Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Response to Khalid Anis Ansari's article on Jamia

This is my short response to the article "Ghettoes of the Mind: Khalid Anis Ansari on ‘minority status’ for Jamia Milia Islamia" published on Kafila.org

Dear Khalid,
While I agree with your most of your analysis, I have a serious problem with your concluding remarks about the “secularists ghetto” and Muslim elites etc. I am fed up with this argument that anyone who is against the reservation must be elitist (and you are not the only one who is saying this). Do you think that the "secular" Muslim elites are some kind of monolithic entity, and all cut-off from the ground reality? I have been observing the situation in Jamia very closely, and let me tell you that those who are religiously supporting the 50% quota are no less elitists themselves. I will obviously not give any names, but many of these are people with cushy jobs or powerful positions in the establishment. The progress of their careers (and often, vote-banks) depends on the implementation of minority status. Of course, it will benefit the poor or educationally “backward” Muslims too, but many others have their indirect stakes in it. The other question (which I raised in my earlier articles and blog - iamnotaminority.blogspot.com ) is that why are we so stuck with this one institution Jamia Millia? Why can’t Muslims de-centralize their claim of reservation by spreading it out to all institutions rather than just Jamia? Jamia’s quota will not address even a fraction of the recommendations made by Sachar report. Govt. will probably wash off its hands by saying “look, we’ve already given you 50% seats in Jamia – what else do you need?” One major argument often given in favour of the minority status is that the mainstream institutions are biased against Muslims, which may be true to a large extent. But my question is: by creating our own exclusive institution, do we want to bypass the prejudices in the mainstream institutions? “Let them remain communal or get even more communal, but let us create our own ideal place” – isn’t this exactly what was the motto of the 1947 Partition? To me frankly, Jamia’s minority status is nothing less than another Partition.

Yousuf Saeed, 22 March 2011

(Dear Shama Zaidi, just to share the information that Banaras Hindu University has departments of Urdu, Persian and Arabic where entire faculty and most students are Muslim.)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Opposing reservation doesn’t mean opposing progress of Muslims

When I wrote why I am opposed to Jamia Millia’s Minority status, many friends liked my frank opinions but a lot of them also got angry with me, thinking that I am against the progress of the underprivileged Muslims who are not well equipped to compete in entrance exams and job interviews. Some friends also said that my views are coming from an elite Muslim who can afford to reject the minority status. Some mentioned that the Hindustan Times could happily carry my article since it served their “majoritarian” purpose, and the mainstream media always ignores the point of view of those who are campaigning for minority status. I respect all these opinions and would like to clarify my position here:

Firstly, I am not an elite Muslim - I come from an orthodox family living in a typical Muslim neighbourhood of Jamia Nagar with mosques around me and hundreds of newly migrated underprivileged Muslims as my neighbours. I received my entire education at Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University, the two institutions seeking minority status. Secondly, I am fully aware of the difficulties the Muslims, especially from poor or lower middle class families find in getting admissions or jobs in mainstream institutions. I fully agree that a large number of Muslims need support and special advantage to get ahead in life – the families and surroundings they come from do not provide them the opportunities to get ahead in life. There are also complaints about some mainstream institutions being biased against Muslims – they deliberately prevent the entry of Muslims and so on. All this has also been proven by the Sachar Committee Report hence I do not need to repeat it.

My point was that only Jamia Millia getting a blanket 50 percent reservation is not the best solution to uplift the condition of Muslims; and some Muslims celebrating its announcement should not project that all Muslims have readily welcomed it. A public debate is probably required before it can be implemented. Blanket reservations are easy and short-cut methods of a community’s progress, but do not address many other complex issues. I would like to show what problems I find with this special status, and what alternatives could have been tried:

- Demand for a quota/reservation for Muslims only in Jamia shows that we want all Muslims to remain limited only to Jamia and not try other institutions. If minority status is given to Jamia, will Muslim candidates be readily welcomed in other mainstream institutions? Won’t other institutions (like Delhi University) argue that now that Jamia has a 50% quota for Muslims, why should we prefer Muslims students in our institution?

- If the recommendations of Sachar Committee have to be implemented, why shouldn’t we seek a small (say 5 percent) quota for Muslims in all institutions for a better representation all over the country? Won’t that be a better solution than seeking a 50% quota only in Jamia? Why do all Muslims from the length and breadth of the country have to converge only at Jamia? Why shouldn’t we decentralize our demand for a quota?

- Demand for a 50% Muslim quota in Jamia does not address the problem of the Muslim OBCs, which is a major issue raised by the Sachar Committee. If the minority status is given to Jamia, will it have any special sub-quota for the Muslim OBCs? I know many of our friends might even say that there are no Muslim OBCs since Islam doesn’t believe in caste system.

