Making Higher Education inaccessible for Muslims: The discontinuation of Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF)

At a time when I was anxious and worried about the future. My friend called and asked me to check the MANF fellowship list. I checked the list immediately, and when I saw my name on the list, I felt so relieved. If it was not for the MANF fellowship, I would have discontinued my study. ~ (A PhD Scholar from JNU)

On December 08, 2022, in response to the question placed by the INC MP Prathapan from Kerala, Union Minister for Minority Affairs Smriti Irani told the Parliament that the Central Government has decided to end the Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF): the major financial lifeline for minorities who are grossly underrepresented in higher education. This was done by saying that this scheme overlaps with other fellowships and hence discontinued from the academic year 2022-23. However, it was not specified which fellowships MANF was clashing with. Earlier, the BJP government restricted the Pre-Matric Scholarship Scheme for minorities to only Classes 9 and 10 (previously, it covered all classes from 1 to 10). These decisions ignited a storm of criticism, and protests were staged across the country, demanding the restoration of the MANF fellowship. K Rahman Khan, the former Union Minister of Minority Affairs, in an interview with us, says, “these are the most unfortunate decisions because it was for the educational development of minorities, these schemes were launched.”

About MANF Fellowship

MANF was launched in 2009 by the UAPA government to provide five-year fellowships to students from six notified minority communities, namely - Buddhist, Christian, Jain, Muslim, Parsi and Sikh, to pursue MPhil & PhD. The fellowship, however, was launched on the recommendation of the Sachar Committee, primarily with the plight of the Muslims in mind. The committee was set up in 2005 to study the social, economic and educational conditions of Muslims in India.

Not every minority student enrolled in MPhil, or PhD degree gets the fellowship (MANF). To be eligible for the fellowship, one must have cleared UGC-NET or Joint CSIR-UGC Test, and annual income should not exceed Rs. 6.0 lakh per annum from all sources. The Joint CSIR-UGC test is conducted for Science students, while UGC-Net is conducted for students belonging to a Humanities background. The total number of fellowships granted under this scheme is around 1,000 per year (750 for UGC-Net and 250 for the Joint CSIR-UGC).

Importance of MANF for Minorities to pursue Higher Education

Muslims comprise 14.2% of India’s population but account for 5.5% of students enrolled in higher education, even lower than the SCs & STs, which have 14.7%, and 5.6% enrolled students, respectively. The enrolment rate for other minorities in higher education is just 2.3% (AISHE 2019-20). Due to this low representation of minorities in higher education, the Sachar Committee recommended providing affirmative action, which led to the launching of the MANF fellowship in 2009.

The debate over MANF Fellowship

The reason cited for discontinuing the MANF is that it overlaps with other scholarships. However, no clarity is given as to how and with which particular scholarship it overlaps. It is possible that a scholar from a minority, OBC, SC, or ST may apply for two fellowships, as the applicant may be from the same socioeconomic or religious backgrounds. For example, a minority OBC student, may apply for both a minority fellowship (MANF) and a National OBC Fellowship. But, the fact is that as per the UGC rule, a scholar can receive only one fellowship at a time, and hence there is no possibility of duplication or overlapping between the two fellowships. Even if there’s any irregularity or overlapping, as Smriti Irani claims, wouldn’t it be better to correct those irregularities, instead of stopping the fellowship altogether? But the government chose not to do so. The question then is: why did the government decide to stop the scholarship altogether?

Experts believe that the decision to discontinue the Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF)is a direct attack on Muslims and an attempt to marginalise the community further. Kamal Farooqi, ex-chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission, in an interview with us, says, “the fellowship has been a great motivating factor for Muslim students to pursue MPhil-PhD as it gives economic liberty to them.” Former University Grants Commission chairman Sukhdeo Thorat says low-income Muslims are less likely to opt for higher education. The decision to stop the MANF, therefore, will make higher education inaccessible to already under-represented Muslims, particularly those who are not considered OBCs by various states. Even for Muslim OBCs, getting a fellowship under the National OBC fellowship scheme is challenging since Muslim OBCs are significantly deprived in comparison to Hindu-OBCs. According to the Sachar Committee Report, “the extraordinorily low representation of Muslim OBCs suggests that the benefits of entitlements meant for the backward classes are yet to reach them.”

Additionally, the discontinuation of MANF opens the possibility of the withdrawal of other fellowships of a similar nature offered to marginalised groups.