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Jamia debate

Published : Mar 25, 2011 00:00 IST

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Justice M.S.A.Siddiqui, Chairman of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions.-R. JAWAHAR

Justice M.S.A.Siddiqui, Chairman of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions.-R. JAWAHAR

The National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions comes under fire for declaring Jamia Millia Islamia a minority institution.

IN a move that is fraught with serious consequences, the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions (NCMEI) has declared Jamia Millia Islamia, a Central University in New Delhi, to be a minority institution. Its controversial order, issued on February 22, empowers the university to do away with all existing quota policies for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and reserve 50 per cent of the seats for Muslim students in all its programmes.

The quasi-judicial body, created by the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to expedite issues relating to minority educational institutions, noted in its order that historical facts established beyond doubt that Jamia Millia Islamia was an institution established and managed by the Muslim community and hence fulfilled the basic criteria of being a minority educational institution under Article 30(1) of the Constitution.

The three-member NCMEI, which is headed by Justice M.S.A. Siddiqui and has Mohinder Singh and Cyriac Thomas as its members, noted: We have no hesitation in holding that the Jamia was founded by the Muslims for the benefit of Muslims and it never lost its identity as a Muslim minority educational institution. For the foregoing reasons we find and hold that the Jamia Millia Islamia is a minority educational institution covered under Article 30(1) of the Constitution read with Section 2(g) of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions Act. A certificate be issued accordingly.

The NCMEI passed the order on a petition filed before it in 2006 by the Jamia Teachers Association, the Jamia Students Union, the Jamia Old Boys' Association and some local community members following the Central government's directive to all institutions of higher education to reserve 27 per cent of the seats for OBCs.

The order has given rise to a raging debate on, among other things, the NCMEI's jurisdiction in converting a Central University into a minority institution. The teaching community in Jamia is also divided on this issue.

The NCMEI Act makes it clear that the NCMEI was created to bring into existence a new dispensation for expeditious disposal of cases relating to the grant of affiliation by affiliating universities, the violation/deprivation of constitutionally mandated educational rights of minorities, the determination of minority status of an educational institution and grant of no objection certificate (NoC), and so on. It is a quasi-judicial tribunal and has the jurisdiction, powers, and authority to adjudicate upon disputes without being bogged down by the technicalities of the Code of Civil Procedure.

The genesis of the NCMEI can be traced to the UPA government's National Common Minimum Programme. The section on National Harmony, Welfare of Minorities in the NCMP mentioned that a commission for minority educational institutions would be established, which would provide minority professional institutions direct affiliation to Central Universities.

The NCMEI Act was an outcome of detailed consultations, which included a meeting in New Delhi on minority education and welfare and discussions in the National Monitoring Committee on Minority Education. The government brought an ordinance in November 2004 establishing the commission and followed it up in December by introducing a Bill in Parliament; both Houses passed the Bill. The government notified the NCMEI Act in January 2005.

Under the Act, the NCMEI can make recommendations to the Central and State governments on any matter that directly or indirectly deprives minority communities of their educational rights.

But the Act remains silent on whether a Central University can be converted into a minority institution. Critics of its order argue that the character of a Central University can be changed only by Parliament through an amendment to the Act that created it in the first place. Besides, the NCMEI Act is silent on whether the government is bound by the NCMEI's recommendations, especially in a case where the basic character of an institution is sought to be changed, more so when the institution concerned is a Central University.

Lacking in clarity

Queries in this regard remained unanswered by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Ministry officials maintained that there was nothing for the Ministry to do on the Jamia Millia issue. Asked how the character of a Central University could be amended without the consent of Parliament and without the nodal Ministry notifying it, they had no answer. Additional Secretary, Ministry of HRD, Sunil Kumar, who is in charge of higher education, said he did not want to enter into a debate with the media on the issue.

