Kerala woman principal faces govt's wrath for anti-SFI remarks, HC upholds her right of free speech

Former principal in charge of Kasaragod Government College Dr Rema M. File Photo: Special arrangement.

Kasaragod: The High Court of Kerala has come down hard on the CPM-led state government for "misusing power" and taking up the fight of the party's student wing SFI "to prevent a college teacher from obtaining pensionary benefits".
The HC bench of Justices A Muhamed Mustaque and Shoba Annamma Eapen has quashed the two departmental inquiries against the former principal in charge of Kasaragod Government College Dr Rema M, who had criticized the SFI for its illegal activities on the campus. She retired on March 31.
Though the order was passed on April 9, the judgment was uploaded on the court's website on May 21.

Kerala's Minister for Higher Education R Bindu had first removed Dr Rema from the post of principal in charge, and later the Directorate of Collegiate Education transferred her to Government Arts and Science College, Koduvally, 200km away, in Kozhikode district. This was after she gave an interview to an online portal accusing SFI members and a section of students of committing atrocities, engaging in "immoral physical relationship" and abusing drugs on the campus.

"If she had raised unsubstantiated allegations against members of the SFI unit, the real aggrieved parties are the members of the SFI unit and not the government," said the judgment, chiding the government for taking up the cudgels for SFI and invoking service rules meant to protect the government from embarrassing statements by employees. "The government cannot assume that these are unsubstantiated allegations without conducting an inquiry by an independent authority or determining at a litigatory forum," the judgment said.

The government had formed an inquiry committee with Deputy Director of Collegiate Education Sunil John J, Prof Geetha E and senior clerk Shyamlal I S as members. The committee was formed on a complaint filed by Akshay M K, SFI's unit secretary in Kasaragod Government College. The committee recommended the transfer of Dr Rema to another college but it did not probe into the allegations against the SFI. "It appears that it was a one-sided inquiry to indict the petitioner rather than addressing disciplinary issues within the college," said the judgment.

Principal vs SFI
On February 20, 2023, members of SFI complained to Dr Rema about contamination in drinking water. She directed the college superintendent to fix the water filter the same day. But the following day, SFI leaders went to Dr Rema's chamber and demanded an explanation on the maintenance of the filter.
On February 22, SFI members told the media that the principal in charge verbally abused students. The following day, around 60 SFI students detained Dr Rema from 10.30 am to 2 pm. She was not even allowed to go to the washroom, said the order. She was heckled by female students and freed by police, it said.

Photo: Manorama Online/File image

On February 23, minister Bindu removed her from the post of principal in charge and SFI said it would not allow Dr Rema to enter the campus. The next day, she told an online portal that she saw students engaging in physical relationships and abusing drugs on campus. She also accused SFI students of engaging in illegal activities and committing atrocities.
The government sent her a show-cause notice saying she tarnished the image of the college with that interview. She responded by saying she did not cast aspersions against the entire student community and that her daughter was also in the same college.

Unsatisfied with the response, the government set up the three-member inquiry committee. On June 15, 2023, it submitted the report recommending action against Dr Rema, saying the interview violated Rules 61 and 62 of the Government Servants' Conduct Rules, 1960. It also recommended she be transferred to another college to maintain a congenial atmosphere for learning at Kasaragod College.
On July 9, 2023, Director of Collegiate Education Sudhir K transferred her to Government Arts and Science College, Koduvally.

Legal battle
Dr Rema approached the Kerala Administrative Tribunal, challenging the order. The tribunal directed the government to consider appointing her to a nearby college as she was slated to retire on March 31, 2024.
Accordingly, the government transferred her to the Department of Statistics at the Govinda Pai Memorial Government College in Manjeshwar. But the tribunal did not interfere with the order removing her from the post of principal, and she approached the HC.

The court dismissed the Directorate of Collegiate Education's decision to invoke Rules 62 and 63 of Service Conduct Rules, saying Dr Rema "spoke against the SFI unit and its member" and "not against the government or the relationship between the government and the students".
Rule 62 of the Service Conduct Rules directs employees not to make statements that can embarrass the relationship between the government and the people. And if there is any doubt, Rule 63 mandates employees to get the statements vetted by the government before going public.

The judges noted that Dr Rema not only spoke against SFI activists in the interview, but she also spoke against illegal activities involving former students who frequently used to come to college for illegal activities. "The petitioner is a free citizen of this country. She cannot surrender her constitutional right of free speech and expression," they noted in their judgment.
However, when the bench on March 22, 2024 reserved the matter for judgment, the government served Dr Rema another charge memo on March 24, for denying admission to a student in August 2022.

Minister R Bindu
Minister R Bindu. Photo: Manorama News

Dr Rema had denied admission to the student because she did not come with her father. The student filed a complaint with the Kannur University registrar on August 23, 2022, and Dr Rema replied by saying it was the decision of the PTA to insist on the presence of the father in the Anti-Ragging Forum and Anti-Dowry Forum, where parents are required to sign at the time of admission.

On October 19, 2023, the University Syndicate recommended penal action against Dr Rema saying she "exceeded her authority by insisting on the presence of a parent or parents during admission".
But the HC had already concluded that the first inquiry against Dr Rema "was initiated to prevent her from obtaining pensionary benefits immediately upon retirement". The second memo cemented the court's opinion. "We cannot overlook the fact that the present charge memo issued on the eve of retirement is nothing but a continuation of the earlier charge memo to harass the petitioner for extraneous reasons," the order said. 

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