Not selection process or age, Kannur University VC to lose job only because Guv succumbed to govt pressure

Kannur University Vice-chancellor Prof Gopinath Ravindran. Photo: Manorama
  • Two teachers challenged Prof Gopinath Ravindran's reappointment saying he was over 60 years
  • SC said age was not a bar for reappointment of VC, and selection committee process could be also skipped
  • The apex court found Chancellor Khan's lack of 'independent application of mind' and rubberstamping government decision reasons to set aside the reappointment

Kannur: Kannur University Vice Chancellor Prof Gopinath Ravindran will be losing his job not because he was reappointed. He will be losing his job not because he crossed 60 years of age at the time of his reappointment. He will not be losing his job because he was reappointed without due process.

Two college teachers -- Dr Premachandran Keezhoth and Dr Shino P Jose -- had challenged Prof Ravindran's reappointment on these three grounds. Chancellor Arif Mohammed Khan, who reappointed Prof Ravindran, also filed a counter-affidavit urging the court to declare the reappointment void saying it is "in conflict with the UGC Regulations".

But the Supreme Court invested 23 pages out of the 72-page order to unambiguously explain that Prof Ravindran was in the clear on all three fronts: that he was eligible for reappointment, the upper age limit of 60 years was not binding on the Vice Chancellor being considered for reappointment, and he need not be interviewed again by a selection committee if the Chancellor was convinced about giving him a second chance.

The Supreme Court bench of Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud, and Justices J B Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, however, set aside the reappointment of Prof Ravindran only because of the "unwarranted interference of the State Government" and importantly, Chancellor Arif Mohammed Khan -- who is also the state's Governor -- "merely rubberstamped" the government's decision and "there was no independent application of mind".

Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan. Photo: Manorama

"We are quite perplexed with the stance of the Chancellor," said the judgment that pulled up Khan for abdicating his statutory responsibility to appoint the Vice Chancellor. The entire focus of the Chancellor's counter-affidavit was on the UGC regulations. "However, nothing has been said ... as regards to the Chancellor's own independent satisfaction or judgment" for reappointing Prof Ravindran as Vice-Chancellor, the court said in the judgment.

The Supreme Court drew a distinction between the Chancellor and the office of the Governor. The Governor acts on the advice of the council of ministers. But under the scheme of the Kannur University Act 1996 and the statutes, the Chancellor is not merely a titular head, said the court. "In the selection of the Vice-Chancellor, he is the sole judge and his opinion is final in all respects," it said.

If a statute expressly confers a statutory power on a particular body or authority, such power must be exercised or duty performed (as the case may) by that very body or authority itself and none other, the court said. If the authority exercises power at the behest of any other body, then this is regarded as an abdication of the statutory mandate and any decision taken on such a basis is liable to be quashed, the court said.

Section 10 of the Kannur University Act says that the Vice-Chancellor shall be appointed by the Chancellor on the recommendation of a committee appointed by him for the purpose.

In this case, Chancellor Khan on October 27, 2021, constituted a three-member selection committee to recommend names for the next Vice Chancellor as Prof Ravindran's four-year tenure was coming to an end on November 23, 2021.

On November 1, 2021, the State government's Higher Education Department called for applications to the post of Vice Chancellor. The notification said the applicants should not have completed 60 years of age as of the date of notification, as provided in Section 10 of the Kannur University Act, 1996.

But on November 22, 2021, the Higher Education Minister R Bindu, who is the Pro-Chancellor of the University, wrote to the Chancellor recommending the reappointment of Prof Ravindran as the Vice Chancellor, and cancellation of the notifications forming the search committee and calling for applications.

Kannur University administrative block. Photo: Manorama

She wrote, "Kannur University under his able leadership rose to eminence as one of the premier university in the country and therefore he may be allowed to continue for another term as Vice Chancellor."

The very same day, that is, on November 22, 2021, the government recalled the notification inviting applications for the post.

On November 22, 2021, she wrote to the Governor again saying: "I consider it my privilege to propose the name of Dr Gopinath Ravindran, the incumbent Vice Chancellor to be reappointed as Vice Chancellor of Kannur University for a second continuous term beginning from November 24, 2021."

