Mumbai/Srinagar: The Rs-35,000 scholarship that Shamsher Singh received from the union government every month in his bank account did more than fund his PhD. It threw a lifeline to his family.
Apart from allowing Shamsher Singh, a Sikh, to do his PhD in sociology from Chandigarh’s Punjab University, money from the Maulana Azad National Fellowship funded his sister’s marriage, paid for the education of two other siblings and helped the family get by—especially after his father’s monthly income of Rs 12,000 as a daily-wage worker stopped after he was stricken by cancer.
“My father cannot work, so in a way everyone is dependent on me,” said Shamsher Singh, 27, who was in the last year of the five-year fellowship meant for Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Parsis and Jains.
“It would have been very difficult for us in times like these,” said Shamsher Singh, who was awarded a gold medal while completing his masters in sociology from Amritsar’s Guru Nanak Dev University.
Enthused by his academic achievements, his uncle, a textile worker, put him through college, and Shamsher Singh hoped to return the favour when he finished his Phd and got a job.
So, Shamsher Singh was shocked and dismayed on 9 October 2022 when he heard the 13-year-old Maulana Azad fellowships, named after India’s first education minister, had been ended by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“I could not believe it,” said Shamsher Singh, who received panic calls from juniors from similarly disadvantaged families when union minister for minority affairs Smriti Irani made the announcement in Parliament.
“It was appalling to know that such a prestigious fellowship was being terminated,” said Shamsher Singh. Now, instead of focussing exclusively on his Phd, he is contemplating earning money through tuitions or teaching at a college as a contract teacher.
A Pattern Of Ending Fellowships For Minorities
Irani, the minority affairs minister contended—without explaining how—that the Maulana Azad fellowship overlapped with other fellowships. Professors and students we spoke to said this was not possible, and that the demise of these fellowships followed a larger pattern:
–The government's general attitude to financial support for minorities in education first emerged in February 2022 when the government slashed funding to the 34-year-old Maulana Azad Education Foundation—a nonprofit that administers a variety of education and skilling opportunities for “educationally backward” minorities—99%, from Rs 90 crore to Rs 100,000.
–On 14 January 2023, the Hindu Business Line reported that the government had stopped the 18-year-old padho pardesh (study abroad) programme that provided an interest subsidy on education loans for students from minority communities studying abroad. No formal announcement was made. Banks were told the programme would end in March, but no reason was assigned.
While there were fellowships for minority students until the 12th standard, the Maulana Azad fellowship was the only one that funded higher education. The fellowship website says scholars are eligible to receive only one fellowship at a time and are required to declare that they will not receive “monetary benefit” or any other scholarship.
The terms and conditions of the Maulana Azad fellowship say fellows cannot be employed as “Ad-hoc teachers, Teaching Assistants or Research Assistants.” If they are, the fellowships will be cancelled.
“I think first and foremost, the government needs to clarify which other schemes the Maulana Azad fellowships overlap with,” said Swati Moitra, an assistant professor at Gurudas College, Kolkata. “One one is eligible for two government scholarships, so the question of using two at the same time does not arise.”
Article 14 sought comment from Irani, sending an email to her office on 20 December and following up with a reminder on 13 January 2023. There was no response. We will update this story if she does.
Irani’s predecessor, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, told the lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha, in March 2021 that only 7.55% of students in higher education were minorities.Over seven years to 2022, the Maulana Azad fellowships benefitted 6,722 minority students, to whom Rs 739 crore was paid, according to Irani.
On 13 December, four Muslim members of Parliament (MPs) from four parties, Imtiyaz Jaleel (All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen), S T Hasan (Samjawadi party) Danish Ali (Bahujan Samaj party) and Badruddin Ajmal (AIl India United Democratic fund) demanded the restoration of the Maulana Azad fellowship and the pre-matric scholarships.
Tanweer Fazal, a professor at University of Hyderabad, said the majority of the Maulana Azad scholarship recipients were Muslims, who were among the most educationally disadvantaged among minorities.
No more than 2.1 million or 5.5% of 30.8 million college students are Muslim, according to the All India Survey for Higher Education 2020, the lowest rate of all communities in proportion to their population, including scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.
“The government here is giving up the idea of targeted developmental rights,” said Fazal. “What it says is that there are scholarships available that students can avail, therefore why should there be a special arrangement?”
‘Higher Education Would Never Have Been Possible’
The end of the Maulana Azad fellowships caused sorrow, dismay and anger, as interviews by Article 14 revealed, and sparked student protests. In New Delhi, police detained protesting students, as student unions expressed their concern.
“Since my MPhil, I have always been dependent on aid,” said Abid Fahim, a tall, lean, and spectacled 27-year-old PhD candidate in social medicine and community health at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). "Without it my dream of higher education wouldn't have been accomplished."
Fahim said he now had enough money saved to last him “a few months”.
After completing his PhD, Fahim plans to continue a family tradition and become a professor of social work.
Fahad Ansari, 29, a 2017 recipient of the Maulana Azad fellowship, said without it he never would have a PhD.
"The Center's apparent contempt for educational equity is demonstrated by the revocation of the fellowship,” said Ansari, who comes from an Uttar Pradesh family of weavers and is finishing his PhD thesis in Persian literature from JNU.
