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?


  1. You are at loss dear, thinking that way. This is all what I have to say.


  2. Don't go by my hindu name - I am as much a jamia-ite in spirit as can anyone be- But i agree with Yusuf - That is the spirit of the Black Power Movement of America... Hope that sense prevails...