The Kerala High Court on Thursday questioned whether the Governor, in his capacity as Chancellor of universities in the State, can do nothing to rectify the situation, if there was an inadvertent error in the manner in which Vice Chancellors were appointed to the universities.
Justice Devan Ramachandran was considering a batch of petitions filed by the Vice Chancellors of several universities in Kerala challenging the show cause notices issued to them by Governor Arif Mohammad Khan for removing them from their posts.
Upon hearing the argument of the petitioner-VCs that the Governor does not have the power to remove the VCs and that it is up to the Court to rectify any errors, the single-judge asked if the Governor is expected to let the illegality continue until some litigant approaches the Court challenging the VCs appointment.
“If there was fraud or an error in the system (of appointment), are you saying that the Chancellor should turn a blind eye? Should the illegality be perpetuated until someone approaches the Court with a writ of quo warranto?” he orally questioned.
Even though the Court had intended to hear the matter at length today, on the request of the Governor, represented by Senior Advocate Jaju Babu, for more time to file counter pleadings, the Court adjourned the matter after asking all the counsel appearing for the petitioners to have an answer to the above question ready by the next date of hearing.
However, it extended the time for the petitioners to file objections against the show cause notices until 5 pm on November 7, 2022. The earlier deadline set by the Governor was 5pm today.
It also granted the petitioners liberty to apply for a personal hearing by November 7.
To allay the apprehensions of the petitioners that by filing objections to the show cause notices, it would be construed that they have given up their contentions before the court against its validity, the Court made it clear that the objections will not prejudice their case before the Court.
"In the afore circumstances and since this case has been pending before this court for at least three days, i am certain that the petitioners are entitled to be granted time to file their objections. Needless to say, any such objections will be without prejudice to the various contentions raised in this writ petition against the impugned show cause notices. Resultantly, i extend the time frame for filing objections against impugned show cause notices until 5pm on 7/11/2022 and they will simultaneously be at liberty to ask for personal hearing," the Court said in its order.
On noticing that even after the order was dictated, the petitioners' counsel seemed to be doubtful that the Governor would consider their objections with fairness, Justice Ramachandran orally remarked,
"Don't worry, don't go by what WhatsApp University is telling you"
Kerala has been witnessing a tussle between the Governor and the State government on this issue with the main point of contention being the Governor's right to remove and appoint VCs to universities in the exercise of his power as Chancellor of universities.
On October 23,, the spat reached new heights when the Governor sent letters to 9 VCs, directing them to tender resignation by the next day.
The VCs moved the High Court which then convened a special hearing on Diwali, a court holiday, to hear their challenge to said order.
By then, the Governor had sent show cause notices to the VCs asking them to justify why they shouldn't be removed from their post in light of the recent decision of the Supreme Court in Professor (Dr.) Sreejith PS v. Dr. Rajasree MS & Ors., setting aside the appointment of the Vice Chancellor of APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University.
According to the Governor, the manner of appointment of these 9 VCs had been improper.
The High Court had then noted that the challenge to the letters no longer held any value as the Governor issued show cause notices. It set aside the letters and said that the VCs could continue in their posts till the Governor takes a final decision.
The VCs then approached the Court challenging the said show cause notices.
The plea moved by Dr. Gopinath Ravindran, VC of Kannur University, challenged the show cause notice claiming that it was issued without any authority of law.
The plea contended that the Chancellor, being a statutory and administrative authority, cannot adjudicate the validity or otherwise of an appointment.
About the judgments of the Supreme Court mentioned by the Governor in the notices, the petitioner argued that there are fundamental differences in the facts of those cases and that they will not apply to his case.
On these, among other grounds, the petitioner sought orders from the Court to quash the show cause notice issued by the Governor. He also sought a declaration that the Governor has no authority to declare his appointment as VC as void ab initio.
[Read our live coverage of the hearing]