Why Jamia and AMU matter for Muslims, and for India
I came to Jamia Millia Islamia in 1997. I have seen the campus maturing into a university, much as it has seen me and my generation growing up. While it is a central university, for all practical purposes, two decades ago, it was a provincial one – in terms of its composition and the realm of ideas – reflecting the passiveness and weaknesses of Muslims that has plagued the community since 1947. Almost two decades later, it’s a different university, with assertive and unapologetic students.
I saw a glimpse of that shift for the first time as a school student in 2000. The students were protesting the death of an engineering student, who was killed by a Blueline bus. The protests were not entirely civil, but that was hardly unique to Jamia.
The police, then, forcibly entered the campus, assaulted a professor who opposed their entry, beat up students inside the Shafiqur Rahman Kidwai hostel, and detained 66 students, including school children, studying in the same library that stands vandalised now. Investigations by civil society revealed that the police injured some 50 students, dragged many by their feet, confiscated their modest belongings, and used slurs questioning their nationalism.
Then came 2008. A police encounter, with many unanswered questions, took place in the university locality. But the way the police, and an emerging 24*7 television media, acted in the aftermath was a disappointment, perpetuating the age-old stereotypes of Muslims as violent and uneducated, and of Jamia as a hub of extremism.
By 2019, most people had moved on. Students had started considering themselves as equal to students elsewhere, and never imagined the police entering the campus. But they did. They did even before the infamous December 15 incident. On December 13, they entered the campus and lathicharged students and threw tear gas shells. The story in Aligarh Muslim University, as a report in the Hindustan Times documented, is no different. This makes you ask the question: Why?
The fact that the police can enter the campus repeatedly without requisite permission, and act against students, is viewed by the community as a reflection of the mindset of impunity within the security establishment. This stands in contrast to other campuses, where sustained student activism happens but, thankfully, never such police brutality or vandalism.
The response to the Jamia and AMU incidents has been heartening. Universities have risen up in solidarity. Civil society, political parties and a section of the media have been empathetic. But there has also been another response — the underlying sentiment of which is that Muslims are not patriotic enough; they create trouble, and, so, they must be ”taught a lesson”.
But, and one wishes one did not have to even reiterate this, Muslims are, everyday-patriots, contributing to the country in mundane ways. The injured Jamia security guard, an army veteran who was trying to save students from police beating, is a patriot. The young man who lost his eyes while studying in library, something his parents and country would want him to, is a patriot. Those detained for peacefully putting forth their demands, strengthening Indian democracy, are patriots.
The vocabulary of today’s young Muslim is different from the past. They are unapologetic about their rights enshrined in the Constitution — nothing more, nothing less. This is democracy in its best form. But brutality, such as in Jamia or AMU, hits where it hurts. These spaces challenge the stereotype of orthodox within the community. They walk a fine line, negotiating their way from inside and outside the community, and preparing, simultaneously, modern citizens. Preserve these institutions.