November 30, 2005

Education in India: Quotas for Muslims in IITs and IIMs?

Not embarrassed by the judicial snub on an enhanced quota in Aligarh Muslim University, the HRD Ministry appears to be serious about reservation for Muslims in IITs and IIMs.

Barely had the HRD Ministry recovered from the setback of the Allahabad High Court decision on the minority status of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), when Arjun Singh decided to wear his secularist heart on his sleeve yet again. By making appropriate politically correct statements about the National Monitoring Committee for Minorities' Education (NMCME), which has recommended reservation for Muslims in IITs and IIMs, he has set the stage for another round in the endless debate on appeasement.

If Singh decides to ignore another landmark judgement-the Andhra Pradesh High Court striking down 5 per cent reservation for Muslims introduced by the Y.S.R. Reddy Government in July this year-it may well unleash another genie that has refused to be bottled in the bitter communal politics of the nation since 1990.

Quotas for minorities, especially Muslims, in institutions of higher learning

Adequate number of minority students in ITIs and polytechnics to improve their technical skills, plus coaching for IITs

Setting up of a cell in All India Council for Technical Education, National Council for Teacher Education and CBSE to monitor induction of minorities

Modernisation of madarsas, with a central madarsa board being set up on the lines of the Kendriya Vidyalayas

This fresh round of potential hostilities began with a report of the NMCME last week. A brainchild of Singh who introduced this panel in his earlier tenure as HRD minister in 1992 to "monitor the ongoing schemes of the Ministry targeted at minorities", the NMCME went into a recession under the subsequent governments. Having been given a new life, it is clearly taking its job seriously. Re-constituted in September 2004, the standing committee of NMCME has made several recommendations which its chairman Zafar Ali Naqvi thinks are absolutely essential for the minorities. Naqvi, a former home minister of Uttar Pradesh, is virtually advocating a new charter for minorities encompassing the entire range of educational rights enshrined in Article 30(i) of the Constitution which details the minority "right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice". Among these is the introduction of Urdu in all Central schools, Navodaya Vidyalayas and Aanganwadis. By far the most contentious recommendation pertains to reservation in institutions of higher learning. Not just because it takes reservation out of the ambit of caste into community which the Constitution did not visualise, but also because it creates a confrontation of viewpoints between Congress and its UPA ally-the Left. The Left has been ideologically opposed to community- based reservation and had welcomed the Allahabad High Court decision. The High Court not only struck down the 50 per cent reservation for Muslims introduced in AMU, but also nixed the Central university's minority status.

Even as Singh says he is considering the legal and administrative implications of the recommendations, it is clear that he is following his own so-called secular agenda. On the AMU decision, Singh's stand had been that a minority institution could take such decisions and it mattered little to him that Muslim students already constitute more than 65 per cent of the Central university. How it would lead to integration if the percentage rises further is difficult to fathom.

NEW DEMAND: Arjun Singh at the minority education panel meeting

What has caused widespread consternation this time is that the NMCME recommendations are specifically aimed at seats in the burgeoning technical education market. The IITs offer around 4,000 seats annually. Together with nits, the total number of seats at the very highest level of technical education are 10,000. Naqvi would like at least 1,000 seats reserved for Muslims to bring them at a par with other communities. In the case of other streams like management, forests and dentistry, the pie is much smaller. Naqvi wants a minority cell in all institutions like the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) which control the number of technical seats in the country. He has already won a battle by getting Singh's nod for bypassing state governments when minority institutions apply to AICTE for accreditation.

While debating reservation for Muslims, there also appears a need to closely examine their current status in higher education and employment. There is no clear empirical data-Naqvi says a research has been commissioned by NMCME-on the percentage of minority students in technical courses and higher government jobs. But the general consensus is that it cannot be more than 2-3 per cent. "The minorities have fallen so far behind that reservation at the highest level is no longer a desire but a necessity," says Naqvi. He feels that it can be introduced by recognising the backward castes amongst Muslims as part of the OBC cluster, as is done for SC/STs. But this proposal is fraught with its own problems. In Kerala, for instance, a 10 per cent quota for extremely backward Moplah Muslims has been in existence since 1926 which even the Left governments have not overturned. It has reportedly led to large-scale manipulation.


"There is need for affirmative action but it should be at the operative level."

There is a need for affirmative action but it should begin at the operative level of imbalance and not at the level of the IITs and IIMs, says eminent historian Irfan Habib who has been at the forefront of opposition to a quota in AMU. He feels there is a far greater need to correct social imbalance at the school and technical level than in IITs and IIMs. Both these institutions are very particular about their autonomy, as was evident in the previous HRD Ministry's disastrous attempts to change the fee structure. One IIM director told India Today on condition of anonymity that he would not appreciate reservation for particular communities.

Others are waiting for official communication on this. More than legality, the quality of students is on their minds. None of them objects to one of the recommendations-that coaching centres be affiliated to these institutions to prepare minority students for entrance exams. The HRD Ministry would do well to take that into consideration.

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