Gopinath Ravindran, whose reappointment as Kannur University Vice-Chancellor has been quashed by the Supreme Court, seems to possess Rashomon-like quality. The noted historian appears as two distinct but incompatible individuals when seen through the lenses of two men who had fought bitterly over his future.
For Governor Arif Mohammad Khan, Ravindran is a man with a criminal mind. For Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, he is the hero who stands in the way of the conspiracy hatched in the Raj Bhavan to saffronise institutions of higher learning in Kerala.
Governor Khan has never forgiven Gopinath Ravindran for letting historian Irfan Habib near him while he was making the inaugural speech at the Indian History Congress (IHC) held in Kannur in 2019. During his inaugural speech, Arif Mohammad Khan sought to defend the Citizenship Amendment Act and this provoked a large section of the crowd. This further infuriated the Governor.
Claiming that he was quoting Maulana Azad, Khan said: "The Partition took the dirt away but some potholes were left behind, where water has collected and now it is stinking.” He went on. "You are causing a foul smell. Maulana Azad had said this for you."
It was at this point that an enraged Habib got up from his seat and walked up to the stage asking the Governor to stop quoting Maulana and instead quote Godse. Gopinath Ravindran who was on the dais was seen restraining Irfan Habib.
Khan felt Habib got on stage with ferocious intent. He said Habib "pushed" his security officers. Habib said he got on stage to tell the Kannur VC to prevent the Governor from using the History Congress to peddle his brand of politics.
Khan has also still not got over the Kerala Government's refusal to act against Habib for threatening him. "In Kerala people are arrested for writing Facebook posts. People are arrested for going to a public meeting wearing a black shirt. And these people were confident that they can attack me physically, and no action will be taken," Khan had said in 2022, three years after the IHC incident.
Khan had claimed that top intelligence officers in Delhi and also senior Ministry of Education officials had told him that there was a conspiracy to attack him during the IHC. Khan believes that Gopinath Ravindran had a crucial role in brewing the conspiracy. "If he (the Kannur VC) can be a party to a conspiracy to attack the Governor, who is his Chancellor, then he can go to any extent," Governor Khan had said.
The Chief Minister, on his part, saw a sinister political move behind the Governor’s outburst three years later. Pinarayi asserted that it was an attempt to revive the debate around the Citizenship Amendment Act at the behest of the RSS. The angry protests at the History Congress in 2019 was a reaction to the Governor’s pro-CAA stand.
Pinarayi said that it was Khan's RSS links that made him abhor the two historians, Irfan Habib and Gopinath Ravindran. "The Sangh Parivar has been trying to rewrite medieval history with the clear intention of marginalising and demonising the minorities. Irfan Habib had opposed this using rigorous historical research," the Chief Minister said in September 2022. Pinarayi termed this a "glorious fight". Habib had also moved a resolution against the 'RSS agenda' in the 1998 History Congress.
During the period (1986-1990) he was chairman of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR), Irfan Habib had expressed his independent views that were bolstered by unimpeachable research. This was why the RSS was keen to hunt him down, Pinarayi said.
Equally heroic, according to Pinarayi, was Gopinath Ravindran's resistance of right-wing historians. Pinarayi had in 2022 referred to the Foundation Day lecture of the ICHR in 2015. "Gopinath Ravindran had exposed, right on the stage, the false claims made by right-wing historian and 'vedic scholar' David Frawley who was invited by the then Human Resource Development minister Smriti Irani to deliver the Foundation Day lecture," Pinarayi said. Ravindran then was ICHR member secretary. On that day, Ravindran had faced the censure of a section of the crowd.
Two months later, Ravindran resigned from the ICHR when it scrapped the editorial board and the advisory committee of the prestigious Indian Historical Review, the ICHR's journal, that had eminent historians like Romila Thapar.