In Kerala, acrimony over appointments

The Kerala Governor has negated the advantage the government enjoyed in selecting the Vice Chancellor

August 10, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 12:53 am IST

Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan.

Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan. | Photo Credit: H.S. MANJUNATH

The relationship between Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan and the State government has entered yet another thorny phase over differences in opinion on the bounds of the Chancellor’s role in the functioning of universities. The tussle has been in the making for nearly a year after the Governor confronted the government over the University of Kerala’s refusal to confer honorary doctorate on former President Ram Nath Kovind. The reappointment of the Vice Chancellor of Kannur University had also annoyed him. These instances prompted him to declare his unwillingness to continue as Chancellor of universities.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had led the government’s rapprochement efforts earlier after the Governor reportedly withheld his assent to the policy address on the eve of the Budget Session of the Legislative Assembly. Nevertheless, the government has quietly endorsed the growing clamour of some States, including Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Odisha, to work towards trimming the powers of the Chancellor over universities in order for the government to gain greater control.

Also read | Governor springs a surprise, forms selection panel for Kerala University Vice Chancellor

Within a few months, a government-constituted commission that was mandated with overhauling university laws advocated stripping the Chancellor off his discretionary powers. It instead recommended that a University Tribunal be formed to decide on legal matters. It also called for reducing the Governor’s authority in the selection of Vice Chancellors. Another Commission tasked with suggesting reforms for the higher education sector has mooted separate Chancellors for each university.

While the government prepared to bring out an Ordinance to implement such reforms in the University of Kerala prior to the selection of the next Vice Chancellor, the Governor made a pre-emptive move by initiating the process on his own without consulting the State government.

Mr. Khan also refused to re-promulgate 11 key Ordinances that have now lapsed. While claiming to have been provided little time to “apply his mind” in examining the Ordinance, he took a swipe at the State government by averring that “ruling through Ordinances is not desirable in a democracy”. His comments emboldened the Opposition to accuse the ruling dispensation of adopting an ‘Ordinance Raj’ to bypass the legislature in implementing contentious laws. The lapsed Ordinances included the contentious Kerala Lok Ayukta (Amendment) Ordinance that amended Section 14 of the Kerala Lok Ayukta Act, 1999 which empowered the ombudsman to remove a corrupt public official from office and prevent the person from holding office again. The Ordinance enabled the Governor, the Chief Minister or the State government to “either accept or reject the declaration”.

Also read | No adversarial approach over Governor not signing ordinances: LDF

Mr. Khan also sought an explanation from Kannur University on the politically sensitive appointment of the wife of the Chief Minister’s private secretary as an associate professor based on a complaint that UGC rules were flouted to ensure she was appointed.

In a single stroke, Mr. Khan has negated the advantage the government enjoyed in the process of selecting the Vice Chancellor. While a nominee each has been chosen by the Governor and the UGC, the State government can effectively rely only on the nominee sent by the university Senate to further its interests. Governors have conventionally entrusted the governments to choose nominees on their behalf. The onus is now on the government to either accustom itself to the ‘new’ template in the appointment of Vice Chancellors or to adopt drastic steps as those recommended by its Commissions.

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