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Protestors, thy name irony

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Everyone has a right to protest, peacefully. Deducing from the viral pics and videos of damage to public property and to people, the protests at Jamia University were anything but. But then in all fairness, it is difficult to judge as to who started the cycle of violence in the first place and who was responsible for escalating it, the students or the police based only on hearsay. In any case, all that is for the judges to decide, as they will sooner rather than later.

Much has also been spoken by supporters on both sides of the literally burning hot issue that is the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019. I am not quite sure that there is something there that remains to be said, which has not been said or debated already. Therefore, I on the other hand shall attempt to talk about something else. I shall talk of an issue that I feel is as connected as it is separate from the current protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. And for that let’s take a deeper look at ground zero.

Jamia Millia Islamia, originally founded in 1920, was accorded the status of Central University by an Act of the Parliament in 1988. In 2011, almost after a century of it being a secular institution, the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions suddenly declared Jamia Millia Islamia to be a minority institution. It was to be the first of its kind and remains to this date, a unique instance in the entire country, which allowed for upto 50% reservation for Muslims in a completely government funded university. Empowered by its new found privilege, the University could simply ignore the constitutional mandate for providing reservation to the SCs, STs and other Backward Classes. Bearing the aforesaid in mind, it would not be wrong to say that a majority of its present constituents, both Teachers and Students, therefor have benefited from this communal reservation. More importantly, that being the case, it can be inferred that all such constituents also tacitly support or are party to this discrimination based solely on religion.

This of course begets the question, is it constitutionally permissible for a completely centrally funded educational institution to discriminate on the basis of religion? Does such discrimination, purely based on religion, not violate the basic structure of the constitution? Is this not the very question of law that we are also faced with in the debate on the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019? Fortunately, the first two questions are already before the Apex Court in the challenge to the minority status of Jamia Millia Islamia. Be that as it may, history may be a better judge and it tells us that there were no protests when the aforesaid move was announced by the then Central Government and indeed, there has been hardly any opposition to the move ever since from the University’s own constituents.

Fast forward to 2019 and enter the Citizen Amendment Act, 2019. For the benefit of the uninitiated, in its simplest form, the Citizenship Amendment Act fast tracks grant of citizenship to refugees belonging to six religions (excluding Muslims of course) from three of the neighbouring Islamic States i.e. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The rationale behind this classification appears to be that various people from the six religions have historically faced and to an extent, continue to face, both state sponsored and privately orchestrated persecution and discrimination in these countries on the basis of religion, due to an overwhelming influence of Islam and favouritism towards Muslims in those countries’ governance and laws. This of course is not merely based on a figment of someone’s imagination but is rather based on widely reported events in the history of these nations.

As we are all aware, students from Jamia University, at least half of whom have directly benefited from the aforesaid discrimination in admissions process, that’s perpetrated solely on the basis of religion, are now at the forefront of these protests. Therefore, as any other self-searching alumni of this glorious institution, it needs be that I must ask myself this… is this not irony writ large and a matter for deep introspection?

(Aditya Gaggar is an advocate practicing before the Supreme Court of India. The views expressed are personal.)

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