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Eligibility Criteria For Govt School Principals Upheld, Article 14 Does Not Envisage Equal Treatment For Unequals: In Calcutta High Court

The Calcutta High Court recently stated that the right to equality guaranteed by Article 14 of the Constitution does not entail providing unequals with equal treatment or legal protection, and that its violation would result in treating people belonging to the same group unfairly despite their shared characteristics.

In the case of Pranati Aguan v. State of West Bengal and Ors (WPA 21174 of 2017), Honourable Justice Moushumi Bhattacharya ruled that the impugned Notification has a justification and a very credible connection to the goal of raising the caliber of teachers who are to be hired as headmasters or headmistresses. She also ruled that requiring a higher academic classification for the post of headmaster or headmistress cannot be said to be violative either in logic or in practice.

Facts of the case:

The West Bengal School Service Commission (Selection for Appointment to the Posts of Headmaster/Headmistress in Secondary or Higher Secondary and Junior High Schools) Rules, 2016 as notified on March 24, 2017 and all subsequent Notifications issued thereafter, were the subject of a petition seeking cancellation of the amendments made to impose enhanced qualifications for the selection of Headmasters/Headmistresses in Secondary, Higher Secondary and Junior High Schools.

Since the impugned notification raises the academic and professional requirements for selection to the post of Headmaster/Headmistress from 45 percent to 50 percent, the petitioners assistant teachers of high schools in the State argued that it violates Article 14 of the Constitution.

Court’s Findings:

According to the opposing arguments, Justice Bhattacharya emphasized that the goal would be to uphold and preserve equitable distribution of opportunities within a class of people distinguished by well-defined characteristics if Articles 14 (right to equality) and 16 (equal opportunity in matters of public employment) are given a meaningful and mutually-purposeful interpretation. It was further stated that such an objective could not be to treat people on all spectrums equally, but rather to first separate the spectrums based on the unique characteristics of each and guarantee that people within these particular groups are not subjected to discrimination.

“If there is unfair treatment of people who fall into the same category despite their homogeneous characteristics, a complaint of violation of the guarantee of equality can be pursued to an equitable conclusion. If the class of individuals is distinct and different from those who are not included in the class, the classification based on grouping of individuals based on similar and discernible markers will withstand judicial scrutiny. To disprove any claims of unequal treatment of members of the group and those outside, it is necessary to make clear the differences between those inside and those outside “which the Court listed.

Regarding the petitioners’ argument, the Court stated that it is erroneous to claim that the Headmasters/Headmistresses are exempt from the qualifying percentage of 50% as a result of the contested Notification. The fact that there is no natural or automatic progression or promotion from the position of assistant teacher to headmaster and that an assistant teacher must go through a selection process to be eligible for the position of headmaster or headmistress demonstrates how conceptually and functionally distinct the two positions are.

Furthermore, it was noted that since the contested notification is prospective in nature, there can be no chance that a person who is already serving as a headmaster or headmistress will be subjected to the requirement of earning a master’s degree with at least 50 percent of the required marks from an accredited university at the post-graduate level.

The Court further asserted that the two classes of teachers—those appointed by the School Service Commission and those by the Public Service Commission—are distinct and dissimilar from one another because the methods and procedures for both selection and appointment by the respective appointing bodies are completely different. Since the two classes are based on distinct traits and are not interchangeable, the petitioners cannot claim that these two groups of teachers are being treated unequally.

The Court emphasized that the safeguard in Article 14 of the Constitution is to prevent discriminatory treatment of people who claim to be equals. The right does not mean providing people who are unequals with equal treatment or equal protection of the law because doing so would require differential treatment in order to preserve their distinctive and individual characteristics. The picture that comes to mind is of three people of different heights being given three ladders so that they can look over a wall. The idea is not to give the three people ladders of the same size, but rather to give the shortest person the shortest ladder and the tallest person the tallest ladder so that all three can look over the wall (wishfully at a brighter and more equal future).

As a result, the Court stated that the contested notification was valid and constitutional, “Additionally, it should be acknowledged that the benchmark needed for hiring to certain positions particularly those of teachers and headmasters—must occasionally be raised to keep up with the changing academic performance indicators in the State. The requirements for eligibility cannot be set in stone or constant over time. If a spanner is thrown every time the State tries to change the benchmark eligibility requirements for recruitment to certain posts, particularly in schools and colleges, no timely step for an upward revision can ever be taken.”

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Judgement Reviewed By Manju Molakalapalli.

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