Twenty-five-year-old Aas Mohammad’s father worked as a bus driver in Delhi, until the Covid-19 crisis took away his job. Despite the family’s financial constraints, Mohammad managed to secure a master’s degree in Hindi literature in 2019, which he credits to government scholarships he received through school and college.

“These scholarships have helped me reach here,” he said.

Mohammad was hopeful he would be able to go further, and pursue his dream of becoming a college professor. For this, he requires a PhD.

Although he is preparing for the National Eligibility Test. held annually to select young scholars for the Junior Research Fellowships disbursed by the University Grants Commission, he is nervous about getting through the highly competitive exam. Of the lakhs of candidates who take the exam, only about 25,000 receive the fellowship every year, government data shows.

Mohammad was more confident of getting the Maulana Azad National Fellowship, which supports scholars from India’s religious minorities. But last week, the Narendra Modi-led government discontinued it.

The announcement has left Mohammad feeling betrayed and hopeless. “I cannot go for higher education without financial support,” he said. “This decision is a huge setback for me.”

The Maulana Azad National Fellowship was launched in 2009 after a high-level committee recommended that the government take specific measures to address the educational gap between Muslims and other communities in India.

Muslims form 14.2% of India’s population, but students from the community constitute only 5.5% of enrolments in the country’s colleges and universities, according to the All India Survey on Higher Education conducted in 2019.

The Maulana Azad National Fellowship, named after India’s first education minister Abul Kalam Azad, is open to all religious minorities in India, but the majority of its recipients are Muslim. In 2018-’19, according to government data, of 1,000 Fellows, 733 were Muslim.

The government’s decision to discontinue the fellowship has fuelled protests from student groups both inside and outside campuses, with activists calling it an attack on the educational prospects of minorities. They also say that the move is a part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government’s anti-minority policies.

On December 12, scores of young people from different student unions held a demonstration outside the Ministry of Education in the national capital demanding restoration of the fellowship. The police force deployed at the spot thwarted the gathering and bused the protestors to a nearby police station where they were detained for a few hours.

The issue was also raised in Parliament by Congress’s Rajya Sabha member Imran Pratapgarhi, Danish Ali of the Bahujan Samaj Party and Imtiyaz Jaleel of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen.

Educational lag among Muslims

In 2005, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government set up a seven-member committee led by retired Delhi High Court Chief Justice Rajinder Sachar to study the socio-economic condition of Muslims in India. The committee submitted its report in 2006 which showed that Muslims were socially, educationally and economically lagging behind other communities in India.

On the educational front, the report showed that the gap between Muslims and other communities increased as the level of education rose. It cited the 2001 Census to note that while 7% of India’s overall population aged 20 years and above were graduates or held diplomas, among Muslims this number dropped to 4%.

Even compared to other disadvantaged communities in India, Muslims fared badly, the report pointed out. A decade-and-a-half later, this continues to be the case: according to the All India Survey on Higher Education, Scheduled Castes, which are over 16.5% of India’s population, constitute 14.7% students in higher education. Scheduled Tribes are also proportionately better represented than Muslims.

Fewer options for support

On December 8, when Minority Affairs Minister Smriti Irani announced the discontinuation of the Maulana Azad National Fellowship in Parliament, she reasoned that it was overlapping with other schemes which cover students from minority communities.

But PhD scholars who are availing scholarship under the Maulana Azad National Fellowship dismissed the claim saying that even if a student is eligible for multiple schemes, they can avail of only one. “I am also eligible for an OBC [Other Backward Classes] scholarship,” said Atique Akhtar, a researcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, “But I get benefits of only MANF as I chose it last year when I started my PhD.”

For students from reserved categories, it has meant the loss of another opportunity. “I am Muslim and also an OBC,” said Mohd Asif, who plans to pursue a PhD. “I am doubly marginalised.” With the Maulana Azad National Fellowship scrapped, Asif said he will have to apply for a scholarship offered to Other Backward Classes category aspirants. “..I have to compete in the larger pool, which puts me at disadvantage,” said Asif.

Smriti Irani at Parliament House on December 16. Credit: PTI.

While the Junior Research Fellowship is given on the criteria of excellence, student activists say schemes like the Maulana Azad National Fellowship enable better inclusivity of students from backward and marginalised groups.

Students from other minority communities are also disappointed with the move. Raminder Singh, a Patiala resident who is pursuing a PhD in economics from Panjab University, said he would not have opted for research had it not been for the fellowship. “I am not sure what will happen to the dreams of new aspirants,” he said.

Fawaz Shaheen, secretary general of the Students Islamic Organisation of India, said higher education requires aspirants to sacrifice their jobs and career opportunities. According to Shaheen, the less privileged are in greater need of such fellowships, which support research and knowledge production. Without such support systems higher education would remain restricted to a limited elite, he said.

“With this decision to discontinue the fellowships, we would see a clear drop in the number of Muslims in academia in [the] coming years,” said Shaheen.

Education sector woes

Sadat Hussain, who is pursuing a PhD on Muslims in higher education from Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the government had been taking steps that had already weakened the Maulana Azad National Fellowship. “UGC [University Grants Commission] had been skipping the annual call for application under MANF regularly,” said Hussain, who began an integrated MPhil-PhD programme in 2016.

In 2020, the Students Islamic Organisation of India said the notification for the fellowship was last issued in 2018 and then 2016. In March and September 2020, when asked in Lok Sabha if the government had noticed that the fellowship application was not issued regularly, former Minister of Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi first said guidelines were being revised and evaded a direct reply the second time.

In July 2021, Naqvi responded to a Lok Sabha question seeking details of the Maulana Azad National Fellowship. He said that in the seven years from 2014-’15 to 2020-’21, a total of 5,750 fellowships were sanctioned. Between 2019-’20 and 2020-’21,the fellowship was awarded to 1,726 applicants. According to the guidelines of the scheme, there are 1,000 slots that are awarded the fellowship every year.

Hussain said he could not avail of the fellowship either due to a change in eligibility criteria as well as having a master’s degree from a field different from the discipline he wanted to pursue a PhD in.

Shaheen said that this decision is not merely an anti-Muslim move but points to greater concerns in higher education as well as the privatisation of this sector. This has to be seen in consonance with the overall approach of the government towards education, as indicated in the National Education Policy, 2020, said Shaheen. Education experts and activists have criticised the National Education Policy for worsening the existing inequalities and problems in Indian education.

“Their idea is that higher education has to be supported by industry rather than government,” said Shaheen. “It is easier to start with minorities because they know the backlash would be lesser.”