‘Crisis’ as Indian states battle BJP for control of universities

Latest salvo sees Keralan state government challenge national president in the Supreme Court over vice-chancellor appointments

April 1, 2024
Campus of The Supreme Court of India which is the supreme judicial body of India and the highest court of the Republic of India.
Source: iStock/Mrinal Pal

The tussle for control of universities between India’s state governments and the country’s ruling BJP party is causing a “crisis” in many institutions, as an ongoing spat in Kerala has escalated to presidential levels. 

Kerala’s state government has filed an appeal in the Supreme Court against India’s president after she withheld assent for its proposed changes to university legislation, calling this “unconstitutional”.

The president’s decision means the bills are not rejected, but they cannot progress either until approval is given. As India’s constitution does not stipulate how long a president has to grant assent, this could see the legislation remain in stalemate for the foreseeable future unless the Supreme Court intervenes. 

Education in India is concurrently controlled by both state and central governments, and these developments in Kerala are the latest in a fight for power over universities between the left-ruled state government and BJP-appointed governor. 

The proposed amendments would see governor Arif Mohammed Khan replaced as chancellor of universities in the state, among other changes. The governor, who controversially directed nine vice-chancellors to resign in October, opposes the move, arguing that state governments should not be given the power to appoint vice-chancellors because this would interfere with universities’ autonomy. 

According to Kerala’s state government, Mr Khan had himself refused to pass a total of seven bills, many related to universities, for as long as two years, before referring them for presidential approval. Doing so, they said in their court plea, was making the existence of state legislation “ineffective and otiose”. 

“Ironically, the governor, who accuses the Kerala state government of political interference in the functioning of universities, is actually a political appointee of the central government,” said Eldho Mathews, programme officer for the internationalisation of higher education at the Kerala State Higher Education Council. 

According to Mr Mathews, these “stalling strategies” are causing a “crisis” in many universities due to the subsequent lack of permanent vice-chancellors and “the limited decision-making powers of the temporary vice-chancellors”, which can include the appointment of faculty. 

Saikat Majumdar, a writer and academic at Ashoka University, said the row was part of an “ongoing pattern” of conflict between the central BJP government and non-BJP state governments, which has been “playing out in the sphere of higher education”. 

Similar conflicts have emerged in regions including Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Punjab, where states are governed by parties in opposition to the central government, with universities becoming a battleground for political control. 

“Most parties in India, but the BJP above all, have realised that the control of universities is important for the retention of overall political control, as both faculty and student behaviour, as well as curricula, can thus be kept within the needs of the respective political and ideological agendas,” said Professor Majumdar, who was speaking in a personal capacity.

West Bengal’s state education minister has accused the governor of “trying to run a parallel system in our state universities, ignoring the government”, while trying to pass a similar bill to Kerala that would see the governor ousted as chancellor. 

But Deepti Acharya, a political scientist at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, argued that moving power to the state government was unlikely to solve the problems universities faced. “Since universities are important structures of any society, I doubt that changing the process of appointing vice-chancellors will make universities less political,” she said. 


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