Supporting the demand for postponement of NEET and JEE examinations in view of the coronavirus pandemic, seven chief ministers of non-BJP ruled states on Wednesday decided to jointly move the Supreme Court on the issue.
Parties like the DMK and AAP also joined the growing chorus against the holding of the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) at a time when COVID-19 cases were rising across the country.
At a meeting convened by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi on a range of issues ahead of the Monsoon Session of Parliament, the seven chief ministers unanimously agreed on the need to file a review petition urging the Supreme Court to reconsider its recent order rejecting the postponement of the competitive exams.
Among the chief ministers who attended the meeting were West Bengal's Mamata Banerjee (TMC), Maharashtra's Uddhav Thackeray, who is heading the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government, Punjab's Amarinder Singh (Congress), Jharkhand's Hemant Soren (JMM), Rajasthan's Ashok Gehlot (Congress), Chhattisgarh's Bhupesh Baghel (Congress)and Puducherry's V Narayanasamy (Congress).
A decision was taken to discuss the matter and evolve a joint strategy in this regard.
Sonia Gandhi said the Congress was on board on the issue and asked Banerjee, who proposed a joint appeal by the states in the apex court, to work out with Amarinder Singh and other chief ministers on the legal recourse. She said whatever steps need to be taken in the interest of students should be taken unitedly.
Batting for the students who are demanding postponement of the exams due to COVID-19, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi urged the central government to listen to their grievances and find an amicable solution.
"NEET-JEE aspirants are worried about their health and future. They have genuine concerns of: fear of COVID-19 infection, transport and lodging during pandemic and flood-mayhem in Assam and Bihar," he said on Twitter. "GOI must listen to all stakeholders and find an acceptable solution," he said.
The Congress also announced protests by its state units on August 28 in front of central government offices at state and district headquarters, besides a nationwide online campaign, #SpeakUpForStudentSaftey.
Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia separately said medical and engineering entrance exams NEET and JEE should be postponed and the central government should work on alternative methods for selecting students.
"They (Centre) are saying protocols will be followed. Following the same protocols that the Centre wants 28 lakh students to follow, lakhs of Indians have tested positive," the Aam Aadmi Party told reporters.
"How can we take the risk of sending 28 lakh students to exam centres and be assured that they will not be infected," Sisodia asked.
DMK chief M K Stalin welcomed the decision of the seven chief ministers to appeal to the Supreme Court for postponement of NEET, JEE exams and thanked Sonia Gandhi for her efforts. He said the Tamil Nadu government should also move the Supreme Court.
Earlier, during the chief ministers' meeting, Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren suggested meeting the president and prime minister on the issue, to which Banerjee and Amarinder Singh said there was no time for that, considering JEE Mains are scheduled to be held from September 1 to 6.
Sonia Gandhi set the stage for a discussion on the JEE, NEET issue by mentioning in her opening remarks that the government was looking at the students' issue "uncaringly".
Banerjee then urged other CMs to jointly move a review petition in Supreme Court, saying the students are facing a lot of hardships. The Punjab CM endorsed her demand, saying the atmosphere is not conducive for holding exams physically as the number of COVID cases were rising.
"I have written to the prime minister twice requesting him to postpone the decision to hold NEET/JEE exams. I also requested him to intervene as the Supreme Court has already passed an order and the Centre can appeal against it.
"But there has been no response. So if the Centre can't appeal then the states for the sake of the students should jointly appeal and move the SC on this issue," Banerjee said.
Thackeray also said that the time is not right for holding the competitive exams and pressed on the need for postponing them. He said the assembly session was curtailed due to the rising number of COVID cases.
Singh asked the Punjab Advocate General to coordinate with his counterparts in other opposition-ruled states for filing a collective review petition in the Supreme Court, to seek deferment of the NEET-JEE exams.
"23 MLAs in Punjab are down with Covid19. If this was the state of legislators and ministers, one can only imagine how grave the situation on the ground was. The scenario was not conducive to holding physical examinations," Singh said. He suggested holding JEE, NEET and other entrance exams online.
While Gehlot and Baghel also endorsed the view, Narayanasamy said the central government would be held responsible if students get infected with COVID.
"Conducting NEET and JEE will lead to a rise in COVID-19 cases and the central government will be held responsible if students get affected," Narayanasamy said.
The Joint Entrance Examination (Main) and the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET-UG) will be conducted in September as scheduled, the Ministry of Education officials had said on Tuesday.
The Supreme Court had last week dismissed a plea seeking postponement of the two exams, saying a "precious" academic year of students "cannot be wasted" and life has to go on.
While a total of 9.53 lakh candidates have registered for JEE-Mains, 15.97 lakh students have registered for NEET.
The NEET is to be held on September 13 and engineering entrance exam JEE Main is scheduled from September 1-6.