A Welcome Challenge

Below is an article from our Affirmative Action Media Monitoring Project. These articles represent a wide variety of views. These views do not necessarily represent the views of AAPF but instead are intended to provide you with an overview of the current affirmative action debate. March 17, 2011

The order of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions declaring the Jamia Millia Islamia a 'minority' institution has generated considerable comment. Since different viewpoints have been stated, the issue needs to be objectively evaluated, inclusive of the ideological arguments.

The Jamia Millia Islamia was formed in 1920, at the behest of Gandhi, as a counter to the increasing sense of alienation among a section of Muslims. A group of nationalist Muslim leaders including Maulana Mahmudul Hasan, Maulana Mohamed Ali, M A Ansari, Hakim Ajmal Khan and Abdul Majeed Khwaja brought in all their resources to form Jamia. Others like Zakir Hussain, Prof Mujeeb and Prof Abid Hussain were to follow and devote their lives to the cause of education, in particular of Muslims, who were way behind other communities.

Registered initially as a society, Jamia became a deemed university in 1962. All these years it retained its status as a minority institution. In 1988, it became a central university by which time it had established its major faculties and departments including engineering, education, history, social work, fine arts, natural sciences, and its famous mass communication school. At that time it had roughly 50% Muslim students. Today, 23 years after becoming a central university, it still has roughly the same number of Muslim students.

Therefore, it is firstly important to grasp that the ruling does not change anything: it formalises the status quo. In an educational context where Muslims are worryingly under-represented, Jamia has historically provided a path to secular higher education to thousands of young, underprivileged provincial Muslims who receive their school education in the traditional style, in maktabs and madrassas. It has also made singular contribution to the education of Muslim girls in whose case parents would be reluctant to send them elsewhere. Today, one of the glorious achievements of the university is that within its campus one frequently sees groups where girls in hijab mix easily with all others.

But then since Jamia is indeed having 50% or more Muslims, why declare it a minority institution? Two things stand out here. First, over the last 90 years Muslims have had a sense of ownership and a fierce attachment with Jamia. They believe it is an institution of higher learning set up by their forefathers, to further in essence the cause of Muslim education, and declaring it a minority institution makes them secure in this feeling. Two, with the introduction of reservations for OBCs, the level of reservations in the university would go beyond 50% and therefore over time Muslim numbers will decline.

However, despite this, there are reasonable arguments, focussing on the bad consequences that might follow from minority status. The most significant is that the minimum 50% reservation that minority status permits will be exceeded and this will lead to Jamia becoming a Muslim ghetto. It is further argued that once Jamia becomes a minority institution, its students will be shunned in the job market because their degrees, and diplomas, fairly or unfairly, will have been devalued by its reputation as a 'Muslim' institution.

Two points need to be made here. All minority institutions, including the Vellore Medical College and St Stephen's College, are governed by the same rules of admission. These institutions continue to be beacons of excellence despite the fact that they can theoretically take more than 50% of their students from the Christian community. Every educational institution regardless of whether it is a minority institution or not faces a choice: does it want to recruit the best students under the rules that govern it or will it misuse the rules for the sake of patronage, nepotism or communalism?

Jamia, being an older institution than most in north India, has faced this choice for nearly a hundred years, in good times and bad, and has consistently made the right decision. The fact that at all times in its history it retained Muslim student numbers to around 50% is indicative of this maturity. There is no reason to believe this will change now.

It is also important to understand that Jamia is a recipient of public money, it has a duty to demonstrate that this money is scrupulously spent and that with the changed circumstance comes far greater responsibility. It will, therefore, have to commit itself to unprecedented levels of transparency, submitting its admission processes to national testing. Open competition with published merit lists for minority and non-minority students will shine daylight on the processes by which students are admitted.

At the same time, it will demonstrate that a commitment to the welfare of an underprivileged community can be combined with a commitment to openness, fairness and excellence. 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.

While this is a huge affirmative action on the part of the government that the Muslim community must accept with grace and gratitude, i believe the government has put an onus on the Muslims to prove that they can look beyond common perceptions of ghettoisation, fundamentalism and so on and understand that imbedded in this initiative is the challenge to be tested at the altar of competence, professionalism and, above all, commitment to fierce nationalism and secularism that has been the bedrock of Jamia for the past 90 years.

Posted on www.timesofindia.indiatimes.com