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As Centre Discontinues Maulana Azad Fellowship, Minority Students Call Move ‘Catastrophic’

Ravi Kaushal |
The hopes of thousands of research students were dashed when Minister of Minority Affairs Smriti Irani, in reply to the question of MP T N Prathapan, informed Lok Sabha members that the Centre had done away with Maulana Azad National Fellowship as it overlapped with similar existing schemes given by the government.
Ministry of Minority Affairs

Image credit: Deccan Herald

“How would labourers’ sons and daughters become researchers if there is no caring hand?” The stunning question came from Gurlabh Singh, a PhD student studying Political Science at Punjabi University, who is still in shock over the discontinuance of the Maulana Azad National Fellowship. Singh has been expecting that he would receive the much-needed fellowship to continue his research on the voting pattern of electorates in Punjab. However, the hopes of thousands of research students were dashed when Minister of Minority Affairs Smriti Irani, in reply to the question of MP T N Prathapan, informed Lok Sabha members that the Centre had done away with Maulana Azad National Fellowship as it overlapped with similar existing schemes given by the government.

Irani said: “MANF Scheme was implemented by the University Grants Commission (UGC) and as per the data provided by UGC, 6,722 candidates were selected under the Scheme between 2014-15 and 2021-22 and fellowships to the tune of Rs 738.85 crores were distributed during the same period. MANF Scheme overlaps with various other fellowship Schemes for higher education being implemented by the Government and minority students are already covered under such Schemes, hence the Government has decided to discontinue the MANF Scheme from 2022-23.”

The website of the Ministry of Minority Affairs states that the objective of the Maulana Azad Fellowship Scheme (MANF) was to provide five-year fellowships in the form of financial assistance to students from six notified minority communities: Buddhist, Christian, Jain, Muslim, Parsi, and Sikh, notified by the Central Government, to pursue M. Phil and PhD. The scheme covers all universities and institutions recognised by the University Grants Commission (UGC).

However, students like Singh maintain that the students from minority communities depended heavily on the fellowship for their research. Talking to NewsClick, Singh said, “A research student spends about Rs one lakh alone on purchasing books. Apart from this, the expenses on field visits, interviews and photocopying are an additional burden. The journey to research in our country is such that even parents expect that we would contribute monetarily to the family. The Sikh and Muslim students in Punjab waited eagerly for the next notification. It’s a big setback for us. My father works as a labourer to run the family. So, it would be quite difficult now to further my research.”

Amarinder Singh, another research student told NewsClick that the fellowship looked like an oasis in the desert of unemployment in Punjab. He said, “The Centre in 2016-17 revised the condition to get the fellowship. It became necessary to pass National Eligibility Test (NET) to avail of the fellowship. Earlier, it was available to a wider pool of minority students. Now, they have discontinued the fellowship altogether. The research students are already in distress after the latest round of (recruitment for) vacancies for assistant professors was withdrawn due to inconsistencies by Punjab and Haryana High Court. The vacancies had been introduced after 22 years; that too have been cancelled. You can understand our frustration!”

Much farther from Punjabi University, Junaid Raza, a PhD student studying Persian at Jawaharlal Nehru University, argues that the logic of overlapping does not hold ground in the case of MANF. Talking to NewsClick, Raza, also JNUSU councillor, said that it is the second biggest setback after the scrapping of pre-matric scholarships. He said, “Irani is saying that the scheme was overlapping because Muslims who are also OBCs could avail fellowship as well as National Fellowship for the OBCs. But what about those who are not OBCs? And it’s a big number. Similarly, a very small population of Muslims are considered to be Tribes too. So, doing away with this fellowship is a big assault on minorities in this country.”

The sudden announcement has enraged students’ organisations who have planned countrywide protests across campuses. Mayukh Biswas, general secretary of the Students’ Federation of India, in a statement, said, “This misguided step by the Union government comes on the back of a series of severe delays in the disbursal of the fellowship, with scholars recently reporting backlogs of over nine months. Coming in the immediate wake of the immense distress faced by researchers owing to the lack of systemic and institutional support during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, the anxiety of unpaid bills and mounting backlogs of expenses owing to the above stated delay had already caused a large number of scholars and researchers from minority communities to put a pause on their research activities. This is pertinent since for many such individuals, the MANF scheme provides a lifeline for the families of scholars as well.”

He added, “Therefore, this attempt by the Union government to discontinue the MANF scheme must be staunchly resisted by all those who seek to democratise India’s educational system. This past year has already witnessed attempts by the Sangh Parivar to deny the very fundamental right to education to young Muslim women and to establish an aggressive majoritarian cultural nationalism by usurping spaces of education. The decision to discontinue the MANF, under whatever guise such a decision might come, must be necessarily seen as a further effort in this direction – to deny access to education, and to ensure that higher education continues to remain the exclusive enclaves of the privileged few.”

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