have absolutely no relation to the exercise and performance of the powers and duties by him as Governor of the state where he is supposed to act under “aid and advice” of the state cabinet.
In the present case, the Governor had constituted the selection committee on October 27, 2021 and on November 1, the state circular was issued inviting applications from eligible candidates. After this circular was withdrawn and the V-C was re-appointed, the Kerala Raj Bhawan issued a press release clarifying that the V-C was appointed not at the instance of the Governor but that of the state government.
“The aforestated 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 (Ravindran) came to be re-appointed only at the behest of the state government,” the bench said.
The judges held that under the Act, the Chancellor is not merely a “titular head” but holds a very important role in being the “sole judge” and his opinion is final in all respects.
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