Minority interests

It may not be an exaggeration to postulate that normally reforms in India generate counter reactions. And when it comes to any pro-minority, more particularly pro-Muslim reform, the reaction is more pronounced and conspicuous. It is in this perspective that the ongoing discourses on the issue of Jamia Millia Islamia’s “Muslim minority institution” status, needs to be viewed.

The Jamia, needless to iterate, was established by prominent Muslim leaders of the anti-colonial movement with the blessings and support of the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, who, it is understood, had actually mooted the idea while he was in Vijayawada in the early 1920s. Personifying the all-inclusive secular characteristics of the national movement, the Jamia moved from Aligarh to Delhi and gradually sprouted to blossom into a distinct seat of higher learning. Its legacy as a lusty offspring of the freedom struggle brought her unflinching support from the Congress leadership. It was mainly because of the benevolent gesture of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who unhesitatingly conceded to the request of the ailing Begum Zakir Hussain to see that Zakir Sahib’s dream of making Jamia a Central university was realised and that the Jamia Millia Islamia Act, 1988, saw the light of day. Of course, not without undaunted support from Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Although a section of the community clamoured for incorporating the minority status in the act itself, nevertheless, visionaries like Khurshid Alam Khan, who had a key role in shaping the act to preserve Jamia’s ethos, saw a better fortune for the community in India’s pluralistic fabric and Congress’ secular vortex.
Unfortunately, the bizarre events of 1992 virtually shattered the community. The climate of sectarianism and communal frenzy that ensued led to a siege situation and fear psychosis. Frequent incidents of targeting innocent Muslim youth as terrorists, be it in Ajmer Dargah or Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid, branding them as Pakistani agents and their encounter killings generated a feeling of alienation, precipitating an identity crisis. The Sachar Committee, appointed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was a high-level committee constituted to prepare a report on the social, economic and educational status of the Muslim community of India. The Sachar Committee’s revelations, endorsing the worst educational plight of the Muslims, and the Ranganath Mishra Commission Report, emphasising the dire need for affirmative action, gravely sensitised and alerted the community.
Questions like the percentage of Muslim representation in legislatures, employment and education sectors started haunting the Muslim mind. A cursory look at the number of Muslim students in Delhi University or any other university will be highly demoralising. The situation is no better even in the most progressive universities such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) where the curve of Muslim admissions has been on a steady decline since 1969. Muslim students are virtually nil in the Banaras Hindu University in comparison to non-Muslim counterparts in Jamia or even the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). While Gujjars and Jats are on the streets articulating grievances, want of an organisational structure coupled with the prevalent circumstances deterred Muslims from raising their voice.
In this climate of scepticism, the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions’ judgment declaring Jamia as a Muslim minority institution came as a heavenly gift for its majority segment. Now, it needs to be seen how long these jubilations will sustain in our “tolerant” society, particularly in view of the experiences of AMU and the fate of four per cent reservation for Muslims in Andhra Pradesh.
Academic standards and quality are not constant attributes and neither are they the monopoly of specific institutions. Allahabad and Madras universities, once rated high, are no more the same. The same may be true of JNU. Curiously, none of these institutions have altered or lost their original character. Moonis Raza, educationist and freedom fighter, declined to be the vice-chancellor of Jamia in the 1980s as he perceived Jamia to be a “14th century institution”. Ironically, the same “14th century institution” successfully established a post-modern 21st century Mass Communication Research Centre that continues to be unparalleled in the country. Jamia’s faculty of education and rural institute enjoyed a distinct reputation even before Jamia was declared a “deem to be university”. Every educational institution excels in one or the other field, irrespective of the tag it bears, and Jamia is a glaring example.
The mere prefix “Muslim minority” cannot become the cause to “ghettoise” Jamia, as long as it adheres to its historic values of democracy, secularism, pluralism and transparency in administration. True to its traditions, Jamia has attracted talent from across communities and a large proportion of its faculty is drawn from JNU alumnae. For many scholars, diplomats and bureaucrats, Jamia has been a launching pad for lucrative assignments. In fact, Jamia is the only Central university where SC/ST reservations, both in recruitments and admissions, have been honestly implemented.
As a matter of fact, in its functional terms, Jamia is already a Muslim minority institution with more than 50 per cent Muslim students and a Muslim as its vice-chancellor. If this composition could efficiently herald Jamia on the threshold of academic excellence, how does the minority tag alter its practical dynamics except to legitimise the claim of the community on the institution? The ghettoisation logic will never catch popular imagination as long as Jamia is in the National Capital Region.
The Muslim minority situation warrants positive discrimination, more so in the education sector. Governments in the Indian federation are sensitive to the reality, be it the Congress in Andhra Pradesh or the Communists in West Bengal. The minority status to Jamia is perhaps a beginning in the right direction which is bound to benefit at least a miniscule section of the weaker Muslim segment of north India to carve a professional career in the fields of engineering, dentistry, communications, law, education and bio-technology.

Mujtaba Khan is a professor at Centre for Dalit & Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, NewDelhi

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