By Khalid Anis Ansari
24 March, 2011
Teri azaan mein nahin meri sahar ka payam. [Your call to prayer heralds not my dawn] – Allama Iqbal
The recent judgment of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions (NCMEI), favoring ‘ minority status ' for Jamia Millia Islamia University, has generated vigorous debate [http://www.jmi.ac.in/minorityinstitution.htm]. While it seems to me that most of the articulations have probably been reluctant in staging the immanent logics governing the entire controversy, I see this debate as offering yet another opening for democratic transformation within the Muslim community. While I will resist from taking a straightforward for/against position on the issue, it would be my endeavor to trace the discursive ruptures that instantiated the articulation around the ‘minority status' for Jamia, and to indicate at the need to frame the Muslim ‘community' now as a contested terrain with multiple sites of negotiations, cleavages and transformations.
Let me begin with a few reflections on the NCMEI judgment itself. There are three critical junctures in the institutional genealogy of Jamia that are pertinent to the argument here. First, when a few Muslim teachers of Jamia constituted a society and got it registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860 as the Jamia Millia Islamia Society (henceforth Society) in 1939; second, when the UGC accorded Jamia the status of a deemed university in 1962; and third, when Jamia was accorded the status of a central university under the Jamia Millia Islamia Act, 1988 (henceforth Act). Now the onus on the petitioners was to prove that Jamia was ‘established' and ‘administered' (to be read conjunctively) by the minorities in order to declare it a ‘minority institution' under Article 30 (1) of the Indian Constitution.
The NCMEI points out that the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) had sought a stay on the proceedings in the Jamia case, as their preference was to wait for the verdict of the Supreme Court on the AMU case which, in its view, had a bearing on the Jamia case as well. As we know in 1968 the Supreme Court had held that the AMU is not a minority institution as it was incorporated under the Act of the Central Legislature (Azeez Basha vs. Union of India AIR 1968 SC 662). Recently, AMU has re-agitated the matter in the Supreme Court. Despite the hesitation of the HRD ministry, the NCMEI went ahead with the proceedings on the Jamia case on the grounds that the Jamia case was significantly different from the AMU case. NCMEI's argument for marking the difference is interesting. The judgment conveys to us that in the AMU case it was a college, the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College, when it was catapulted to the status of a university by the University Act, 1920 passed by the central legislature. Hence, the Supreme Court denied that AMU was established by minorities as it was constituted into a university by an act of parliament. The NCMEI thinks that the case of Jamia is different as: “On enactment of the Act (Jamia Millia Islamia Act, 1988), there was no conversion of an educational institution into a university as the Jamia as a university was already in existence prior to coming into force of the Act [NCMEI Judgment, p. 56]”. Prima facie it seems that the distinction between the AMU and the Jamia cases introduced in the judgment is not a very robust one. For the key dimension in both the cases is that the Societies established by the Muslim community to manage these institutes were dissolved (in the case of AMU in 1920 and in the case of Jamia in 1988) by acts of the parliament that elevated them to the status of central universities, and further that the text of both these Acts do not allude to any notion of these institutions being established and administered by the Muslim community. One may ask what difference does it make to the argument whether you convert a college into a central university or a deemed university into a central university if the texts of the Acts that constituted them are not forthright in suggesting that they were established and are managed by the Muslim community, the twin conditions necessary for deciding the ‘minority status' of these institutions? Apparently, the distinction between the AMU and Jamia cases introduced by the NCMEI seems to be an impatient one in order to offset the stay on proceedings sought by the HRD ministry and to offer an opening for the matter to be considered by the NCMEI, constituted as recently as 2004.
Moreover, much has been made of the overlaps between the MoU of the Society and the Act to establish that Jamia was both ‘established' and ‘administered' by the Muslim community. ‘Thus, the basic statutes of Jamia as mentioned in the Act are almost in pari material with the provisions of the Memorandum of Association', the NCMEI says [p. 45]. However, again there is no substantive discussion in the judgment on the critical exclusions from the Act. Because: it is precisely the statutes of the Society that had bearing on the question of ‘establishment' and ‘administration' that had not been carried in the Act. Besides, it is this anxiety, driven by the unsettled nature of the ‘minority character' of Jamia, which is clearly reflected in the resolution of the Executive Council of Jamia in 1997. In this resolution a plea is made to amend the Act for the first time and include certain crucial parts of the MOU of the Society that were previously left out and which had a direct and favorable bearing on the question of establishment and administration of the institution by Muslims (Paradoxically, this meeting was presided over by Prof. Mushirul Hasan who was to later oppose the minority character in the capacity of the Vice Chancellor) [NCMEI, p. 47-48]. At this point it is useful to stress that 1997 marks the official emergence of the discourse of ‘minority status' in Jamia since the Act of 1988 .
