India’s political tug of war over v-c appointments is fraying tempers

Central government representatives are increasingly rejecting candidates selected by political foes in state governments, says Mukhtar Ahmad

January 2, 2023
A fraying rope
Source: iStock

The ongoing tussle between the vice-chancellors of nine universities in the Indian state of Kerala and the state’s governor is the ugliest recent example of the political tensions that can arise due to the way that vice-chancellors of Indian state universities are appointed.

The University Grants Commission requires a panel of experts to send three names to the relevant state government, which then notifies the university’s chancellor of its preferred candidate. The tension arises because the chancellor of state universities is, ex officio, the Delhi-appointed governor of the state in question. In states whose government is run by parties that aren’t aligned to the ruling party at the centre – currently the right-wing BJP – governors seem increasingly inclined to reject the state government’s choices and demand new shortlists.

In Kerala, things have got particularly messy. On 23 October, the state governor, Arif Mohammed Khan, asked the vice-chancellors of nine universities to resign within 24 hours. But the left-wing government of Kerala instructed the vice-chancellors to defy the order.

When they held firm, Khan served another notice asking the vice-chancellors to explain within 10 days why their appointment should not be declared illegal. He quoted a recent order of the Supreme Court of India quashing the appointment of one of the nine as vice-chancellor of APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University on the grounds that the search committee had not been properly constituted and had sent the governor only one name, instead of the three required by UGC regulations. According to the governor’s office, at least five of the vice-chancellors had been appointed in the same deficient manner.

But the vice-chancellors approached the high court of Kerala, which agreed that they should continue in office. The chief minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, said the governor’s action infringed both the autonomy of the universities and the authority of a democratically elected government. He insisted that since the governor had approved the appointments, he bore primary responsibility for any improper selections, adding that the chancellor is not authorised to ask vice-chancellors to quit.

Khan further escalated the confrontation by rejecting the state government’s nominee for interim vice-chancellor of the APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University. The state government then successfully appealed to Kerala’s high court against the appointment of Khan’s preferred candidate. It also organised a massive march to the governor’s office-cum-residence in the state capital to protest against his actions.

The tensions aren’t confined to Kerala. Several non-BJP governments around the country are complaining of what they regard as illegal interference by their governors in the functioning of state universities, especially regarding the appointment of vice-chancellors. However, most of the governors insist that powers to take decisions over university affairs lie with them.

In October, there was a tussle between the Punjab government and governor over the appointment of biotechnologist Satbir Singh Gosal as vice-chancellor of Punjab Agricultural University. The governor, Banwarilal Purohit, who clashes regularly with the chief minister, Bhagwant Mann, said his objections to a “wrongdoing” regarding Gosal’s appointment should not be seen as interference in the functioning of the government. Purohit has also refused to approve the government’s choice for vice-chancellor of the Baba Farid University of Health Sciences, cardiologist Gurpreet Singh Wander. Instead, he has asked the state government to send him a list of three new names for the post.

In early November, the Kerala government decided to introduce an ordinance to remove the governor from the post of universities chancellor and appoint the chief minister instead, following similar moves by the West Bengal and Tamilnadu governments. However, the governor has the power to refer the ordinance to India’s president, which could delay the process considerably.

This kind of open confrontation between governors and state governments is a disturbing sign of the weakening of constitutional order. It has a destabilising effect on universities, as well as a highly demoralising effect on the vice-chancellors themselves. But the central government seems to have no will to correct the distortions that have crept into the system.

Mukhtar Ahmad is former professor of electrical engineering at Aligarh Muslim University.

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Reader's comments (1)

State Governments in India are corrupt to the core and they choose candidates based on the bribe they get. When questioned, they cry foul. Ideally the post of VC should be merit based, but in reality - they are not - indeed it is sad.