The Ministry of Minority Affair's 2023 budget has been slashed by almost 40%. The 1st-8th class pre-matric scholarship for minorities has been taken away. The Padho Pardesh scheme for minorities was canceled. And most recently, the #MaulanaAzadNationalFellowship (MANF) for minorities was scrapped. In this video, we look at what MANF is, why it was introduced and how do these decisions affect the accessibility of education for #minorities in India? How much of this is ‘Sabka Sath Sabka Vikas’?
On the 8th of December 2022, the central government suspended the Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF). A fellowship that was like a lifeline for many minority students who dared to pursue higher education in India. Union Minister for Minority Affairs, Smriti Irani reasoned in the Lok Sabha that the fellowship ‘overlapped’ with other schemes. She did not, however, go into the what or the how of this overlap. The decision ignited a storm of criticism, and students have since been protesting across university campuses, demanding its restoration.
Let’s first talk about what this fellowship is and why it was introduced.
MANF - About/History
Named after India’s first education minister, the UPA govt launched the Maulana Azad National Fellowship or MANF in 2009. It offers five-year fellowships to students from these six notified minority communities to pursue MPhil & PhD degrees. There are around a thousand scholarships available every year under this scheme. And its eligibility criteria involves both merit and need. It is awarded only to those minority students who have cleared either UGC-NET or Joint CSIR-UGC Test and have an annual income not exceeding Rs. 6.0 lakh per annum from all sources.
You know why MANF was introduced? It was on the recommendation of the Sachar Committee. Set up in 2005 to study the socio-economic conditions of Muslims in India, the Sachar Committee report revealed that the Muslim community was doing terribly on all socio-economic indicators, including higher education.
Why MANF is Important
The educational gap between muslims and other communities was so high that the committee recommended and the govt accepted: affirmative action, ie, MANF. According to the latest All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) 2020-21, which is a study conducted by the Education Ministry in India, the enrolment ratio of Muslims in higher education continues to stagnate at 4.6%. This is a community that comprises more than 14% of India’s population. 14 percent of the population. But in the composition of higher education, only 4.6% of all students are muslim. That’s a representation even lower than that of the SCs & STs (14.2%, and 5.8 respectively). In fact, Muslims have the lowest Gross Enrolment Ratio in higher education. While other minority groups aren't doing too well either. MANF was introduced to address THIS educational gap that still very much requires our attention. And it is a key source of financial support for minority students to pursue higher education (MPhil/PhD).
So if its need still exists, then what are the grounds for discontinuation?
The government says, overlap with other scholarships. It says that these minority communities are eligible for the general fellowship and special fellowships (SC, OBC) and therefore there’s an overlap among these schemes.
Let’s unpack this.
It is possible that a scholar may be eligible for multiple scholarships. For example, a minority OBC student may apply for both a minority fellowship (MANF) and a National OBC Fellowship. But, the fact is that there is only one organisation managing these fellowships under a centralised portal, the UGC. And a scholar can at any one point of time, avail only one fellowship. And so the possibility of an overlap in all likelihood, doesn’t exist. And lets say, even if there is some irregularity or margin of error that is causing an overlap, why not correct those anomalies instead of scrapping the fellowship altogether?
Larger Context – Education
The govt just slashed the ministry of minority affairs’ budget by almost 40%.
And MANF is not the only minority scholarship scrapped in the recent past. A mere month before, the government abruptly cancelled the Pre-Matric Scholarship Scheme for minority students of classes 1 to 8th. Previously covering classes 1 to 10, the scholarship is now restricted to only classes 9 and 10. The government has also discontinued the Padho Pardesh Interest Subsidy Scheme, which offered students from minority groups interest subsidies on education loans for overseas studies. As for MANF, the UGC had been regularly skipping annual calls for applications before it was taken off the charts altogether.
The decision to discontinue the Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF) infringes on minority rights in India – and Muslims will bear the brunt. Former UGC chairman Sukhdeo Thorat says low-income Muslims are least likely to opt for higher education.
What government essentially doing by scrapping scholarships like MANF is that making higher education inaccessible to already under-represented minorities. And how are minority groups expected to compete equally with others for general fellowships or even special ones. When say a Muslim OBC is significantly more deprived in comparison to a non-muslim OBC? The Sachar Committee Report, states that “the abysmally low representation of Muslim OBCs suggests that the benefits of entitlements meant for the backward classes are yet to reach them." Then there are those under-represented minorities, who are not considered OBCs by various states. What about them?
Discontinuation of fellowships like MANF is then like closing the door of higher education in the face of communities whose only hope of overcoming marginalisation was that same education.