‘Cancel Exams, Declare Results’: Final Year Law Students Move Bombay HC

Maharashtra: In a first among episodes of confusion and tussle between the Union and state governments regarding examinations, fifth-year law students have moved the Bombay high court to seek the cancellation of final year examinations and the urgent declaration of results.

In his public address on May 31, 2020, chief minister Udhav Thackeray had declared that final-year examinations would not be held in his state owing to the severe outbreak of COVID-19 and acquisition of student hostels to build makeshift institutional quarantine centres. Thereafter, a row of heated exchanges between the governor and the state government led to a widespread ambiguity on the fate of final year students and their examinations.

To end the debate, the Maharashtra government had passed a resolution on June 19 stating that no exams would be held. However, it was left upon the students to decide whether they wanted to appear in the exam – when the situation was under control – or to get their final marksheets based on previous semester evaluation.

This resolution was challenged in a public interest litigation matter namely Dhananjay Kulkarni v. State of Maharashtra.

“As per the Public University Act, all the rights regarding examinations are given to the university and the management council, which should take a decision over the same. The state government does not have the right to cancel the examination,” said Kulkarni, former professor and ex-senate member at the Savitribai Phule Pune University.

Although the outcome of the matter was to affect the lives of students, they had no option to be heard even after being the direct stakeholders in the matter. Hence, to make student voices be heard before the court, an intervention application was moved by the students in support of the Maharashtra government’s resolution.

Students’ petition

The final-year law students – Avirup Mandal, Onkar Wable, Swapnil Dhage, Tejas Mane, Annapoorani Ramu and Kinley Rinzin – had sought to challenge the revised guidelines of the University Grants Commission (UGC) along with the notification of the Bar Council of India which asked universities to conduct examinations amidst the outbreak of COVID-19.

The petitioners stated that Maharashtra has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country and situation in major cities like Mumbai, Pune, Thane – wherein most of the colleges are based – is comparatively more serious. Hence, the petition says, the examination would mean putting the lives and health of final year students at risk. The statement was supported by over 500 final year students from various streams.

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On July 17, the matter came up before the Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Anuja Prabhudesai of the Bombay high court. Advocate general Ashutosh Kumbhakoni appeared for the state of Maharashtra and cleared the stand of the state that no exams, whether professional courses or non-professional, will at all be held in Maharashtra. Additional solicitor general Anil Singh appeared for the Union of India and the UGC who seeked time to file affidavit in reply to the matters before the court.

Advocate Yashodeep Deshmukh, along with advocate Akshay Kapadia, appeared in favour of the final-year law students, who were intervenors in the said matter. The intervention application by law students was allowed by the aforementioned division bench of the Bombay high court. Along with the same, the final-year student’s substantive writ petition was to be tagged along with the ongoing matter.

Many of these students, including the petitioners are looking forward to apply for universities in India and abroad for higher education for which they urgently require results to be declared at the earliest. Looking at the present situation of the COVID-19 outbreak, it was argued that the students living in faraway districts of Maharashtra or those coming from other states will find it extremely difficult to travel and later find a place for residence as a lot of hostels have already been acquired by the government as institutional quarantine centres where Maharashtra alone has over 12,000 containment zones.

Besides, the state governments at Odisha, West Bengal, Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana and Union territory Puducherry have cancelled their exams in line with the Maharashtra government’s decision. In fact, the Supreme Court had recently ruled in the matters concerning the Central Board of Secondary Education, the Council For the Indian School Certificate Examinations and and the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, cancelling exams and even declaring results in order to ensure academic interests and health safeguards of students.

In a similar trajectory, 31 students belonging to 13 different states and one Union territory have moved the Supreme Court challenging the UGC directive dated July 6, which says that the final year examinations will be conducted by September 30.

This politically sensitive matter is also being challenged by the Yuva Sena led by the Maharashtra Cabinet Minister Aditya Thackeray in a separate petition before the Supreme Court.

It is pertinent to point out that the Supreme Court on July 13, in the matter of Shri Amarnath Barfani Langars Organisation Vs. Union of India – on considering upon whether the Amarnath yatra should be held in the light of COVID-19 –  clearly mentioned that the decision regarding the same must be left in the hands of the local administration. The high court of Jammu and Kashmir, on July 16, ruling on the same issue further observed the lack of preparedness of the respondent pointing out that the right to health and welfare of the pilgrims, security personnel, priests, officials involved, and all other stakeholders involved in the yatra must be taken into account.

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In a similar fashion, the aggrieved students are saying that the UGC is trying to implement a ‘one-size fits all’ formula without considering that different states and regions are at different levels when seen from the lenses of the spread and outbreak of the virus. The students argue that the revised UGC guidelines lack clarification with regards to how will educational institutions deal with problems when one or more students test positive.

Meanwhile, the UGC has justified its decision claiming that several top-ranking institutions have resorted to similar tactics and hence the same is being done to safeguard the “larger interest” of students, related to their academic and career progression though none of the Indian universities have the infrastructure or ranking that is anywhere close to the institutions abroad.

Distant from the ground realities, the UGC guidelines make one wonder  are they framed for the ‘larger interest’ of a student from rural India who lacks resources to reach the examination hall, let alone study for the same? Wouldn’t this lead to a wider gap between those who have the resources and those who don’t?

The question that lingers in our minds is whether merit can be barred by digital infrastructure and internet connectivity.

Vatsla Varandani is a final-year law student at Government Law College, Mumbai.

Featured image credit: A. Savin/Wikimedia Commons