Kerala HC allows VCs to stay; ball then rolls back into Governor's court
Towards the end of an eventful day in Kerala, the stalemate over the fate of the vice-chancellors of nine state universities came to a temporary halt. In a special sitting on Monday afternoon, the High Court held that the nine VCs, who Governor Arif Mohammed Khan (also the Chancellor of the varsities) ordered to resign, can continue in their positions for the time being.
In the order, the court held that the VCs can continue in their positions until the Chancellor makes a final decision based on follow-up actions on the show-cause notices served to the VCs. In effect, the ball rolls back into the Governor’s court.
Allegations and counter-allegations
An unusual Press meet called by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in Palakkad took up the first half of the day. He raised stringent allegations against the Governor, saying asking the VCs to resign was part of an attempt to abuse his position as Chancellor and to use a power he does not have. The move was unconstitutional and negated the essence of democracy, Vijayan alleged.
He added that it was an encroachment on the power of the democratically elected government and the universities, which are supposed to be academically independent. He alleged that the Governor was acting as a puppet of the Sangh Parivar.
In the afternoon, the Governor turned up with counter-allegations and retorts to the Chief Minister. He explained that by asking for the resignation of the VCs, he had only upheld the Supreme Court order of cancelling the appointment of the VC of APJ Abdul Kalam Technical University. He argued that the SC’s decision applied to all other universities because, he claimed, they had the same procedural errors in the appointment of the VC.
The apex court recently held that the appointment of Rajasree MS, the VC of APJ Abdul Kalam University, was void ab-initio, as it failed to comply with the UGC regulations. The search committee submitted only one name instead of a panel of three to five eligible persons.
Selective entry to journos
The Governor claimed that he was acting in adherence to the law and had no political interests. However, he refused to let a few media persons in for the Press conference. The reporters of Media One TV, Kairali TV, Jai Hind TV, and Reporter Television were not allowed to enter Raj Bhavan.
“They are not independent media persons, but are party cadres masquerading as journalists, and I don’t want to talk to them,” he replied to questions raised by other reporters. The Kerala Union of Working Journalists expressed anger at the incident. The Union, in a Press statement issued at Thiruvananthapuram, warned that it would be forced to opt for open protests if the Governor continued to insult journalists.
“This is nothing short of an attack on Press freedom. Keeping a section of the media out of the Press conference is against the basic spirit of democracy and against the fundamental rights of journalists,” said R Kiran Babu, the general secretary of KUWJ.
The lawyers’ argument
The special sitting of the HC started at 4 pm and continued for more than one and a half hours. Counsels representing each VC raised arguments, and all of them argued that the Chancellor had no power to demand immediate resignation from their clients. According to the law, a VC can be removed only on two grounds—ill behaviour or misappropriation of funds. In the present scenario, there were no such grounds to remove the VCs, they argued.
The lawyers also argued that the SC’s order on APJ Abdul Kalam University cannot apply to other universities because the VC of that university was appointed based on the 2010 UGC regulations. All the nine VCs in question were appointed based on the 2018 UGC regulations.
The HC observed that no one can be asked to resign. “It does not require much judgement to say that no one can be asked to tender a resignation,” said Justice Devan Ramachandran of the HC’s single Bench.
VCs get new deadline
However, even before the court came to a conclusion, the Chancellor extended the deadline given to the VCs. In the latest show-cause notice issued by him, the VCs have been directed to submit their explanation on or before November 3. According to his earlier order, the VCs were asked to resign before 11 am on October 24. The lawyers who represented the VCs in court pointed out that asking for resignation without giving an opportunity to be heard violated the principles of natural justice.
However, it seems the storm is set to intensify in the coming days. The Congress seemed to be divided on the matter. Opposition leader VD Satheeshan alleged that the Governor and the CM were “playing a game together to make illegal appointments in universities.” He alleged that Vijayan’s position was “strategic” and expresses his “anti-Sangh position only on certain occasions.”
On the other hand, KC Venugopal categorically said the Governor’s act was a violation of Constitutional principles. “The illegal appointments should be challenged, but the Governor interfering in the academic freedom of universities cannot be tolerated,” he said.