I Was Born a Hindu and I Went to Jamia. What Will You Label Me?

First Person

I Was Born a Hindu and I Went to Jamia. What Will You Label Me?

One of my fondest childhood memories are post-dinner drives with my father to his alma mater: Jamia Millia Islamia. He would lug my mother, my sister and I to show us around the campus. Not only did he study there, but as a scholar-in-residence at the Jamia hostel, he spent the better part of his youth between Sarai Jullena and Jamia Nagar, the two neighbourhoods of south Delhi.

“See this, our canteen used to be right here. We’d always owe the canteen owner money but that never stopped him from serving us. When the hostel dinner would be boring, we’d head here.” Or, “During exams, Ajay Jain would leave the room within an hour, and later he would rave about the film he saw right after, because he did not see value in writing an exam he thought he would fail.”

My sister and I grew up on dad’s hostel and college stories. Our mother, on the other hand, attended an all-girls college in Delhi University. Her college stories, were always too sanitised, lacking in charm. Unlike my father’s stories, they were not entrenched in history, politics, or passion.

Jamia holds a critical place in my family history. My father is the first graduate from my family. It is at Jamia that my dad acquired a diploma in Civil Engineering, and lived in Delhi for the first time, only to make this city his home.

Jamia

Students and local residents hold placards and raise slogans as they take part in a protest against the Citizenship Amandment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), at Jamia Millia Islamia University, on December 18, 2019 in New Delhi, India.

Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

My dad’s friends from the batch included the only Muslim girl in the batch of 50 boys. Ideally, this would make for an engineering college meme but over three decades ago this was not an uncommon occurrence. The same girl ended up marrying one of my dad’s closest friend, a Hindu boy. To this day, their group with different religious identities remains rock steady. The stories of their camaraderie can make anyone envious. Almost, cinematic and unreal in the present political climate of the country.

Years later, upon the insistence of my family with a recurring improvisation on a Kabhie Khushi Kabhi Gham joke (“Hamare ghar ki parampara hai, hum sab Jamia me padhte hain”), I signed up for the entrance exam with reluctance on my wavering confidence about clearing it. After a two-part written examination, a portfolio full of media-related work, and an excruciatingly difficult viva with over 12 faculty members, I had made it through to the prestigious Anwar Jamal Kidwai Mass Communication Research Centre, a school with extremely high standards of academic scholarship and professionalism.

For two whole years, through the duration of the programme, well-wishers negged my family with baseless allegations. “Do you feel safe sending your daughter to Jamia Nagar?” and “Batla House is a hub for terrorism and Jamia is a hot-bed for radicalising kids” were some of the few jibes we received. Very little had changed in mindsets since the time my father attended the university. To this day, when I state that I attended Jamia, I get asked, “So you’re a terrorist?” It doesn’t help that I also attended the “anti-national” JNU, right after.

But Jamia was nothing like that. There were days when I witnessed my friend pour piping hot tea over his head (true story) because the classes were long and tiring. There were also the days when we made peace with the fourth screening of Koyaanisqatsi, a cinematic masterpiece which is an acquired taste (and one I’m still grappling to understand). On other days, we walked around Shaheen Bagh doing street photography.

Despite 50 per cent seats reserved for Muslim candidates, we were never distinguished as others, a myth that the paid trends online are trying to highlight. This sense of “us” vs “them” is merely a work of fiction, of unemployed minds, created on the internet and spread through doctored media.

It breaks my heart when Jamia students are labelled “troublemakers” or “miscreants” just because they are from a minority institution.

We learnt more about each other’s religious practices and rituals, regardless of our personal belief system in the religious identity we were born in. On the day that the protest broke out in Jamia, a friend from my batch had come to Delhi from Kashmir. He reminded us of a photo-feature he had done on “Kanya-Pujan” or Kanjak as it is labelled in North India. He mentioned that he had witnessed something like that for the first time. At the end of his shoot, he was fed a plate full of poori, chana, and halwa – a meal in his words, “unforgettable” for its simplicity and taste.

I undertook a similar assignment, when I invited myself to another friend’s house to cover Eid festivities inside a private space. By the end of that afternoon – following a delectable meal of gosht biryani, qorma, and sewaiyan – I was given eidi. At first, I was reluctant to accept the money, but I returned that day overwhelmed with their warmth and hospitality.

The eidi, biryani and the sewaiyan, all remain the same. Kanjak remains the same. But something has shifted.

It was an hour into catching up with our Kashmiri friend that evening, when I got a call telling me that over 300 students had been detained inside the Central Library at Jamia. Since it was not being covered by mainstream media, we relied on the messages and calls being exchanged between us and active Jamia student groups. We called the evening off and for the remaining part of the night, none of us could sleep. We were all in touch until 5 am, just processing that a riot had broken out in the campus that belonged to us.

Jamia

Students and local residents hold placards and raise slogans as they take part in a protest against the Citizenship Amandment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), at Jamia Millia Islamia University, on December 19, 2019 in New Delhi, India.

Photo by Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It felt like my home had been violated. It could very well have been us inside the library that night. It could have been me losing an eye during an attack.

Which breaks my heart when Jamia students are labelled “troublemakers” or “miscreants” just because they are from a minority institution. If studying inside the library on a weekend renders you an “urban naxal”, then really, we have arrived at a sorry state of affairs inside the largest secular, democratic country in the world.

The Jamia I know is made of grace and tact, the kind that students and professors have maintained since the brutalities. The Jamia I know is a place where students will come out and clean the streets at the end of a protest, even after teargas shells had been lobbed. The Jamia I know and trust, conditioned us to be mindful of differences and be respectful of everyone’s choices, from religious practices to life decisions – even when vile hashtags like #HinduphobicJamia trend on Twitter.

I was born a Hindu and having attended two minority institutions, I can tell you one thing with utmost confidence. Most narratives spun around the erosion of religious identity by “other” religions are manufactured propaganda. And for those who label Jamia students “urban naxals” and plan to issue everyone certificates of nationalism, here’s hoping your alma mater is as good as ours.

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