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Kerala HC slams state govt for taking action against college principal for opposing illegal activities of SFI, upholds her right to free speech

The Kerala High Court condemned the state government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for "misusing power" and for supporting the party's student wing (SFI) in their attempt "to prevent a college teacher from obtaining pensionary benefits,"

The Left government of Kerala initiated strict action against Dr Rema M, a college principal who spoke out against the goons of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), a left-wing student organisation. She was removed from her position and was subjected to a probe after her retirement under the claims of criticising the government. Furthermore, she was also transferred. She had accused the SFI thugs of being involved in illegal activities including organised crime and drug addiction on the college campus after which they held her hostage on the college campus for hours. However, rather than starting legal action against the SFI members, the government targeted the principal and now the Kerala High Court has reprimanded it for the same.

The Kerala High Court condemned the state government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for “misusing power” and for supporting the party’s student wing (SFI) in their attempt “to prevent a college teacher from obtaining pensionary benefits,” reported Onmanorama. Judges A Muhamed Mustaque and Shoba Annamma Eapen of the High Court have annulled the two departmental inquiries against the former principal of Kasaragod Government College, who had been critical of the SFI for engaging in unlawful activities on campus. She retired on 31st March 2023. The ruling was posted on the court’s website on 21st May this year after the order was delivered a month ago on 9th April.

Dr Rema was first dismissed from her position as principal in charge by Kerala’s Minister for Higher Education, R Bindu. She was then shifted by the Directorate of Collegiate Education to Government Arts and Science College, Koduvally, which is 200 kilometres away in the Kozhikode district. The development transpired following an interview she did for an internet portal in which she accused SFI workers and some students of abusing narcotics, having “immoral physical relationships” and committing atrocities on campus.

“If she had raised unsubstantiated allegations against members of the SFI unit, the real aggrieved parties are the members of the SFI unit and not the government,” the verdict declared, lambasting the government for defending SFI and citing service rules that shield the government from embarrassing remarks made by employees. “The government cannot assume that these are unsubstantiated allegations without conducting an inquiry by an independent authority or determining at a litigatory forum.”

An inquiry commission had been established by the government, comprising Deputy Director of Collegiate Education Sunil John J, Professor Geetha E and senior clerk Shyamlal I S as members. The committee was formed in response to a complaint brought out by Kasaragod Government College’s SFI unit secretary, Akshay M K. The panel did not look into the accusations made against the SFI and instead, it proposed that Dr. Rema be transferred to another college. “It appears that it was a one-sided inquiry to indict the petitioner rather than addressing disciplinary issues within the college,” the court pronounced.

Background of the case

SFI members brought up the issue of contaminated drinking water with Dr. Rema on 20th February of last year. On the same day, she gave the college superintendent instructions to fix the water filter. However, SFI leaders visited her chamber the next day and demanded an explanation regarding the filter’s repair. On 22nd February, SFI members reported that the responsible principal was abusing pupils verbally to the media. The next day, Dr Rema was detained by around sixty SFI students from 10.30 am until 2 pm. The order stated that she could not even use the restroom. It revealed that the cops had liberated her after she had been heckled by female students.

She was relieved of her duties as principal in charge by Minister Bindu on 23rd February and SFI announced that Dr Rema would not be permitted to set foot on campus. She unveiled spotting people using drugs and having sexual encounters on campus to an internet portal the next day. She additionally stated that SFI students were committing crimes and indulging in illicit conduct. She received a show-cause notice from the government claiming that her interview damaged the college’s reputation. Her daughter was enrolled in the same college, she retorted and asserted that she did not hold grudges against the entire student body.

The government formed the three-person inquiry committee because they were not satisfied with the response which filed a report on 15th June 2023, suggesting that Dr. Rema be brought to task for breaching Rules 61 and 62 of the Government Servants’ Conduct Rules, 1960. It was put forward that she be moved to another college to preserve the pleasant atmosphere that Kasaragod College offers for learning. Sudhir K, the Director of Collegiate Education, assigned Government Arts and Science College, Koduvally to her on July 9, 2023.

The legal battle

Dr Rema challenged the order with the Kerala Administrative Tribunal. She was scheduled to retire on 31st March 2024, therefore the tribunal ordered the government to reconsider sending her to a nearby college. As a result, the government moved her to the Govinda Pai Memorial Government College in Manjeshwar, to the Department of Statistics. However, the tribunal did not challenge the decision to remove her from her key position and hence she went to the High Court.

The Directorate of Collegiate Education’s intention to apply Rules 62 and 63 of the Service Conduct Rules was overturned by the court on the grounds that Dr Rema “spoke against the SFI unit and its member” and “not against the government or the relationship between the government and the students.” Employees are instructed by Rule 62 of the Service Conduct Rules not to express anything that could damage the public-government relationship. Moreover, Rule 63 requires staff members to have the government review their comments before they are made public if there is any uncertainty.

The judges observed that during the interview Dr Rema mentioned objectionable behaviours of former students who frequently attended college for illegal purposes, in addition to her criticism of SFI members. The ruling highlighted, “The petitioner is a free citizen of this country. She cannot surrender her constitutional right of free speech and expression.” However, the government served Dr Rema another charge notice on 24th March for turning down a student’s admission request in August 2022, after the bench on 22nd March 2024 reserved the matter for decision.

The student’s admission was refused by Dr Rema due to her failure to bring her father. On 23rd August 2022, the student brought a complaint to the registrar of Kannur University and in response, Dr Rema explained that the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) had decided to require the father’s participation in the Anti-Ragging and Anti-Dowry Forums, where parents must sign at the time of admission.

The University Syndicate proposed criminal charges against Dr. Rema on 19th October last year and alleged that she “exceeded her authority by insisting on the presence of a parent or parents during admission”. However, the High Court had previously determined that the initial investigation into Dr Rema “was launched to impede her from receiving pensionary benefits as soon as she retired.” The court’s view was strengthened by the second memo. “We cannot overlook the fact that the present charge memo issued on the eve of retirement is nothing but a continuation of the earlier charge memo to harass the petitioner for extraneous reasons,” the order concluded.

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