- I agree that some people cannot progress without reservation. But as a student I have also seen what kind of social stigma or label one can acquire if you get admission or appointment through a quota. In your class or department, everyone who got admission through their merit always give you a different look. They may not say it in front of you, but in your absence they always refer to you as a boy or girl who came “via the quota.” This stigma can sometimes last your entire lifetime, and it is one of the biggest reasons why I hate to be called a “minority.” Of course, if I got admission through my merit, I can always be much more proud of my worth, and socialize more confidently. So why should we not be a part of the majority and lead more confident lives?

- In hushed conversations at Jamia, I overheard people saying that a Muslim quota is urgently required because “a large number of non-Muslims have recently been appointed as Jamia’s staff (especially in the previous VC’s tenure), and they will soon erase Jamia’s Muslim character.” I would like to make two points about this. (1) If you do a random count of the teaching staff in Jamia’s various departments today (see for instance the faculty lists supplied on JMI website) you will find as much as 76 percent staff with Muslim sounding names (some departments have up to 99 or 100 percent Muslims)! This is already way above the 50% quota being demanded. But a more important point is (2) why do we always look at non-Muslims as some kind of threat? And why is a competition with them always seen in communal terms? (Yes, the same questions can also be applied in some mainstream institutions outside Jamia where Muslims are seen as a “threat”). If a meritorious non-Muslim being a great expert in his/her field is appointed in Jamia, isn’t that a boon for Jamia’s students?

- I have often found this scenario in JMI as well as AMU: if a non-Muslim teacher tries to be hard or strict with the students in order to raise their quality of education, to get them to work harder or be punctual in the class etc., some Muslim students see his/her strictness as a communal attitude towards Muslims. On the other hand, a lax or easy-going Muslim teacher is seen as more freindly. Such sensitive issues never get discussed. My point is that Muslim or non-Muslim, whenever a competent teacher is employed in an institution, he/she may be genuinely interested in improving the condition of students. Why do we always have to doubt their intentions if they are not Muslim? If we do find a specific problem we can always make a complaint.

- I have always felt that instead of reservation what Muslims need is better preparation and coaching to get admission and jobs. I wonder why all the people who are crying about the plight of poor Muslims and campaigning for minority status cannot get together and start high standard coaching centres where underprivileged Muslims are given free or inexpensive training? Some efforts have been tried in this direction and have shown great results, such as the Hamdard Study Circle (Delhi) or even the Super 30 group in Patna from which one can learn so much. A much smaller example is a charity-based centre started in Zakir Nagar (near Jamia) by the alumni of Darul Uloom Deoband where a small group of graduates of the madrasa are trained each year, and manage to get admissions into many prime institutions and have even got jobs abroad. Why couldn’t Jamia Teachers Association or Jamia Old Boys Association devote their efforts in this direction? There can be hundreds of other innovative ideas and affirmative actions one could take to uplift the community instead of only demanding a minority status.

- Let us also not forget that the issue of reservation is used by all political parties to create their votebanks. Whether Congress, BJP, SP or whatever, some body will get political mileage out of Jamia’s minority status, and though they may not be interested in the long term development of Muslims. Let us not get fooled by them.

The above are my personal opinions and anyone is free to challenge them. I have no intentions of appealing in a court to impose my views on anyone, but would be happy if a healthy and productive dialogue could start. I would also be happy to take part in any affirmative action that allows us to improve ourselves. But I am still not convinced about demanding a quota as our birthright.


Yousuf Saeed
March 2, 2011,
New Delhi

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why I hate to be called a minority

