The Madras High Court on Tuesday dismissed a public interest litigation petition filed by BJP State secretary K. Nagarajan , which sought to quash an order issued by the Tamil Nadu government to constitute a high-level committee headed by Justice A.K. Rajan to study the impact of the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) on medical aspirants.
Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy held that the constitution of the committee “does not amount to subverting any process of admission, far less an act of defiance to any order passed by the Supreme Court” or pose even the remotest challenge to the exclusive authority of the Union to enact a law setting standards for higher education.
Terms of reference
The judges pointed out that the terms of reference of the committee were to study whether the NEET-based admission process had affected socially backward students in the past few years and if so, study the issues involved and suggest alternative admission procedures which would benefit all students.
The committee would also study the feasibility of implementing such alternative admission procedures and the legal steps required to implement such fair and equitable methods.
Therefore, “the setting up of the commission can, by no stretch of imagination, be seen to be contrary to any Supreme Court order, whether in letter or in spirit, or as a counter to any legislative action taken by the Union or process put in place. For all we know, the Commission may come up with some material that the State government may use to persuade the Union to search for an alternative or modify the process to make it more inclusive for students belonging to the socially backward and economically weaker sections to participate therein with a better chance of success,” the Bench said.
The judges said there was also the other possibility of raising the standards of education in the State to enable the students to compete in NEET. They said it was a question of policy whether the bar had to be raised at the school level or lowered at the medical college admission level.
“Such matters of policy are resolved by discussion, and any attempt at mature resolution begins with lending an ear and being receptive to the other point of view,” the judges said.
“A section of citizens may feel that it is a waste to appoint a commission; that the costs incurred in maintaining such a commission may be better used to provide relief to those who suffered in the course of the pandemic. But these are choices that an elected government has to take and, indeed, in the constitutional scheme, has the freedom to take. Courts cannot rush in and interdict notifications or steps taken pertaining to policy or for garnering public opinion or the like,” the Bench observed.
Authoring the verdict, the Chief Justice said the court’s immediate interference would have been needed if the constitution of the committee was, in any manner, perceived to be an affront to the authority of the Supreme Court under Article 141 of the Constitution or in derogation of the obligation of the State to aid the implementation of an order of the Supreme Court under Article 144 of the Constitution or as an alternative to a national procedure for entrance examination conducted in accordance with a parliamentary legislation in a field open only to the parliament.
“Nothing of such kind can be apprehended or reasonably seen to be the effect of the constitution of the committee... The issuance of the Government Order does not exceed the authority of the State government. As long as the State government does not do anything to upset the procedure for admission to medical institutions as established by law, it does not call for any interference,” the court said.
“A constitutional court’s allegiance to the rule of law needs to be tempered by the respect for the democratic process. Overzealous obeisance to what is perceived to be the rule of law invites an avoidable clash that partners in the sovereign exercise must guard against,” it observed.
The judges dismissed the case immediately after hearing the petitioner’s counsel and Additional Solicitor General R Sankaranarayanan representing the Centre. They did not hear either Advocate General R Shunmugasundaram representing the State government or a host of other senior counsel including P. Wilson and S. Prabakaran who were representing different political parties, private organisations and individuals who wanted to implead and defend the constitution committee.
“Several bodies, individuals, political parties and others interested have applied for being impleaded. None has been called upon, not even the State. The scope of the petition is limited and it is not the business of the court to play to the galleries by allowing or indulging in discussion beyond the scope of the lis or wider than the perceived malady that is sought to be arrested by the action, public interest or otherwise,” the Bench concluded.