School established by minority can opt for minority status anytime, says HC

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The school also had argued that the Administration itself was issuing Sikh minority community certificates to the students applying for admission in the school against quota of 20 per cent reserved for them.

UPHOLDING THE minority status of St Kabir School in Chandigarh, the Punjab and Haryana High Court has held that an institution established by a minority can opt for a minority status subsequently even if it started with a secular character, adding that imparting secular education and admitting students belonging to other communities does not denude it of its minority character.

In the judgement pronounced on Friday, Justice Sudhir Mittal said that it is clear that a minority, whether religious or linguistic, has the right to establish and administer educational institutions of its choice and irrespective of whether it receives aid from the State or not, it is entitled to frame its own policy regulating admission of students.

The minority status granted to the school by the National Commission for Minority Educational Institution (NCMEI) in 2014 was challenged by the UT Administration before the High Court in 2018. The Kabir Educational Society in 2012 had applied for the status contending that the school had been established and is managed by the society which comprises members of the Sikh community and that the school is being run for the benefit of Sikh community members - the school principal in May 2012 told the Commission that 20.1 per cent of its students belonged to the Sikh minority. The 2001 census showing Sikhs as a minority in Chandigarh was also annexed.

Summarising the law laid down in various judgements by the apex court, Justice Mittal said that for an institution to be classified as a minority, the unit to be taken into consideration is the state concerned. “Once it is established that within a particular state a community is a religious/linguistic minority, it has the right to establish and administer an educational institution of its choice,” reads the judgement.

The main issue before the court was whether a minority educational institution possesses a fundamental right under Article 30(1) of the Constitution of India to establish and administer an educational institution with the right to not have reservations imposed on it. While the RTI Act mandates that 25 per cent seats be reserved for students of economically weaker sections, the provision does not apply to an institute with minority status. However, the issue in this case also was with regard to the provision of reservation of 15 per cent as prescribed under the land allotment scheme for Chandigarh schools.

UT’s excuse for delay

The single bench in its order said the explanation given by the Chandigarh Administration in response to the argument regarding delay in challenging the 2014 NCMEI order is not sufficient. “The Chandigarh Administration is equipped with trained Law Officers who are well aware of the nitty gritties of law. Thus, the explanation that delay was caused on account of an initial decision taken to challenge the order dated September 20, 2014 before the Delhi High Court and non-filing of a writ petition before the Delhi High Court by the concerned counsel within time, is nothing but a lame excuse”.

The school also had argued that the Administration itself was issuing Sikh minority community certificates to the students applying for admission in the school against quota of 20 per cent reserved for them.

Vivek High School judgement does not help Admin

The court also said the decision passed by a co-ordinate bench, which quashed the minority status of Vivek High School in August 2018, does not help the UT Administration as there are two distinguishing features in the facts of that case - there was nothing on record that the settlors of that school’s trust belonged to the Sikh religion and in that case it was also held that the object of the trust could not have been amended as the trust deed did not vest such powers in the Trustees, said the court. In St Kabir’s case, the court said Memorandum of Association of a registered society can be amended in law and in exercise of same power it was amended by the Society.

Commission has jurisdiction

Rejecting the UT Administration argument that the decision passed by the commission in 2014 was without jurisdiction, the court said the law gives very wide powers to the commission and a jurisdiction to decide all questions regarding status of minority educational institution. It also said the law provides the NCMEI the power to entertain complaints regarding violation of rights of a minority to establish and administer educational institutional of their choice.

“Show cause notice dated 26.08.2015 was a threat of resumption of the land and building of the school for violation of a direction of the Chandigarh Administration to reserve the 15 per cent seats for students belonging to economically weaker sections of the society. Such a direction would violate the right of administration of a minority institution granted under Article 30(1) of the Constitution of India.” reads the judgement, adding the 2004 National Commission for Minority Education Institution Act has an overriding effect over the 1952 Capital of Punjab Act, under which 2006 land allotment scheme has been framed.

In August 2015, the Administration had issued a show cause notice to the school for not reserving 15 per cent of the seats for students belonging to the economically weaker sections of the society in accordance with the land allotment policy. The notice was challenged before the NCMEI, which quashed it in 2017.

The 2014 grant of status as well as the 2017 order were challenged in high court.

1996 Land Allotment Scheme does not apply to prior schools

In another significant interpretation, the single bench said the 1996 Scheme for the allotment of land to educational institutions on leasehold basis was formulated for regulating allotment of land to private schools and one of the conditions of allotment prescribed there is that school would reserve 15 per cent seats for students belonging to economically weaker sections of the society. It is clear that schools allotted land under the scheme must reserve 15 per cent seats as prescribed, it said.

However, the court added, “In this case, the school was allotted land in the year 1988 and the 1996 scheme nowhere states that the terms thereof would be applicable to existing schools also. Thus, a direction to the existing schools to comply with terms of the 1996 Scheme was unlawful.

The Kabir Educational Society was registered in 1976 and was allotted land for the school in 1988. The building was constructed in 1990 and the school started functioning from 1991. It was in 1994 when the Society amended its Memorandum of Association and declared that Punjabi language, Punjabi Culture, and History of Prophets and Gurus were its top priority and that it was essentially an organisation of minority but admission was open to all.