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The Centre is determined to deny minority status to Aligarh Muslim University

ON 8 JANUARY THIS YEAR, then Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy walked into Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani’s Tughlaq Crescent home in Lutyens’ Delhi with a sense of urgency. Braving the chill, the Congress leader from the south was in the national capital on a special mission: to ensure that he went back home with a go-ahead—or at least a nod in principle—for something that he hoped might help shield his scam-scarred alliance back in Kerala from the frosty winds buffeting it in the run-up to the state polls scheduled in May.

Chandy wanted the Union Government to disburse funds for the upgradation of a ‘centre’ of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in Kerala, for which his government in Thiruvananthapuram had already acquired 345 acres of land in Malappuram district. This AMU offsite centre was established in 2010, but had not taken off as planned. Of the 13 courses it was expected to offer by last year, it had started only three. It had fallen vastly short of targets. A green signal from Irani would have meant a pre-poll shot in the arm that the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) badly needed to stem any loss of Muslim votes it was counting on.

Irani was courteous to Chandy, say officials present at her house, but she had to assert the Government’s position too: funds would have to be held back because the NDA regime was preparing to dissociate itself from the erstwhile UPA Government’s promise of waging a legal battle for AMU to obtain the official status of a ‘minority institution’. The Narendra Modi-led NDA’s stance, which it announced a week later, was that since AMU was not established by Muslims but by an Act of Parliament, it was not within the ambit of Article 30 of the Constitution which gives minority communities the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice. Shortly, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi made it official by telling the Supreme Court, where the case of AMU’s minority status was on, that the Union Government had changed its mind on the matter: as the executive government at the Centre, it could not be seen as setting up a minority institution in a secular state.

The political slugfest set off by this decision will now impact another election. In Uttar Pradesh, where Aligarh is located, the main rivals Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have attacked the ruling federal coalition over the issue, yet neither can afford to antagonise OBCs and SC/STs who will protest the shrinking of quotas for backward students in this institution that its minority status would result in. If granted, AMU will then be able to reserve up to 50 per cent of its seats for Muslim students, leaving non-Muslims to jostle for the rest. Already, reserved quota seats are fewer here than in other universities. As of now, at AMU, which is a Central university with its own Act and statutes, 40 per cent of seats are reserved for ‘internal students’ (who come in from colleges or schools attached to the university), and 20 per cent for the SC/ST/OBC/NCC categories and applicants from states not adjoining Uttar Pradesh such as Kerala and Jammu & Kashmir, which leaves 40 per cent of its seats for students applying in the general category. All students seeking admission at AMU have to appear for a written test.

The Centre’s current position is diametrically opposite that of the previous Congress-led Government’s, which had appealed a verdict by the Allahabad High Court quashing the AMU Amendment Act of 1981 that lent the Central university the status of a minority institution. First a single bench in 2005 had described as ‘unconstitutional’ the decision of the AMU Academic Council— endorsed by the HRD Ministry—to reserve half its seats in post-graduate medical courses for Muslims. The second order of early 2006 by a bench comprising then Chief Justice AN Ray and Justice Ashok Bhushan had upheld the single-judge verdict by Justice Arun Tandon in October 2005.

HRD Minister Smriti Irani has already made it clear that the Government will not fund any of the proposed or partially functioning AMU centres

Irani’s meeting with Chandy did have its share of unpleasantness. While she was explaining the Centre’s new priorities to the Kerala leader, AMU’s Vice-Chancellor Lieutenant General (Retd) Zameer Uddin Shah, too, showed up at her residence. Contrary to reports in a section of the media, Shah maintained that he was not humiliated by the 40-year-old HRD Minister. But Irani, who hadn’t expected Shah there, asked him politely to leave. According to officials close to the matter, the HRD Minister flatly refused to dilute the Centre’s stance on the issue: she made it abundantly clear to the Chief Minister and others who accompanied him that the Government was determined not to fund any of the proposed or partially functioning AMU centres, come what may.

Senior ministers and officials Open spoke to say Irani’s statements at the meeting only reflected the Centre’s resolve not to give in to pressure tactics. This is not a case of brinkmanship or posturing, but one of conviction, they aver. They are tight-lipped about the political gains of such a move, though. “Political pressures are being applied on the Centre, which is now under attack for targeting a minority institution. In the first place, AMU is not meant to be and will never be a minority institution. It is a Central university and is funded by the state, not by Muslim bodies,” says a senior Government official, requesting anonymity. He adds that the BJP was not out to “discriminate” against any institution run by minorities, but is only preserving the secular nature of an institution formed by an Act of government.

