A flawed move in Aligarh

Print edition : July 01, 2005

Inside the Maulana Azad Library at the Aligarh Muslim University. - SANDEEP SAXENA

The Aligarh Muslim University authorities' claim that their new, religion-based admission policy is meant to attract the best of Muslim students draws criticism from a group of past and present teachers of the AMU who feel that the move is fraught with legal, academic and social consequences that are detrimental to the university.

THE consequences of the controversial decision by the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) to introduce a 50 per cent quota for Muslim students in all courses where admissions are through entrance tests are beginning to unfold in a rather unexpected fashion. The university authorities have announced admissions to the MBBS, BDS and B.Tech courses and it appears that there is a small though significant fall in the number of Muslim students who have been admitted to these courses. Out of the 127 MBBS seats, Muslim candidates have been selected for 88 seats, 13 more than last year. For the BDS course, there has been a marginal fall in the number of Muslim students - from 19 for 27 seats last year to 15 this year. The fall in the admission of Muslim students has been sharpest in the B.Tech course. In 2004, as many as 258 of the 340 B.Tech seats were filled by Muslim candidates. This year, Muslim students have been admitted to 217 of the 320 seats, a drop in Muslim representation from 76 per cent to 68 per cent.

The picture emerging from admissions to three courses out of a total of 36 in the very first year of operation of the reservation scheme may not represent a trend; it does, however, suggest that if the purpose of the reservation scheme is to increase the number of Muslim students in competitive courses, then the first results are disappointing. The university, however, chooses to interpret this differently. "We believe that the first results of our policy are very encouraging," Asmar Beg, member in-charge, public relations, told Frontline. "There were apprehensions that the number of non-Muslim students would come down. This has not happened. The purpose of reservation was not to increase the number of Muslim students, but to get the best and most meritorious of them. It was also aimed at giving our university a national character by getting Muslim students from all over the country. In the post-graduate medical course this year, 155 seats have been filled by students from 16 States."

This argument suggests a shift in the rationale for reservation, a rationale clearly enunciated by the committee appointed by the Vice-Chancellor in January to review the admissions policy. The committee observed that a policy of reserving a certain percentage of seats for Muslim candidates [to be selected exclusively on the basis of their merit in the entrance examination] would certainly increase the numbers of Muslims admitted, over those according to the existing policies, in each of the courses. Such a reservation would significantly improve the overall quality of students and that of Muslim students admitted."

"If the number of Muslim students does not increase with the reservation policy, then the policy defeats it very purpose," Tasadduq Husain, from the Department of Philosophy in AMU, told Frontline. "Besides, it would also go against Section 5 (2)c of the AMU (Amendment) Act, 1981, which specifically states that the AMU was established to `promote especially the educational and cultural advancement of the Muslims of India'. In Urdu, we call this guna be-lazzat, which means to commit a sin and derive no pleasure from it."

It is too early to state how the reservation policy will impact on the student profile of AMU over the long term; the number of Muslim students could well rise in the years to come as a result of the policy. The substance of the opposition to the policy does not in fact concern itself with this aspect of the matter. It runs far deeper. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan established the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College - the forerunner to the AMU - in 1875, with the primary purpose of enhancing the academic and cultural advancement of Indian Muslims. He consciously chose not to institutionalise the communal principle of a religion-based admissions policy, although he could well have exercised that option. His wisdom on this matter held throughout the 125-year history of the institution and paid it rich dividends. The prestige of the university, its academic standing, and its genuine claim to have served its academic and cultural constituency with distinction derive precisely from the fact that it has never closed its doors to anyone on the basis of religion, even though a majority of its students have always been Muslim.

It is this time-tested and cherished secular principle that has been overturned by the new, religion-based, admissions policy. Those who have opposed the move - the 71 members (past and present) of the AMU faculty who issued an appeal against it, for example - argue that the move is fraught with legal, academic and social consequences that are to the detriment of the university. Underlying their technical objections, however, is a very real sense of anguish and betrayal over the loss of a valued principle of their institution's tradition. "An admissions policy based on religion is ugly and abhorrent," said Wasi Haidar, Professor, Department of Physics, to Frontline. "The cultural strength of any society or community lies in how it treats its minorities. Hitherto, non-Muslim students were the best cultural ambassadors of the AMU. The children of the AMU community - our sons and daughters - had equal opportunities. Now suddenly their future depends on the religion of their parents. This policy has introduced the feelings of `us' and `them', reminiscent of Narendra Modi, and not of a secular India."

