For Rayees Ahmed, a 26-year-old research scholar from Kashmir studying at Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh state, the option of pursuing higher education did not come easy.
Having lost his father years ago, Ahmed's education has mostly been supported by his elder siblings.
To further support himself throughout his PhD, Ahmed has relied on the Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF) — which is a support scheme for minority students in India pursuing an M.Phil or PhD.
"I don't think I would have been able to pursue the PhD, had I not qualified for the fellowship because a lot of expenses need to be covered when one is pursuing higher education," he said.
However, in a major blow to students from minority communities, the Indian government in December announced the discontinuation of MANF.
On December 8, in response to a question raised in parliament, Minority Affairs Minister Smriti Irani said that MANF "overlaps with various other fellowship schemes for higher education being implemented by the government and minority students are already covered under such schemes."
How MANF helps India's minority students
The MANF was provided by the Indian government to six religious minorities — Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Jain, Parsi and Sikh.
It was introduced in 2009, following the recommendation of Sachar Committee, which was set up by the former ruling United Progressive Alliance government to study the social, economic and educational status of the Muslim community in India.
According to the committee's findings in 2009, only 7% of the total population above 20 years of age were graduates or held diplomas, and among the Muslim population, the proportion was less than 4%.
The report said that policies of "affirmative action need to be fine-tuned to take into account the deficits faced by poor and non-poor Muslims in higher education."
While the fellowship is availed by students of all minority communities, a large chunk of the beneficiaries are Muslim students. According to data provided by the Ministry of Minority Affairs, Muslim students made up more than 70% of the awardees in 2018-2019.
"Over the years, thousands of students from underprivileged backgrounds have benefited from the fellowship who would have otherwise not been able to pursue higher education," said Fawaz Shaheen, the national secretary of the Students Islamic Organization of India, the student wing of the religious organization Jamaat-e-Islami Hind.
A scholar pursuing a PhD in a STEM field at a government university in northern state of Uttar Pradesh told DW about the stresses of studying without financial support.
"I did not qualify for MANF in the first two years of my PhD, so I have experienced the psychological toll of not having a funding support while pursuing a career in research," the scholar told DW requesting anonymity.
According to a 2019 study published by the Council for Social Development, which analyzed education data from an official census, the overall enrollment in higher education was 23% in 2010. The enrollment percentage of Muslims stood at just 13.8%.
The report concluded that members of the Muslim community were least likely to participate in higher education.
"Muslims are the most deserving group needing affirmative action. The discontinuation of MANF is a bigger blow to the Muslim community compared to other religious minorities," said Khalid Khan, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies.
Students question logic of rollback
While Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that students who qualified for the fellowship before March 31, 2022, will continue to receive the benefit for the remaining period of their courses, the sudden decision to scrap MANF has caused a stir among the student community.
Questioning the reason of "overlap" provided by the government to discontinue MANF, Ahmed said that the same logic can be applied to other scholarship schemes that are reserved for marginalized groups.
"There is no question of overlap. One student can only avail one fellowship at a time," said Saurabh Anand, who belongs to the Buddhist community and is a PhD scholar enrolled at the Central University of Himachal Pradesh.
Expressing his concern, he said, "research scholars of all backgrounds are worried now because the government can shut other scholarship schemes giving similar reasons."
"This is not at all a conducive environment if the government wants research to flourish," he added.
Since December, several student organizations have protested against the decision and held protests across the country.
Many political leaders have raised the issue in parliament and demanded that the government withdraw its decision to discontinue the fellowship.
Parliamentarian Imran Pratapgarhi told DW that the government's move is "anti-minority" and "anti-student" and will adversely affect thousands of people.
Sukhadeo Thorat, former chairman of University Grants Commission, which is a statutory body that oversees and funds universities in India, said that "there are certain social groups that lag behind so there is a need for group-specific policies. If we want to bridge the gap, there has to be an additional push enabling such groups."
The Indian Ministry of Minority Affairs did not respond to DW's requests for comment.
Edited by: Wesley Rahn