The Supreme Court is currently deliberating whether the Aligarh Muslim University should retain its status as a minority educational institution under Article 30 of the Constitution. This Article grants religious and linguistic minority communities the right to establish and administer schools, colleges and universities.

The case was argued over eight hearings in January and February before a seven-judge Constitution bench led by the Chief Justice of India, DY Chandrachud, and comprising Justices Sanjiv Khanna, Surya Kant, JB Pardiwala, Dipankar Dutta, Manoj Misra and SC Sharma.

The bench’s judgment will have significant repercussions for the Aligarh Muslim University’s autonomy, its ability to reserve seats for Muslim students and the broader debate on minority rights in education in India.

Scroll provides an overview of the dispute before the court and the arguments advanced by both sides.

What is the dispute about?

The appeals and petitions heard by the court stem from a 1967 decision by a five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court and a 2005 decision by the Allahabad High Court, both relating to the Aligarh Muslim University’s status as a minority educational institution.

To understand them, it is important to be conversant with the history of the university.

In 1877, Muslim reformer and educationist Sir Syed Ahmed Khan founded the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh. According to the university’s website, Khan’s objective was to provide modern British education grounded in Islamic values to Muslims.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in 1907. Source: The Modern Review, public domain in India

In 1920, the colonial government of India passed the Aligarh Muslim University Act, 1920 to incorporate Khan’s college and another Muslim University Association into a single university, to be called the Aligarh Muslim University. As per section 23 of the Act, only Muslims could be part of the university’s governing body, called the Court.

While the university was meant to cater to Muslim students, there was no bar, either in the statute or in practice, on admitting students from other faiths.

After India’s independence, Parliament passed two major amendments to the Act. In 1951, compulsory religious education provided to Muslim students as well as Muslim representation in the Court was done away with. In 1965, the Court was divested of its status as the university’s supreme governing body, with its powers distributed among multiple bodies of the university.

These amendments were challenged before the Supreme Court for violating the fundamental right to administer and establish educational institutions under Article 30 of the Constitution, apart from other fundamental rights related to religion, culture and property.

In 1967, the Supreme Court upheld the amendments and held that the university was neither established nor administered by the Muslim community. However, it acknowledged that the 1920 Act was passed due to the efforts of the Muslim community.

In 1981, the Parliament amended the Act to putatively negate the 1967 judgment. It did so by redefining the university under the Act as an educational institution “established by the Muslims of India” and by expressly stating in the Act that the university was to promote the educational and cultural advancement of the “Muslims of India”.

In 2005, the university reserved 50% seats in its postgraduate medical courses for Muslim students. This was challenged before the Allahabad High Court which struck down the reservation on the ground that the university was not a minority educational institution as per the Supreme Court’s 1967 ruling.

The high court’s decision was soon challenged before the Supreme Court by the university and the Union government.

In 2006, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court stayed the reservation policy, referring the case to a larger bench. The matter stayed in limbo till October last year, when Chandrachud constituted the seven-judge bench to hear it.

A view of the Indian Supreme Court building in New Delhi, December 7, 2010. Credit: B Mathur/Reuters

Arguments in court

In 2016, the Modi government withdrew the Union government’s appeal from the case, contending that it did not acknowledge the minority status of the university. This left the university, its alumni groups, and other private parties pitted against the non-Muslim students who had successfully challenged the university’s reservation policy before the Allahabad High Court.

Both sides argued before the court on two main issues: what are the parameters to grant an educational institution minority status under Article 30 and whether an educational institution created by a parliamentary legislation enjoys minority status under Article 30.

The Aligarh Muslim University and other parties on its side argued that the existence of a central law did not negate the university’s minority character. They highlighted the university’s origin, its predominantly Muslim student body and its management and admission policies to illustrate this point.

They further argued that the university never relinquished its minority status and that there was Muslim control over its administration in spite of the 1920 legislation.

They stated that once a minority community has established an educational institution, it may administer it in any way it deems fit, even by including non-minority groups in its administration. The presence of non-minority groups in the administration by itself would have no bearing on the minority status of the institution.

The university’s lawyers underlined that it had played a crucial role in creating an educated Muslim middle class and contributed to India’s progress and that its minority character was essential to continue its legacy.

They argued that the Supreme Court’s 1967 judgment was incorrectly decided because it set the illogical precedent that any minority educational institution, once recognised by statutory law, would lose its minority status.

They also reaffirmed that the protection of Article 30 was available to institutions established prior to the Constitution being enacted.

On the other hand, the government and those challenging the university’s minority status contended that the Supreme Court’s 1967 judgment was specific only to the Aligarh Muslim University and the 1920 Act and did not affect any other minority institution.

Their main argument was that the university was neither established nor administered by Muslims. It relinquished its minority status in 1920 when the college was converted into the university, they claimed.

They went on to cite historical data of students at the university to show that while the university was founded by Muslims, it had a diverse student body with representation from all faiths and not just Islam.

They also argued that the university’s establishment predated the Constitution – therefore, the university could not claim the protection of minority rights which did not exist before the enactment of the Constitution. Both Hindus and Muslims were considered equal by the colonial government, they said.

They also referred to Constituent Assembly debates to attempt to show that the university was recognised as a “non-communal” institution by the Constitution. Therefore, it could not claim to be a minority institution.

On February 1, the bench reserved its judgment in the matter, which is expected to be delivered sometime in the summer.