Ideological conflict takes centre stage at Aligarh Muslim University
From sedition to discrimination charges, controversy has shrouded university, with many students saying the institute was under attack for political gains of a few.
It’s a university of world repute; it’s a university in decline. It’s a progressive centre as any; it is a conservative university. Its founder was a proponent of the two-nation theory; its founder was a votary of Hindu-Muslim unity. It has failed its founder’s vision of providing Indian Muslims with a modern education; it has given India, and the subcontinent, Muslim intellectuals. It’s doomed beyond repair; it’s the only hope.
Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) is many things to many people, but for now, the only certainty is that it’s walking a thin line. Talk to students, teachers, or other staff in the largely residential campus of more than 30,000 and the consensus is that the university is under attack for political gains of a few.
At a time when the 2019 general elections are set to begin, the past few months have been particularly eventful.
Some students have been asked to sign bonds of ₹500,000 against protesting; sedition charges have been slapped against three Kashmiri students for allegedly offering funeral prayers for a militant, a former student of the university; and charges of discrimination against Hindu students have been made.
“It’s only a group of five or six students that creates controversies,” said Salman Imtiaz, the president of the university’s student union. “It’s not a coincidence that it’s always the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its youth wing,” added Ambreen Fatima, the president of university’s women’s college.
Complaints are directed primarily towards Ajay Singh, a student of law at the university, and the grandson of a BJP MLA from Aligarh district. Among his demands is building a temple on the campus. He was a presidential candidate of the university student union in 2017 but lost.
On January 26, he insisted that he will bring out a tiranga rally in the campus even though the university organises its own Republic Day function. Within a week of that incident, Aligarh MP Satish Gautam demanded that the word Muslim be removed from the university’s name. “The word ‘Muslim’ makes a large section of the society uncomfortable,” Gautam said. Asked if Banaras Hindu University should also be renamed, the BJP MP said, “India is a Hindu Rashtra and there is no point in removing ‘Hindu’ from BHU.”
Frequency, and predictability, of issues raised clouds motives. “There are 5,000-6,000 Hindu students in the university. Why do only these five-six always have problems?” asked Nishant Bhardwaj, a leader of the students’ union. Does the university discriminate against Hindu students as these “five-six” allege? “I am here since 2007. If that was so I would have left long ago,” said the student leader. To re-empahise the point, Imtiaz said, “Nishant got more votes than I did.”
Ajay Singh dismisses the allegations. “The union and student leaders communalise everything. They blame everything on us.”
The university has seen difficult days but nothing of this sort. Sajjad Ahmad, professor of history, sees the “vilification of the university” as a reflection of majoritarian politics across the country. “Elections or no elections, it will continue to happen... [because] “once you pit two communities against each other all other significant demands are pushed aside.”
The institution was established in 1875 as Anglo-Mohammedan College to impart western education to Muslims. By the time the founder, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, died, Gandhi was still in his teens, so was Jinnah – and a mainstreamed anti-British discourse led by Indian nationalists was still some years away. But as it emerged across the country, AMU turned into an important centre for Muslims opposing the British rule. A major rift appeared, when, in 1920, the British decided to fund institutions such as AMU and BHU. To protest that, the nationalists decided to establish Jamia Millia Islamia - the National Islamic University.
As the national discourse turned increasingly communitarian, many in AMU rallied around Jinnah. But it was Gandhi who was given the first lifetime membership of the university students’ union, in 1925. Ambedkar, Azad, and others followed. Jinnah’s turn came in 1938, by the time he was undeniably a prominent leader besides being a frequent donor to the university.
Jinnah’s continued presence in the AMU discourse eight decades later is a testimony to the twists and turns the region’s shared history has taken. Partition cocooned the Indian Muslim community, but it weakened it as well. To challenge that, the AMU community tried to safeguard what it had and demanded minority status for the university. It was eventually granted one in 1981 by an act of Parliament – it has since been challenged in court – but the political developments in recent years seem to have converted even the staunchest critics of the original approach. “It was a parochial idea in the 1960s. But this debate is now happening in a different context,” said Irfan Habib, prof emeritus at AMU, who had earlier opposed the minority status of the university.
Snowballing of small events in the recent past doesn’t help either. On February 12, a TV correspondent entered the campus to report, as she claimed, “on a story that had nothing to do with AMU”. Students claim that she called it a university of terrorists (she denies that). Soon it turned ugly, and AMU was back in Delhi’s TV studios as it had been many times in last few months.
On the same morning, a meeting of the country’s Muslim leaders, called by some student leaders of the university, was scheduled. Their advertised motive was to chalk out a political alternative, and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi was rumoured to attend.
Days before the scheduled meeting, Nishit Sharma, a former student of the university and now a BJP leader in the university town ,wrote to Union human resources development minister Prakash Javadekar: “These students are trying to hurt the sentiments of the Hindus by inviting Owaisi.” He further wrote, “Though we will not allow him to enter Aligarh, if he comes then he will not be able to go back.”
On the morning of the meeting, a group of students led by Ajay Singh, the former presidential candidate, entered the union hall. There was no sign of Owaisi. They took their protest to the V-C’s office. Counter protests happened. Soon, the two cases – the protest over the TV reporter and Owaisi – got mixed. Allegations flew that Singh’s alleged accomplice fired at a student union leader; photos were circulated on social media that showed him with a pistol. Singh has denied any wrong doing.
By the evening, the police filed a case of sedition against 14 students of the university based on an FIR filed by a BJP youth wing leader, Mukesh Lodhi. “But the police chose not to turn the students’ complaint into an FIR,” said Sharjeel Usmani, a student of the university.
The BJP leader’s FIR mentioned that he saw a few AMU students assaulting the TV journalist and Hindu students from the university and shouting “Hindustan Murdabad, Pakistan Zindabad.” Lodhi also alleged that he was fired at. The police later dropped the sedition charges.
It was in many ways a continuation of previous events – such as the Jinnah controversy last May. Gautam, the MP, had written to the university to explain Jinnah’s picture in the student union hall, which is accompanied by those of Gandhi, Ambedkar, Azad. The letter was timed to coincide with the visit of Hamid Ansari, the former vice-president of India, the former V-C of the university, and an alumnus as well. He was scheduled to be given the lifetime membership of the students’ union, but after the protests, he returned without being honoured.
The university community saw these events as a design to whip up emotion before state elections in four states. Prof Sajjad asked, “Jinnah was discussed on one TV channel for five hours. Why not the enactment of Godse shooting Mahatma Gandhi?” – which was organised by Aligarh-based members of Hindu Mahasabha, on January 30, the date on which he was assassinated in 1948.
Beyond the animosities drawn out of the Hindu-Muslim shared past, the university community is also challenged by the demons within - some unique, some generic. The AMU founder’s vision to become the Oxford of the East is challenged, in part, because of nepotism in the hiring of its faculty members. It still produces a vast number of first-generation learners and non-metro aspirants to the educated class – but a bitter regionalism prevails, and continues to affect the university. It continues to extract a little too much discipline from women students in the name of “tehzeeb” (manners).
Women in recent years though have been able to answer back. There is a consistent struggle between shrill conservatism and rationalism. No one has won yet – but the diverging ideas undoubtedly converge over the “threat” the university faces. Every incidence of pressing the university to prove itself sends a little disappointment across more than 30,000 homes. And every time it does, the university suffers more than its fair share.