Sajid Ali Bukhari and Sohaib Akhtar
“Dear people, Muslims of our country have not reached the point where they could compete with Bengalis in education”, Sir Syed in his seventies addressed the Muhammadan Educational Conference of 1887 on how the demand of Congress to appoint officers through competitive exams would be unjust to Muslims who have just started their journey of education with the establishment of Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College (M.A.O. College) in Aligarh, whereas fellow community could find roots of its educational journey in the second decade of 19th century, 50 years earlier than Muslims.
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the founder of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) sensed the danger for Muslims and other non-Bengalis in the proposed demand of Congress to treat unequal equally; thus, he stood firmly against it.
Today after more than a century, a similar policy is imposed in the form of the ‘Central University Entrance Test’ (CUET), a Computer Based Test (CBT) for the admission of undergraduate (UG) courses to 45 Central Universities of India but there is no Sir Syed to speak on its evil consequences. This policy of one nation, one exam will not only be unjust to educationally and economically backward communities rather it would also fail the purpose of the institution established by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. He wanted Aligarh Muslim University to be a source of light for the Muslim community which could eradicate ignorance from everywhere around.
This is sad but true that even after a century, there are not many institutions for the upliftment of Muslims, particularly for those who are economically weak which is a significant reason behind the backwardness of Muslims and CUET will only add vulnerability to this situation. It seems to be a single window for aspirants from the whole country but in reality, it is to treat unequal equally. Meanwhile, students who could not afford to study in prestigious schools and students who availed of quality education in prestigious schools with all facilities will compete with each other in one examination, this disparity does not seem to create a ‘level playing field’ as envisaged by UGC, consequences of which would be disastrous for economically weaker sections, particularly for disadvantaged Muslims.
Furthermore, for such Muslim students AMU is an ideal place because even with very less resources in hand Aligarh provides them with a quality life with quality education, whereas under CUET, the probability of such students getting admission to AMU is far lower than ever. After all, seats in AMU will now be occupied by those who have the opportunity to study in schools in metropolitan cities with the privilege to take coaching after spending lakhs. On top of that, such disadvantaged aspirants of AMU who would earlier compete with thousands would now compete with lakhs of students. AMU is also a place for first-generational students because of the affordability and quality of education it provides. The introduction of CUET puts the marginalized and first-generation students without networks of contacts in a disadvantageous position. This will either expel poor Muslim students out of competition or will push them to the institutions where they cannot afford to study because of the high cost of living or quality education contrary to AMU.
Many meritorious Muslim students could not even think about NLUs and IITs because of the high charges. As per the research of NLSIU Bangalore, Muslims, who constitute 14% of India’s population, make up only 0.5% of that of NLS, the figure in all National law University as per IDIA survey report of 2018, is not more than 4%. The condition is similar in other professional and technical institutions. If most of the seats here in AMU would be occupied by privileged elites, where would poor Muslims go?
Sir Syed always wanted diversity in AMU, this is why despite an institution exclusively established by Muslims for the enlightenment of Muslims, the doors of AMU have been open for everyone from day one as Sir Syed himself said, “I shall feel sorry if anybody thinks that this college has been established to show discrimination between Hindus and Muslims. The main reason behind the establishment of this institution was the wretched dependence of the Muslims, which had been debasing their position day after day. Their religious fanaticism did not let them to avail the educational facilities provided by the government schools and colleges. It was, therefore, deemed necessary to make some special arrangement for their education.”
But if the demography of AMU will change for the reasons mentioned above, it would defeat the very purpose of this institution which is to educate Muslims in particular. This is why when Sir Syed expected future products of M.A.O. College (now A.M.U.), he explained, “Philosophy will be in our right hand and natural science in our left. And the crown of, ‘There is no God but Allah’ will adorn our head”.
The change in demography due to CUET is more likely to happen because of the 2005 impugned judgment of the Hon’ble Allahabad High Court in Dr Naresh Agarwal vs Union of India & Ors. regarding the Minority status of AMU, against which an appeal is pending before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India (Aligarh Muslim University vs Naresh Agarwal & Ors.) Since the case is sub-judice, AMU is barred from reserving seats for Muslims, unlike Jamia Millia Islamia.
The blow of this brunt will also largely impact Muslim women. In the darkness of ignorance when Indian women had no opportunity to educate themselves, Sheikh Abdullah (Papa Mian) and his wife Waheed Jahan Begum (Aala Bi) of Aligarh Muslim University fought against the society to establish a school for female students which subsequently became ‘Women’s College of AMU’. It has more than three thousand female students from all over the country, most of whom reside in ‘Abdullah Hall’. In an ongoing wave of hate against Muslims, insecurity in the minds of Muslim parents is increasing, thus there are very few institutions which satisfy the demand of Muslim parents and the Women’s College of AMU does so in all dimensions.
