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Tamil Nadu against NEET

Not so neat: Tamil Nadu government, Governor lock horns on NEET

Print edition : Feb 11, 2022 T+T-
Chief Minister  M.K. Stalin speaking in the Tamil Nadu Assembly when it met in a special session on February 8 to re-adopt the NEET exemption Bill.

Chief Minister M.K. Stalin speaking in the Tamil Nadu Assembly when it met in a special session on February 8 to re-adopt the NEET exemption Bill.

Governor  R.N. Ravi.

Governor R.N. Ravi.

The Tamil Nadu Governor sends back a Bill seeking exemption for the State from NEET, triggering a political tussle and questions of constitutional propriety.

Exactly a week after Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi sent back to the State government a Bill passed by the Legislative Assembly exempting the State from the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET), the House re-adopted the Bill unanimously and sent it back to him, demanding that he forward it to the President for consent.

The Governor had sent back the Bill on February 1 for the Assembly’s reconsideration. On February 8, a representative of the Tamil Nadu government handed over to the Raj Bhavan the re-adopted Bill earlier on that day.

This was the third time that the Tamil Nadu government had unanimously passed such a Bill. In the first instance, in February 2017, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government adopted a a similar Bill, but the President declined to give his assent to it. After the alliance led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was voted to power in May 2021, the Assembly passed a Bill on September 13, 2021. The Governor took 142 days to study the Bill (“Medical education: A case against NEET”, Frontline , October 22, 2021).

After the Assembly re-adopted the Bill, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin said: “At least now I expect that he [Governor] will do his duty. I hope that the Governor will respect the sentiments of the people of Tamil Nadu and act in the best interests of the students of Tamil Nadu by sending the NEET exemption Bill to the President without delay.”

At the time of going to the press, the Governor had not publicly stated if he would discharge his constitutional obligations and convey the Bill to the President, as demanded by all political parties except the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP chose to stage a walkout ahead of the discussion on the Bill. Since the BJP members were not present in the House at the time of voting, M. Appavu, the Speaker, declared that the Bill passed unanimously.

The AIADMK, the main opposition party, supported the Bill.

The chain of events began after the Governor returned the Bill. The government, reacting swiftly, on February 4 called for a meeting of leaders of political parties represented in the State legislature to discuss the issue on February 5. The BJP, which supports NEET, and the AIADMK refused to attend the meeting. After the meeting ended, the government announced that a special session of the Assembly would be convened on February 8 to discuss the Governor’s action and re-adopt the Bill.

‘Strange decision’

The Governor did not merely return the Bill but made it a point to issue a press release on the reasons for his decision, which many long-time MLAs found strange.

R.N. Ravi, a former Indian Police Service officer who has thrown his weight with the BJP, termed as “utterly unconvincing” the findings of the A.K. Rajan Committee, which was constituted by the government in June 2021 to study the impact of NEET on students from socially backward classes, and said that the committee’s report had “several unsubstantiated sweeping assumptions”.

A Raj Bhavan press release dated February 3 said that the Governor, “after a detailed study ... is of the opinion that the Bill is against the interests of students, especially the rural and economically poor students of the State”.

Hence, it said, the Governor had returned the Bill to the Speaker of the Assembly on February 1, 2022, “giving detailed reasons, for its reconsideration by the House”. State government officials pointed out that this was not the only Bill the Governor had been sitting on.

A copy of the Governor’s letter was given to the MLAs so that they could study his response. A few newspapers and social media handles, including those belonging to prominent right-wingers, published the Governor’s explanation. The Speaker expressed his displeasure that a privileged communication was made available to all in the public domain but stopped short of asking for legal action against those who shared it in the public domain.

In his letter, the Governor said that it was “obvious” that the High-Level [A.K. Rajan] Committee’s report was the basis of the Bill and listed some of its “unsubstantiated sweeping assumptions”.

He said: “The report argues against NEET on the ground that it is against social justice as it allegedly favours the rich students who take advantage of coaching which the poor cannot afford.” He added: “It [the report] totally ignores the fact that coaching skews the State Board results also.”

Disregarding the contents of the A.K. Rajan Committee report, he concluded: “It is apparent from the above facts that the report merely reflects the jaundiced view of the High-Level Committee.”

A day after his letter became public knowledge, the Governor’s office hastened to add that he meant “no disrespect” to Justice (retd) Rajan.

In his Assembly speech, Stalin responded to each of the Governor’s statements. He said: “NEET is not a system established by the Constitution…. The Medical Council of India mandated the creation of NEET.” He added that the DMK had opposed it in 2010.

In a case in the Supreme Court, NEET was declared unconstitutional on July 18, 2013. After the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power in 2014, a private training institute approached the court and swiftly got an order recalling the judgment. The NDA government lost no time in rolling out NEET through an ordinance on April 11, 2016.

Chief Minister’s response

Stating that private training institutions benefited from NEET, Stalin said: “The NEET exemption bill is being introduced for the benefit of those who cannot afford to pay so much for the coaching. NEET is an impediment to the entitlement of the poor and needy children to education. A barrier in the form of NEET has been erected in their dream of becoming doctors.” He also said that NEET was not “a holy cow” and added: “It attempts to marginalise students from low-income families in the guise of merit.” Stating that NEET was inherently discriminatory, he said that it had to be done away with in the interest of upholding the Constitution and in the interest of social justice.

Later, he said on Twitter: “Our fight is not to seek exclusive concession for Tamil Nadu, but to ensure a level playing field for the marginalised and underprivileged who are chased away by the coaching-driven, discriminatory NEET. Will strive to strengthen federalism in India.”

Discussion on Bill

During the Assembly discussion on the Bill, K. Selvaperunthagai, the Congress Legislative Party leader, said that NEET benefited coaching institutions and impersonators who appeared for others in the test. He named a student who was arrested for impersonation and questioned the very basis of the examination.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) demanded that the Centre recall the Governor and urged the State government to move a Bill to that effect. Nagai Maali, a CPI(M) MLA, said: “This act of the Governor against the Constitution. This is against the interests of the students, Tamil Nadu, and against the concept of federalism.”

T. Velmurugan, an MLA from the Tamizhaga Vazhvurimai Katchi, said that it was clear that rich students benefited from NEET because only those who could attend tuition classes paying very high fees, as much as Rs.5 lakh, were able to get admission into medical courses.

AIADMK leader C. Vijayabhaskar, who was Health Minister when the AIADMK government adopted a NEET exemption Bill, cautioned the government, stating that it must carefully examine the Bill because it had already been rejected twice. Edappadi K. Palaniswami, Leader of the Opposition, said that the AIADMK would support any effort of the government to get the exemption. The path that the State government intends to take is very clear. Before it can approach the Supreme Court with facts and figures, it has to exhaust all due processes available by way of legislative means.

Even as this battle goes on, with the passage of each year, the State government gets additional ammunition to fire anti-NEET salvos.

For now, there is no doubt that the DMK has a long road ahead in its fight against NEET. With the Central government in no mood to pay heed to demands from any opposition-ruled State, the fight is only going to get tougher.