The rainbow won’t turn monochrome in Jamia

In a judgement minorities called historic, a court last week declared Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia – preferred by many Muslim students — as a minority institution. A completely preposterous debate whether the university would now cease to be a secular institution, however, raged on.

Many students, teachers and even stakeholders from outside were simply upset. Jamia’s days as a secular university are over, they thought. Others felt the university was now set on a path of isolation. One outlandish apprehension was that the university could simply pass into the hands of fundamentalists.

None of the above is a true, accurate and fair conclusion.

Jamia and the law

A minority institution – linguistic or religious – enjoys the privileges of Article 30, enshrined in Part 3 of the Indian Constitution. Jamia’s minority status — in the eyes of Muslims — constitutes a bedrock freedom directly borne out by Article 30, which governs fundamental rights. Such rights, by law, cannot die, be surrendered or forfeited. One of these allows minorities to set up and run their own institutions.

Jamia was founded in 1920 in Aligarh by Muslim intellectuals as part of anti-British activity during India’s freedom struggle. It was run by the Jamia Society comprising some eminent Muslims.

Then in 1988, in one fell swoop, it was incorporated as a central university by an Act of Parliament. To Muslims, this didn’t make sense.

Jamia has been an emotional anchor for Muslims, who saw the state snatch away an institution raised and bequeathed by their founders, even as others, such as St. Stephen’s flourishes.

A three-judge bench of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions, which has powers of a civil court, concluded that Jamia was already functioning as a minority institution in 1988 when Parliament passed a law to make it a central university. The overarching principle is that once a minority institution, always a minority institution.

In its judgement, the commission noted that when the Constitution came into being on 26 January 1950, and along with it Article 30, Jamia was being run by Muslims. Therefore, on that day, it enjoyed the privileges of being a minority institution under Article 30 (1). The Aligarh Muslim University — the other Indian institution vying for the minority tag — was not a minority institution on that day, having been set up by the British government of the day, according to the judgement.

Secular, not religious

It is an irony that Kapil Sibal, the minister responsible for education, was opposed to Jamia being given the minority status despite Sibal being educated in a minority institution himself: Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College.

There is no need to fear Jamia’s minority status. It does not make Jamia a religious place; neither does it turn it into some kind of an academic ghetto. Jamia will not stop teaching multi-disciplinary secular subjects, nor will it stop enrolling students from other communities.

Jamia can now reserve up to half of its seats for students of the community it represents. That keeps the rest half open to all. Rather than promote isolation and seclusion, I see it achieving inclusion and pluralism.

The literacy rate of Muslims is well below the national average, according to the November 2006 Sachar report. Muslims — mostly Sunnis — make up 13.4% of India’s population, yet hold fewer than 5% of government jobs and make up just 4% of undergraduates. For a community lagging on educational indicators, the minority status helps speed up minority enrolment.

Minority-serving institutions elsewhere

The larger goal of a minority institution is to allow linguistic and religious minorities preserve their cultural ethos. The immediate objective is to focus on the educational needs of minorities, who have historically lacked education and generally demonstrate lower literacy rate. This is indeed true of minorities everywhere.

In the US, for example, minority-serving institutions are colleges and universities that have a special focus on serving the needs of a minority audience. A list is available here. Learn about US minority universities here.

Just like the Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia, these universities have a historical tradition or mandate to serve a specific demographic student population, but often serve non-minority students as well.

In the US, there are three categories of such institutions, mainly denoting a particular American minority group, such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs); the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), which is the association of tribal colleges and universities.

According to the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, an HBCU is “any historically Black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of Black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary [of Education] to be a reliable authority as to the quality of training offered or is, according to such an agency or association, making reasonable progress toward accreditation.”

Founded mainly to overcome racial and cultural barriers in education, HBCUs have evolved to fulfill new contemporary roles. More than 100 HBCUs today educate more than a quarter million students, according to And about four-fifths of those students are African-American but thousands of others enroll for reasons of educational quality, and for the opportunity to enjoy a unique cultural experience.

Jamia’s next battle

In India, universities like Jamia already cater to educational needs of all groups. Universities are places where Muslims must meet their shared global destinies. So, teachers and students must remember to strike that delicate balance between preserving their ethos and yet embracing new ideas and thought. It is a cradle of that hallowed Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, which stands for the blending, rather than clashing, cultures of Hindus and Muslims in northern India.

Jamia’s administrators should further internationalize its curriculum and education features. An international experience should be a standard feature of attending a twenty-first university.

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