Kerala: Opinions Divided on Annulment of Dalit Woman's Appointment as Assistant Prof

While some agree with the Kerala high court's decision to annul Rekha Raj's appointment, others believe that it was her appointment in the 'general' category that put some people's noses out of joint.

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The Kerala high court’s annulment of Dalit scholar and activist Rekha Raj’s appointment as an assistant professor in the Mahatma Gandhi University in the state has raised several questions regarding academic merit and the selection criterion for faculty positions.

Raj had been appointed an assistant professor in the School of Gandhian Thought and Development Studies in 2019, which was subsequently challenged by second-place candidate 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 set aside by the division bench.

In the petition before the court, Nair pointed out certain matters, including marks awarded during the selection process. She argued that she should have been awarded an additional six marks for her PhD, which was denied by the university citing that the PhD was a basic minimum qualification. On the other hand, the PhD of Raj – who has qualified for the National Eligibility Test (NET) – was treated as an additional qualification, for which she was awarded six marks in the selection process. 

The court felt that marks should not have been denied to Nair merely because she was exempted from the NET. The division bench said in its order that the candidates holding PhDs are exempted from acquiring NET only with a view to create a level playing field for fair competition, without any advantage to either side. Once a candidate enters the zone of consideration by availing the benefit of the exemption, the court said, he/she is entitled to equal treatment in the selection process.

As such, the court observed that NET qualifications shall not and cannot tilt the balance in the evaluation of the inter-se-merit of the candidate, and directed the university to award the six marks to Nair. The court also opined that Raj is not entitled to more than three marks for her research publications as there is a prescription in the notification that the particulars of the research publications of the candidates shall be furnished in the application, which she had not complied with. 

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The court further stated that if the marks awarded to Raj are reduced by five (regarding the issue with her research publications) and the marks awarded to Nair are increased by six (for her PhD), the latter would score 52.61 mark and the former 44.40. If that be so, the petitioner (Nair) should have been selected for appointment in place of the second respondent (Raj), the court observed. 

In the order quashing Raj’s selection, the court has also directed the University to appoint Nair in her place. Raj has already made it clear that she would be moving a special leave petition (SLP) in the Supreme Court. The University also is mulling over the possibility of challenging the order in the appellate court. 

“Dr. Rekha is an accomplished Dalit scholar with outstanding achievements in women’s rights advocacy and depressed classes’ empowerment. With her appointment to a teaching position, the university had been credited with honouring a Dalit woman with high credentials. I think her appointment was one of the milestones in the history of affirmative action in Kerala; appointing an SC candidate in the general category,” says Arathi P.M., an assistant professor in the department of Legal Thoughts, Mahatma Gandhi University.

However, another set of academics think Raj’s appointment was illegal right from the beginning. A.S. Sasikala, who also was a candidate for selection, alleged that the University erred in the notification itself by not setting post-graduate degree and NET in the same subject as the basic minimum qualification, which was totally against the interest of those who studied Gandhian Studies.

“From this alone, it is evident that the University and the selection committee were biased. They not only failed us, but the values for which Gandhiji stood,” wrote Sasikala in an article published on a Malayalam news website, in response to the ongoing discussions.

“Normally, University departments that teach Gandhian studies entertain candidates from other disciplines only if there are not enough applicants from that very discipline,” Sasikala added in a Facebook post. 

Dileep R., an assistant professor of Philosophy in Government Brennen College Thalassery, disagreed. “If you go by this argument, the entire department will have to be dismantled. A department should not be taken as a discipline. There should be teachers from different disciplines in it. It would be childish to argue that everyone in the faculty should be from the same discipline,” he opined.

“Moreover, the School was not envisaged by U.R. Ananthamurty, the first vice-chancellor, as a traditional university department but an interdisciplinary school, thus named the School of Gandhian Thought and Development Studies,” Dileep added.

Raj’s appointment as a faculty member of the School of Gandhian Thought and Development Studies was of great significance as she had been vociferous in raising the issues of the marginalised section, especially of the Dalit women. Her book titled, Dalit Sthree Idapedalukal (‘Dalit Women’s Interventions’) was widely read and was translated into other Indian languages, including Tamil. Her thesis, ‘Politics Of Gender and Dalit Identity: Representation of Dalit Women in Contemporary Dalit Discourses in Kerala’, too, was widely discussed.

Many activists and academics think that 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 got appointed in a general seat has upset many. The other two vacancies were reserved for OBCs and no upper caste candidates made the cut. This is the root cause of many from elite classes trying to make this an issue of ‘Merit’,” observed K. Santhoshkumar, a Dalit rights activist and editor of the digital journal, The Roots Media

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A section of teachers in the University who back Raj also believe that quashing an appointment based on a new set of criteria arbitrarily fixed by the division bench amounts to infringing upon the rights of other candidates appointed from the same selection list, as well as in other schools of the University. There will be a spate of claims on unnatural and arbitrarily-determined criteria.

“She has put in nearly three years of service and officiated as PhD supervisor for a number of candidates. These PhD scholars will be in dire circumstances if Raj is terminated from service” Arathi P.M. said.

Rajeev Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Kochi.