The Centre withdrew on Wednesday an appeal filed in the Supreme Court by the previous Congress-led government that had sought to retain the minority tag for the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).
The Narendra Modi government also withdrew all letters issued by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) under the UPA regime allowing the AMU to reserve 50% of its seats for Muslims in the faculty of medicine.
“This letter along with any other letter issued from the MHRD supporting the minority status of the AMU may be treated as withdrawn,” read a government affidavit filed in the top court.
The university’s identity is a contentious political issue in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP is seeking to project it as an example of Muslim appeasement at the cost of the rights of scheduled castes, tribes and backward classes. The institution doesn’t offer quotas to these communities.
A formal abrogation of the minority status for the university by the courts could help the BJP in its outreach to SC/STs and OBCs in the state which goes to polls early next year.
The outcome of the case could also set a judicial precedent for a similar legal battle in the Delhi high court over the status for the Jamia Milia Islamia University, which was declared a minority institution during the UPA government in 2011.
The BJP-led government argues that granting AMU minority status is in violation of the constitution which does not permit a secular India to set up and fund institutions on religious lines.
The BJP’s stand on the university is only the latest in a string of controversial moves that many see as polarising, including a campaign that claimed Hindu families were being forced out of Muslim-majority Kairana town in western Uttar Pradesh.
In its affidavit, the BJP government quoted former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – who had told Parliament during a debate in 1972 that “if this demand (minority status to AMU) is conceded, the government cannot resist similar demands from other minorities, religious as well as linguistics.”
In 2006, the UPA government and AMU appealed against an Allahabad high court verdict that struck down a 1981 parliamentary amendment to grant the university minority status. The amendment circumvented a 1967 SC ruling which said the AMU was not a minority institution as it was set up the government and not Muslims.
“No judgment of a court can be undone by Parliament and/or any legislature passing a law merely undoing consequences of the said judgment. That would amount to abrogation of judicial power by the legislature and would be contrary to the very structure of the Constitution,” the government told the top court.
Once the government takes back its appeal, the top court will be left with AMU’s petition to decide. The three-judge SC bench hearing the case has already allowed the varsity to respond to the government stand and permitted fresh interventions in the case.
When the case comes up for hearing later this month, the bench is likely to refer the matter to a constitution bench.
During a hearing of the case in April, CJI TS Thakur had wondered if a central university could be a minority institution. “We can understand a college or school being a minority institution,” CJI Thakur had said.