Maulana Azad National Fellowship: Cutting Corners in Education
Scrapping scholarships meant for the disadvantaged are akin to being penny-wise and pound-foolish, and do not sit well with the government’s ‘sab ka vikas’ rhetoric
The religious minorities have been dismayed over the recent decisions to discontinue the Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF) offered by the Union ministry of minority affairs (MoMA) and administered through the University Grants Commission (UGC).
Launched in 2009, the fellowship has been providing financial support to students belonging to six religious minority communities namely, Buddhist, Christian, Jain, Parsi, Muslim and Sikh, to pursue their MPhil/PhD degrees. Over the past eight years, the scheme cost the exchequer about Rs 738.85 crore and helped 6,722 minority students. Allocations for the scheme have declined steadily during this period from Rs 150 crore in 2017-18 to a mere Rs 99 crore in 2021-22. Still, few had anticipated that the scheme would be axed in its entirety.
The step will affect about a thousand students from the minority communities each year. But what is more important than the number is the fact that the fellowships helped bright students from marginalised minorities to pursue research in engineering/ technology, in humanities, natural sciences and social sciences.
The fellowship was axed ostensibly on the ground that it overlapped with other fellowships, but that would amount to stretching the argument a bit too far. The UGC and CSIR Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) are, for example, awarded to 6,400 and 2,200 students respectively from all categories of students while the Basic Science Research (BSR) fellowship is meant to attract the most meritorious to pursue research in basic sciences alone. The Swami Vivekanand Fellowship (SVF) is awarded to 300 single girl students to pursue PhD in social sciences. While they do not preclude students belonging to the religious minorities, they are not designed to give any consideration to the marginalisation and deprivation of these communities.
If the Maulana Azad Fellowship to students from religious minorities overlapped with these other scholarships, then what is the justification for continuing with the National Fellowships for Scheduled Castes (2,000 slots), Scheduled Tribes (750 slots) and Other Backward Castes (1,000 slots)? Launched after the Sachar Committee report made out a strong case for helping them access higher education, the MANF with 1,000 slots was the only fellowship that specifically targeted students belonging to religious minorities. Its withdrawal would deny these students the intended benefit.
Besides, there could not have been any duplication as no research scholar is allowed to avail more than one fellowship.
Bagging a research fellowship is highly competitive and very few actually get it. Barely two per cent of the candidates taking the UGC-CSIR JRF examinations actually manage to get one. The worst affected are students from the deprived and marginalised classes, making the case for a special provision for them to ensure equitable access to research opportunities.
Equally distressing is the Union government’s decision to abolish pre-matric scholarships for students of classes 1st to 8th and restrict it to students of classes 9th and 10th. The retraction would adversely affect not only those belonging to minority communities, but also those from SC, ST and OBC background. The pre-matric scholarship scheme for minority communities made a huge difference to the lives of the most marginalised and deprived students. In 2022, the MoMA disbursed Rs 1,329.2 crore to 57.11 lakh students.
The government’s stated rationale that the scholarship had to be stopped because education up to class 8th is free under the Right to Education (RTE) Act, is as flimsy as the one cited to scrap the MANF. Pre-matric scholarship for minorities was launched in 2006 under the Prime Minister’s 15 Point Programme for the welfare and development of minorities.
Besides rewarding merit and supporting students to meet the direct cost of education, scholarships are also used to mitigate the ‘opportunity cost’ (earnings foregone by them due to time spent on education). This goes a long way in persuading the poor to send their children to school. This is also borne out by the impact assessment study of the pre-matric scholarship scheme by an independent agency in 2017, which revealed that the ‘scheme was able to achieve its objectives to a large extent’.
It benefitted the most deprived among minorities by ‘raising demand for school education, reducing the financial burden of poor parents, discouraging dropouts and improving their academic performance’, the study underlined. The guideline of the scheme too had affirmed that pre-matric scholarships would encourage parents from minority communities to send their children to school, lighten their burden on their wards’ school education and sustain their efforts to support their children to complete school education. The MoMA had hoped that the ‘scheme would form the foundation for educational attainment of the children and provide them with a level playing field in the competitive employment arena’.
The minorities have several misgivings about the National Education Policy (NEP 2020). Christian groups were distraught that NEP ignored the role of missionary institutions in modern education, even though these institutions have been integral to the process of mainstreaming modern education in the country. Quite a few of them are renowned for their excellence, and the first-choice destination for those aspiring for quality education.
Muslims failed to understand why NEP made no mention of Urdu, an Indian language to which they are culturally and emotionally attached. They felt dispirited to find ‘madrasas’ missing from NEP because they regard them as critical for preserving their language, culture, and traditions.
Muslims felt betrayed to find that NEP offered no plans or schemes for minorities. Betrayed because the policy came after the Prime Minister had already started exhorting the nation to work towards ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas’. They now feel deprived now that within two years of the policy pronouncement, even the small benefits they were drawing so far are being taken away.
In the capability approach, pioneered by the Indian economist Amartya Sen and the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, well-being is not only a primary moral concern, but is also intrinsically linked to capabilities (that which humans can achieve if they so choose), and functioning (the capabilities that have been realised). Real liberty does not mean the formal freedom to be or do something.
The principle of equality enunciated by American philosopher John Rawls requires that the least advantaged in society must receive a greater number of benefits; and that was what the now discontinued scholarships had aimed at, that is, maximising the improvement of the least privileged groups in Indian society.
Yes, an Aatmanirbhar Bharat can come into existence only through ‘everyone’s support, everyone’s development, everyone’s trust and everyone’s effort’. But what lies behind this clarion call is the collective responsibility of each one of us citizens in nation-building. Walter Benjamin, the German philosopher and critical theorist, puts it so eloquently “Nur um der Hoffnungslosen Willen ist uns die Hoffnung gegeben“ (It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us).