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Inside the closet

All's not well at Aligarh Muslim University. And the death of a gay professor has raised some difficult questions, writes Paramita Ghosh.

india Updated: Apr 17, 2010 23:11 IST
Paramita Ghosh

At Aligarh Muslim University, Professor Ramchandra Siras is turning into a holy ghost. Siras died of poisoning 11 days ago. Liberals and conservatives, students and teachers, feminists and pro-gay activists are cranking up a campaign around him to demand a probe that will fix most of the problems of the university.

A little green book distributed on campus can help. Its rather florid title — The Indefensible tale of Corruption: an interrupted trail of Financial Loot from Cochin University to Aligarh Muslim University — shows why that would be so.

"But only if the HRD minister takes it up seriously," says the teachers' union secretary, Jamshed Siddiqui.

Says Adil Hossain who wanted to create a student's union in October 2009 and got suspended for his efforts: "The Professor Siras issue is not Aligarh noir or Brokeback Mountain, it's about corruption". And also, about what it means to be Muslim in a Muslim university.

Founded by modernist Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in 1875 to secure the educational and political future of Muslims, AMU has had, since then, two crosses to bear. First, to produce 'good Muslims', in a way to 'repent' for backing Partition. Second, under attack of mainstream forces to retreat into a ghetto to protect 'Muslim culture.' AMU vice-chancellors have, as a result, with the approval of the government of the day, been most careful about its image and its message.

The decision-makers
In 2006, RTI activists like Professor Tariq Islam made public the Justice Mathew Committee Report of 1998 to look into irregularities in admissions, appointments, promotions.

"Three Vice-Chancellors put it in cold storage," says Islam.

Vice-President Hamid Ansari (AMU V-C from 2000-2002), "otherwise an accessible man," was also one of them.

Naved Khan, another AMU professor, however, adds: "Aziz is Hamid Ansari raised to the power minus one."

Policy decisions at AMU have also been schizoid under pressure from the Right and the Centre.

"When Murli Manohar Joshi tried to push Naseem Ahmed, an earlier V-C to seek reserved status for Muslims in AMU, he said 'no'. When the Congress suggested the same, he said 'yes'…," says Prof Islam.

"What difference is there between the policies of the Congress and the BJP when it comes to Muslims?" he asks.

In 2007-08, AMU earned Rs 1,70,000 by fining students. In 2009, the year a presidential inquiry was set up against Aziz, AMU earned Rs 6,30,000 in fines.

How did that help the V-C's cause?

"Fines are meant to silence us," says Sanchita Ain, a law student.

Last year, Adil started a newsletter, Mass 2009.

"It was stopped. It was said to be a plan to destablise students," he says.

Abdullah Hall, the residency of outstation undergraduate students of non-professional courses at AMU's Women's college, is the place where repression, under the pretext of character building, is at its worst.

Ameera, an ex-student had once sold tickets for a Naseeruddin Shah play at AMU's Kennedy Centre "only to be told that I can't attend it."

Other can'ts: "Can't attend the main coaching centre", "can't attend AMU seminars," "hostellers can't leave the hostel premises except Sundays," "can't return home without a fax from parents…"

The last has been taken care of though. Ninety per cent of girls send their faxes from the Lovely PCO Centre, 1 km from the campus.

The questions
Adil, Ameera, Sanchita, Professors Tariq, Naved and Jamshed Siddiqi are, among others, leveraging the Siras issue to push for reform against institutional autocracy.

"Islam has a stand against homosexuality but it can't be imposed. Professor Siras was a Brahmin. How can you impose Sharia on a non-Muslim?" asks Ameera.

Not everyone is as disturbed.

"I am not an admirer of the gay life," is all that Irfan Habib, the venerable AMU academic would say.

But which book of law, ethics or religion did the V-C look up when he suspended a teacher without enquiry on the basis of a sting operation?

How can he claim no involvement of its four senior staff members mentioned in the FIR when the Registrar's office has just furnished reporters with sleaze files on a dead man?

Why did Adil Murtaza and Ashu Rizvi wait for a week to slip their camera into the eye hole when they had been getting "calls a week before the sting to investigate why a rickshaw stands before a particular house in Medical Colony?" How could a report appear in a local daily if PRO Rahat Abrar wanted to "spare Siras the indignity?" Why did the two reporters who said they "wanted to save Siras's job" telecast it on TV the same day?

Perhaps, 10 or 20 years later we will know the answer.