The Kerala High Court’s annulment of the appointment of Dalit scholar and activist Rekha Raj as an assistant professor at Mahatma Gandhi University in the state has raised several questions regarding academic merit and the selection criterion for professorships.
Raj had been appointed assistant professor at the School of Gandhian Thought and Development Studies in 2019, which was then challenged by second-place contender Nisha Velappan Nair. A single judge bench of the Kerala High Court, in its order, had earlier upheld the appointment only for it to be overruled by the division bench.
In the motion to the court, Nair highlighted certain points, including the marks awarded during the selection process. She argued that she should have obtained six extra points for her doctorate, which was refused by the university on the grounds that the doctorate was a basic minimum qualification. On the other hand, Raj’s doctorate – which qualified for the National Eligibility Test (NET) – was treated as an additional qualification, for which she was awarded six points in the selection process.
The court held that the notes should not have been denied to Nair just because she was exempt from NET. The Divisional Bench stated in its order that applicants with PhDs are exempted from acquiring NET solely for the purpose of creating a level playing field for fair competition without any benefit to either side. Once a candidate enters the consideration area by taking advantage of the exemption, the court said, they are entitled to equal treatment in the selection process.
As such, the tribunal observed that NET qualifications should not and cannot tip the scales in assessing the applicant’s inter-se merit, and ordered the university to award the six points to Nair. The court also held that Raj is not entitled to more than three points for his research publications because there is a requirement in the notification that details of applicants’ research publications must be provided in the application, which she had not complied.
The court further stated that if Raj’s grades are reduced by five (regarding the issue of her research publications) and Nair’s grades are increased by six (for her PhD), the latter would receive 52.61. points and the old 44.40. . If so, the claimant (Nair) should have been chosen to be appointed in place of the second defendant (Raj), the court observed.
In the order reversing Raj’s selection, the court also ordered the University to appoint Nair in his place. Raj has already made it clear that she will be filing a Special Leave Application (SLP) in the Supreme Court. The University is also considering the possibility of challenging the order before the Court of Appeal.
“Dr. Rekha is an accomplished Dalit scholar with outstanding achievements in advocating for women’s rights and empowering the depressed classes. With her appointment to a teaching position, the university had been credited with honoring a woman dalit with high qualifications. I think his appointment was one of the milestones in the history of affirmative action in Kerala; to nominate an SC candidate in the general category,” says Arathi PM, assistant professor in the Department of Legal Thoughts from Mahatma Gandhi University.
However, another group of academics believe Raj’s appointment was illegal from the start. AS Sasikala, who was also a candidate for selection, alleged that the University erred in the notification itself by not fixing the Postgraduate Diploma and NET in the same subject as the basic minimum qualification , which was totally contrary to the interest of those who studied Gandhian. Studies.
“From this alone, it is obvious that the University and the selection committee were biased. Not only have they let us down, but the values that Gandhiji stood for,” Sasikala wrote in a post on a Malayalam news site, in response to the ongoing discussions.
“Normally, university departments that teach Gandhian studies only accept applicants from other disciplines if there are not enough applicants from that same discipline,” Sasikala added in a Facebook post.
Dileep R., assistant professor of philosophy at Government Brennen College Thalassery, disagreed. “If you follow this argument, the whole department will have to be dismantled. A department should not be considered a discipline. There should be teachers from different disciplines. It would be childish to claim that everyone in the faculty should be from the same discipline,” he said.
“Furthermore, the school was not envisioned by UR Ananthamurty, the First Vice-Chancellor, as a traditional academic department but as an interdisciplinary school, so named the Gandhi School of Thought and Development Studies “, Dileep added.
Raj’s appointment as a faculty member of the Gandhi School of Thought and Development Studies was of great significance as she vehemently raised the issues of the marginalized section, especially Dalit women . His book titled, Dalit Sthree Idapedalukal (‘Interventions by Dalit women) has been widely read and has been translated into other Indian languages including Tamil. His thesis, ‘The Politics of Gender and Dalit Identity: Representation of Dalit Women in Contemporary Dalit Discourses in Kerala’, too, has been widely discussed.
Many campaigners and academics believe the High Court order will have far-reaching implications and have already urged the University to challenge it in the Supreme Court.
“The fact that Rekha has been appointed to a general seat has upset many. The other two vacancies were reserved for OBCs and no upper caste candidates were accepted. This is the root cause of many elite classes trying to make it a matter of ‘merit’,” observed K. Santhoshkumar, a Dalit rights activist and editor of the digital newspaper, The root media.
A section of University teachers who support Raj also believe that overturning an appointment based on a new set of criteria set arbitrarily by the divisional bench is tantamount to undermining the rights of other candidates appointed from the same selection list, as well as in other schools of the University. There will be a wave of claims on unnatural and arbitrarily determined criteria.
“She has put in almost three years of service and has acted as thesis supervisor for a number of candidates. These PhD students will be in dire circumstances if Raj is fired,” Prime Minister Arathi said.
Rajeev Ramachandran is a freelance journalist based in Kochi.