The earlier admissions policy was based on a 50 per cent institutional quota and a 50 per cent external quota. The Vice-Chancellor was entitled to a 25 per cent discretionary quota, which he could exercise from out of either the internal or the external quota in respect of five categories - children of university employees, alumni, distant States, backward classes and the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. The new admissions policy mandates that a) 25 per cent of the seats are filled first, irrespective of faith, on merit; b) a further 20 per cent are reserved for internal candidates on merit; c) 50 per cent of all seats are reserved for Muslim candidates failing to be chosen under the first two categories; and d) the remaining 5 per cent are to be filled by nomination by the Vice-Chancellor.

A petition signed by the 71 past and present faculty members criticises the policy on a range of grounds. It states that the policy will introduce "communal discrimination on a massive scale". It argues that such a move contravenes Section 8 of the AMU Act, which expressly states that the university is open to all regardless of caste, creed or religion. Second, the number of Muslim students in all courses has not declined under the present system; there was, therefore, no good reason for introducing the policy. Third, communal reservation would "depreciate the worth of our degrees in the public eye, and affect the employment opportunities of our students," the petition notes. The measure is also legally unsound and could lend itself to endless litigation, as the Supreme Court judgment in the T.M.A. Pai case accords minority status to colleges and not a university such as the AMU.

The university's view that the new policy will reverse the preponderance of students from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who account for roughly 81 per cent of the 18,580 students on the AMU rolls, has not convinced the critics. Nor has the Admissions Review Committee's argument that falling academic standards in the university can be redressed with an infusion of "meritorious" Muslim students from other parts of the country. "The crux of the problem is that of falling academic standards. That is an issue that has to be addressed separately," said Shireen Moosvi, Professor, Department of History, and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences. "Why should the cream of Muslim students from other parts of the country come here if, as the university itself seems to acknowledge, our degrees are substandard? Further, the internal candidates we have taught are our responsibility and we must provide for them. Lastly, of course, there will be the majority of students from U.P. and Bihar. That is, after all, where a majority of Muslims in India come from." Moosvi submitted a note of dissent to the Executive Council that approved the policy on May 2.

Owing to its geographical location, the AMU has traditionally serviced its hinterland. Many academic institutions set up on isolated campuses offer an internal quota for children of faculty members as an incentive to attract the best teaching talent to its campus. The Christian Medical College in Vellore (Tamil Nadu), for example, has an internal quota for precisely these reasons. The decision to reduce the quota in the AMU will cause some justifiable anger within the community. Non-Muslim internal candidates will be doubly disadvantaged.

A group of aggrieved candidates for post-graduate medical seats has taken the issue to the Allahabad High Court. The AMU is a Central university, mentioned in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution as an "institution of national importance". It was established by an Act of the Central Legislature in 1920, and after Independence the Central government took up the responsibility for its maintenance with the AMU (Amendment) Act of 1951. In 1981, the Indira Gandhi government introduced the AMU (Amendment) Act, which sought to underline its minority character even while keeping its admissions open to all. Thus, the 1981 AMU (Amendment) Act defined the AMU as "the educational institution of their choice established by the Muslims of India" (Section 2(1)), and put in a clause (Section 5 (2)c) that would allow the university "to promote especially the educational and cultural advancement of the Muslims of India". Significantly, however, it reformulated Section 8 to read: "The university shall be open to all persons (including the teachers and the taught) of either sex and of whatever race, religion, creed or class."

There are several legal issues that the new policy raises. Was the Indian Parliament within its rights to alter a fact of history when it passed the AMU (Amendment) Act of 1981? After all, the AMU was established by an Act of Parliament and technically not by the "Muslims of India", which is what Section 2(1) of the Act was amended in 1981 to state. Second, when Section 8 clearly forbids religion-based reservation, how can such a policy be sustained legally? The third issue relates to the question of the institution's supposedly minority character under Article 30 of the Constitution. "Article 30 must be read in respect of educational institutions with private managements, which the AMU is not," senior historian Irfan Habib, who retired as Professor of History from the AMU, told Frontline. "In the T.M.A. Pai judgment, too, the Supreme Court had such institutions in mind. Indeed, if the AMU is considered a minority institution, the State government would have the right to fix a `non-minority' quota." Finally, by effectively bringing 75 per cent of its seats under a reservation scheme, the university is going well beyond the limit of 50 per cent set by the Supreme Court in respect of medical seats.

Although located in the geographical heartland of communal strife, the AMU has hitherto remained by and large unaffected by its currents. By recasting its admissions policy in a communal framework, it is perhaps opening itself to pressures that it does not foresee.

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