Debating India


Quota trouble

Tuesday 7 June 2005, by ZAIDI*Annie

in Aligarh

The Aligarh Muslim University finds itself at the centre of a controversy after the Central government approves its decision to reserve 50 per cent of the seats for Muslim students.

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Sandeep Saxena
The main gate of the Aligarh Muslim University, named after its founder, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.

I shall feel sorry if anybody thinks that [Aligarh Muslim University] has been established so as to show discrimination between Hindus and Muslims... All rights of the college appertaining to those who call themselves Muslims are equally related to those who call themselves Hindus without any reservations....

- Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, founder of the Aligarh Muslim University.

SIR SYED, who spoke of India as "a bride [who] has got two beautiful and lustrous eyes - Hindus and Mussulmans", would not be happy to see his cherished labour of love, the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), sitting at the heart of allegations of communalism.

The controversy centres around the university’s decision to reserve 50 per cent of its seats for Muslims all over the country, a decision that recently got endorsement from Union Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh. The move has been widely criticised by political parties and even some teachers of the university.

It has been labelled as an instance of appeasement and voices across a spectrum of political forces have called it improper and communal. Some fear that it will lead to the opening of a Pandora’s box.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government finds itself under attack from an angry Right in the Opposition and its own allies in the Left. The Communist Party of India (CPI) is against all forms of reservation based on religion. The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has issued a statement calling the reservation move an "inadvisable step". Although it concedes that lack of modern education among Indian Muslims is a matter of serious concern, the party wants the problem tackled by some means other than reservation. The Polit Bureau has also expressed the fear that the decision will be misinterpreted by "vested interests" and that it will mean playing into the hands of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Which is exactly what happened.

The BJP’s student and youth wings have organised protest rallies against the reservation decision. The Sangh Parivar has threatened to launch a nation-wide agitation and has said it will seek legal recourse. BJP vice-president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi has petitioned President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam against the decision, saying it would practically convert the university into a madrassa.

The university administration says that the decision marks only a small change in admissions policy. So far, the AMU had reserved 50 per cent of its seats for "internals", students who studied in AMU-run schools or intermediate colleges. This "internal" quota has now been reduced to 25 per cent and a new quota of 50 per cent has been reserved for all Indian Muslims. Simultaneously, the Vice-Chancellor’s discretionary powers in the admission process have been reduced. Under the old rule, the Vice-Chancellor could nominate 20 per cent of the internal quota. Now, the Vice-Chancellor nominates only 5 per cent.

Vice-Chancellor Prof. Naseem Ahmad has clarified that the new rule does not apply across the board. It has been introduced only in 44 technical or professional courses, out of a total of 289, which actually amounts to only 15.2 per cent reservations. "There are no distinctions of caste and creed, and this is in the true spirit of brotherhood. We are an all-India Central university and we expect students from each corner of the nation to join this family," he said.

Indeed, one of the arguments offered in favour of the new reservation quota is that it would give the university’s student profile a greater all-India character. With the older system of 50 per cent reservation for "internal" candidates, most of the students were found to come from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Supporters of the new quota for all Indian Muslims say that they have nothing against these two States but that they would like to open up the university to students across the country.

Prof. Mirza Asmar Beg, who teaches Political Science at the AMU, explained: "In any case, we had 60-65 per cent Muslim students, but our all-India character was being undermined. At least 16,000 out of a total of 19,360 students are from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. We do not really mind, but they should enter on merit and not on internal quotas. We wanted talent. Our old policy led to complacency and dilution of standards. Since the new rule was enforced, we already see positive changes. In the medical entrance examination, for instance, students from 16 States have come in. Last year, 80 Muslim students got through MBBS and this year, there were 88. But not a single one was an `internal’ candidate."

Another professor, who did not wish to be named, said the local opposition to the move was at bottom an opposition to the reduction of the internal quota: "It is true that the faculty is divided on the issue. But it is mostly the local people who are protesting. Nobody is opposed to reservation for Muslims; they are opposed to reducing the internal quotas. Earlier, students from other States would apply but would get de-motivated, thanks to the internal quotas. Now, students from Kashmir and South India are showing interest again."

Actually, the move is not exactly a new idea. When the AMU (Amendment) Act was passed in 1981, whereby Parliament acknowledged the minority status of the AMU, committees were set up to debate the reservation issue. The Badruddin Tyaji Committee in 1987, for instance, and the Mumtaz Ahmad Khan Committee in 2001, recommended reservation. The Executive Council, the Academic Council and the court of AMU supported the decision. But the HRD Ministry of the National Democratic Alliance government did not approve the proposal.