Yousuf Saeed
The news about Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia being granted “Minority status” (22nd Feb. 2011) has been celebrated by many, including the daily newspapers, as a kind of happy news that gives the Muslims their “due justice.” Some of Jamia’s teachers and staff members even distributed sweets to mark this announcement, which would basically ensure Jamia to have 50% seats reserved for Muslims. But I, having been born and lived all my life near Jamia Millia and studied here, do not support this minority tag and would like to put across my views, even though I know that the lobby in favour of this special status is far stronger than I can even imagine.
I believe that the demand for the minority status only shows the insecurity of the Muslims. If its main aim is to uplift the community from its backwardness, it is only going to push the Muslims into a deeper ghetto since an inclusive growth I believe is only possible with an eclectic diversity of students and staff. Secondly, Jamia already has enough of a “Muslim” character and does not need any extra legal status to ensure it. I present the following arguments to explain my views:
  1. Those seeking the minority status argue that Jamia Millia was established in 1920 by leaders like Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar and Hakim Ajmal Khan as “they wanted the Muslims to keep their education in their own hands entirely free from governmental interference.” Fair enough, but why do we forget that 1920 was the British period and Jamia was established as a reaction to too much British interference on Aligarh’s Mohammaden Anglo-Oriental College started by Sir Sayyad Ahmed Khan? So, they basically wanted Jamia to be entirely free from the British rule. Why should we apply the same to the present democratic government especially if the university gets aid from it? If the government aid comes from tax-payers’ money, why should it be used for the upliftment of Muslims only?
  2. The legendary leaders like Jauhar, Ajmal Khan and others which we are invoking today were definitely not against non-Muslims taking part in Jamia’s development. Their secular ideals and actions were far greater than what we can aspire to have today. Gandhi himself was part of the founding of Jamia. So, how can we stress so much on the Muslimness of the institution. There was a time in the history of Jamia when the lack of funds forced the entire staff to go without salary for months – some used to get one piece of bread a day as salary! Can a single staff member or student think of emulating such ideals today? Times have changed so much in the last 90 years, and so have the Muslim community and Jamia Millia. If we invoke the name of Hakeem Ajmal Khan and Jauhar today, we’ll only be “using” them for our selfish gains and nothing else.
  3. The example of St. Stephen’s College (Delhi) is used very often for Jamia’s minority character since the former already has the status of a Christian institution. I think Jamia’s case cannot be compared with St. Stephen’s for several reasons. Firstly, both institutions have very different histories and objectives. Jamia should actually boast of having a direct involvement with India’s freedom struggle and great Indian luminaries as its founders, whereas St. Stephen’s was established as a “religious foundation drawing inspiration from the life and teachings of Jesus Christ” by a Christian mission from Westcott House, Cambridge (according to the college’s prospectus). Secondly, the quality of education in both institutions is on very different levels – St. Stephen’s today is considered on the top of Delhi’s colleges whereas Jamia (except for a few exceptional departments) sadly comes somewhere at the bottom of the list in the students’ preference. But St. Stephen’s better quality of education has nothing to do with its minority status. It is a part of a long tradition of quality education that convent/missionary institutions have diligently held up. So, although St. Stephen’s getting a minority status sets precedence for others, it was probably not required to uplift the economic condition of Christians – it is more to preserve their religious and cultural values.
  4. Even if the reason for a minority character for Jamia is to preserve its “Muslimness,” there has never been any moment in Jamia’s history when that was compromised. According to the present Vice Chancellor, Jamia already has about 51 percent Muslim students enrolled – hence the implementation of minority status would practically have no effect. In terms of the religious character, Jamia campus and his surroundings have several mosques, Jamia’s staff can take off from work during the prayer hours, can work for lesser hours during the Ramazan, have holidays on special Muslim festivals or occasions, the school students are taught Urdu and Islamic theology, and the girl students and staff can wear a veil, all official functions start with a recitation of verses from the holy Quran, besides several other unique advantages that they would never get in any “mainstream” institution.
  5. Jamia has recognized the degrees from several Islamic madrasas (religious seminaries) as qualification for admissions into its mainstream courses like B.A. and M.A., which allows thousands of madrasa students to get secular education and professional training that they won’t be able to get elsewhere. Jamia also has full fledged departments for the research and study of Urdu, Arabic, Persian, and Islamic Studies, besides a library with thousands of books and valuable manuscripts on these subjects. The name of the university itself has a prominent “Islamia” in it – all of this already ensuring the upholding of “Islamic” culture here even without the minority character.
I think it is the insecurity of the Muslim community that needs to be addressed here rather than their “need” for reservation. Their fear is that as they are being victimised elsewhere in the country due to communal biases and violence, their institutions will also be slowly filled with non-Muslims usurping the already shrunk spaces available for them. This fear may be true to some extent (although it’s true for all institutions and communities). But will accepting mostly Muslim teachers and students in Jamia not prevent the entry of bright students and teachers of other communities, whose presence may actually help in the creation of a more progressive and competitive atmosphere that is good for the Muslims in the long run? This is the key factor for which I think a minority tag and reservation will harm the Muslims more than benefit. An interaction and exposure with wider diversity of people is good not only for the success of their material careers but also for the reduction of communal biases and sense of victimization. We have already had enough of this Minority tag, and need to grow out of it now. But I know that my views will not only be ignored by the Muslim supporters of this tag but also by the deciding authorities for whom consoling the short-term Muslim anxieties is more important (for their votebanks) than a comprehensive development of the community.
An abridged version of this article appeared in Hindustan Times, New Delhi, 28 Feb. 2011, as "Let some fresh air in."
An Urdu version of this article has appeared in Jadeed Mail of 25 Feb.2011. A scan of the page is given below. (Please click to see the full version).

Also see this related article: Is the Muslim World in India Changing?