The other arguments offered by NCMEI are affective and rhetorical in nature. Just to cite a few examples: ‘It is also relevant to mention that there is a mosque in the campus of Jamia', ‘…since its foundation, the Jamia bears an emblem, which has a star on the right with the inscription “Allah-o-Akbar”, ‘On the bottom of the emblem, there is a small silver crescent with the inscription ‘Jamia Millia Islamia' in Urdu”, and so on and so forth. [One may be tempted to respond on similar lines: every police station with a temple in India then becomes a ‘Hindu' institution, any scribbling of Sanskrit in a building justifies its ‘Hindu character', etc.]. While cutting short the discussion on NCMEI judgment one is left to wonder whether such narratives within the text of a judicial document also not foreground the ‘performative' dimensions of the ‘court' as a site, apart from the obviously normative stance one has been tutored to expect from it. Does this also not demonstrate that in reality no person or institution is totally immune to actual operations of power and location in society? Other questions remain. How much leverage does the NCMEI, being just a quasi-judicial organ of the State, has in upturning the positions in Jamia Act, 1988 passed by the Central Legislature? What effects will the judgment of Supreme Court on AMU, if it upholds the 1968 position, have on the Jamia case? How does one reconcile with this unprecedented situation where for the first time a Central University has also been granted the ‘minority status'? It seems there are a few critical questions that the judgment throws, ranging from concerns of popular sovereignty to merely technical concerns. While the deliberation on all these aspects of the judgment will continue in future, the discussion above was mainly intended to outline the context for arriving at the basic logic guiding this controversy.
I think it is crucial to read into the silence of the ‘Muslim' community on this issue in the period 1988 (the constitution of the Jamia Act) to 1997 (when the aforementioned resolution was adopted). What was the discursive rupture that necessitated the emergence of this concern around the ‘minority character' in 1997? One tentative suggestion could be that this discourse was in 1997 a response to the Indra Sawney (Mandal Judgment) by the Supreme Court in 1993 which made it mandatory for the Central Government institutions to reserve 27% seats in public sector jobs for the OBCs (incidentally, in addition to Hindu lower castes, about 80 Muslim lower caste groups, constituting more than 80% of total Muslim population in India, are also included in the Central OBC list). Jamia being a central university could not have escaped that. It is a commonplace that AMU and Jamia (as many other ‘Muslim' institutions) are highly undemocratic and seldom focus on excellence in education or the welfare of the student community at large. Rather, they often act as employment generating factories for the relatives and near-ones of the hegemonic ‘Muslim' families usually belonging to upper caste/class locations. Further, this unbridled control of the site of faculty and staff recruitment by the Muslim elite classes is the key to decode the highly undemocratic and feudal functioning of most of these institutions. And, it is precisely this control that was being interrogated by the OBC reservations in the case of Jamia and was a key motivation for the staging of the ‘minority status' issue.
The controversy sparked off again in the wake of the Constitution (Ninety-third Amendment) Act, 2005 (Mandal II) adopted in January 2006 that laid clear the way for reservations for OBC students in higher education ‘other than the minority educational institutions referred to in clause (1) of article 30'. Now it is important to stress that the 2006 amendment applied strictly to OBC students (including the majority of lower caste Muslim students). But the exemption of minority institutions from the granting of reservations to OBC students once again offered an opening to the Muslim elite classes in building a case for ‘minority character' by projecting the anticipated depletion of Muslim students in the university. So when Mr. Najeeb Jung, the incumbent Jamia Vice Chancellor, lays down that ‘with the introduction of reservations for OBCs (Mandal II), the level of reservations in the university would go beyond 50% and therefore over time Muslim numbers will decline' as one of the main reasons for the demand for minority character, he is apparently urging only a half-truth [http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-03-17/edit-page/28699125_1_muslims-hijab-millia-islamia]. Since the demand for minority status emerged way before Mandal II in 1997, as I have established above, one may suggest that what has been de facto driving the agitation since 2006 is the restoration of autonomy in deciding on staff/faculty appointments that was subverted by the 1993 Mandal judgment. The present fear of the dwindling number of Muslim students whipped up by the Jamia establishment, though factually relevant, is merely an anchoring point to achieve the same ends that were sought in 1997. Quite clearly the NCMEI judgment has helped the Jamia establishment in achieving exactly that.
