In a huge setback to the LDF government, the Supreme Court quashed the reappointment of Professor Gopinath Ravindran as the Vice Chancellor of Kannur University.
Supreme Court bench of Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud, Justices J B Pardiwala, and Manoj Misra called the reappointment an unwarranted interference by the Kerala government.
The court said that the Chancellor, who is the Governor of the state, "abdicated or surrendered" his statutory powers for re-appointing the Vice Chancellor after considering a press statement from the Raj Bhavan that said the process to reappoint the Vice Chancellor was initiated by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Minister for Higher Education R Bindu.
"Although the notification for reappointment was issued by the Chancellor, the decision stood vitiated by the unwarranted interference by State Government," Justice Pardiwala said, pronouncing the judgment.
Prof Ravindaran's reappointment was challenged by the university's Senate member Dr Premachandran Keezhoth and Academic Council Member Dr Shino P Jose on the grounds that he crossed 60 years of age and the appointment was made without a search committee, which is against the 2018 UGC regulations.
The LDF government reappointed Prof Ravindran as the VC in November 2021 by setting aside Section 10(9) of the Kannur University Act that capped the upper age limit of the candidates for the VC's post at 60 years.
The two teachers approached the High Court of Kerala against the reappointment. The single bench of the Kerala High Court dismissed the petition in favour of the government, forcing the two teachers to move to the Division bench.
On February 23, 2022, the Kerala High Court's Division bench of the then Chief Justice S Manikumar and Judge Shaji P Chaly also upheld the reappointment of Prof Ravindran saying it was approved by the Governor.
The government said since he was recommended by a search committee in the first term, a new search committee was not needed and his reappointment was actually an extension to him, so the age bar would not be applicable to him. The division bench concurred with the government.
However, on Thursday, November 30, the Supreme Court bench headed by D Y Chandrachud stayed the High Court's order.
In a significant development, the Chancellor (Governor Arif Mohammed Khan) who reappointed Prof Ravindaran, filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court opposing the appointment.
The Chancellor told the apex court that the State's Higher Education Department adopted the 2018 UGC Regulations on September 29, 2019, and directed that the university shall ensure the incorporation of UGC guidelines in their Regulations within one month from the date of order.
He also pointed out that Regulation 7.3 of the UGC Regulations, 2018, mandates the constitution of a Search-cum-Selection-Committee of three to five persons of eminence to select the vice-chancellor.
"Once the UGC Regulations, 2018, prescribe the procedure and method for appointment of Vice Chancellor, the university has to comply with the Regulations, which has not been followed in the present case. Therefore, the Hon'ble High Court has erred in not following the UGC Guidelines, and therefore the judgment of Hon'ble Division Bench of the High Court is not sustainable," the Chancellor said in his affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court upheld the view in its November 30 judgment. "We are not concerned with the suitability of the candidate as suitability is up to appointment authority... It is the decision-making process that vitiated the re-appointment of the Vice Chancellor. Such a power of decision is amenable to judicial review," Live Law quoted the Court. Senior Advocate Dama Seshadri Naidu, who was a former judge of Kerala High Court, appeared for the petitioner in the Supreme Court.
The Save University Campaign Committee, a whistleblower organisation, said Prof Ravindran was reappointed five days after Dr Priya Varghese was interviewed for the post of Associate Professor in the Department of Malayalam on November 18, 2021. Dr Varghese is the wife of the Chief Minister's private secretary K K Ragesh. "The reappointment of the VC was a quid pro quo," the organisation said in a statement.
The university has no comments to offer on the Supreme Court judgment, said Registrar Joby K Jose. "The Vice Chancellor is appointed by the government and the governor. It is an external process and we don't have any comments to make on the judgment," he said.
Higher Education Bindu said that the government would make a statement after going through the Supreme Court judgement in detail. "We accept the apex court decision. But we will make a detailed statement only after going through the Supreme Court verdict," she said.
With the Supreme Court rejecting the re-appointment of the Kannur varsity VC, Opposition leader V D Satheesan said the higher education minister should tender her resignation.