It is by any measure a curious higher education initiative: five new ‘minority’ universities to be set up under the aegis of the Union Ministry of Minority Affairs, run as ‘public-private’ partnerships, and located in five States of the country that have sizeable minority populations. The scheme, mooted by Union Minister for Minority Affairs K. Rahman Khan, and currently under deliberation by a team of education experts led by Indian Council of Social Science Research chairperson Sukhadeo Thorat, is still very much at the drawing-board stage. However, the announcement by Mr. Khan that one of the universities would be set up in Srirangapatna and named after Tipu Sultan, the iconic 18th century ruler of Mysore who made the river-island his capital, drew the predictable roar of protest from those quarters in Karnataka that have been consistently hostile to the secular and progressive legacy of Tipu Sultan. The Higher Education minister in the Bharatiya Janata Party government, C.T. Ravi’s stated opposition to a “Muslim” university named after a “foreigner” is not only avowedly communal but misleading too. The university, if and when it comes into existence, will be a ‘minority’ institution and not be just for Muslims. Secondly, though the present government has in the past tried hard to exorcise Tipu from school textbooks, his contributions to the fight against colonialism is an inalienable part of our history. It is therefore entirely fitting that a centre of higher education to be set up in Srirangapatna be named after him.
More problematic, however, is the legal and jurisdictional ambiguity in the very scheme of setting up a string of minority universities. A seven-member expert committee under Professor Thorat, which is to submit its report on February 15, is to consider whether these institutions will be set up under an Act of Parliament or as autonomous institutions of national importance. As these universities will come directly under the overarching jurisdiction of the Ministry for Human Resource Development, they are clearly incompatible as enterprises based on ‘public-private’ partnership. Indeed the chequered track record of this model in other spheres is a serious cause for concern. The Sachar Committee Report noted that only four per cent of Muslims in India are graduates, and that the gap between Muslims and other socio-religious categories increases as the level of education increases. While this imposes greater urgency upon the government to address the under-representation of minorities in higher education, a hasty and ill-thought out mechanism runs the risk of becoming yet another exercise in tokenism.