For weeks now, a controversy surrounding a professor of modern Indian history, Gopinath Ravindran, has been in the making in Kerala. His reappointment as Vice Chancellor of Kannur University is what started it, in the last week of November 2021. Exchanges took place between the Governor of Kerala, Arif Mohammed Khan, the Left government in the state, and opposition parties. Questions were raised about the distinguished academic despite the fact that he has no role to play in the politics going on in his name in the state. Gopinath, who has specialised in economic history and historical demography, has expressed his disappointment in dragging academics into a political controversy. So what is the issue all about, and is it fair to drag a feted academic into what is seemingly a Governor vs government row?
Gopinath Ravindran has for years taught at various universities — St Stephen's, Jamia Millia Islamia, and London School of Economics and Political Science (as an academic visitor) among them. In 2017, he was appointed as the VC of Kannur University, and in November 2021, barely a month before his 61st birthday, Gopinath got reappointed. It caused an immediate stir because it was a first of sorts. Reportedly, no VC has been reappointed in Kerala before. And no person aged over 60 is posted to the position of VC. The Save University Campaign Committee (SUCC), a group that studies campus issues, quoted a mandate of the Kannur University Act of 1996 to this effect (check page 26 of the Act here).
The opposition to Gopinath's appointment came even as another row was going on in the Kannur University; the spouse of former CPI(M) Member of Parliament KK Ragesh was shortlisted for a teaching position. SUCC protested this, accusing the university of violating UGC norms. They alleged that she did not have the necessary experience for the post.
It took a few days for the media and thereby the public to take note of the challenge to Gopinath's appointment. That happened after an angry letter that Governor Arif Mohammad had sent Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, became public. In no soft terms, the Governor expressed to CM Pinarayi Vijayan his displeasure at the 'intervention' of the state in university appointments, while he was the chancellor of all the universities in Kerala (according to the Universities Act).
Interestingly, this appointment, like all appointments of vice chancellors, was approved by the Governor just days earlier; a three-member panel which was assigned by the state to find a replacement was dismissed after the Governor's approval. Minister of Higher Education R Bindu had recommended Gopinath's reappointment and the Governor had obliged. In his later letter, however, he said that it had made him uncomfortable.
Rajan Gurukkal, vice chairman of Kerala State Higher Education Council, told Mathrubhumi that there was nothing wrong with the recommendation of a reappointment, as per UGC rules, but the Governor had the right to reject it with reasons. In that case, the government should explain why he should be reappointed.
The Governor's letter came soon after his recommendation to the Kerala University, to confer an honorary doctorate to President Ram Nath Kovind, was rejected. The rejection led to political arguments, with Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala accusing the Left government of having a hand in rejecting the proposal, and leader of opposition VD Satheesan criticising the Governor for not following proper channels.
And as the row grew, on Saturday, January 8, another letter was made public — this one allegedly written by the Kerala University Vice Chancellor VP Mahadevan Pillai to the Governor. The letter said that the Governor's proposal was discussed with a few members of the University Syndicate — the executive body of the university — who turned it down. However, as per rules when such a recommendation is made, the VC is supposed to have called a meeting of the Syndicate to make the decision.
The Governor meanwhile has stated that he will quit as chancellor of universities and transfer his powers to the pro-chancellor — a position held by Minister Bindu — if Gopinath's appointment is not revisited.
Both the state government and the main opposition front led by Congress have been urging him to change his decision but Governor Arif remains unmoved. Opposition Leader VD Satheesan said that it was not a legal move, nor a decision the Governor can take on his own, without a collective call by the Assembly.
Senior journalist MG Radhakrishnan wrote in a column for The Telegraph that the practice of giving the Governor the post of chancellor of universities is a colonial legacy. He quoted a researcher as saying that the “the power, pomp, and paraphernalia associated with Governors in British India lent credence to the post of Chancellor.”
Governor Arif has had a more public row — towards the end of 2019 — with another eminent historian, Irfan Habib, at the Indian History Congress, when the latter registered his protest over the Governor's impromptu speech on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). At the Congress, KK Ragesh, then an MP, had spoken against the CAA, which was a raging issue at the time and protests had risen all over the country. The Governor had then kept aside his prepared speech and spoken about the CAA, defending the Union government's controversial Act, deemed discriminatory towards Muslims by many. A few participants raised protests against his speech after which the Governor quoted Maulana Azad to say that the protestors were 'causing a foul smell'. Irfan Habib, then 88, was on stage and protested this remark. He reportedly asked the Governor to quote Nathuram Godse, rather than Maulana Azad or Mahatma Gandhi.
It is not clear if Gopinath had been present at the time or intervened in the issue. But he has had trouble with some supporters of India's ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, years before that. "It began in 2015 when he was the member secretary of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). The Union government wanted the ICHR's advisory panel — comprising eminent historians like Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar and others — to be dismissed. Professor Gopinath expressed his disagreement. But Sudarshan Rao, then ICHR chairman who was appointed by the BJP (and is believed to be close to the RSS), did not document it and Professor Gopinath resigned in protest. It was after that that the Kerala government appointed him at the Kannur University," says MG Radhakrishnan.
In mid-December, a plea questioning Professor Gopinath’s reappointment was dismissed by the Kerala High Court.
The politicising of the issue has slung mud on the professor who has done a lot of important research about the subcontinent. Professor Gopinath’s work is important in challenging a standard argument — “that sustained capitalist progress is largely affected by waged labour and capital,” says M Satish Kumar, a Belfast-based social scientist who has worked closely with Professor Gopinath.
“He has emphasised on the intersectionality of demographic change, social, economic and political attributes in influencing transformations in Kerala’s local economy, from a pre-colonial, pre-capitalist to a modern entity. His work thereby extends the critical debates in the field, particularly in its ability to interpret historical facts of population in the context of social, economic and political realities in India,” adds Satish.
The professor has done long-run studies on agrarian economy, mortality, fertility, and inequality. Some of his published papers are ‘Agrarian Regimes and Demographic Change: Fertility Change in Southern India’, ‘Aspects of Demographic Change and the Agrarian Economy of Colonial Malabar’ and ‘The Changing Late Precolonial Political Economy of Malabar’.