Legal dispute over AMU’s minority character

News Excerpt:

A seven-judge Bench of the Supreme Court started hearing the matter pertaining to Aligarh Muslim University’s (AMU) minority character.

“Minority character” of an educational institution:

  • Article 30(1) of the Constitution empowers all religious and linguistic minorities to establish and administer educational institutions.
    • This provision reinforces the Union government’s commitment to foster the growth and development of minority communities by guaranteeing that it will not discriminate in giving aid on the basis of their being “minority” institutions.
  • The National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions (NCMEI) Act, 2004 has been enacted to safeguard the educational rights of the minorities enshrined in Article 30(1) of the Constitution.
    • The Commission is a quasi judicial body and has been endowed with the powers of a Civil Court for the purpose of discharging its functions under the Act. 
  • Minority Educational Institutions can approach NCMEI, for: 
    • Obtaining Minority Status Certificate (MSC).
    • Appeal against State authorities on being aggrieved by the order of rejection of NOC application by the State/UT or refusal to grant minority status certificate.
    • Resolving disputes regarding affiliation/deprivation and violation of rights of minorities to establish and administer the institutions of their choice.

Establishment of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU):

  • AMU's origins can be traced back to the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College, established by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in 1875 to help Muslims overcome educational backwardness and prepare for government services.
    • MAO College imparted Western education and Islamic theology and advocated for women's education.
  • In 1920, the institution was granted university status, and all assets of MOA College were transferred to AMU.

Amendments made in 1951 and 1965 to the AMU Act of 1920:

  • Originally, the 1920 Act said that the Governor General of India would be the head of the University.
    • In 1951, it was changed to replace “Lord Rector” with “Visitor,” and this Visitor would be the President of India.
  • A provision stating that only Muslims could be part of the University Court was removed, allowing non-Muslims to join.
  • These amendments reduced the authority of the University Court and increased the powers of the Executive Council of AMU.
    • As a result, the University Court essentially became a body appointed by the “Visitor”.

Judicial Interpretation (S. Azeez Basha and another versus Union of India, 1967):

  • The amendments in the AMU’s structure faced a legal challenge in the Supreme Court (SC).
  • The petitioners argued primarily on the grounds that Muslims established AMU and, therefore, had the right to manage it.
  • According to the 1920 Act, the SC stated the university was not solely operated by Muslims.
    • Instead, its administration was entrusted to the Lord Rector and other statutory bodies.
    • Even the University Court, which had only Muslim members, was elected by an electorate that was not exclusively Muslim.
  • The court determined that in 1920, Muslims could have set up a university, but that would not have guaranteed that the Indian government would officially recognise the degrees from that university.
  • Hence, the court emphasised AMU was established through a central Act to ensure the government’s recognition of its degrees.
  • The Basha judgment had concluded that the varsity was a central university and minority status cannot be conferred on it. 
  • Here, the SC held that AMU was neither established nor administered by the Muslim minority. 

Timeline of the dispute:

  • In 1981, an amendment to the AMU Act was introduced, affirming its minority status.
    • Sections 2(l) and 5(2)(c) stated that the university was an educational institution of their choice established by Muslims of India.
  • In 2005, the AMU implemented a reservation policy, allowing 50% of postgraduate medical course seats for Muslim candidates.
    • However, the Allahabad High Court overturned the reservation and nullified the 1981 Act.
    • The court reasoned that the AMU could not maintain an exclusive reservation because, according to the SC’s verdict in the S. Azeez Basha case, it did not qualify as a minority institution.
  • In 2006, eight petitions, including one from the Union government, contested the High Court's decision.
  • In 2016, the government informed the SC that it was withdrawing the appeal filed by the government, saying, “As the executive government at the Centre, we can’t be seen as setting up a minority institution in a secular state.”
  • In 2019, a three-judge Bench, presided over by CJI Ranjan Gogoi, referred the matter to a seven-judge Bench.

The SC is considering a reference on questions about the indices for treating an educational institution as a minority educational institution. One of the questions before the Constitution Bench is whether an institution could be regarded as a minority educational institution for the reason that it was “established by a person(s) belonging to a religious or linguistic minority or its being administered by a person(s) belonging to a religious or linguistic minority”.

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