In short, what the genealogy of the entire controversy on the ‘minority character' of Jamia also reveals is the uneasy relation of the Muslim elite classes in engaging with the question of caste as a key democratic question in the country today, both within and without the putative Muslim community. There is also visible discomfort with the forging of new horizontal caste-based solidarities that exceed the naturalised solidarities based on religious identity, which the Mandal moment inaugurated (and was an expression of) when it clubbed together both Muslim and Hindu lower castes as OBCs. However, I also see these tensions as being productive in the long-run as they will open the gates for internal democratic reform within the Muslim community. Mr. Jung's articulation takes cognisance of these developments when he remarks: “Better still, if Jamia could frame rules that part of that 50% reserved for Muslims becomes available to Muslim women and the backward Muslim community, it would manage a trifecta: pluralism, social justice and gender equality.” However, while agreeing with the spirit of this fragment, one may point out that the substance of pluralism, social justice and gender equality is of a contested nature in India today. ‘Which Muslim women?' and ‘which backward Muslim community?' are obvious questions that will be posed in times to come. Is the reference to lower caste/class Muslim women or elite Muslim women? Is he alluding to economically backward Muslims or socially and educationally backward lower caste Muslims? What data will be relied on to fix the quantum of sub-quotas? What implications does this move hold for the wider debate on affirmative action in India? I believe there are no ‘objective' criteria to resolve these questions outside the hegemonic contestations in ‘the political'. These questions will be basically settled in the discursive battles and mass mobilizations in the democratic theatre in time.
However, as a gesture of sincerity it would have been appropriate for the Jamia establishment to have waited for some time before circulating notifications indicating change of rules in the University. It would have been extremely useful to have set up a relevant body, represented by all cross-sections of the community—lower castes, women, tribals, South Indian and North-Eastern Muslims, student leaders, clerics, community activists, academics, professionals, etc.—to look into the existing rules and evolve a model over a stipulated period. Apart from the obvious benefits of ‘internal dialogue' that it would have initiated, this could have also provided a context to address the concerns of pluralism and social justice from multiple vantage points. The critical thing missing badly in the Muslim institutions is democracy and this is where a start could have been made through this judgment. I think that opportunity is still not lost and the Jamia establishment must consider this option seriously rather than offering knee-jerk reactions and celebrations over their perceived victory.
Now, I would quickly close by touching upon the two dominant frames that were employed to make sense of the Jamia issue in the recent articulations: one, the cosmopolitanism vs. ghetto argument, and two, the merit/excellence vs. reservations argument [See: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/no-jamia-ghetto-please/762420/1 and http://iamnotaminority.blogspot.com/]. Broadly, it seems that the Jamia issue cannot be adequately addressed within these frameworks. Firstly, what constitutes the ‘ghetto' and the ‘mainstream' is a debatable issue. As a rhetorical riposte can one conceive JNU as a ‘Marxist' ghetto or BHU as a ‘Hindu' ghetto? Is there some metaphysical merit in monopolizing the term only for ‘Muslim' sites? What does openness mean and who can afford that openness? In a deeply identity-segregated and unequal society this is often a very insensitive frame to apply. Secondly, the Constitution has adopted a normative bias towards affirmative action (and other interventions) for weaker socio-economic and culturally insecure sections at the expense of a temporary compromise on the ideological notion of so-called ‘merit'. The argument on this is so well-rehearsed that I don't even feel the inclination or need to go into that. Also, if Christian minority institutions can deliver quality education after reserving seats for candidates from the Christian community why can't the Muslims do that? I think the clue to that is the undemocratic content of the community ‘managers' (there are no leaders there!) and institutions and their being stuck in their own time-warps. In time the democratic pressures, it is hoped, will either shake them to do a rethink or to replace them with more worthy substitutes. More than the ghettoes within Muslims, I think it is the ‘universalist' and ‘secularist' ghettoes of the mind, informed by positions of privilege, that are more often the problem for the subaltern communities in India.