IN 1981, WHEN the Congress Government of the time brought in an amendment to award AMU a ‘minority’ tag, the political parties at the forefront of protests in Parliament and elsewhere were the CPM and CPI. In the Lok Sabha, CPM lawmaker Somnath Chatterjee had lashed out at the Government for “communalising” educational institutions. None other than Professor Irfan Habib, renowned historian and former professor at AMU, had launched a sharp attack on the Indira Gandhi Government for trying to “placate Muslim politicians who wished to control the university through the university court” by attempting to amend the AMU Act. According to Professor Habib, “The government tried to show that they were trying to underline the minority character of AMU by defining AMU as ‘the educational institution of their choice established by the Muslims of India’ (Section 2(l)), and to insert in Section 5(2), a sub-section (c), enabling the university ‘to promote especially the educational and cultural advancement of the Muslims of India’. But that these provisions were intended to have no effect on the policy of admissions, was shown by the reformulation, by the same amendment act, of section 8 in the following words: ‘The university shall be open to all persons (including the teachers and taught) of either sex and of whatever race, religion, creed or class.’ The only proviso to this was permission to provide religious instruction to ‘those who have consented to receive it’. There is no proviso for any kind of denominational reservation.” Professor Habib also went on to laud the CPM for being the only party in Parliament to vote against the bill, introduced by Union minister Sheila Kaul.

Back then, India’s largest party of the Left had no doubt whatsoever that the 1981 amendment bill sought to fabricate history by stating that AMU was established by Muslims while it was actually established by an Act of Parliament—and that Article 30 of the Constitution could be applied only to privately held institutions.

In 2005, too, the Left parties, which had offered external support to the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government led by Manmohan Singh, had opposed ‘communal reservation’ in AMU. Some Left members had even called then Union HRD Minister Arjun Singh a ‘Congress maulana’ for ratifying the decision made the AMU’s Executive Council to reserve half its seats for Muslims in 36 post-graduate courses. At that time, Professor Habib had complained that such a decision would alter the “secular character of the university” and had also warned the Congress against “playing right into the hands of the BJP”. A 2005 article authored by a student leader in People’s Democracy, the CPM mouthpiece, meanwhile, charged the UPA Government with using academic institutions for narrow political gains. ‘It is not the gimmicks based on communal sentiments that may ensure the unity of the people; this requires constructive measures and protection of the just and true rights of the minorities as enshrined in the Constitution,’ it said.

This time around, however, the Left parties seem to have gone back on the values they had stood for back then, prompting the BJP to hit out at their opportunistic ways. Subhashini Ali, a Politburo member of the CPM, tells Open that the decision taken by the NDA Government not to support minority status for AMU at the Supreme Court is nothing but a reflection of this regime’s attitude towards minorities. “Several MPs belonging to different political parties, including the CPM, had signed a memorandum to the Government to change its stand and challenge the Allahabad High Court’s ruling in the Supreme Court,” she says.

Ali argues that AMU founder Sir Syed Ahmad Khan received financial support “from members of his community in the main” to set up the institution that envisaged ridding the country’s Muslim community of educational backwardness. She is right when she says AMU became a centre of modern education for many Muslims in the country, but contrary to her claims, some major donors of AMU were not Muslims but Hindu kings. The donor list includes the Maharaja of Patiala, king of Vijayanagara and various other heads of princely states, most of whom were Hindus.

When Britain was trying to firm up the basis of its rule in the 19th century, it had patronised the politics of loyalists such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

Even Muslim Members of Parliament such as CK Jaffer Sharief, Arif Mohammad Khan, Mohsina Kidwai and others had opposed Indira Gandhi’s move to offer AMU minority status. One of the handful of Muslim leaders who had backed her proposal was EM Banathwala, who had time and again argued in favour of bestowing minority status on AMU.

As early as 1965, when the Lok Sabha passed the second amendment to the AMU Act, a section of Muslim religious leaders went to court alleging that the move was against the spirit of Article 30(1) of the Constitution. The same year, then Union Education Minister MC Chagla declared that AMU was not a minority institution and that it was neither established nor administered by Muslims. In 1967, a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Justice KN Wanchoo, echoed the position that would later be taken by the Allahabad High Court—that AMU was neither set up nor run by the Muslim minority community as defined by Article 30(1) of the Constitution. Rather, AMU was established by the Aligarh Muslim University Act of 1920 and passed by the Indian Legislative Council. Later, the AMU (Amendment) Act was passed in 1951 by Parliament to do away with compulsory instruction in Islamic theology. The amendment opened membership of the Court of AMU to non-Muslims. In 1972, another amendment to the AMU Act made the academic and executive councils more democratic and drastically reduced the nominees of the Visitor. These changes were aimed at getting rid of clauses not compatible with various provisions of the Constitution of India. According to Law Ministry officials who Open spoke to, a court verdict of 1967 offers the most clarity on the issue. Known as S Azeez Basha vs Union of India case, it sets the tone for the current Government’s arguments.

