Students have been protesting all over the country after the Central government withdrew the Maulana Azad Fellowship (MAF). This is a five-year fellowship for PhD candidates.

The Maulana Azad Fellowship was launched in 2009 assuring financial assistance for five years to students from six notified minority communities: Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Muslims, Parsis and Sikhs to pursue their M.Phil and PhD studies.

Experts believe that discontinuing this fellowship will lead to students from marginalised and vulnerable communities facing financial challenges, especially with the cost of education becoming expensive.

Speaking to The Citizen, Abha Dev Habib, secretary, Democratic Teachers' Front said that these fellowships are important and scrapping them is an attack on students. "There are various reports that say that a large section of the minority community is economically weak so the government cannot withdraw any scholarship. Scholarships like NET and Non-NET fellowship and many others have been stopped, or the frequency of NET exams has gone down. The government is picking at the students," she said.

The UGC NET or NTA-UGC-NET, is the examination for determining the eligibility for the post of assistant professor and/or Junior Research Fellowship award in Indian universities and colleges. The examination is conducted by the National Testing Agency on behalf of the University Grants Commission.

The decision has left many students concerned and feeling torn about their future. Gul Mohammed (name changed on request) is pursuing PhD from Kashmir's Srinagar who was planning to apply for the fellowship. "I wanted to clear NET so that I could apply for this fellowship and pursue it. Now, I won't be doing it. I got a stipend of Rs. 7,000, which is meagre, so I wanted to clear NET so that I could get this fellowship. That option has faded as well," he said.

Soon after the decision was announced, it created an uproar among the academic community. "The reason has to be told if such a major decision is taking place. Have things changed in the country, which requires this withdrawal. It is extremely unfortunate and shows their biassed understanding of situations. It goes against the students who are anyway struggling with the cost of education going up in the last seven years," Habib added.

Meanwhile, many people took to Twitter and shared their disappointment. "I was able to support my PhD because of MANF. Some years ago, they tried to reduce the scope of the fellowship by making NET compulsory to access MANF. Now they scrapped the fellowship completely furnishing bizarre arguments. Truth is they don't want minority scholars," said Sabina, who has pursued her PhD through MANF.

"The narrow-minded attitude of trying to suppress certain communities will eventually impact your economy as a whole. You're going to end up spending an enormous amount of money later trying to cosmetically remedy structural problems that you actively manufacture," she added.

Many protests were taken out in the matter. A joint call was given by students from various universities which ended up with Delhi Police detaining, later releasing the students.

On Thursday Muslim Students Federation (MSF) staged a protest at Jantar Mantar demanding that Central government take back its decision. "The Central government is coming with anti-student and anti-minority policies from the last seven years and we are trying to protect our rights," Ahmed Saju, President of MSF said.

On the other hand, the Jawaharlal Nehru Teachers' Association (JNUTA) also launched a protest demanding the withdrawal of the decision. The JNUTA termed this move as 'anti-minority policy' and said this move works against the value of inclusivity.

"The JNUTA demands an immediate reversal of the anti-minority policy evident in the withdrawal of the MAF and the upholding of the democratic rights of all teachers to participate in higher education with dignity and without fear," the teachers' body said.

While the Maulana Azad Fellowship for minority students pursuing higher education has been scrapped, the government's pre-matric scholarship for them will no longer apply to students from Class 1 to Class 8.

Meanwhile, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Dr. Pritam Gopinath Munde last week said that the Union government should take back its recent decision. Raising the issue in the Lok Sabha, Dr. Munde said the decision was taken without any prior intimation and this year also, thousands of students had given applications for it.

"I demand that the government should rethink this decision. Education is free in right to education but this (scholarships) work as an encouragement for these students in schools," she said.

Meanwhile, several parliamentarians also demanded in Lok Sabha that the fellowship be restored, saying how will the country progress if the minority communities are left behind.

During a discussion on the supplementary demands for grants, BSP MP Danish Ali said the pre-matric scholarship and Maulana Azad Fellowship must be restored. "Everyone needs to be taken along for the prosperity of the country. How can you leave minorities behind and prosper?"

All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) MP Syed Imitiaz Jaleel also raised the demand, asking how will minority students' study and progress if this fellowship is stopped. Raising the issue of the education of minorities, Samajwadi Party member S. T. Hasan said the government should restart the scholarships it has done away with like the Maulana Azad National Fellowship.

All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) chief Badruddin Ajmal also demanded that the scholarships be restored and called for enhancing the budget for minorities to provide education to them.

On Wednesday, however, Union Minister for Finance Nirmala Sitharaman announced that students who applied for MANF before March 31, 2022, will be eligible to receive their scholarship amount until the end of their tenure.

This was announced in response to a question in the Lok Sabha and came a week after the Minister of Minority Affairs, Smriti Irani revealed that the scholarship was going to be discontinued. The reason cited by Irani for scrapping MANF was that it "overlapped" with other scholarship schemes.

In the Lok Sabha on December 15, a discussion was held on the matter, and members of the opposition demanded that the scholarship be restored. Finance Minister Sitharaman then clarified that the students who applied for MANF before March 31 will continue to avail of its benefits until the end of their tenure.