Last week, in a politically audacious move, the Government of India decided to discontinue the Maulana Azad National Fellowship(MANF) given to Research students from minority communities who are pursuing full-time MPhil and PhD courses in several Indian universities.
The reason provided for the discontinuation of MANF is its alleged overlapping with several other fellowships provided to research students which also cover students from minority communities.
Though this move from the Union government comes at a time when the idea of public-funded education is being discredited and the governments all across the globe are pulling their hands away from providing money for securing ‘public goods’ under the sway of neoliberal capitalism’s destructive tide.
Is Terminating MANF an Economic Decision?
From public health and education to agricultural subsidies and food security schemes—there are massive budget cuts in sectors which ideally ought to be under the state's control to be able to provide better living conditions to the people.
However, it would be nothing less than a political naivete if the discontinuation of the MANF is read solely in economic terms as an outcome of the rapid onward progression of neoliberal capitalism towards India’s education sector.
It has much more to it which can only be made sense of by understanding the ruling dispensation’s long-standing project of ‘sanitising’ the public spaces of the marginalised and disadvantaged to make them wholly available for their ‘rightful’ holders ie, the caste-class elites of the majority community.
What Discontinued Grant Means for Minority Voices & Politics
It must be noted that the MANF, formulated and funded by Ministry of Minority Affairs and Universities Grants Commission(UGC) as its Nodal agency, started in 2009 based on Sachar Committee’s recommendations to address the lack of representation of minorities in educational institutions as well as to find a plausible solution to their educational backwardness.
Since then, students belonging to India’s six minority communities—Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists, Christians & Jains are availing of the fellowship. The monetary assistance provided through MANF has raised the enrollment of students from these communities in higher education, especially in Research Courses like MPhil and PhD.
This move on the part of the Union government will have the effect of atrociously reversing the gains made post-Sachar committee in ensuring that the researchers and scholars from these communities create their own discourse, and articulate their own language not only academically but also through their own autonomous politics within the university campuses and outside.
The rise of such an autonomous, effective and articulate politics of socially marginalised groups and religious minorities found its most recent manifestation in the ways in which university campuses like Jamia Milia Islamia, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Aligarh Muslim University became the center stage of recent resistance movements like Anti- CAA protests.
A similar trend is seen in the way in which several student organisations played a significant role in the Farmer's Movement around the borders of Delhi which ultimately compelled the Union Government to roll back the three anti-farmer farm laws.
‘Blow to Secular Welfarism of State’
At a time when students and researchers from minority communities carved out a strong voice for themselves which could raise itself against each and every attempt on part of the ruling dispensation to implement its project of majoritarianism, the rolling back of MANF raises questions about the secular commitments of the Indian state itself.
This step is a further blow to the constitutionally guaranteed secular welfarism of the state which entrusted all its citizens irrespective of their religious identity, the right to socio-economic security. It not only compromises the ‘Socialist’ and ‘Secular’ credentials of the Indian state as the most loved to be hated words of Indian political discourse these days but also sets precedent for further attacks on the idea of Social Justice as well.
Other than MANF, several other fellowships are given by the government to provide financial support to researchers from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and Persons with Disabilities. The discontinuation of MANF opens floodgates for withdrawal of government’s responsibilities towards facilitating the educational aspirations of all kinds of marginalised sections.
The overlapping argument can be further utilised for scrapping of all these fellowships to argue that Junior Research Fellowship covers all social groups and therefore, no ‘special’ and ‘additional’ fellowships are required for supporting research prospects of students from disadvantaged groups.
In the backdrop of the demands being made for Scheduled Caste status to Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians, it should be noted that such a move further marginalises the most deprived among these minority communities by reducing the already limited pool of fellowships that they can now claim collectively combined under Junior Research Fellowship (JRF), National Fellowship for OBCs (NFOBC), STs (NFST) and PwD (NFPwD) minus the Maulana Azad National Fellowship.
As the students across university campuses are mobilising against this step of the Union Government, there are several questions, answers to which are not very difficult to reach at. Do the minority communities of this country have no share in the public resources that it holds? Does the Indian state look at its religious minorities as an exception while fulfilling its constitutionally ordained responsibilities of securing social, economic and political justice to its citizens?
Are public spaces, positions of power and privilege only secured for the socially privileged section of the country? Can the issue of first discontinuing the pre-matric scholarship for minority students and now the MANF be delinked from the larger project of religious and cultural majoritarianism that has become a stable feature of Indian politics for almost a decade now?
One could only wonder at the disconcerting silence of the progressive intellectual civil society over such a step that has challenged the entire idea of secular, inclusive, accessible and affordable education, an ideal for which so many of us vowed to fight.
(Khushbu Sharma is a PhD Student at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She regularly writes on various public platforms on issues of caste, gender, education and society in both Hindi and English.)