By Annie Zaidi Feb. 15, 2019
This week’s fracas at Aligarh Muslim University – slandered as a “university of terrorists” – ended with 14 students being charged with sedition. AMU and Banaras Hindu University are two inextricably linked strands of Indian self-definition. What do our double standards for the two institutions say about us?
Days before being slandered as a university of terrorists, Aligarh Muslim University was in the news for a letter written by the local unit of the BJP’s youth wing to the vice chancellor. It sought land for a temple on campus and threatened that, permission or not, an idol would be installed and a temple built.
My first response was to wonder if the youth wing of the BJP would support the construction of a mosque and church on the Banaras Hindu University campus, where students of all religions have enrolled. There is nothing wrong with allowing prayer space for all faiths as long as both universities are held to the same standards.
AMU and BHU are two strands of Indian self-definition, separate but inextricably linked, and a comparison of the two is a useful way to understand our polity and what has happened to our country.
Both universities are in Uttar Pradesh and were established – BHU in 1917, AMU in 1920 – with an emphasis on identity. Founder Madan Mohan Malaviya had been clear in his objectives when he chose to insert “Hindu” into the name of the university and insisted upon religious instruction. In Students and Politics in India (1975), Anil Baran Ray writes that in 1915, some members of the Imperial Legislative Council expressed apprehensions that the proposed university would widen the gulf between Hindus and Muslims, or foster separatist tendencies. But Pandit Malaviya argued that “religious instruction, he asserted, far from producing narrowness, liberates the mind and promotes brotherly feelings between man and man.”
How might it have turned out for India if Pandit Malaviya had dropped the word “Hindu” and been content with just Banaras University. Perhaps those who were setting up AMU would have been content with just Aligarh University?
Torchlight processions were organised at night. Students from Gorakhpur, Patna, Allahabad, and Lucknow showed up to lend weight to the agitation.
Soon after Independence, the government proposed to remove “Hindu” and “Muslim” from their respective names. In 1951, education minister Maulana Azad sought the opinion of both universities. AMU was initially amenable but BHU was not, so Azad and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru decided to quietly drop the matter.
Then, in 1965, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s government proposed to rename BHU as Madan Mohan Malaviya Kashi Vishwavidyalaya. The Jana Sangh and the RSS, which had rooms on the BHU campus since the 1930s, encouraged students to agitate. Ray writes, student organisations linked to the Sangh claimed that “the attack on the ‘Hindu’ name of the university was only the beginning. It would be followed by cutting the ‘shikha’ (top knot) and sacred thread worn by Hindus and by idol-breaking and mass conversion”.
The fact that education minister MC Chagla was Mohamed Ali Currim Chagla did not help matters. Torchlight processions were organised at night. Students from Gorakhpur, Patna, Allahabad, and Lucknow showed up to lend weight to the agitation.
Despite the government’s decision to postpone the Bill, students continued to agitate. Ultimately, they had their way and BHU retains “Hindu” in its name.
1965 was also the year Chagla set off ripples among Muslims. In the Lok Sabha, he denied that AMU was founded by Muslims and that it was a minority institution. Ali Yavar Jung, the Vice Chancellor, countered by pointing out that though it was a “national” university in the sense that there was no discrimination, it was created primarily to secure an education for Muslims “in their religion, philosophy, and traditions”.
An essay in Frontline magazine records that the Congress party issued a whip to its members in Parliament “to secure the passage of the Amendment Act of 1965 which completely deprived the university of its autonomy. It, however, allowed a free vote on the proposal to change the name of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU).”
The question of minority status was settled in 1981 – or so we thought. It was raked up again in 2005 and continues now with the government arguing in court that it is not a “minority” institution. Meanwhile, there is no denying that Muslims, even those who have nothing to do with AMU, see this as an assault upon their civil rights. Muslims all over the country attend Catholic and Jain institutions; they go to BHU. However, AMU represents cultural freedom. It is a space where their names don’t raise brows, where they can wear jeans or a fez and loose pajamas with equal ease.
Since the 1992 demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, Indian Muslims have experienced great social isolation. They find themselves pushed into ghettos. They worry about their safety and future prospects while surrounded by shrill political rhetoric and hate speech. However, Aligarh in particular has always been kept on the boil.
The police responded to a complaint about alleged anti-national slogans by charging 14 students with sedition.
In 1978, after a serious riot, journalist Suchitra Behal wrote in India Today that AMU was “a perpetual thorn in the side” of people whose names figured prominently in course of the riots. Witnesses swore that the President of the local unit of the Janata Party had been “personally directing the loot and arson” during the riot. Besides, seven young Muslims were shot dead but no Hindus died of bullets fired by the Police Armed Constabulary. “How do the PAC bullets recognise only the Muslims?” Behal asks. “How long can such a tenuous and uneasy peace be maintained?”
The peace did not hold. So far, riots had been confined to the town; students were protected. In 1979, for the first time, students of AMU were dragged into the communal riots. After deaths and police firing, the university had to be shut down.
Students have got into violent confrontations for one reason or the other ever since but matters reached a new low in May 2018. Former Vice President of India, Hamid Ansari, was visiting campus and being conferred with life membership of the students’ union. The guest house he was in was approached by men, allegedly affiliated with the Hindu Yuva Vahini, shouting slogans. Shots were allegedly fired. When student representatives went to the police to lodge a complaint, they were beaten with lathis and tear-gassed.
This week’s fracas involved a team from Republic TV followed by students affiliated with right-wing groups, some of them carrying guns. The police responded to a complaint about alleged anti-national slogans by charging 14 students with sedition.
At this juncture, we must recall Nirad C Chaudhuri. In an essay about AMU’s history of political interference, AG Noorani quotes Chaudhuri, who grew up disliking Aligarh for he saw it as the cradle of the Islamic revivalism in India. “Under the teaching of Bankim Chandra Chatterji and Vivekananda most of us had become Hindu revivalist, but were not on that account prepared to concede to the Muslim the right to his revivalism, because we regarded our Hinduism in its revivified form as nationalism, and reformed Islam as anti-national.”
Chaudhuri also noticed that the academic standards at AMU were fairly high, and said, “If loyalty to the Islamic way of life has given this stability to the academic life of Aligarh, it would be madness to take it away or try to destroy that loyalty.”
This dual standard continues to rent asunder the fabric of India. The “Hindu” student – at least, a student affiliated with right-wing political or cultural outfits – at BHU, AMU or anywhere else can be regressive, discriminatory, even violent while laying exclusive claim to a patriotic agenda. The Muslim student, no matter that he focuses on his studies, is unarmed or even a victim of violence, is constantly suspect. Worse, he dare not count on the state machinery to do the right thing.
In the context of Aligarh, Nirad C. Chaudhuri had said that Hindus and Muslims can come to terms only if the two ways of life are recognised to be equally valid and good. I can do no more than echo him.
Annie Zaidi is the author of 3 Plays, Gulab, Love Stories # 1 to 14, Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales, and the editor of 'Unbound: 2000 Years of Indian Women's Writing'.