SC quashes reappointment of Gopinath Ravindran as Kannur University vice-chancellor

CJI D Y Chandrachud found Governor Arif Mohammad Khan at fault for reappointing Ravindran to the post of vice-chancellor.

SC has quashed reappointment of Kannur University VC (Image: Wikimedia Commons)SC has quashed reappointment of Kannur University VC (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Press Trust of India | November 30, 2023 | 04:48 PM IST

NEW DELHI: In a major setback to the Kerala government, the Supreme Court on Thursday quashed its decision to reappoint Gopinath Ravindran as the vice chancellor of Kannur University and berated the Left Front dispensation for its "unwarranted intervention" in the matter.

An apex court bench headed by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud found fault with the order of Governor Arif Mohammad Khan reappointing Ravindran to the post, saying the he "abdicated or surrendered" the statutory powers for re-appointing the vice chancellor. The governors are also ex-officio chancellors of state universities. The top court set aside the judgements of a single judge bench and division bench of the Kerala High Court upholding Ravindran's reappointment.

Reacting to the verdict, the Kerala governor accused Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan of pressuring him to reappoint Ravindran as the vice chancellor. Khan, speaking to reporters in Thiruvananthapuram, said state Higher Education Minister R Bindu was not to be blamed as it was Vijayan who used her for seeking Ravindran's reappointment. The governor, being the ex-officio chancellor of universities in a state, acts independently of the council of ministers in taking decisions on all university matters.

“We have reached the conclusion that although the notification re-appointing the Respondent number 4 (Ravindran) to the post of vice chancellor was issued by the Chancellor (the governor), yet the decision stood vitiated by the influence of extraneous consideration, or to put it in other words, by the unwarranted intervention of the state government,” the bench, also comprising justices J B Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, said. “The impugned judgement and the order passed by the high court dated February 23, 2022 is hereby set aside and as a consequence, the notification dated November 23, 2021 reappointing the respondent number 4 (Ravindran) as the vice chancellor of the Kannur University is hereby set aside,” the apex court said.

The bench, in its judgement, referred to a press release of the Kerala Raj Bhavan which stated that the process of re-appointment was initiated by the chief minister and the higher education minister. Pronouncing the judgement, Justice Pardiwala said the top court addressed four questions, including whether reappointment is permissible when the tenure is fixed. The issues framed for adjudication included whether re-appointment is permissible in “a tenure post”. “Whether the upper age limit of 60 years as stipulated in Section 10(9) of the Kannur University Act is applicable even in the case of reappointment for four years,” the second issue framed by the court read.

The judgement also dealt with the third question as to whether the re-appointment process has to be the same as that for the appointment of a vice chancellor where a selection panel is set up. The fourth issue before the apex court was whether the chancellor abdicated or surrendered his statutory power while ordering reappointment. Answering the fourth question, the bench said, “On facts and on certain principles of law, we have taken the view that the Chancellor abdicated or surrendered the statutory power of reappointment, rendering the entire decision making process bad." “Our final conclusion is that it is now well settled that the writ of quo warranto (by what authority) lies if any appointment to a public office is made in breach of the statute or the rules," the judgement said.

The writ of quo warranto is used to judicially control executive action in the matter of making appointments. In this particular case, the bench is not concerned with the suitability of Ravindran for the post, it said. "The suitability of a candidate for appointment to a post is to be judged by the appointing authority and not by the court unless the appointment is contrary to the statutory rules/ provisions,” the judgement said.

The bench said it is the chancellor who has been conferred with competence under the law to appoint or reappoint the vice chancellor. "No other person, even the pro-chancellor or any superior authority can interfere with the functioning of the statutory authority," it held. The detailed judgement is awaited. On February 23 last year, a division bench of the Kerala High Court dismissed an appeal against a single judge order upholding the reappointment of Ravindran. It was done in accordance with law and he was not "an usurper to the post", it said.

The plea had sought quashing of the reappointment on the ground that a person can hold office of the vice chancellor only till the age of 60 and Ravindran, born on December 19, 1960, was overage at the time of his second appointment. Ravindran was appointed as the vice chancellor in 2017 and his tenure ended in 2022. When steps were in progress for selecting his successor, the notification calling for eligible candidates was withdrawn and the selection panel was dissolved. The chancellor then notified Ravindran's reappointment as the vice chancellor for another four years.

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