“Our financial situation wouldn't have let me be a PhD,” said Ansari, “Besides spending money on my research, I used to send my family money when they needed it.”
When Ansari was doing his BA (Hons) in Persian literature, he got a government fellowship that paid Rs 2,000 per month. That was not enough when he began his masters, so his parents supported him with an additional Rs 2,000.
Ansari said it was “extremely important” to have stable funding while doing research.
“No one wants to be financially dependent on their families at the age of 28 and 29 because it is embarrassing,” said Ansari.
‘Overlapping Fellowships A Flawed Argument’
Students and experts disputed the union government’s argument that the Maulana Azad fellowships overlapped with other scholarships.
“You (the govt) are abolishing it and using an excuse of overlap,” said Delhi university professor Apoorvanand Jha. “It's not financial rationalisation because you're not using the money for this to augment to some other scholarship.”
Sukhadeo Thorat, a former professor and former chairman of the University Grants Commission said while there were “numerous” scholarships available to both general applicants and minority communities, the Maulana Azad fellowships were “the only MPhil and Ph.D. fellowship available for minority communities exclusively”.
“[The Maulana Azad fellowships] were introduced because the participation ratio of Muslims and neo-Buddhists in higher education is low,” said Thorat, who did not want to comment on the government’s decision to end the scholarship.
“You're simply taking away an opportunity which was specifically meant for minorities and which Muslims were using,” said Apoorvand, who pointed to the reduction of pre-matric scholarships and viewed these cutbacks as a larger project of disempowering minorities, especially Muslims.
“It is an indirect way of depriving Muslims of higher education,” said Jha.
Jha pointed out that the Maulana Azad scholarships were a part of the implementation of the Sachar committee, a seven-member committee commissioned by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a means of reducing the gap discovered between non-Muslims and Muslims in higher education.
It was the Sachar committee report that first identified Indian Muslims as being more backward than scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.
‘Without It, I Wouldn’t Have Studied Further’
In 2019, unsure whether she could get an admission to a PhD programme at the Kashmir University, due to limited seats, N (name changed on request) considered applying to private universities. But then she would need a bank loan. Her father, an apple trader, and mother, a homemaker, had refused to fund her higher education.
"I needed Rs 4-5 lakh, if a private university was to be an option,” said N. The option: find a fellowship. In 2022, two years after admission to Kashmir University, she was awarded the Maulana Azad Fellowship.
“If it wasn’t for the fellowship, I would not have been able to study further,” said N, whose PhD thesis is on Developmental Studies.
It wasn’t easy to get the fellowship. N had to submit three court affidavits: one saying that she would surrender any other fellowship; another saying she belonged to a minority; and another saying she would not stay in a hostel, since the fellowship provides a house rent allowance.
Ever since she heard the Maulana Azad Fellowship had ended, N said she had not been able to concentrate on her studies. “I cannot even say how demotivated I am right now. There is this constant fear and insecurity about where to get money from.
She said if she will not get a scholarship, she will have to leave research and stay at home.
“Families and relatives anyway usually suggest that we marry as soon as possible. Through this scholarship I had that sense of independence,” she told Article 14.
The Fates Of Other Minority Scholarships
Students alleged that requirements for scholarships focussed on minorities, such as the Maulana Azad fellowships and the Rajiv Gandhi fellowship for other backward castes and scheduled castes were tightened over time. There were protests over delays in scholarship programmes.
Consider the Begum Hazrat Mahal scholarship, now offered by the Maulana Azad Educational Foundation to minority girls in classes 9 to 12 and paying up to Rs 6,000 per year. More than 1,000 students from Gujarat did not receive the scholarship for 2021-22.
Rashid Chaki, a social activist from Jamnagar, Gujarat, filed a right to information request with the Maulana Azad Educational Foundation and the Gujarat government.
“When we checked the status of the scholarship on the national portal, we found that the district nodal officer had not even completed the form verification and the deadline had already passed,” Chaki told Article 14.
Chaki said that the number of PhD fellowship students was relatively low, but pre-matric (1st–8th standards) students seek the Begum Hazrat Mahal scholarship in “large numbers”, so “lakhs of students” could be affected if the government ended it.
In 2020, when asked if the government had noticed that the application notice for the Maulana Azad fellowships had not been issued and if the government intended to withdraw the fellowship, Naqvi, the former minority affairs minister, told the Lok Sabha that the guidelines of this scholarship were being revised.
Ansari said that students always received fellowship payouts on time all these years, but delays began since March 2022 when Naqvi resigned.
The Uncertain Road Ahead
On 15 December 2022, union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that those who have been granted Maulana Azad National fellowship up to March 2022 will receive the scholarship.
Singh, the PhD student from Punjab, said he had not received the Maulana Azad fellowship money since August 2022 and could not rely on his family for support.
“I had some savings, and I already spent that,” said Singh. “If I don’t get a scholarship, I will have to teach students in college or somewhere else, which will affect my research.”
Jamal Siddiqui, national president of the BJP minority morcha or wing argued that the Maulana Azad fellowships were “unnecessary” and minorities could get other scholarships or fellowships.
“[The Maulana Azad fellowship] is being pushed for spectacle, to please Muslim communities,” said Siddique. “More government-sponsored scholarships should be made known to the public.”
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(Arshi Qureshi and Quratulain Rehbar are independent journalists based in Mumbai and Kashmir, respectively.)