AMU officials said that the then HRD Minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, had himself proposed 50 per cent reservation for Muslims, but the university refused because it wanted to retain its own entrance examination. One official said: "He offered the same thing to Jamia Hamdard University and it accepted. We refused, as did Delhi University, because one of the clauses insisted on accepting the Common Entrance Test results. We have our own entrance examinations and we felt our autonomy would be undermined. Besides, we have a democratic procedure in place, where we vote on issues. The new government only endorsed our decision. It was not initiated by the UPA."

However, some Professors objected to 50 per cent reservation for Muslims when the decision was debated in the councils. One of them was Professor Shireen Moosvi, who submitted her protest in writing to the Executive Council, on January 19, 2005. Eminent historian Irfan Habib has also gone on record denouncing the decision as communal. He has warned of unfortunate consequences, saying this will undermine the value and reputation of the degrees issued by the AMU.

But supporters of the move point out that the St. Stephen’s College in Delhi has a quota for Christians, and yet it is known as one of the best colleges in the country. University officials say that they have been flooded with congratulatory notes and that signature campaigns have been initiated by students thanking the UPA government for the decision. Some have even written to Congress president Sonia Gandhi welcoming the decision.

Rahat Abrar, public relations officer at the AMU, said that the university had support in writing of the AMU Staff Association, the AMU Students’ Union and even the non-teaching staff association. "The fourth-grade employees have also welcomed the decision and these are people who have been elected and who are not handpicked by the Vice-Chancellor. Besides, the Executive Council cleared the decision, and it included the nominees of the President of India and the Governor of Uttar Pradesh, people like Nishit Rai, Professor R. Narasimhan, Professor A.R. Khan and Professor Syed Jaffar Raza. We also have eminent individuals like Salman Haider and Dr. S.A.H. Abidi, Professor Mansoor Hasan and former Rajya Sabha member Wasim Ahmad. All of them support the decision. It is no use complaining to the President since his nominees also support the reservation," he said.

At the 2005 convocation ceremony at the AMU, Arjun Singh said that the decision was in line with the UPA’s Common Minimum Programme. "Access to high education for our youth is dismally low, at some 8 per cent or so... This is even more disheartening for minority communities. The social capital possessed by our minority communities needs to be harnessed. The founding fathers of the Constitution had provided for the critical right of minorities under Article 30, precisely to allow such a choice," he said.

Article 30 (1) of the Constitution allows minorities to establish and administer their own educational institutions. There was some debate about the minority status of the AMU, since it was established by an Act of Parliament in 1920, but subsequent amendments to the AMU Act removed this difficulty. The 1981 amendments especially included Section 2 (L) and 52 (C), to acknowledge the minority character of the AMU.

When questioned about the legal standing of the AMU’s decision, constitutional law expert Rajiv Dhawan said that the 1981 amendments only served to formalise the legal persona of the minority character of the AMU and that the law could not close its eyes to matters of importance in the public domain. He said that this issue required a combined reading of the Supreme Court’s rulings in the T.M.A. Pai Foundation case and the Sourav Choudhary case.

In the latter case, the relevant Supreme Court ruling had said that reservation based on merit must be increased from 25 per cent to 50 per cent, implying that at least 50 per cent seats may be reserved by the institution itself. However, in the T.M.A. Pai case, an 11-member Bench of the apex court had ruled: "Article 30(1) is a sort of guarantee or assurance to the linguistic and religious minority institutions of their right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice. Secularism and equality being two of the basic features of the Constitution... "

Article 29 (2) of the Constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of race, caste, religion or gender. The Supreme Court has interpreted this thus: "Denying admission, even though seats are available on the ground of the applicant’s religion, race, caste or language, is prohibited; but preferring students of minority groups does not violate Article 29(2)."

At the same time, the court ruled that even minority institutions must admit some non-minority students, especially if they accept government aid. Although it did not place a ceiling on this reservation, the Bench said that the State could regulate the percentage. "As long as the minority educational institution permits citizens belonging to non-minority class, to a reasonable extent, based upon merit, it will not be an infraction of Article 29(2)... "

In this context, the AMU is within its right to announce the quota, for not only has it never denied admission to non-Muslims, but continues to leave 50 per cent of all seats open, as a level playing field, based on merit.

When asked what he envisioned next for his Muslim students, the Vice-Chancellor retorted: "Why ask me only about Muslims? All students are the same to us. Once they leave the campus, they should be equipped to face all challenges and empowered to play their roles in nation-building, to spread the message of tolerance and free inquiry."

See online : Frontline


Volume 22 - Issue 12, Jun 04 - 17, 2005

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