In a deplorable yet unsurprising move, the Union government recently decided to discontinue the Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF) that was provided to researchers from minority communities at universities falling under the University Grants Commission (UGC).
Announcing the decision to discontinue the fellowship, the Union government has said, “Since the MANF scheme overlaps with various other fellowship schemes for higher education being implemented by the government and minority students are already covered under such schemes, hence the government has decided to discontinue the MANF Scheme from 2022-2023.”
If that is the real reason, then one should be ready to hear a similar argument about fellowships to research scholars from other marginalised communities – such Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs and persons with disabilities. After all, the government can very well assert that students from these groups are already covered under the UGC’s main fellowships, Junior Research Fellowship and Senior Research Fellowship. However, that is unlikely to happen; I sincerely hope it does not.
More importantly, it would be a grave mistake to see the latest decision in isolation. It follows the Bharatiya Janata Party’s exclusionary vision and agenda, which was first implemented in Gujarat under the leadership of Narendra Modi. In fact, it would not be incorrect to argue that the latest decision to scrap the MANF is nothing but an extension of the ‘Gujarat Model’.
It is worth recalling that under Modi’s chief ministership, the Gujarat government had refused to implement the pre-matriculation scholarship scheme for students of minority community launched in the country in 2008, calling it discriminatory. It was only after a high court order in 2013, followed by the Supreme Court’s refusal to stay the high court order, that the then state government headed by Modi decided to implement the scheme.
It is also not surprising that despite the longstanding demand by activists and groups like the Minority Coordination Committee (MCC) Gujarat, the state has neither a Minority Welfare Department/Ministry nor a Minorities Commission. Notably, like the Union cabinet, the state government also does not have a single Muslim minister. In fact, in the recently concluded state election, the BJP did not give ticket to a single Muslim candidate, despite the community making up nearly 10% of the state’s population.
Though the government has denied claims that it has any plans to scrap the Union Ministry of Minority Affairs, it would be only in line with the vision of current dispensation if they decide to get rid of the ministry. Notably, the rationale purportedly furthered to justify scraping the Central minority affairs ministry is very similar to what has been stated while discontinuing the MANF scheme.
“The BJP-led NDA government is of the view that there is no need for an independent ministry for minority affairs. It believes the ministry was created as part of UPA’s appeasement policy. Now, the Modi government wants to bring it back under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment as the ‘Department of Minority Affairs’,” one source told Deccan Herald, which broke the story about the government’s alleged plan to scrap the minority affairs ministry.
Apart from the impact of discontinuing the MANF scheme on students from minority communities interested in research and academics, the decision will serve at least two more purposes of the current regime and all those aligned to its ideology. First, it will further help Hindutva activists participate in victim blaming. Since the discontinuation of the MANF scheme will force a considerable number of students from the Muslim community to shelve their plans to pursue higher education, it will become easier for anti-Muslims elements to argue that students from the community have no interest in higher education and academics.
The MANF scheme was launched post the Sachar Committee report (2006), which had noted that the gap between Muslims and other Socio Religious Categories (SRCs) increases as the level of education increases, and that unemployment rates among Muslim graduates is the highest among SRCs both among the poor and the non-poor. There will be no surprises if there is a steep fall in higher education enrolment amongst Muslims, as not many from the community are in a position to continue their education and research interests without financial support. This is also true for students from other minority communities, especially women.
Secondly, decisions like these will normalise the further exclusion of minority communities, especially Muslims, because no party or government would like to be seen as ‘appeasing’ the minority. After all, it is deemed perfectly normal if there are no Muslim ministers in nearly half of the state governments, including Odisha and Punjab, which are considered opponents of Hindutva politics. It would be interesting to see if the newly formed Congress government in Himachal will have any Muslim ministers. The state has a more than 2% Muslim population.
Notably, in the recently concluded Gujarat elections, while the BJP decided to give no tickets to any Muslim candidates, the Congress gave only six tickets out 182 to Muslims and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) gave just three tickets to Muslims, which is very low in proportion to the community’s population in the state. That is because if they give more tickets, the so-called secular parties will be accused of appeasing the minority, a risk that they do not want to take – despite knowing that the bogey of ‘minority appeasement’ is simply another tool to deny constitutionally guaranteed rights to India’s minorities.