The amount of ₹33,700 that 27-year-old Zeeshan Ahmad Sheikh, a Ph.D. student from the Central University of Kashmir (Ganderbal), was receiving in the form of the Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF) every month, was not just catering to his education but was also funding the school fees of his younger sister and brother. Since August 2022, Mr. Sheikh has been meeting all these expenses with money borrowed from relatives and friends as he awaits the disbursement of the fellowship.
Mr. Sheikh, who qualified in the University Grants Commission National Eligibility Test (UGC NET) in December 2021, became eligible for the MANF from February 2022. He says he has received the grant only once so far, and most of that went towards repaying loans he has taken, with interest. The son of a contractor in Kashmir and the first in his family to pursue higher education, Mr. Sheikh feels that he should discontinue his studies and start working so that he can support his father.
“It feels like begging for something that I have earned and deserve,” Mr. Sheikh said, alleging that the Ministry of Minority Affairs, which was implementing the scheme before it was discontinued, never responded to his email enquiries, and that officials misbehaved with him when he tried to call on the landline numbers.
Like Mr. Sheikh, hundreds of Ph.D. students from across the country are awaiting funding from the MANF, a five-year fellowship provided by the Union government to minority communities, including Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists and Jains. The scheme was launched by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government as part of the implementation of recommendations of the Sachar Committee.
According to UGC data shared by the government in the Lok Sabha, about 6,722 candidates were selected under the MANF scheme between 2014-15 and 2021-22, and fellowships to the tune of ₹738.85 crore were distributed in this period.
Kanwalpreet Kaur (35), a MANF fellow from Mumbai, received the fellowship money in August 2022. Now a senior research fellow, Ms. Kaur faces a hard time to convincing her family let her pursue her dreams and not marry instead. “Girls are married at a very early age in our community. I fought with this culture and pursued my dream with my own money. But in such a situation, where we are not getting the fellowship [funds] for six-seven months, it has become hard to survive,” Ms. Kaur, whose father is retired and ailing, said. She says lost all her savings in the Punjab and Maharashtra Cooperative Bank crisis, which left thousands of depositors in distress following grave financial irregularities.
She added that the MANF fellowship was a boon for students from minority communities and should not be discontinued.
The BJP-led Union government told the Lok Sabha in December 2022 that the MANF scheme was being discontinued. Minister for Minority Affairs Smriti Irani has said the decision had been taken as the MANF scheme overlaps with various other schemes. Besides MANF, budget for several other schemes for minorities has been cutback significantly in the financial year 2023-24. The Union Budget’s estimate for the Ministry of Minority Affairs was ₹5,020.50 crore in 2022-23. This time, the Ministry has been allotted ₹3,097 crore, 38% less than last year.
“How can the government say that there is overlapping of fellowships when we enrol with our Aadhar identifications. What will the government do if it is not able to streamline the overlapping even when people are enrolled with UID (unique identification)?” Naseera NM, a MANF recipient from Kerala, and a mother of two children, said.
Ms. Naseera alleged that the delay in the disbursement of the grant is significantly longer in the MANF relative to other national fellowships such as the National Fellowship for Other Backward Classes (NFOBC), National Fellowship scheme for Scheduled Caste (NFSC), etc. “We have experienced immense mental and financial pain due to the delay in the fellowship. This is snatching away our right to a life with dignity,” Ms. Naseera wrote in a letter to the Ministry of Minority Affairs.
The MANF scholars say that they are not allowed to work elsewhere or obtain any other stipends or honorariums during the fellowship’s tenure. “If we do so, we will be charged, obligated to repay the whole amount, and our fellowships will be cancelled. Therefore, we are in a big crisis, living without our fellowships, and without the right to work, after the change in rules by the Finance Ministry,” Ajaz Ahmed, another MANF fellow who hasn’t received aid from the scheme since October 2022, said.
Ministry officials have not yet responded to queries sent by The Hindu.
Iqbal Singh Lalpura, Chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM), said that the NCM has formed a committee, headed by its Vice Chairperson Kersi Kaikhushroo Deboo, to meet the individuals who are beneficiaries of the MANF and address their concerns.