The word ‘Muslim’ is the most sensitive middle name any person or institution can have these days in India. The national public sphere is turning into an echo chamber in which words like Pakistan, Jinnah, Islam, Muslims, terrorism, Kashmir, Madrasa, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Taliban, Jihad, Mughal, Taj Mahal, Babri Masjid, Bangladeshi, Rohingya all constitute just one imagination. In fact, they have also begun to acquire the same meaning, which is both “anti-Hindu” and “anti-national”.
So last week when former Vice President and former Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, Hamid Ansari, came to the campus in Aligarh because he was invited by the University Court to join its prestigious hall of fame, he was simply not allowed to enter the main buildings. Hindu Yuva Vahini members waylaid his convoy. Several students were severely hurt in the lathicharge that followed. The local administration was insensitive, perhaps even complicit, reports say.
Perhaps it is AMU’s fate to be exploited by a variety of stakeholders since its inception. The Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, established in 1875 at the end of a nationwide campaign by Syed Ahmad Khan, was not recognised by the British Raj until 1920, although the Banaras Hindu University, conceived of much later, was recognised in 1915. In fact the British refused the MAO permission to have a branch outside Aligarh, apparently because to wanted to treat both AMU and BHU “equally.”
Established on a campus of 467.6 hectares, the university today has hostels named after leaders like BR Ambedkar, Sarojini Naidu and the Dalai Lama and many centres of excellence named after Muslims, non-Muslims, Shias, Sunnis, Leftist, nationalists and globalists. This is simply because the university has evolved through a historical and social process, which means it simply cannot manifest the uniformed character of a corporate university.
AMU became the centre of anti-colonialism struggles around the world. It became a debating centre for Marxist thought, especially in north India. It also became the intolerable envy of many traditional Islamic clerics who had once issued fatwas against its founder Sir Syed Ahmad Khan for being much too modern.
This diversity of the university’s intellectual character was preserved and protected by several institutional mechanisms through which a variety of nationalist voices became members of the University Court. The list of members – among them Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Nehru, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah – is a manifestation of the idea of diversity that is a fundamental tenet of AMU. Although the accommodation of several conflicting interests can become very problematic in the political sphere, as we saw around the time of Partition/Independence with the Indian National Congress and the BJP today.
Truth is, year after year, AMU’s several research departments are ranked near the top because of its persistent outstanding scientific research. It is odd why its graduates don’t get the attention many of them deserve – perhaps because AMU’s middle name is ‘Muslim?’
As to the recent controversy around the portrait of Mohammad Ali Jinnah which has been hanging inside the century-old union hall of the university for the past 80 years, what else can it be except a new drama? Why does Aligarh MP Satish Kumar Gautam want the portrait removed after so many years? What is it about the timing of this move? Is it because elections are nigh and Mr Gautam feels that his seat is in jeopardy because other claimants, including former UP chief minister Kalyan Singh’s son, has more powerful backers than him? And if this rumour is true, then is it also true that Mr Gautam feels that one way to protect his turf is to create a controversy around a “Pakistani” icon and then let the fun begin ?
Had the portrait of Mohammad Ali Jinnah been a real political problem for the BJP, Mr Gautam should have asked the PM and BJP chief minister of Maharashtra to raze down Jinnah’s house in Mumbai, or perhaps the I&B ministry to delete all the pictures of Jinnah and nationalist leaders in its archives, including Mahatma Gandhi.
Or is the controversy in Jinnah’s name actually a populist political competition in which to be seen to be “anti-Muslim” means more votes?
The AMU Union Hall, built in 1884, was among the first students’ unions in the country. It hosted several freedom fighters, scholars and anti-colonial leaders before it invited Mohammad Ali Jinnah to speak on March 6, 1940, at a time when the Muslim League leader and the Congress were drifting apart. The ‘Pakistan’ resolution would be passed two weeks later by the League at its session in Lahore, but it was already clear that all Muslims of India were not going to be bound by the religious argument when they chose one country over another. Barely 225 km away from Aligarh is the Darul Uloom at Deoband which opposed Jinnah and his political ideology tooth and nail and revolted against the partition of the country.
It is clear that all the shades of grey and the paradoxes that exist in the understanding of Islam eludes the BJP. But, perhaps, it is also AMU’s fault for remaining much more obsessed with the past rather than engage with the post-independent present, especially in post-liberalisation India. Despite its important contribution in spreading education among Muslims, the post-independence university has failed to expand its political discourse and offer the Muslim community an assertive, alternative and inclusive imagination.
How come the university’s political culture is highly sensitive to the global Muslim agenda but least sensitive to the poor at home, whose livelihood and other fundamental rights are compromised on a daily basis? The university’s hesitation to boldly engage with like-minded institutions and assert its own progressive credentials is also partly responsible for the state of affairs today. There is absolutely no need for AMU to be embarrassed or shy about its middle name, but the fact remains that it must emerge from the prison of the “Muslim” imagination. Certainly, there is no need for it to start shedding its portraits, including the one of Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
Omair Anas is a commentator on West Asian affairs and a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs. His views are personal and do not reflect the ICWA’s opinion. He tweets @omairanas.
The article first appeared in The Indian Express