When I first heard about the scrapping of the Maulana Azad National Fellowship, one of India's flagship educational programs for minorities that was made on the recommendation of the Sachar committee, I was shocked. I couldn't believe my senses and I remember wondering how the union minister for minority affairs Smriti Irani decided to take such a drastic step. A woman herself, it was shocking to watch her remain aloof to the needs of women across sectors like education and employment, especially marginalized and minority women. I say this since the latest move by the ministry to cancel the program will have a direct impact on Muslim women's education and comes in the wake of already existing protests and mounting criticism against the hijab ban that many educational institutions now want to impose in parts of India.
When the Maulana Azad National Fellowship programme was discontinued, many young scholars who relied on to undertake research without enduring the financial strain of higher education were left devastated. For many women scholars, however, discontinuation of the program can mean the end of the road vis-a-vis education.
In a patriarchal setup, women's household labour and domestic chores seem to have no monetary value and often fail to confer her with any agency or respect. Only financial independence can provide women the agency to make their own decisions and live life on their own terms. In his renowned piece "Development as Freedom," written under the heading "Women's Agency and Social Change," Nobel laureate Amartya Sen describes how women's "ill-being" might be transformed into "well-being" through financial independence. It's not rocket science, therefore, to correlate the need for education in women with their ability to build agency through gainful and paid employment.
Degrees vs 'Gol Rotis'
We cannot always guarantee social transformation in the form of a revolution. But education is a revolution too. Unfortunately, for a majority of women in India despite campaigns like 'Beti Bachao Beti Padhao', education is a difficult dream for many.
In families where women are only educated to the point required for them to find a good match for marriage, the challenges that girls face in accessing higher education or going to a central university are very real and multifaceted. For most, a professional future is a definite "no." For a girl like me (and assuredly countless others), education has meant dodging the pressure of marriage, taking refuge in a modest stipend to show myself as independent, and luring potential in-laws to let me focus on my research rather than cooking “gol rotis.”
The first obstacle a woman faces comes from inside her own family. Many parents won't invest in their daughters' upskilling or education but will readily take out loans for dowry. This is because in most families, a woman's future as a professional holds very little value. Instead, she is a seen as a career housewife, and dutiful daughter in law whose sole job is to make her in-laws happy.
I had great expectations for MANF this year. Having recently begun my Ph.D. degree after two years of hard work, I wanted to demonstrate to my family and society that I am deserving of recognition, of being known as something other than just a man's "wife" or "daughter-in-law".
In a capitalist and profit-based society, everything needs to be judged on its monetary value. I too needed to convince my family that I am valuable. A scholarship like MANF was an easy refuge to hide from my oppressive family.
Lack of financial independence, education or agency leads to the second biggest barrier that impacts women's development - decreased self-esteem. According to economist Naela Kabeer, one's self-perception and sense of value are the foundations of empowerment. This is closely tied to how they are seen by those around them and by their culture.
After a decade of struggling with low self-esteem and family pressure, it was a struggle for me to become motivated and adept enough to get into a local institution because my family's insecurity prevents me from leaving home to pursue my goals. My family gave me a tonne of filters, and I wanted to comb through all the filters my family had provided for me in order to make sure that my objectives were worthy of their acceptance. I was fortunate enough to be close to a major institution, but hard work comes before relaxation.
'Minorities within Minorities'
Indian society and its culture in general are full of insecurities regarding girls and a majority of the middle class believe "over qualifying" women or giving them more education than needed for getting a good match, might led to situations like "Ghar se Bhaag jaegi" (eloping with a lover) or "Pagdi mai phool rakh dena" (bringing disgrace to family name). Girls like me live in a culture where one girl's elopement threatens the freedom of other girls her age, who must deal with the repercussions, and where attending school and college turns into the ultimate "bad guy". Yes, not every family behaves in that way, but I have personally experienced such events, and they are much too common.
The dissolution of MANF has obscured the needs of Muslim women who are minorities within minorities, distorting their ambitions to a point of hopeless asphyxiation. Many girls from minority communities that have bigger aspirations than their parents or society allow them are now in a lurch.
The situation reminds me of John Rawls' "veil of ignorance,” just like our "Andha kanoon," which is used to symbolise a just society in whic the law and authorities treat all subjects equally without discriminating on the basis of their social status. Contrary to the Minority Affairs Minister's assertion that MANF overlaps with other open-to-all programs, it is clear from this that the present administration is playing a game of hide-and-seek that is rife with exclusion and denial while wearing a "veil of ignorance".
Even if a woman comes from a wealthy family, she may or may not have the financial independence (like in my case) or the agency to make her own decisions, there is a need for a minority affairs ministry that would cater to the needs of such students and look at bottom-up approaches to level out the potholes and ensure a level playing field when it comes to educational access for minority communities.
India which asserts itself as a socialist democratic nation in the Preamble and its constitution prioritizes the inclusion of the underprivileged and excluded communities through affirmative action programs, of which MANF was one. Discontinuing the MANF goes against the principles of equality and justice enshrined in the Constitution.
The willful ignorance of the educational needs of the community has been guised under "logical" excuses like not all members of a minority group belong under the ST, SC, or OBC classifications. Or that Muslim and Christian SCs are not recognized. Or that programs for women that are specially created for them only finance a single female daughter or a scientific fellow rather than students of social science. Incidentally, it's the Ministry of Minority Affairs that administers MANF with UGC serving as the governing body. So even when fellowships overlap, a student can only receive one grant at a time that has been duly approved by the supervisor.
Reform needed, not discontinuation
Every system needs to be reformed or reworked over time to fill any lacunae that may have crept in over the years of implementation. However, instead of filling lacunae, the government has thoughtlessly discarded the scheme in its entirety. In contrast to the NEP's proposed 50 percent Gross enrolment ratio in higher education, this decision will lessen the likelihood of upward social mobility for minority populations and make higher education inaccessible to disadvantaged students from those communities.
Ignoring the fact that MANF guarantees minority inclusion in higher education, which is not in and of itself a cakewalk but a question of merit, and expecting minority students to participate in general, will severely lower the number and marginalized scholars like us.
At 3.1% of GDP, education sector spending has essentially stagnated in recent years. It was just 2.8% in 2019–20, 3.1% in the revised projection for 2020–21, and 3.1% in the budgeted forecast for 2021–22, according to the Economic Survey for 2021–22. And since NEP 2020 calls for spending of 6 percent of GDP, it is possible that the government’s myopic attitude in eliminating MANF for scholars is an attempt to save money for a top priority that does not appear to include minorities and does not contribute to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals, one of which is to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.
(Abida Khatoon is a PhD Scholar at the Centre for the Studies of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. Views expressed in this article are personal)