Jamia Millia Islamia Vice-Chancellor Najeeb Jung seemed to be clueless about the details. We know nothing about these things. We need to have detailed meetings with the HRD Ministry and the Law Ministry, he said. Interestingly, Jamia Millia's Executive Council and Academic Council have not discussed the order so far. The Academic Council had what was admittedly a one-minute-long meeting at which the Vice-Chancellor merely informed the members of the decision. Where is the need to have a longer meeting? was his reply when he was asked whether the university's decision-making bodies would take up the issue for discussion at a later date. There is no clear road map for us at the moment because this is an unprecedented judgment, he said.

A section of the teaching fraternity views the entire exercise with suspicion. We have no quarrel with the basic premise of affirmative action. We are in favour of all the steps that should be taken for the welfare of poor Muslim students. But this is not the way to do it. There should have been consultations; we should have been taken into confidence. We should have been informed of our entitlements, endowments, status and so on before the judgment was passed. The very fact that the judgment was passed in a manner so shrouded in mystery makes the entire exercise suspect, said Prof. M.S. Bhatt of the Department of Economics. According to him, the basic character of the university is sought to be changed, that too without following due process.

Jamia Millia Act

M.S. Bhatt said the Jamia Millia Islamia Act, 1988, is categorical that the university shall be open to persons of either sex and of whatever race, creed, caste or class and it shall not be lawful for the university to adopt or impose on any person any test whatsoever of religious belief or profession in order to entitle him to be admitted therein as a teacher or student or to hold any office therein or to graduate thereat.

In fact, the Act makes no bones about the basic character of the university. The section of the Act objects of university' states that it has been established for the promotion of... national integration, secularism and international understanding, among other things.

Teachers opposed to the NCMEI order have grouped themselves in a forum called Teachers for Solidarity and plan to petition the government against the decision. A statement signed by a number of teachers, both Hindus and Muslims, says this panic reaction to counter reservation for OBCs is not justified as this will only deprive poor OBC Muslims from getting access to quality education.

By doing away with the SC/ST and OBC quotas, the interests of poor and marginalised Muslim students were being compromised, it said. Once Jamia became a minority institution, poor Muslim students would find it difficult to gain admission, and the minority status, instead of doing any real good to the community, would only promote superficial minorityism and isolationism, it added.

This section of teachers is also apprehensive that the minority status of the university will unnecessarily stigmatise the institution. In the current scenario, where Muslim youth already stand stigmatised and suspect, a degree from a minority institution will in no way enhance their chances of success in life and career, says the statement.

Politicians wary

The Muslim community at large, especially the political class, has welcomed the decision, hoping it will fetch it brownie points. We are receiving a positive feedback from even the remotest corners of India. The community has felt empowered by this decision, says Congress spokesman Shakeel Ahmad.

But not all in the Congress agree. It is common knowledge that Minister for Minority Affairs Salman Khursheed faced stiff opposition from Minister of Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal when he lobbied for minority status for Jamia Millia. Sibal was of the view that the NCMEI should wait for the Supreme Court's judgment on Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and then decide. This is basically a political sop in view of the forthcoming Assembly elections in States like West Bengal and Assam, which have substantial Muslim populations [20 per cent and 36 per cent respectively]. The way the decision has been announced appears to be extremely naive and it will not stand strict judicial scrutiny if the case reaches the High Court, which it will no doubt, said an official in the HRD Ministry.

Even Muslim leaders who have campaigned for reservation for Muslims see this as nothing more than a sop because of the shoddy manner in which it has been done. It is not clear whether the NCMEI is empowered to take such a decision; it is not clear whether it can do it at all when a Central University is concerned, said Dr Taslim Rehmani of the Muslim Political Council of India. Incidentally, he has been at the forefront of the campaign demanding reservation for Muslims.

The Left parties have preferred to wait and watch. Left party leaders say the government must explain why a Central University was being converted into a minority institution. They also expressed the apprehension that once Jamia was allowed to be fiddled with, AMU would be next in line, followed probably by Osmania University. This is like playing with fire, said a senior leader of the Communist Party of India.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Mar 25, 2011.)

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