Gandhinagar: On November 25, 2022, the Union government decided to cancel the pre-matric scholarships for students from class 1 to 8 belonging to minority communities from the academic year 2022-23.
In its widely criticised move, the government restricted the pre-matric scholarship scheme meant for minority communities to only include students of classes 9 and 10. The government justified its stand by saying that the Right to Education Act (RTE Act) covers compulsory education up to class 8 for all students.
The decision drew fierce flak from scholars, activists and political parties, with the Congress and Bahujan Samaj Party accusing the Bharatiya Janata Party government of revoking rights of the poor.
For Chohan Isha, a student of class 7 from Modasa, the cancelled scholarship means her dream of becoming a teacher is going dark. “My father is a driver and earns Rs 6,000 a month. The scholarship was helping us study, without being a burden on him,” explained Isha, whose brother is in class 5 and was also benefitting from the scholarship.
Struggling to study
Amid the chaos created because of the cancellation of pre-matric scholarships, the Union government also withdrew the Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF). The MANF was launched by the earlier United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre in an effort to implement the recommendations of the Sachar Committee.
Both financial assistance schemes – the MANF as well as the pre-matric scholarships for minority communities – were formulated by the Ministry of Minority Affairs. While one was aiding students in their early education, the other fellowship aided research scholars from the minority communities.
Rashid Chaki, a teacher and social activist from Jamnagar, has been struggling to help students avail what he calls the scholarship ‘rightly belonging’ to them. Chaki filed an RTI with the Maulana Azad Education Foundation (MAEF) and the state government after some parents of excluded children approached him for help. The Begum Hazrat Mahal scholarship is for girl students in classes 9 to 12 from the minority community. Students of classes 9 and 10 receive Rs 5,000 annually as scholarship and students studying in classes 11 and 12 receive Rs 6,000. Following the process of RTIs and its replies, Chaki did not get a very solution-oriented response of the ministry. MAEF told Chaki that it had received 2.82 lakh applications from across India, of which 4,362 were pending verification. Out of these, 1,019 applications are from Gujarat.
Chaki, who helps scores of students correctly fill up scholarship forms, told The Wire that even until November 15, 2022, the portal was accepting applications for pre-matric scholarships.
Chaki’s uncle, Adam Chaki, has also been instrumental in getting these scholarships to beneficiaries at the ground level – as a petitioner in the case at the Gujarat high court.
In 2008, when the pre-matric scholarships were launched, the Gujarat government under then chief minister Narendra Modi argued in the apex court that the Centre’s scholarship for minorities is a scheme based on religion and the Centre cannot compel the state to implement it, and that a similar scheme was in place in the state for all poor students irrespective of their religion.
The then Gujarat government had appealed to the Supreme Court in this matter, challenging the Gujarat high court verdict upholding tge constitutional validity of the scholarship. In this pre-matric scholarship, the Union and state governments share the financial burden in the ratio of 75:25. A student is eligible if their parental income from all sources does not exceed Rs 2.50 lakh per annum.
Chaki explained that the reasoning that the government has given – that the RTE covers expenses for students of class 1-8 – does not apply to minority students studying in private schools. He added that as even minority-run schools were exempt from implementing the RTE policy and did not fall under the government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, this would be problematic in case a student from a minority community went to study in a minority-run school of another community.
Isha, who studies in a private school in Karimnagar along with her younger brother, feels that now, her parents will have to pick which child they want to educate in the future, considering the cash crunch and loss of the pre-matric scholarship.
Mukhtar Bapu, trustee of Derawala Vidyalaya in Dhebar, Jamnagar has been receiving calls ever since the news of the cancellation of the scholarship came out. “Parents, students and even us school staff are worried about the future of these children,” he said. The Vidyalaya Bapu runs has 176 students from classes 1-8. The fee system of the school is such that Bapu and his staff help children to fill forms wherein they take only half the scholarship money as fees and let parents keep the rest. “We don’t know where to go now, how to help these children in the middle of their academic years,” he said.
Hamza Chiroliya, 32, is a former beneficiary of the MANF, and is grateful for it. Chiroliya feels that had the fellowship not aided his education, he would have never been able to complete his PhD. Like Chiroliya, many students have been left in limbo, and forced to either borrow loans or leave their education midway. “Had I been in this situation I would not have been able to complete my PhD; it is not only unfair, but also pushing Muslims to illiteracy.” Chiroliya also added that while not many pursued PhDs in the state, this action would disable economically deprived persons from the minority community to pursue an education at all.
Adding to the argument that the cancellation is discriminatory in nature, Dr Manish Doshi, Congress’s Gujarat spokesperson, said that the party vehemently opposed the BJP government’s politically coloured decision. “The BJP government has a track record of robbing minorities off of facilities. Rather than spending crores on their own advertising, they should spend on the future of our country,” said Doshi.
“They are an exclusive government, they want to exclude minorities from their rights, further marginalising the minority communities,” he added.
This article was first published on The Wire.