New Delhi: Supreme Court today asked whether Sikhs in Punjab and Muslims in Kashmir can be treated as minority, as it commenced hearing to decide the correctness of a 2007 Punjab and Haryana High Court verdict holding that Sikhs cannot be granted 50 per cent quota in Sikh educational institutions in Punjab.

A five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice T S Thakur, while issuing notice to the Centre, sought the assistance of Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi and appointed senior advocate T R Andhyarujina as amicus curiae in the matter.

"Can Muslims, who are in majority in Kashmir, still be treated as minority? Can Sikhs be minority in Punjab? Can Christians be minority in Meghalaya," the bench, also comprising Justices F M I Kalifulla, A K Sikri, S A Bobde and R Banumathi, asked.

The bench was informed by senior advocate Rakesh Dwivedi, appearing for Sikh Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) that the contesting parties were students who may not be interested any more in the outcome of the case having got admission elsewhere.

"This is a serious issue on which we need assistance of the Centre," the court said and issued notice to the Minority Affairs Ministry and asked the Attorney General to assist it.

The move by the apex court could have a bearing on other communities as well.

The question came up before the court in an appeal of the SGPC challenging the decision of the Punjab and Haryana High Court which stripped Sikh educational institutions of their minority status, holding that Sikhs were not a minority community.

The High Court had set aside the state government notification, issued on April 13, 2001, that Sikh institutions can reserve 50 per cent seats for members from the community.

The SGPC has sought reconsideration of a three-judge bench ruling of 2005 in Bal Patil versus Union of India in which the issue of declaring minorities was discussed.

The verdict had held that a numerical head count cannot be the sole criterion for declaration of minority.

"Linguistic and religious minorities are covered by the expression 'minority' under Article 30 of the Constitution.

Since reorganisation of the States in India has been on linguistic lines, therefore, for purpose of determining the minority, the unit will be the State and not the whole of India. Thus, religious and linguistic minorities, who have been put on par in Article 30, have to be considered statewise...," the verdict had held.

"The so-called minority communities like Sikhs and Jains were not treated as national minorities at the time of framing the Constitution. Sikhs and Jains, in fact, have throughout been treated as part of the wider Hindu community which has different sects, sub-sects, faiths, modes of worship and religious philosophies. In various codified customary laws like Hindu Marriage Act, Hindu Succession Act, Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act and other laws of pre and post Constitution period, definition of 'Hindu' included all sects, sub-sects of Hindu religions including Sikhs and Jains," it had said.

 Earlier, the apex court had stayed the Punjab and Haryana High Court judgement which had held that Sikhs were not a minority community in Punjab.

The High Court had struck down Punjab government notification permitting the SGPC to give 50 per cent reservation to Sikh students in colleges run by it. Punjab government and Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandhak
Committee (SGPC) have filed petitions challenging the High Court's December 17, 2007 verdict.

The High Court had relied upon the census of 2001, as per which the Sikh population in Punjab was 59.2 per cent and Hindus were 37 per cent. The Court had held that there was no material to substantiate that Sikhs were non-dominant group in the state, apprehending deprivation of their rights at the hands of dominant groups.

The judgement of the High Court was based on an 11-member constitution bench ruling that minority status can be decided on the basis of state population and not on national basis.