Analysis: What Is The Legal Dispute Over AMU’s Minority Status?

Analysis: What Is The Legal Dispute Over AMU’s Minority Status?

The litigation to determine whether it is a minority institution is an intractable issue that dates back 57 years and has been adjudicated upon by different courts multiple times

A L I ChouguleUpdated: Wednesday, March 06, 2024, 11:26 PM IST
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AMU | File Photo

Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) is once again at the centre of contentious legal discourse about its historical evolution and constitutional challenges. The litigation to determine whether it is a minority institution is an intractable issue that dates back 57 years and has been adjudicated upon by different courts multiple times. To understand what is the long-running legal dispute over AMU’s minority character, which the Supreme Court will soon give its verdict on and why it is such a contested issue, one needs to go into the background of the case.

Founded by prominent Muslim community members led by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in 1877 as Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College, it transformed into a university in 1920 under the British rule. For the next three decades, AMU functioned as a minority institute under the AMU Act, 1920. But things changed after Independence when India adopted a new Constitution. Key amendments such as those in 1951 and 1965 to the AMU Act significantly impacted religious education, representation in the all-Muslim Court (governing body) and the governance structure of the university. These amendments significantly diluted the minority status of the centrally funded university.

Article 30(1) of the Constitution empowers all religious and linguistic minorities to establish and administer educational institutions. This provision ensures the Union government’s commitment to foster growth and development of minority communities by guaranteeing that it will not discriminate in giving aid based on their being minority institutions. The litigation over AMU’s minority status started in 1967 with the Azeez Basha vs Union of India case. The petitioners contested the amendments to the AMU Act, alleging violations of their rights under Article 30(1), Article 26(a) — right to carry out religious and charitable causes — Article 25 (freedom of religion), Article 29 (right to conserve culture and language) and Article 31(right to acquire property) of the Indian Constitution.

They argued that Muslims had established the Aligarh University and therefore had the right to manage it under Article (30). They further argued that the legislative amendments of 1951 and 1965 to the AMU Act took away such rights and henceforth were unconstitutional. However, the Supreme Court (SC) did not agree with this view and held that since the university was established through a Central Act, it was not a minority institution and the Act was a vehicle for the government’s recognition of degrees. The court also upheld the amendments, rejecting the argument that the fundamental rights of the petitioners were infringed upon. Nationwide protests were observed against the judgement.

The AMU Act was once again amended in 1981 to redefine the term “university”, as “the institution established by the Muslims of India, which originated as MAO and which was subsequently incorporated as the AMU”. The powers of the university under section 5 of the AMU Act were also amended and educational and cultural advancement of the “Muslims of India” was included within the purpose of the foundation of the university. In 2005, AMU started reservation policy where 50% of the seats were reserved for Muslim candidates in post-graduate medical courses.

The reservation policy was challenged before the Allahabad High Court in the same year and the precedent laid down by the SC in the Azeez Basha case was invoked to argue that AMU was not a minority institute and, therefore, the reservation policy is unconstitutional. The Union government and the university contended that the 1981 amendment nullified the precedent of Azeez Basha judgment. But the Allahabad High Court not only struck down the reservation policy disregarding the 1981 amendment, but also held that the AMU was not a minority institution based on Azeez Basha case.

Both the Union government and the AMU challenged the verdict in the SC. The case was referred to a larger bench by a two-judge bench in 2006. An appeal in the SC resulted in a stay on the reservation policy. In 20016, the NDA government withdrew from the appeal, disowning the minority status of AMU. In February 2019, a three-judge SC bench referred the decision in Azeez Basha case for reconsideration by a seven-judge bench. Finally, in October 2023, the Chief Justice of India constituted a seven-judge bench to hear the matter. The bench, led by chief justice D Y Chandrachud, after hearing heated arguments for eight days between January 10 and February 1 to decide if AMU can claim minority status under Article 30(1) of the Constitution reserved its verdict on the vexed question.

Apart from deciding on AMU’s minority status, the bench will also decide if the judgement in the Azeez Basha vs Union of India, where the SC had held that AMU was not entitled to a minority education institution status, as it was “neither established nor administered by the Muslim minority” should be overruled. The verdict in this case will be of important significance for all minorities, given that it concerns the issue of admissions in priority to students of minority community.

There are two main issues, besides a host of sub-issues, that arose during arguments. One, what criteria must be considered for conferring minority status upon an educational institution under the provision of Article (30) of the Constitution? Two, is it permissible for an educational institution to claim minority status if it is established through a parliamentary statute? Another issue, but an important one, is whether the decision in the Azeez Basha case was rendered correctly. This gives rise to a question whether the Azeez Basha judgement should undergo reconsideration in view of the National Commission of Minority Education Institutions Act, 2004 in conjunction with the UGC Act, 1956.

Whether Article 30 is an enabling provision or an obligation on the State, to what extent is the presence of the minorities required in administering an institution to come within Article 30 and how should the terms “administer” and “establish” in Article 30 of the Constitution should be interpreted in the AMU case are some the other important questions that the SC will consider. In the Azeez Basha judgement, senior advocate Rajeev Dhawan submitted that the SC correctly acknowledges the Muslim character of the AMU, but “it contradicts itself by denying (AMU) its constitutional status”.

This contradiction, he argued, is in opposition to the SC’s stand in the case of St Stephen’s College vs University of Delhi where the court upheld the minority status of the college based on its Christian character, allowing it to reserve 10% of seats for Christian students, contrary to the university’s circular. This inconsistency in approach forms the central point in the petitioner’s argument.

The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule

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