Fearing the spread of COVID to Class X and XII students, parents and educators approached the Supreme Court and High Courts to postpone or cancel remaining board exams. In June, the Supreme Court resolved three such cases.
In each case, the Court agreed with the relevant examination board. Insofar as the CBSE goes, a Bench led by Justice Khanwilkar accepted the Board’s decision to cancel all remaining exams. Similarly, the Court decided against interfering with the examination boards of Karnataka and Rajasthan who wanted to proceed with the exams.
These cases indicate that the Supreme Court recognises and trusts the subject-area expertise of education and health officials. In the absence of obvious misconduct, the Court appears to defer the policy decisions to Examination Boards.
SC allows CBSE to cancel exams
On 10 June 2020, parents filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court, seeking cancellation of the CBSE exams scheduled for 1 July. Given the urgency of the matter, the Court immediately constituted a three-judge Bench comprising Justices Khanwilkar, Maheshwari and Khanna.
Initially, the CBSE asked for adjournments – first on 17 June and then again on 23 June. It convinced Justice Khanwilkar’s Bench to give it more time, as it had constituted an expert committee to deliberate over the issue. By 25 June, the committee concluded that the remaining exams should be cancelled.
Accordingly, on 26 June, the Bench permitted the CBSE to issue a notification that cancelled all Class X and XII exams, which had been scheduled to take place between 1 and 15 July. The notification clarifies that students will be assessed by averaging out the scores of exams they completed before the lockdown. In addition, it gives Class XII students the opportunity to take exams at a later date, ‘as soon as conditions are conducive, as assessed by the Central Government’.
The ICSE submitted to the Court that it would follow in the CBSE's shoes.
Karnataka and Rajasthan proceed as planned
In contrast to the CBSE, the Karnataka and Rajasthan State examination boards decided that exams must proceed in June/July, as scheduled.
The Supreme Court first resolved the Karnataka case – Rajshree v. State of Karnataka. After a short hearing on 17 June 2020, the Bench comprising Justices Nageswara Rao, Krishna Murari and Ravindra Bhat dismissed the Special Leave Petition (SLP). The Bench agreed with the High Court of Karnataka that the State had taken sufficient steps to protect students. It allowed the board exams to proceed as scheduled between 25 June and 4 July.
The Supreme Court appeared to share the High Court’s view that ‘a writ court should be always slow in interfering with academic matters. These are matters which should be best left to the decision of the experts in the field.’ Both Courts evidently considered that education and health departments had more expertise than the judiciary on this issue.
Justice Khanwilkar’s Bench resolved a similar SLP stemming from the Rajasthan High Court. On 29 May, the High Court had dismissed a petition demanding that the State Board cancel Class X exams scheduled for 29 and 30 June. It found that the Central and State Governments had put in place sufficient safeguards to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. The Supreme Court agreed. Citing the earlier Karnataka order, Justice Khanwilkar’s Bench placed the burden on the petitioner to show that the Central or State Governments had taken insufficient precaution.
With these two interventions, or rather non-intervention, the Supreme Court appears to trust the executive to make the right decision, insofar as conducting board exams go. Unless the Union or State Governments show a blatant disregard for safety protocols, the Court is unlikely to intervene in any similar future petitions.