MJ Akbar, BJP spokesman, observes that the AMU issue has to be viewed through the angle of the Constitution and not politics. “For the Government, there is only one book and that is the Constitution. Now [that] this matter is before the court, the Government cannot refuse its Constitutional duties. It will take a position which earlier governments have taken,” he says. After the Constitution came into force, universities such as AMU and Banaras Hindu University (BHU) were included in the Seventh Schedule as the 63rd entry in the first list of the statute. He adds that the Government cannot move away from its Constitutional obligations. “These (AMU, BHU and Delhi University) are included in the Constitution and are Central institutions and they will remain so,” he says, “They cannot be converted into minority institutions.” Akbar also accuses the Congress of using “emotionalism” to mislead people.

TUFAIL AHMAD, AN alumnus of AMU who is currently director of South Asia Studies Project at Washington DC- based Middle East Media Research Institute, has a piece of advice for the AMU leadership. He says these leaders must not insist on retaining a minority character for the university because it sends out wrong signals to Indian Muslims that they have only one university for admission. “The fact is otherwise: Muslims in India, like citizens from other religious communities, have access to thousands of colleges and universities for their educational upliftment. The tendency among Muslims of northern India, especially those in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, to see AMU as their only option creates an intellectual separatism among them from the country’s social mainstream.”

In 1965, education minister MC Chagla said no to minority status for AMU; Sheila Kaul backed the proposal in 1981 and faced flak from the likes of Arif Mohammad Khan

To discourage such trends among Muslims and reduce their alienation from the rest of the country, Ahmad urges the Muslim leadership in India to “grasp the fact that retaining AMU’s minority character gives birth to a ghetto mentality among Muslims and prevents them from thinking that they can enroll in other universities too”. He adds, “Not only that; AMU’s minority character keeps the Muslim community separate from the country’s educational mainstream.” According to Ahmad, who later went on to study at JNU and King’s College, London, such a mindset among Muslim youths creates a sense of defeatism, victimhood and grievance which further act as obstacles to their progress and integration once they graduate.

Like the officials, academics and politicians Open spoke to, Ahmad also brings up Constitutional propriety: institutions such as AMU cannot retain their minority character if their funding comes from the Indian state. He says that Central universities must foster a sense of national integration among their students, which can happen only if students from all religious communities and all regions of India are represented in class and on campus without any discrimination based on religion, region or caste. “AMU reserved 50 per cent of its seats for Muslims in medical courses in 2004, which is a violation of the Constitution because a university established by an Act of Indian Parliament cannot discriminate based on religious ground,” he notes.

Meanwhile, several academics have argued that the court has gone for ‘liberal’ interpretations of Article 30 of the Constitution to deny AMU minority status. Columnists and scholars like AG Noorani have vehemently criticised the NDA Government over its new stance. According to Noorani, AMU was not a party to the proceedings in which the Supreme Court altered its status in 1967. He favours minority status for AMU and wants a larger bench to hear the case. Many others insist that an Act of Parliament must prevail over judicial verdicts.

PROFESSOR HABIB AND others who have long been associated with AMU have argued that maintaining a distance between religion and educational institutions is imperative to the latter’s growth. Various others believe that what is applicable to Banaras Hindu University and Delhi University should be applicable to AMU as well: that all these should remain Central universities and not be affiliated to any religious group whatsoever. Earlier, Professor Habib had found support from several others, including historian Shireen Moosvi, who was the only dissenting voice of the AMU Executive Council which had initiated the 2004 quota decision.

Ahmad raises another vexed issue. He says that in the name of “political correctness”, the Indian state funds Islamic orthodoxy in direct violation of the Constitution. “For example, at AMU, the Government funds an entire Faculty of Theology which runs the Department of Sunni Theology and the Department of Shia Theology. In addition to non-teaching staff, these departments have about a dozen academics, some of them of professor’s rank, receiving salaries from the secular state for teaching religious orthodoxies to Muslims. For both these departments, the Indian state provides funding, which is a daylight violation of the secular character of the Constitution. Not only at AMU but in several universities, the Indian state funds departments of Islamic Studies, which cannot be acceptable in a secular democracy like ours.”Adds Ahmad, “In this way, the secular Indian state gives money to madrassas and theology departments to keep Muslim citizens in their religious cocoon.”

Many others have observed that the funding of Islamic education in India has created a large group of clerics and professors who feed students obscurantist ideas of the faith that go unchallenged. The irony in all this is that AMU was originally formed with the aim of imparting modern education to Muslims. The idea of a university with a curriculum drawn from Western academia was first conceived by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817- 1898). He had been the prime mover in setting up Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh (MAO College), which began as a high school in 1877.

