New Delhi: Less than a month after it diluted the Union government’s latest initiative on reservation, the Supreme Court on Thursday quashed an amendment passed by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, that facilitated the removal of cardiac surgeon P. Venugopal as director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) last November.
In the process, it set the stage for a potential conflict between the judiciary and the legislature.
Union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss, who belongs to Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Tamil regional party which has six members in the Lok Sabha, had managed to remove Venugopal from his post after a bitter turf war.
Relationship between the two had soured especially after May 2006, when the health minister accused Venugopal of instigating an anti-reservation agitation in AIIMS after Parliament had approved 27% reservation for candidates of other backward classes, or OBCs, in Union government-funded institutions.
Turf war: P. Venugopal and health minister A. Ramadoss.
PMK is a pro-reservation party with a following among the backward classes.
“It’s a welcome decision,” said B.G. Verghese, a visiting professor at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank.
“Ramadoss had been waging a personal battle against Venugopal, much to the embarrassment of the Congress. The mistake on the part of the Congress was to not act firm.”
Venugopal, who was appointed director on 3 July 2003, for a five-year term, resumed charge hours after the Supreme Court verdict on Thursday. “I am happy that the Supreme Court has upheld the truth,” Venugopal said. “The (court’s) decision has thwarted the game plan carried out in Parliament,” he said.
Venugopal was removed from his post after the government passed an amendment to a Bill capping the retirement age of the director of AIIMS at 65. “The director shall hold office for a term of five years from the date on which he enters upon his office or until he attains the age of 65 years, whichever is earlier,” read the sub-section inserted through this amendment, in section 11 of Act 25 of 1956.
While Ramadoss firmly rejected calls for his resignation following the apex court’s order, Manish Tewari, a Supreme Court lawyer and spokesperson for the Congress party, said it would be premature for him to comment on the issue without studying the judgement in detail.
Coming close on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision to exclude the creamy layer, or second-generation beneficiaries of reservation, from the proposed quota for OBCs in Centrally funded educational institutions, Venugopal’s reinstatement, experts say, is an embarrassment for the ruling alliance.
“Two principles seem to be dictating the government’s moves: individual egos and the coming elections,” said Verghese. “It’s good that the court has stepped in both such cases to ensure the legislature does not misuse its authority.”
The four-party Left Front, which lends a critical outside support to the UPA, however, declined to get into the act. “He (Venugopal) went to the Supreme Court, which has upheld his plea. What is there to react?” asked Brinda Karat, a Rajya Sabha member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
D. Raja, national secretary of the Communist Party of India, said: “This verdict shows that there is a growing conflict between the legislature and judiciary. Such a situation is not good for democracy.”
Former health minister Sushma Swaraj, a Rajya Sabha member of the principal opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, said that “...the court has just struck down the malafide intentions of Ramadoss.”
Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan said that the apex court had overstepped its jurisdiction. “There was no ground for quashing this legislation. It was an unwarranted and incorrect exercise of the court’s jurisdiction,” Bhushan said, adding that malafide intention could not serve as a ground for challenging an enactment.
Senior counsel C.S. Vaidyanathan, however, said a similar judgement was delivered against a legislation that forced the exit of a vice-chancellor of Osmania University. In that case, the apex court struck down an analogous law as “discriminatory and arbitrary” as it was enacted to single out one person. “It seems the court has applied the same principle here,” Vaidyanathan said.
Ruhi Tewari and PTI contributed to this story.