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With interest groups demanding minority status for Jamia Millia Islamia, will sectarian politics take over the university's academic culture? 
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi

"Jamia is a movement and declaring it a minority institution would be the anti-thesis of the basic tenets of why Jamia was established in the first place," said Prof MS Bhatt, Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) University. "It was an experiment at nation-building wherein a parallel system of education - nai taleem - aiming at an amalgamation of modern and traditional thoughts was devised to instill values of enlightenment, secularism and pluralism. Any move to reverse this character of JMI would be of great disrespect to the people who gave their life for its creation," he urged.

Recently, in a controversial move, former human resource development minister Arjun Singh wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saying that one of the Union ministers is patronising divisive forces in this context. JMI seems to have become a battleground for all eyeing the Muslim vote bank. This particular Union minister with linkages in UP and some sections of the Muslim political elite feel left out in an institution whose founders include members of the minister's family. Even in the early 1990s, this minister was accused of having connived with fundamentalist forces, fomenting disturbances in the university campus. The then pro-vice chancellor of JMI, Mushirul Hasan, was hounded by some students for not wanting a ban on Satanic Verses.  

In a dharna in Delhi on March 15, Muslim organisations like Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, All India Milli Council, Students Islamic Organisation, and JMI teachers' and administrative staff bodies put up a united front in demanding minority status for JMI. This demand dates back to 1988, when JMI was declared a central university. What really did not augur well with the JMI staff was the Delhi High Court ruling of 1997, which quashed 10 per cent reservation for wards of JMI employees. A five per cent reservation for students from Urdu background was also scrapped. Many strikes followed and the executive council of the JMI passed a resolution asking for minority status.

In 2002, the Supreme Court delivered the judgment in the TMA Pai case wherein it was stated that any minority institution does not cease to be so the moment financial assistance from the government is received. This strengthened the demand rooted in Article 30 of the Constitution that gives rights to minorities to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice. "This is a right granted to us by the Constitution of this country. Don't snatch it away," said Tariq Siddiqui, standing counsel in the case pending in the High Court.

The moment of truth came with passage of the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act 2006 and a subsequent announcement by the then VC, Mushirul Hasan, in his convocation address that JMI would be the first university to implement reservation for OBCs. It meant that it was a tacit denial of JMI's minority institution status. This angered the academic community, because it was widely perceived that Hasan had reportedly filled many teaching positions with his 'favourites', while taking advantage of the special provisions in the JMI Act. Hasan refused to comment. "I'm on leave and I have nothing to say on Jamia," he told Hardnews. 

The rising popularity of JMI as an academic institution of excellence means that a large pool of talent across a wide religious and social spectrum vies for admissions here, as well as seeks faculty positions. This has instilled a sense of fear among the larger Muslim community - that they will lose their space in the university. Because of the 50 per cent cap on reservation quotas by the Supreme Court, there is a belief that the 25 per cent internal quota will be eliminated. Currently, all students (most of whom are Muslims) passing out of Jamia school get 25 per cent reservation.  

Many see it is a game plan to take over JMI and deprive Muslims of a space where they could be given preference in admission. "This non-action on part of the government smells of a larger ploy to keep Muslims on the margins and not allow them to study. In this age of cut- throat competition, how many Muslim students manage to get admissions in Delhi University or JNU?" asks Adnan Aariz, alumnus, JMI. Even the findings of the Sachar Committee paint a grim picture of the Muslim community - they lag behind SCs and STs. "When St Stephens and Khalsa College can be declared as minority institutions, then why not Jamia?" questioned Ali Reza, a student.
"The main objective for the establishment of JMI was to promote and provide religious and secular education to Indians, particularly Muslims," said Tabrez Alam, secretary, Jamia Teachers Association.

Termed as one of the most progressive institutions by Tagore, JMI was formed by rebel Muslim nationalists, who were disillusioned with the way 'Aligarh Movement' was loyal to the British. Even during the mass violence, uprootment and tragedy of 1947, JMI remained calm and did not become a quasi-religious institution. Mahatma Gandhi called it an "oasis in the Sahara". Hakim Ajmal Khan, the first chancellor, expected students to know each other's culture and believed that the firm foundation of a united Indian nationhood depends on this understanding. MA Ansari, who nursed JMI when it was threatened with closure, did not believe in a politically separate Muslim community and often said that future of India must be through cooperation between different faiths. 

Ironically, even during the pre-independence period, JMI had to suffer the wrath of fundamentalists and the orthodox. "Under the guidance of Gandhi, the most cunning and astute hypocrite of all time...if this factory for hinduising Muslims is allowed to continue its real work, real Islam will soon disappear from India," wrote a Muslim to Jinnah. The letter was published in Pakistani daily Dawn

"There is no doubt that JMI was established by Muslims but it was a product of the national movement," said Prof Irfan Habib, a noted historian.  He said that JMI would not have continued without patronage from Gandhi, who time and again helped the institution financially, utilising the Tilak fund. 

JMI was one of those rare institutions where co-education was advocated from the primary level. It was a window for the underprivileged and backward sections as affluent sections of the community preferred the 'Muslim Oxford' at Aligarh. "The crucial thing to discuss is if minority interests will be served better by granting minority status or by retaining Jamia as its founders visualised - a university that will have a stake in the national mainstream," said Tanveer Fazal, a teacher. 

"The minority status will only serve the purpose of middle-class Muslims," said Bhatt. A large proportion of the Muslim population is OBC - 40.7 per cent. In Bihar and UP, the proportion of OBC Muslim population is much higher - 63.4 and 64 per cent respectively. Hence, with OBC reservation, poor Muslims will benefit. "A case is being made out as though Muslims and OBCs are two mutually exclusive and opposed categories, which is incorrect," said Fazal.

In the current political scenario, there are apprehensions that asking for minority status would mean playing into the hands of the Hindutva forces, who would grab it as another instance of 'Muslim appeasement'. It will also give unnecessary advantage to Congress which has repeatedly fooled the community by handing over crumbs instead of initiating radical grassroot reforms. (Indeed, the Batla House encounter, widely perceived to be fake, is a sore issue in the campus and its neighbourhood.) 

"Time and again, the government dangles the carrot of Article 30 or madrasa modernisation schemes, refusing to make substantial interventions," said Manisha Sethi, president, Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association. She feels that any attempt to declare JMI a minority institution will further ghettoise Muslims and take the sheen out of the institution. 

"Are we to reverse this whole process and let politics and religion take centrestage in matters of education, the way the BJP-led NDA saffronised the curriculum?" asks Shamim Hanafi, Professor Emeritus, JMI.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2010