New Age Islam
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Islam and Politics ( 29 March 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Making Jamia Minority

By Arshad Alam,

 A situation of astounding confusion has engulfed Jamia Millia University after the National Council for Minority Education Institutions (NCMEI) declared it a minority institution. The teaching community has become unsure of its status: whether they will be considered as central government employees or will they be now governed by a different set of norms? Students who joined the university recently are concerned about the worth of their degrees, whether they would be graduates of a central university any more. The university authorities and the representative body of the teachers are not helping matters by not telling the wider university community if they have any blueprint for its eventual transition to a minority institution. Perhaps they also don’t know how this will impact on the future of the institution or perhaps they consider it beneath their dignity to address these concerns of the wider university community.

 A whole range of self appointed guardians of Muslims were at the forefront of a campaign to turn Jamia into a minority institution. Some of these stalwarts include the current custodian of Munger Khanqah, the beleaguered and besieged Arshad Madani of whatever is left of the Jamiat Ulama e Hind, retired bureaucrats tangentially connected to Muslim education, out of job Muslim politicians and an alumni network of Jamia who think that Muslims are best served by organizing occasional educational seminars in places like Jeddah. In the best feudal tradition of Muslim politics, none of these players even for a moment thought that the minority issue was a contested one within the teaching community of Jamia. Thus the move to turn Jamia into a minority institution is first and foremost an undemocratic one as it has not been thoroughly debated neither have its implications been discussed within the teaching or the student community.

 The NCMEI judgment is curious to say the least. Extremely repetitive, chunks of this judgment are pure performance for a largely Muslim audience rather than a piece of sound legal rational document. The judgment also is an example of selective amnesia. Thus while it recalls how Muslims contributed to the development of Jamia, it conveniently forgets to mention that during its dire straits, it was Gandhi who mobilized funds for Jamia from the Tilak Swaraj Fund. But for the moment, let’s just concentrate on the legal arguments that the judgment makes. In order that an institution wishes to become ‘minority’, it has to prove that it was established as well as administered by that particular minority community. There cannot be any doubt that Jamia was established by the Muslim community. It is also proved that till 1988, when it became a central university, it was also administered by the Muslim community. However, it becomes increasingly untenable to argue that even after it became a central university; it continued to be administered by the community. But this is precisely what the NCMEI judgment argues with some very interesting logic. It says that the Muslim character of the university got incorporated in the Central University Act of 1988. The presence of a mosque in campus and all Vice Chancellors of the university being Muslims are marshaled as evidences to prove that even the state recognized the Muslim character of Jamia. But this is not a legal argument. Legally speaking, on the day Jamia became a central university, the society that had hitherto governed it got dissolved and hence by no stretch of imagination it can be argued that Jamia was being administered by the Muslim community. It must be recalled that the Aligarh Muslim University is trying to prove a similar point and that matter has been sub-judice in the Supreme Court for many years now. In their assessment, even HRD mentioned that the outcome of the AMU case will have a direct bearing on the Jamia minority case and had advised all concerned to wait for that judgment to come.

 The reason that NCMEI did not wait for the outcome of the AMU case is most probably political in nature. This is a case that was and is destined for the courts. Already a PIL has been filed in the Delhi High Court which has asked for explanations from all the parties concerned. The SC Commission has also asked questions from the Law ministry. This is particularly important as Jamia being a central university has reservations for SCs and STs in admissions and recruitment. Now, if Jamia becomes a minority institution, this reservation will have to go. But it can only happen by an act of Parliament which is surely going to be a tedious and contentious process. The bigger political game seems to be of the Congress which is trying to gauge the Muslim mood ahead of elections in five states. It is trying to project a picture of itself being pro-Muslim and Jamia has become a pawn in this game.

 But will it help the Congress? My own guess is that it will not, rather it might turn out to be counter-productive. There are two reasons for this. In the three states of Assam, Bengal and Kerala, Jamia’s minority status is hardly an issue. Most of the campaigners for Jamia’s minority, including the lead voice in Congress, Salman Khurshid, come from Uttar Pradesh and it is here that its impact might be felt. However, UP is also the state where Muslim OBC politics has started asserting itself after tasting success in Bihar. To be fair, Muslim OBCs constitute the overwhelming majority of Muslims in UP and elsewhere. If Jamia becomes a minority institution, it will be detrimental for the educational access of Muslim OBCs. If this becomes a campaign point in UP, then the Congress will be the biggest loser of Muslim votes. One had hoped that after the Bihar elections, in which Muslim OBCs secured the return of Nitish Kumar, Congress would have learnt its lessons. But it seems the political advisors of the Congress are not reading the internal churning within Muslim society, partly because they are completely cut off from the Muslim masses.

 The current argument that Jamia’s minority status will not hamper its central university status is nonsense. There is simply no precedence for this to happen in the first place. If Jamia becomes a minority institution, it will be governed by a society and therefore by definition it cannot retain the central university status. If it does happen sometime in the future, then I am sorry to say that Jamia will start its descent into academic oblivion. I am saying this because Muslims, particularly in North India, have no tradition of managing educational institutions. The ones that they do are in deplorable and pitiful state. People have argued why Jamia cannot become like Stephens which is also a minority institution. The answer is that it simply cannot. Missionaries in India have had a historical tradition of imparting education for hundreds of years now. In fact when they were reaching out to disadvantaged Indians through modern education, we were busy establishing one madrasa after another. This is a huge difference in terms of orientation and without bridging this difference of orientation, any comparison with Stephens is going to sound fanciful.

 It is beyond doubt that Muslims are lagging behind in education right from the elementary level. After the publication of Sachar Committee Report, affirmative action for Muslims has become a must. For any democracy to be healthy, inter-group inequality like the one in India is simply unacceptable. As pointed out by Mishra Committee Report, universities like Jamia can play a pivotal role in increasing Muslim access to higher education. But is taking the minority route the best possible strategy? There is a great danger that in taking this route, Jamia might go the AMU way and become the ultimate seat of nepotism. Instead of demanding for minority status, why don’t we demand that Jamia be declared a special university which will have a majority of Muslim students? There are precedents for this. North East Hill University is mandated to admit a majority of ST students. Ambedkar University in Lucknow is mandated to admit a majority of SC students. But in both these places, and this is important, the recruitment of teachers follow the central university norms. Why can’t Jamia also demand something on similar lines? This will ensure that majority of the students will remain Muslim and at the same time quality teaching will not suffer as teachers will get recruited from a larger much talented pool.  If the government is really serious about educational access of Muslims, then let it bring a separate legislation in the Parliament and bury this controversy once and for all.

 A regular contributor to, Arshad Alam is with the Center for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia.