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Above: Students campaigning for elections at the Aligarh Muslim University campus/Photo: UNI

Aligarh Muslim University has again landed in a row as the chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes wants it to provide reservation for Dalit students, since it is not a minority institution

~By Atul Chandra in Lucknow

With a general election approaching, a storm is brewing in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) as its minority status is being questioned. Even as the Supreme Court (SC) is seized of the matter pertaining to AMU’s minority status, Ram Shankar Katheria, MP and chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), told the University that as it was not a minority institution, it must provide reservation for Dalit students.

Citing an Allahabad High Court judgment of 2006, subsequently stayed by the SC, which said that AMU was not a minority institution, Katheria said that till the apex court gave its decision, it has to comply with the reservation policy. But, AMU countered this with the argument that till there’s a stay from the  SC on the 2006 judgment, the quota policy of the centre will not be applicable to it.

With Katheria hoping to again get a BJP ticket for the 2019 Lok Sabha election from Agra, the NCSC is not backing off. In letters written to the Union HRD ministry, it argued against the continued funding of AMU. Dated July 6 and July 10, the letters asked the ministry to give details of the annual grant given to AMU from the year of its inception till date. UP CM Yogi Adityanath has also repeated the demand.

Then, as if on cue, Brij Lal, chairman of the UP SC/ST panel, issued a notice to AMU authorities, asking them to explain why there was no reservation for Dalit students in admissions. He fixed August 8, 2018, as the deadline for AMU to reply to the notice. Lal’s stand is that the “Supreme Court has not yet passed any order in which AMU was prevented to provide reservation benefits”. He described AMU “as any other Central university set up under a central Act and runs on its funds”. He, therefore, asserted that AMU had to give reservation to SC/ST students.

The sudden focus on implementation of the reservation policy in AMU is believed to be because of the disillusionment of Dalits with the BJP. At the same time, targeting AMU would please a large section of BJP voters. “Raising the issue of Jinnah’s portrait in AMU and the minority status of Jamia Millia is sheer bullying by the government,” said Shaafay Kidwai, a professor at AMU. He also denied Lal’s charge that the University has 50 percent quota for Muslims in admissions. “We do not have any reservation in admissions on religious grounds,” Kidwai said. The University clarified that “it rather reserves 50 percent seats for internal students regardless of their religion or caste.”

In his statement, Lal said that in 1989, the University had passed a resolution to provide 50 percent reservation to Muslim students in admissions and the then president, who is Visitor of the University, had termed the resolution unconstitutional.

Responding to Katheria, Prof Tabassum Shahab, the pro vice-chancellor of the University, clarified that AMU “is governed by the AMU Act, 1981, which has granted minority status to it and the minority institutions are exempted by Article 15 (5) from implementing Constitutional reservations.”

Those who say that AMU is not a minority institution base their argument on the Allahabad High Court judgment of 2006 which rejected the constitutional validity of AMU (Amendment Act) of 1981 granting minority status to it. The judgment said that AMU was “established” by the AMU Act of 1920, which was legislated by the British administration and not Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and members of his community. This was challenged by the Congress-led UPA government which filed an appeal against the judgment.

The centre justified the AMU (Amendment) Act on the ground that the University was founded by the Muslim community in 1877 and was, therefore, entitled to protection under Article 30 which confers the right to “establish and administer educational institution of their choice” on religious and linguistic minorities.

This also conforms to the definition of minority educational institution by the National Commission for Minority Educational Act of 2004, which defines a minority educational institution as a college or institution established and administered by a minority or minorities.

Led by the BJP, the present dispensation at the centre has now changed its stand on the issue. On January 11, 2016, and then subsequently on April 4, Mukul Rohatgi, who was then the attorney-general of India, informed a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court that the Union government was withdrawing its appeal against the Allahabad High Court’s order quashing the constitutional validity of the AMU (Amendment) Act. Stating that AMU was not a minority institution, the centre took the stand that “we cannot be seen as setting up a minority institute in a secular state”.

In its nascent form, Sir Syed and the Muslim community promoted the institution as the Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College in Aligarh in 1877. By 1911, a Muslim University Association was set up with the objective of establishing a university. Subsequently, the college was upgraded after the British government agreed to pass the AMU Act in 1920. The Act’s preamble described the institution as a higher education centre established by Muslims. This Act saw its first amendment in 1951 when one of its sections was deleted and the other tweaked. While Section 9, which made religious instructions for Muslim students compulsory, was scrapped, Section 8 was also amended to open the University to persons of “either sex and of whatever race, creed, caste or class”. This Section now also ensured that the University “does not adopt, or impose on any person, any test whatsoever of religious belief or profession in order to entitle him to be admitted therein”.

The first face-off between the University and the Union government happened in 1965 when, following violence on the campus over reduction of quota for internal students from 75 to 50 percent, the Congress government decided to amend the AMU Act and delete sub-sections 2 and 3 of Section 23 in the AMU Act of 1920. By this amendment, the centre abrogated the University’s administrative powers while vesting the Executive Council with more powers.

A writ petition was filed challenging the intervention as an infringement of the right of minorities to administer the University without the centre’s interference as guaranteed under Article 30 (1).

In the Aziz Basha case of 1967, the SC ruled that AMU was not a minority institution as it was established in 1920 by the British government. The Muslim community had the option of setting up a University but chose to approach the British government, the Court is reported to have held. As for Article 30 (1), the apex court said that Parliament did not have the power to set up a minority institution in a secular state. The Allahabad High Court’s verdict and the stand taken by the NDA government are along the same lines.

Protests and parleys followed the Supreme Court’s verdict. After her return to power in 1981, Indira Gandhi found a way to deal with the SC’s order. Her government enacted the AMU (Amendment) Act, 1981 which restored the University’s minority status. Section 2(1) of the Act was changed to define AMU as an “educational institution of their choice established by the Muslims of India, which originated as the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, Aligarh and which was subsequently incorporated as the Aligarh Muslim University”. Also amended was Section 5 (2)(c) which now reads: “To promote especially the educational and cultural advancement of the Muslims of India.”

It is this 1981 Act which AMU officials and students cite to prevent the NCSC from blocking the flow of central funds and introduce caste-based reservation in admissions.

It remains to be seen if NCSC chief Katheria and the centre will succeed in altering AMU’s status by enforcing quota in admissions for Dalits. What is certain, however, is that AMU and the Muslim community won’t allow their rights to be trampled.

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