‘They want us to remain puncture-wallas forever’

[Hindustan Times] ‘They want us to remain puncture-wallas forever’

Mumbai: S K Tawhoor, a Class VII student whose favourite subject is maths, has been dealt a sudden blow – his dreams of going to college have been dashed as the ₹ 5000 a year scholarship that helped his parents send him to school has been scrapped. Tawhoor’s father works in an envelope-making unit while his mother is a housewife. Tawhoor would have been the first in his family to go to college.

The abrupt cancellation of two scholarships for minority students from the central government in November and December last year – the pre-matric scholarship of ₹ 1000 and ₹ 5000 a year respectively for primary and secondary students between Class I and VIII whose parents earn less than ₹ 1 lakh a year and who score at least 50% marks, and the Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF) for MPhil/PhD students -- has left many families like Tawhoor’s panic-stricken.

Between 2014-2022, 6722 scholars were awarded the MANF, while 5.2 crore pre-matric scholarships were disbursed. Priority was given to the poorest.

Recently, in a school classroom in Kurla, a room full of Muslim women who work as domestics or do piece work at home, and whose husbands are bag makers, rickshaw drivers, masons, congregated to discuss the issue with a determination not to let children drop out of school despite the cancellation of the pre-matric scholarship. “We couldn’t study; our children must not live like us,’’ they said.

Their children attend the Green Mumbai Urdu School, in Qureshi Nagar, one of Kurla’s most impoverished localities. The aided school’s fees are low, and teachers ensure that books and uniforms are handed down.

Yet, the yearly purse of ₹ 1000/5000 made a difference to them, despite the time and money they had to spend to put the necessary paperwork in place. Principal of the school, Ayesha Kadar, pointed out that many of these women are divorced, compelling them to earn their own living. “We will have to work harder now and make our kids help us in our work too,” said the mothers, worried about how this would affect their children’s studies.

Beti padhao, beti bachao?

Citing prime minister Narendra Modi’s slogan, ‘Beti padhao, beti bachao,’ they asked, “Doesn’t the PM consider our betis worthy?”

“Whatever the Manusmruti did to untouchables, is being extended by this government to Muslims,” stated former vice chancellor of Mumbai University and member of Planning Commission, Dr Bhalchandra Mungekar, who heads the recently-formed Scholarship Janandolan Samiti. Comprising 73% of all minorities, Muslims have naturally been the largest beneficiary of these grants. According to figures revealed in Parliament, of the 5.2 crore pre-matric scholarships disbursed, 3.6 crore were given to Muslims. In fact, these scholarships were started with Muslims in mind, the trigger being the 2006 Sachar Committee Report on the status of the community. The committee was set up by then PM Manmohan Singh in 2005.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did not favour the scholarships from the get-go. The pre-matric scheme became operational in 2008, followed by MANF in 2009. In 2010, Nirmala Seetharaman told the media in Coimbatore that the party planned to make this an election issue. In fact, Narendra Modi’s government in Gujarat started disbursing the pre-matric scholarship only in 2013, after it was forced to do so by the Gujarat high court. The Supreme Court refused to stay the High Court’s order.

Earlier, in 2011, the Bombay high court had upheld the scheme in response to a petition challenging its constitutionality by Sanatan Sanstha lawyer Sanjiv Punalekar, an accused in the Narendra Dabholkar murder case.

After Modi became PM however, his government continued these schemes, and Mukthar Ali Naqvi, minority affairs minister between 2017 and 2022, even boasted about the increase in the number of scholarships disbursed by the Modi government compared to the UPA government.

Shahid Zakir, who completed his PhD from Mumbai’s Institute of Chemical Technology last year, said he could not have done so without the MANF, and that its disbursal was hassle-free. Why then the sudden change?

RTE benefit

In Parliament, minority affairs minister Smriti Irani cited the Right to Education (RTE) Act which makes education from Classes I to VIII free and compulsory, thereby making the pre-matric scholarship redundant. However, activists pointed out that the RTE has left out thousands of children from its purview. Besides, said Manish Sharma of the Youth Dreamers Foundation, which helps students apply for scholarships, free and compulsory education applies to government schools, and there are not too many of those in Muslim ghettos, forcing the community to send their children to private schools. The Sachar Committee report had also underlined this lacuna.

Indeed, of the six minority communities to whom these schemes apply, Muslims will be the hardest hit. Anjana Kothari, founder of a Jain women’s group that helped the community in Bhiwandi apply for the pre-matric scholarship, revealed that their numbers had declined from 700 to 150 in the last three years because parents felt the application process was not worth the money received. Jains in Mumbai were simply not interested, she’d found. Thirty per cent of this educationally advanced community, which comprises 0.4 % of the population, is said to be impoverished.

Sikhs have devised a system of helping financially challenged students from funds raised within the community, said social worker Paramjit Singh, adding that those who’d initially applied for pre-matric scholarships didn’t receive them. Christian beneficiaries too were very few, revealed Anthony Chettiar, former executive member, Bombay Catholic Sabha. Parsis were even fewer, and Buddhists are covered by scheduled caste schemes.

Poor timing

The timing of the cancellation, in the middle of the academic year, has made the blow harder. Sharma had 35,000 applications approved for this academic year, and schools had adjusted their fee schedules. Sharma also wondered at the sweep of the announcement. “The government could have started by cancelling scholarships for Class I and gradually moved to Class VIII,” he said.

This sudden pull back has left Afreen, a PhD student of the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad, distraught. She received her first payment of the MANF for the last eight months in August 2022; there is no assurance if she will receive the remaining amount due to her. Daughter of a security guard in Mehboobnagar who was rendered unemployed after he contracted Covid, the 25-year-old is the family’s breadwinner, with a college-going younger brother to support.

Irani cited the ‘overlap’ with UGC post-graduate scholarships as the reason for cancelling the MANF. “Scholarships overlap, not students, since a student can only avail of one scholarship at a time. Let the government prove the overlap,’’ said Aamir Nurle of Education Upliftment Forum, which aims to see that no deserving student is deprived of available scholarships. “Minority students also have to qualify like the rest,” pointed out Afreen, who failed to get the UGC scholarship. “For us MANF is the final hope.’’ The Sachar Committee Report had revealed that only one in 50 post-graduates was Muslim.

The cancellation would result in an increase in Muslim drop-outs, specially girls, said activists. “Not in cities perhaps,” said Dr Kazim Malik of the Movement for Peace and Justice, “but this will definitely impact aspirants in rural areas, where NGOs are few and families are dependent on the pre-matric scholarship.”

Given the government’s attitude, Nurle feels it’s time Muslims explored scholarships given by corporates under CSR schemes, which required less paperwork, came on time and were non-discriminatory. But what about the Centre’s duty to remove the educational backwardness of its largest minority? “They want us to remain puncture-wallas,” was the bitter response of Shabbir Deshmukh, founder of Green Mumbai School. His fear may not be unfounded. Close on the heels of these cancellations, comes the news that the Pardesh Padho scheme enabling minority students to study abroad has also been discontinued.