CUET will reduce the probability of admission to Muslim female students in AMU and will offer them admission to other institutions, henceforth, even those families that encourage female education will have to think a hundredfold before sending their daughters anywhere else because not every institution provides a safe platform to them, as we saw in the anti-hijab row, even if it does so, not every institution has as large residential space as AMU; consequently, the adoption of CUET in AMU will exploit the situation of Muslim female students hoping to get education from AMU.
On its FAQ page, CUET states that it will ‘eliminate’ the need for taking coaching, but the reality seems to be inconsistent. Coaching institutes in Aligarh flourished mainly due to the much-feared XI and Pre-Medical (now NEET) entrance examinations of AMU. For UG courses hardly would anyone take the help of coaching institutions. But now after CUET Aligarh will witness a rampant surge of coaching institutions. Advertisements for a few of them are already doing rounds on social media. Coaching centres have been alleged to feed and capitalise on the fear and anxiety of students.
The apprehensions of the “mushrooming of coaching centres” and its consequences have been highlighted by the Tamil Nadu Assembly which passed a resolution on April 11, 2022, calling for the withdrawal of CUET.
A recent study conducted in China found that there was a segment of students who were not comfortable with the Computer-Based Test (CBT) mode because it increased their test anxiety, was distractive and above all posed difficulty in analysing paragraphs from the computer screen. In the case of AMU, CBT is not technologically feasible for a considerable number of applicants coming from backward and rural areas. Replying to the issue of the feasibility of CBT for rural students, UGC Chairman Prof. M Jagdish Kumar simply said that the students will only have to use a mouse and not a keyboard.
The question is about the accessibility of these IT facilities, which most of the states in India do not offer. The past 10 years’ annual report of the varsity shows that the majority of the students taking admission in AMU are from UP followed by Bihar, J&K, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, North-Eastern states, etc. Most of these poor or middle-class students come from rural or non-metropolitan areas. Hence, CUET creates a digital divide between the privileged metropolitan students and the non-privileged rural student who do not have equal access to IT facilities.
NEET-UG as many as 73.9% and 71.7% of students from CBSE and CICSE boards qualified for the test respectively in contrast to other state board students. AMU also gives space to students who graduated from Madrasas. While a Madrasa student would want to take admission only in AMU as they are considered ineligible to get admission in most of the Central Universities but still they are compelled to compete with lakhs of students in CUET which diminishes their chances of clearing the test.
AMU is a heritage university with a rich historical past germinating from the Aligarh Movement of the late 19th century. Hence, to foster the Aligarh Movement AMU had included ‘Indo-Islamic Culture and Aligarh Movement’ in the syllabus of B.A. (Hons), B.A. (Hons) Foreign Languages and B.A. (Hons.) Theology (Shia & Sunni) entrance examinations. Now with the introduction of CUET, this noble effort in protecting and propagating the cultural heritage of the University will collapse. Furthermore, CUET will also impact the already declining finances of AMU.
An analysis of the university’s balance sheet shows that its net annual income from entrance exam fees after deducting all the expenses of admission tests has come down from Rs. 13,62,95,580 in the financial year 2016-17 to Rs. 1,00,28,675 in the financial year 2020-21. Although the Ministry of Education has assured that NTA will only retain 10% of the income from application fees and will return the rest to the universities according to their proportionate student registrations, only time will tell how much financial loss AMU will incur due to CUET.
It is being claimed that AMU will not get affected because CUET does not affect the quota policy of AMU but in reality it has. Quota which remains unaffected has its consequences as those privileged who will join AMU in UG via/through CUET will have their way much easier to masters and PhD with internal Quota.
CUET might be detrimental to the heterogeneous composite culture of AMU by restricting the opportunities to the marginalised who find a place in this seat of learning and might create a homogenous culture of privileged students of uniform educational boards standing on a higher pedestal in terms of access to opportunities in clearing the entrance test. Keeping marginalised and backward students out of top Universities on grounds of unequal opportunity impacts society at large. When only a privileged homogeneous section of the society gets access to quality higher education, only their perspectives find representation in major walks of life, thus damaging the fabric of an inclusive society.
Since CUET involves education which is a basic tool for social change, it has to be gauged through various dimensions transcending the established popular narratives. Aligarh Muslim University has been playing a remarkable role in realising social change goals, particularly amongst Muslims.
It appears that after the revocation of minority status CUET is another nail in the coffin of AMU. It is high time that all the stakeholders of AMU take a stand against the policy which has posed an existential threat to the university whose existence is not shaped by bricks and mortars but by the purpose it was established for.
In this darkness, Sir Syed still seems to stand with a lantern in his hands and appeals what he appealed in his last message to us: “Oh My Dear Children, you have reached the particular stage and remember one thing that when I undertook the task, there was criticism all-around against me. Abuses were hurled at me, Life has become so difficult for me that I aged before my age. I lost my hair, my eyesight, but not my vision. My vision never dimmed. My determination never failed. I built this institution for you and I am sure, you will carry the light of this institution far and wide till darkness disappears from all around.”
Sajid Ali Bukhari and Sohaib Akhtar are students of the Faculty of Law, Aligarh Muslim University.