In the decades since, Khan has come under sharp criticism from scholars of the repute of Venkat Dhulipala. As he writes in Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India: ‘The [Muslim] community’s biggest misfortune was its betrayal at the hands of putative modernizers like Syed Ahmad Khan who thwarted political modernization of the community by keeping it away from struggles against British Imperialism and its indigenous collaborators such as the zamindars. When Britain was trying to firm up the basis of its rule in the 19th century, it had patronized the politics of loyalism of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.’

After Khan’s death, the Muslim University Association was set up as part of efforts towards turning MAO College into a full-fledged university. The then British government asked the Association to collect Rs 30 lakh as preliminary funds for this purpose. To collect funds, a Muslim University Foundation Committee was formed. The AMU Act passed in 1920 dissolved MAO College and all its assets were transferred to the new entity. Various other amendments were made over the decades to bring AMU, like BHU, in sync with the Indian Constitution.

None of the arguments against the Centre’s decision will force it to reverse its decision, insists a senior official close to the matter

In Parliament and outside, the Opposition has resorted to hyperbole in targeting the government for its decision on AMU in spite of its legal merit. Many opposition parties, including the Congress and CPM, have publicly questioned the Government’s motives, alleging that this has been done with an eye on making political gains in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in the country with an Assembly of 403 seats. The BJP has not made any significant gains in the past three state elections, though it had swept the state in the General Election of 2014, winning 71 of its 80 Lok Sabha seats as part of a wave that saw Modi emerge as the first leader after Rajiv Gandhi to lead a single party to a majority on its own. In the 2012 Assembly polls, the BJP won only 47 seats compared with 174 in 1996, 88 in the 2002 polls and 51 in 2007. The SP, which had ousted the BSP from power in 2012, had increased its vote share that year to a peak of 29.15 per cent of all votes polled, winning 224 seats.

The BJP, for its part, is looking to repeat the glory of its 2014 performance in the Assembly polls due next year. An SP leader from Lucknow, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that the AMU issue could polarise voters along religious lines because OBCs and others wouldn’t take kindly to their loss of quota benefits if AMU is given minority status. And so he expects the BJP to find support from across Hindu caste groups in its decision to deny AMU any such ‘privilege’.

“Then why not special status for Hindus in BHU? That would be the question that will be raised in the run-up to the polls,” he says, adding that this is his “personal opinion”. The official stand of his party is different, but many others in the SP share his views, he contends. In the Rajya Sabha, the SP had launched a tirade against the Government over its resolve to retain the ‘secular’ character of AMU. According to reports, a few months ago, SP’s Javed Ali Khan had asked why Irani had not offered financial aid to offsite centres of AMU. The Government had then said that the issue was in court and that it would abide by the judiciary’s decision; this was before the Centre divulged its stance on the issue at the Supreme Court. “[The Government] talks of ‘sab ka saath, sab ka vikaas’ but wants to deprive a large section of population of education,” Khan had said in the Rajya Sabha, the well of which SP members had trooped into over the issue.

Various other opposition parties also alleged that the issue had the potential of creating a communal divide, especially in UP. Later, after the Government announced its position, it earned the wrath of various parties, some of which said its intentions were suspect regardless of the legal premise of its argument. “Why are we creating these situations? This once again reveals the mindset and agenda of this Government. They will do everything they can to create insecurity and division and divert the attention of people … they are basically divisive in their approach, in their ideology and their mind,” said Congress leader Anand Sharma. Former Law Minister Salman Khurshid put it down to the “narrow political view” of the NDA.

The BJP has refuted all these allegations as ‘nonsense’, saying its government is only honouring Constitutional provisions—that no Central university can claim minority status. Experts such as Aftab Alam, a professor of Political Science at AMU, fall back on precedents set by cases such as TMA Pai Foundation & Others vs State of Karnataka & Others (2002) to argue that a Centrally funded institution can have minority status. Professor Alam cites the 2010 amendment to the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions Act of 2004 to drive home his point. “This amendment is significant in light of the fact that the original Act had expressly recognised ‘educational institution’ to mean a ‘college or institution which must be other than a university’. The 2010 amendment deleted the words ‘other than a university’ from the definition of ‘Minority Educational Institution’. The deletion meant the inclusion of ‘university’ within the meaning of ‘Minority Educational Institution’. During the Parliamentary debate on the amendment, it was stated that the existing exclusion of ‘university’ from the definition was counter to the law laid down by the Supreme Court in several matters.”

The Judiciary will take into account all aspects of the case in due course. “But none of these arguments against the Government’s decision or any kind of cries and screams of protests will force it to reverse its decision,” insists a senior official close to the matter, “It was taken after much thought and deliberation. What is Constitutionally sound is also politically sound. There is no malicious intent.”

As the poll race for Uttar Pradesh hots up, that looks like a pretty good bargain for the ruling party.