When Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan set up an educational institution in Aligarh ‘to promote especially the educational and cultural advancement of the Muslims of India’, he was careful and ‘sensitive’ to the concerns of other communities. He laid out that beef would not be served in the campus.
Over 140 years later, this year, the BJP Mayor of the city - Shakuntala Bharti - alleged that the university canteen was serving ‘beef biryani’ and demanded action. The campus was thrown into a tizzy, police complaints were lodged, an air of tension was palpable.
The university clarified - no we have not served beef in our history, it is not beef biryani, it is buffalo meat, the allegations are vicious, we would not hurt sentiments. A communal conflagration, the AMU VC Zameer Uddin Shah told HT, was just about avoided.
The memory of Dadri, not too far away, was hanging over Aligarh.
The shadow of JNU
But if it was not a vigil over what people ate, it was a vigil over what they said that haunted the university next.
Satish Gautam, Aligarh’s BJP MP leaked a letter to media he had written to the VC in the third week of February, warning against ‘anti national and anti government’ activities at the University.
“We can see what is happening in JNU. Keeping these events in mind, AMU should not give permission for any anti national or anti government activity.” Gautam added that recent events in the campus had heavily dwelt on ‘anti Sangh, sarkar and BJP sentiment’ and warned against ‘politicisation of the campus’.
The VC told HT, “I am an army man. I have served as the deputy chief of the force and been privy to the state’s deep secrets. And I will not allow anything anti national. But criticism of parties, of governments, is a part of AMU culture. I am not going to stop any activity that is not against the constitution.”
The memory of JNU now hangs over AMU.
‘Secular institution, Muslim ethos’
At the Maulana Azad Library, a group of research scholars pursuing their PhDs in English literature - working on themes as varied as borders and migration in the work of Jhumpa Lahiri and Monica Ali to that of Indian playwrights - were in conversation
Iqbal Ansari, one of the students, said, “The simple question is whether we all have to conform to Hindutva or whether they will accept multiculturalism and diversity in this country.”
He mentioned that the debate around nationalism in JNU had triggered a discussion in AMU - and a professor of English had organised a small seminar around it. “We are following the alternative classes in JNU, and there is only one guidebook to follow nationalism - the constitution.” The students felt that the institution was targeted because it had taken the lead in raising issues like UGC fellowship.
AMU, they argued, was being ‘targeted’ for a different reason- the fact that it was seen as a ‘Muslim institution’, even though it had students from different religions.
And that is the striking part of AMU. It is Muslim, but it is not just Muslim.
AMU is also fighting a court case to safeguard its ‘minority character’, which in turn will allow it to remain relatively autonomous in its functioning, and not follow the reservation principles other central institutions have to ascribe to. Currently, the AMU does not have religion or caste based quotas, though there are varying degrees of reservations for different courses on different criteria.
“We are a secular institution a Muslim ethos,” says Shah. Events begin with Quranic verses - much like events in other institutions begin with the Hindu symbolism of lighting lamps. Salaam-e-Waalekum is how people greet each other. And there are courses like Urdu, Persian and Unani Medicine with an overwhelming number of Muslim students.
But along side, Shah points to the modern infrastructure including the best sports facilities across any university in UP; English language as medium of instruction; and inclusion and diversity in student pool in a range of courses like medicine and engineering as proof of its modern character.
The university has lost the case in the High Court. The government had initially backed AMU’s claim. But in the SC, the Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi changed the position and said the government could not support the minority character of any institution in a secular state.
A furious Shah said, “I told the PM when we met recently that Indian Muslims have an emotional attachment with AMU. Any change in its character will have a detrimental impact on you, your party, Indian Muslims and this nation which is a salad bowl.”
Squeeze by HRD
Other policy moves- and HRD minister Smriti Irani’s manner of functioning- do not help.
One of the students in front of the library claimed to HT that Irani had told Shah - when he went to meet her along with Kerala chief minister Oomen Chandy to ask for funds for AMU centre in Kerala - that he was not welcome. “She even asked him whether she paid her or whether Chandy paid her.”
The VC himself did not confirm or deny the content of the conversation - but the fact that he had to leave the meeting venue, her house, is now well known even though Chandy had taken him. Congress leader in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad raised her behaviour in parliament. The minister and the VC have subsequently met - but the relationship remains tense.
AMU claims that its centres in West Bengal, Bihar and West Bengal are not being funded; the ministry claims these are ‘illegal’. The discord manifests itself in other ways. The ministry’s nominees for the executive council of the university - which included the pro BJP journalist Rajat Sharma - made the university uncomfortable. The president - as the visitor of the university - has sent back the names to the government.
Add it all together - and the sense one gets from AMU is an institution seething and defensive, a student population bitter and angry. Irrespective of who is right or wrong, this cannot be good news for India’s higher education.