Jamia needs to revise its reservation policy

Reservation benefits in minority institutions should be for backward and under-privileged sections of a minority community.

 |  8-minute read |   19-02-2016
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A central university in south Delhi has been in the headlines since the past one week. Yes, you're right. We are talking about the much acclaimed Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). But there is another central university in the southern part of Delhi which is Jamia Millia Islamia or JMI.

Jamia happens to be the third central university in the national capital besides JNU and Delhi University. The capital city is also home to an Indian Institute of Technology and All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Such an arrangement arguably enables Delhi to be both the political and educational capital of India.

But with politics comes controversy and Jamia Millia Islamia (much like other universities) is no exception. In November last year, there was a furore when the Jamia administration decided to invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be the chief guest at the annual convocation.

Though Modi eventually decided against attending the convocation but many argued then as to what is wrong in inviting the elected prime minister of the world's largest democracy to a convocation ceremony of a state-funded university.

The problem certainly wasn't in inviting the PM. The concern was actually Narendra Modi. Following the 2008 Batla House encounter, Modi wrongly accused Jamia Millia Islamia of hiring lawyers to defend the alleged terrorists. Modi used the term "doob maro, doob maro" while mocking JMI.

He even called for the sacking of the then vice-chancellor and spoke of a "shadyantra (conspiracy)" aiming towards "desh ki tabahi (destruction of the country)". Thus, Modi gave the impression as if Jamia Millia Islamia was a safe haven for terrorists and sponsoring anti-national activities.

But Modi's charge of what he termed as "votebank politics" vis-a-vis Jamia Millia Islamia was false. No less than the Election Commission took objection to the incorrect claims of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party. Coming down heavily on advertisements issued by BJP stating "Jamia University funds to defend terror accused", the Election Commission said, "The Vice Chancellor of Jamia University has categorically stated that no fund of the institute was being used for the alleged purpose and that the students of the university were themselves raising funds." 

On a lighter note, it's funny how both the EC and BJP referred to Jamia as "Jamia University". The term "Jamia" itself refers to a university therefore a term like "Jamia University" would mean "University University" which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Unfortunately, such incorrect phraseology is very much common even among Jamia students and faculty.

Nevertheless, let's come back to the central issue. The fact of the matter is that Jamia as an institution did not financially sponsor any such case as alleged by Modi and his party. Did Modi ever apologise for smearing the reputation of JMI which the university couldn't disassociate itself from for long? Never!

Hence why should Jamia administration invite Modi as the chief guest for the annual convocation? The man who was responsible for deliberating tarnishing the image of the university cannot be given a five-star reception at probably the most important day of the academic calendar. It is not about disrespecting the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), it's about self respect. Even after becoming prime minister, Modi made no public efforts to mend ties with Jamia.

Considering his attitude towards the Gujarat tragedy for which he never formally and genuinely apologised, how could have one expected Modi to express remorse over what he said about Jamia in the past during his speech at the convocation. Predictably, the invite by the Jamia administration was frowned upon by several former and present university students. 

Some expressed the desire for initiation of dialogue with Modi but he himself turned down the invite. The official reason was time constraint but some amount of political thought must have certainly gone into the decision. 

At the end of the day it was the Jamia administration which lost face. They bent over backwards to please the powers that be but the ensuing controversy was such that they not only failed to achieve what they set out to but were also criticised by university insiders. They ended up being embarrassed both ways.

Another recent controversy which emanated out of Jamia campus was the suspension of a Professor shortly after he sent a petition to the President of India opposing 5 per cent reservation for wards of university employees. Citing a 1997 Delhi High Court judgement, Professor Obaid Siddiqui had questioned the arrangement and even alleged administrative and financial irregularities. Thereafter, not only did the Jamia administration suspend him for 90 days but even Jamia Teachers' Association (JTA) expelled him from the group for six years.

Before that Professor Siddiqui had even written to the police seeking protection after a protest was carried out by university employees against him inside the campus.

In a democratic society, there should be space for dissent and dialogue. Doesn't the professor of a central university even have the independence of writing to the president who is the university's Visitor? Institutions of higher education are supposed to be centres of intellectual engagement. Aren't we defying the same when a university professor is suspended and thrown out of the staff association soon after he writes to the President against what he feels is incorrect? The matter reflects a blatant attempt to curb free speech and a sense of arrogance on the campus.

Though the seats reserved for wards of university employees at Jamia are supernumerary, that is, over and above the existing seats but there is no reason for the university administration to shy away from having a debate on the subject. It is worth pondering over whether reservation entitlements should extend to the sons and daughters of professor level staff who are both well paid and very much at the top pedestal of the society in which we live.

Along with other minority institutions, Jamia Millia Islamia also needs to revisit its reservation policy. Religious and linguistic minorities have a fundamental right under Article 30 (1) of the Indian Constitution to "establish and administer educational institutions of their choice."

As per data available on the website of National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions (NCMEI), more than 11,550 institutions across India have been conferred the status of a minority institute.

Contrary to the delusions of the Hindutva fascists, minority institutions have been set by not just Muslims but also Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists. Examples include St Stephen's College and SGTB Khalsa College at Delhi University and Teerthanker Mahaveer University, Moradabad.

Several such minority institutions have reserved as much as 50 per cent of the seats for the respective minorities they were originally set up to cater to. But the real question which minority institutions need to ask themselves is: Should they cater to privileged or underprivileged sections of a minority community?

This writer must admit that despite coming from a largely privileged background, he too was eligible for reservation at Jamia Millia Islamia simply because of his religious affiliation. Nowadays it doesn't matter as to what background you come from, your religious affiliation is sufficient for you to enjoy the boons of reservation at JMI.

In hindsight, this writer regrets having applied for admission via Muslim quota and it's not because he considers affirmative action to be a sort of begging bowl. Affirmative action is meant for the economically, educationally and socially backward sections of the society. It is meant to render social justice and bring about parity among fellow countrymen. Why should a person like me who was born in a privileged family be entitled to reservation owing to his religious affiliation?

It's a view which was echoed by me even during the interview stage of admission at Jamia Millia Islamia. Eventually since I cleared the general category cut-off, I was given admission under the general category. But this too is a faulty practise since it aims towards maximising Muslim share in the university. There is 50 per cent reservation for Muslims and if any Muslim clears the general cut-off, he/she gets admitted under the same thereby increasing the total Muslim intake.

It's high time that minority institutions revised such a reservation policy. Reservation benefits in minority institutions should be for backward and under-privileged sections of a minority community and not all members of that community. Minority institutions must strike a balance between catering to both under-privileged sections of their own community as also backward people from different religious communities including the majority community and micro-minorities. They mustn't perennially discontinue reservation benefits to backwards from other religious backgrounds which several of them do presently.

That's the way to go about it. Such a set up would necessarily ensure that minority institutions remain open, representative and diverse while simultaneously upholding their fundamental right to exist and working towards the educational empowerment of the minority community for which the concerned minority institute was originally established. Very importantly, minority and other institutions across the country should ensure that the educational standard is not compromised due to reservations.

Affirmative action belongs to the talented among the under-privileged. The selections must be merit driven and unnecessary concessions in cut-off ought to be avoided. The concession given in terms of cut-off marks for reserved seats should be minimal when compared to the general category cut-off. It's now for the administration of minority institutions to ponder and react.

Writer

Saif Ahmad Khan Saif Ahmad Khan @saifakhan

The writer is pursuing MA Convergent Journalism from AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.

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