On November 23, 2021, Chancellor Arif Mohammed Khan issued an order reappointing Prof Ravindran -- a professor at the Department of History, Jamia Millia Islamia -- as the Vice Chancellor of Kannur University.

But on February 2, 2022, Khan released a press statement saying that he did not recommend the reappointment of Prof Ravindran as Vice Chancellor but Chief Minister Pinarayi and the Minister for Higher Education R Bindu did.

The Supreme Court took note of the press statement. "The very first paragraph of the press release states that 'Kerala Raj Bhavan strongly refutes the claim in some news reports that it was on the direction of Hon'ble Governor that the name of Dr. Gopinath Ravindran was suggested for reappointment as Vice Chancellor, Kannur University. The truth is that the same was initiated by the Chief Minister and Higher Education Minister'."

The last part of the statement said that the process of selection of Vice-Chancellor, which was set in motion via Notification dated October 27, 2021, came to an end consequent to the request from the Minister of Higher Education and the opinion of the Advocate General, State of Kerala, the court noted.

"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 No. 4 (Prof Ravindran) came to be reappointed only at the behest of the State Government," the court said in the judgment.

The order hinted that the government interfering in the process was a lesser crime than the Chancellor succumbing to the pressure. "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, howsoever, laudable or desirable.

However, 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," it said.

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, it said. "Any such (extra-constitutional) interference amounts to dictation from political superior and has been condemned by courts on more than one occasion," the judgment said.

The Supreme Court said it was the decision-making process that vitiated the entire process of reappointment of Prof Ravindran as the chancellor. "We have reached the conclusion that although the notification reappointing respondent No. 4 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," the Supreme Court said and set aside Prof Ravindran's appointment.

Supreme Court of India. Photo: AFP

Age no bar for reappointment
The Supreme Court said that it was not impressed by the submission of the appellants, Dr Keezhoth and Dr Jose, that reappointment of a Vice Chancellor was not permissible because it is a "tenure post".

The court said the appointing authority could reappoint a person if it found them to be extraordinary, or if it is not in a position to fill the post in a time-bound manner.

On reappointing a Vice-Chancellor above the age of 60 years, the Supreme Court took a nuanced reading of the Act.

The sub-section 9 of Section 10 of the University Act says no person who is more than 60 years of age shall be appointed as Vice Chancellor; sub-section 10 says the Vice Chancellor shall, hold office for a term of four years and shall be eligible for re-appointment: provided that a person shall not be appointed as Vice Chancellor for more than two terms.

The Supreme Court said that The interpretation as sought to be placed by the appellants would lead to a very absurd situation, where a Vice-Chancellor of sixty-one years of age cannot be reappointed to hold the office of Vice-Chancellor, however, at the same time another person would still be able to hold the office of Vice-Chancellor at the very same age of 61 years only by reason of him being appointed at the age of fifty-nine years. This appears to be bereft of any logic, more particularly when sub-section (9) does not say that a person shall hold office of Vice- Chancellor till he attains the age of sixty years and rather uses the expression “No Person who is more than sixty years of age shall be appointed as Vice-Chancellor”.

The court said the outer age limit of 60 years would not apply when it came to reappointment.

The court said the interpretation of appellants would lead to a very absurd situation, where a Vice-Chancellor of 61 years could not be reappointed but another person would still be able to hold the office of Vice-Chancellor at the very same age of 61 years only by reason of him being appointed at the age of 59 years. "This appears to be bereft of any logic," it said.

To be sure, Prof Ravindran was 60 years and 11 months old on November 25, 2021, when he was reappointed as the Vice Chancellor.

The Supreme Court also said that the reappointment of the Vice Chancellor did not have to follow the same process as a fresh appointment. "Reappointment essentially means the incumbent Vice Chancellor would receive another term of four years if the Chancellor deems fit without reopening the position for new applications or without constituting a select committee," it said.

The appellants, and respondents -- the Chancellor, the government, the university, and Prof Ravindran -- invested much of their time debating these three questions. The single bench and the division bench upheld the reappointment.

But the Supreme Court found the Chancellor abdicating his statutory powers a compelling reason to quash the reappointment.

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