Why the budget brings a smile to Bengal’s Muslims
by M J Akbar
(In The Siege Within - Times of India column)
The most communal punishment you can inflict upon any community is to deny it an education. Ignorance is the other face of poverty. No one is illiterate by choice. Which child would bleed her fingers rolling a beedi in preference to a classroom?
Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s provision of Rs 25 crores for an Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) affiliate at Murshidabad in Bengal is only too little, and not too late. You can only get a degree college with such money. But one college is a million times better than none.
Two objections have been raised in Bengal: that AMU is too much of a Muslim, and not enough of a university. AMU is, today, about as Muslim as St Stephen’s College is Christian. AMU graduates do not emerge flaunting special degrees in ‘‘Islamic fundamentalism’’. You could check this out with our Vice President, Hamid Ansari, who was both a student and vice chancellor. It doesn’t seem to me that he was either a member of, or presided over a secret society of Indian Taliban, during his days at AMU.
If the 1940s are going to be dragged into the debate, then why restrict ourselves to that turbulent decade? Do we really want to revisit the acrimonious debates about the admissions policy of Calcutta University before the 1940s? Should one travel fast forward? When we were students in Presidency between 1967 and 1970, a Muslim could not get a place in its Hindu hostel for the simple reason that the hostel was reserved for Hindus. One does not recall any major media campaign urging reform at the time.
Reform came because Indians wanted it, not because media wanted it. A substantial, if quiet, Indian achievement is that we have retained the best from our past and jettisoned, without any fuss, the worst. Compare this with a certain neighbour, which tends to invest in the worst and deny the best of its history and culture. Indians are sensible heirs. Just as other institutions have moved away from a certain pre-Partition ethos, so has AMU.
Destroying the good in the name of the best is an old and faintly odorous tactic of the artful saboteur. It is perfectly true that AMU’s academic quality has deteriorated, but it remains a far sight better than the proliferating private money-churners that pretend to offer an education. Thirst has outstripped supply, and mercenaries are filling the gap. Those who can least afford expensive education end up paying the most. If there is hunger for an AMU in Murshidabad today, it is because through two decades of Congress raj, three decades of Marxist domination and one decade of intermediate confusion, no one did anything to assuage this hunger.
AMU does have serious problems that demand urgent redress: there is no reason why any quality Indian university should slip towards a lower common denominator. Its administration is, at this moment, a scandal fuelled by sectarian politics at which Delhi is adept. If AMU is required to create affiliated units then it must possess the administrative ability and academic quality needed, otherwise it will be cheating the very Muslims it claims to serve. Rather than lifting its affiliates, the children could drag down the mother even further.
There is a potential paradox in play as well. Many colleges in Aligarh city and Uttar Pradesh have demanded affiliation to AMU, but it has been resisted in order to prevent any dilution of AMU’s minority character. This minority status has, in any case, been transferred to a gray area through an amendment passed by Parliament in 1981. Doubt seems to suit both judges and politicians.
Muslims would be making a grievous generational mistake if they turned AMU into the sole answer to their educational needs. Education has to be community-specific, and the principal objective must be quality at the school level. That is what will make Muslims capable of finding a place in Presidency or St Xavier’s.
The Sachar Committee’s statistics tell many a revealing story about Bengal. The state’s literacy rate is 68.6%; among its Muslims, the figure drops to 57.5%. The urban situation is better; the figures travel up to 81% and 66%. What is truly encouraging, however, is the quantum leap taken in school enrolment. By 2004-05, 82.8% of Muslim children between the ages of 6 and 14 were in school, as compared to the state average of 85.7%. Here is the evidence, if any is required, of the growing conviction that education is the only route to a better future. But what happens after that? The percentage of Muslims who completed middle school in 2001 was 26%. Those who finished the next level and became eligible for college were a mere 11.9%. Some improvement will definitely have occurred since 2001, but the pattern is evident. The higher you go, the less education you get.
That is why the Rs 25 crore Aligarh Muslim University affiliate at Murshidabad is not too late, although it remains too little.
Appeared in Times of India - July 19, 2009