Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) is not a minority institution, the NDA government told the Supreme Court on Monday in a move that could trigger a political slugfest ahead of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections next year as it marked a reversal of the stance taken by the UPA dispensation.
The Centre made this submission before two different benches, including the Chief Justice of India’s which is not seized of the government appeal against an Allahabad high court verdict holding the varsity a non-minority institution -- an appeal the goverment has now said it will withdraw.
If declared a minority institution, AMU need not reserve seats for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes.
“We have taken a conscious decision to withdraw the appeal but AMU is entitled to carry on with its appeal,” attorney general Mukul Rohatgi told the CJI’s court.
CJI TS Thakur wondered whether a central university could be a minority institution. “We can understand a college or school being a minority institution,” justice Thakur said. The CJI’s bench was hearing a petition related to the AMU VC’s appointment.
In 2006, the erstwhile UPA government and AMU appealed against the high court verdict that struck down a 1981 parliamentary amendment to grant the university minority status and circumvent a 1967 Supreme Court verdict that said the government, and not Muslims, had established the institution.
“I (Centre) changed my mind two months ago,” Rohatgi told a three-judge bench headed by justice JS Khehar hearing the government appeal. He said the 1967 judgement was the law and subsequent amendment was contrary to it. The court gave Rohatgi eight weeks to file a formal withdrawal application.
The Congress reacted strongly to the NDA government’s latest stand on the issue, saying it betrayed the latter’s “majoritarian mindset”.
“The fundamental narrative of India has been anchored in plurality. For the past 22 months, the BJP-RSS has been trying to shift the narrative from pluralism to theocracy. The stand taken by the government in the Supreme Court is a part of the same game plan,” Congress spokesman Manish Tewari said.
The Centre’s stand is set to reverberate beyond the courtroom, with the Congress, the SP and the BSP likely to make a political issue out of it in the run-up to the UP elections. According to the BJP’s assessment, any attempt to make it a political issue could backfire on these parties as it might lead to polarisation along communal lines -- a scenario the ruling combine at the Centre would not mind in UP.
Once the government takes back its appeal, the top court will be left with AMU’s petition to decide. The bench allowed the varsity to respond to the government stand and permitted fresh interventions in the case. When the case comes up for hearing in July, the three-judge bench is likely to refer the matter to a larger bench comprising five judges.
Rohatgi had on January 11 told the court that the government could not be seen as setting up a minority institution in a “secular state”.
During a hearing before CJI Thakur, Rohatgi said the 1981 amendment move was wrong. The bench was hearing a case on whether University Grant Commission regulations applied to the appointment of the AMU vice-chancellor (VC). The AG intervened when the VC’s counsel, Salman Khurshid, said things would be different if the court declared the varsity a minority institution.
Rohatgi said the amendment was not appropriate. “The SC constitution bench was right in its verdict. You cannot override it,” he said.
The AMU Act was enacted in 1920 converting Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College into a university. The AMU (Amendment) Act in 1951 was passed by Parliament to do away with compulsory instruction in Islamic theology. The amendment opened AMU to non-Muslims on the administrative side.
Changes were introduced by the 1965 amendment to the AMU Act, which allowed government control on the varsity. This was challenged by S Azeez Basha through a petition in the top court, which was dismissed in 1967.