By AIJAZ ZAKA SYED
It is said that in his quest to establish a world-class university for Muslims, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan would stop at nothing. Like all men possessed, he lived, talked and thought about his dream until he realized it. Having invested everything he had in his life mission, he went around with a begging bowl to raise funds for the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College (MAO), later, the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). He pestered everyone — Muslims, Hindus, the rich and poor, men and women — for donations, even visiting red light areas seeking financial aid.
A distinguished scholar, civil servant and reformer, Sir Syed concluded in the wake of the 1857 upheavals, which saw Muslims largely take the full blow of an angry empire’s wrath, that modern education was the only way ahead for the community.
From going hungry for days to staging plays and mushairas (Urdu poetry sessions), he traversed mountains of adversities, including fierce opposition from within the community, to reach his goal. He was even declared a kafir (apostate) for championing modern education, seen by many as a symbol of British tyranny. Nothing deterred him though. He went on to found the MAO College at Aligarh in 1875 against all odds. It was recognized as a Central University in 1920 through an Act of Central Legislative Council by the Indian government.
Today, AMU houses more than 28,000 students on its campuses and offers more than 250 programs and courses and remains one of the top 10 universities in India and one of the most recognized around the world. Not bad for an institution founded by a voiceless, dispossessed minority.
Aligarh has never stopped fighting its battle for survival though, defying adversity at every stage of its existence. However, what it faces today in the gauntlet thrown down by the Modi government, challenging its raison d’etre, the very purpose of existence, in the Supreme Court, is perhaps the greatest threat to its identity as India’s — perhaps world’s — first modern, world-class educational institution founded by Muslims.
After nearly a century and half of the university’s existence, its character as a Muslim institution is now being questioned by the BJP government. “It’s the stand of the Union of India that the AMU is not a minority university. As the executive government at the center we cannot be seen as setting up a minority institution in a secular state,” Attorney General Mukul Rohtagi told the Supreme Court on January 11.
So a colonial power may have recognized Aligarh as a “central university” run by Muslims — such was the high benchmark that the university set that the Viceroy felt privileged to be its honorary patron and Visitor — but a government owing allegiance to the secular Constitution of free India promising equal rights to all cannot bring itself to do so. Of course, India is a secular state. But its secular constitution offers minorities a fundamental right to practice their religion and educate their children as they see fit. Article 30 (1) of the Constitution unambiguously promises: “All minorities whether based on religion or language shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.”
Before Independence, AMU was often tarred as the laboratory of the idea of Pakistan. Post Independence, successive governments have tried to undermine its special identity as a minority institution.
In 1965, education minister M.C. Chagla first opened the Pandora’s box when he amended the 1920 Act to reduce AMU to a government appendage, inflicting the body blow on Muslims’ proudest institution. The university court, the supreme governing body, was reduced to being a puppet of the government of the day.
When some Muslims approached the Supreme Court for help, it ruled on October 20, 1967, to their horror, that AMU was not a minority institution and that a university which was “founded” through a central law cannot claim a special status.
“It may be that the 1920 Act was passed as a result of the efforts of the Muslim minority. But that does not mean that the Aligarh University when it came into being under the 1920 Act was established by the Muslim minority,” the court ruled.
Why? Because, the judges reasoned, “It would not be possible for the Muslim minority to establish a university of the kind whose degrees were bound to be recognized by government”.
In other words, no minority can establish a university even though Article 30(1) gives it the right to do so.
The top court ignored the fact that AMU preexisted the 1920 law in the form of MAO College and that the University was entirely financed and founded by Muslims. The community had only sought the government recognition for AMU. Universities have a legal standing which only a statute can confer.
Taking the SC verdict apart, legal luminary H.M. Seervai points out that Muslims founded the university “in the only manner in which a university could be brought into existence; namely, by invoking the exercise by the sovereign authority of its legislative power. The Muslim community provided land, buildings, colleges and endowments for the university, and without these the university as a body corporate would be an unreal abstraction”.
Under pressure from the community, the Indian government tried to remedy the situation by bringing in an amendment in 1981 that clearly reaffirmed that AMU is “the educational institution of their choice established by the Muslims of India, which originated as the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College and which was subsequently incorporated as the Aligarh Muslim University”.
Yet a decade later, the Allahabad High Court, ignoring the amendment, again junked the minority status of the university. The single judge ruled that the minorities cannot establish a university; at best they can establish a ‘deemed’ university. The UPA government and the AMU appealed against the ruling before a divisional bench. But it ruled in 2006 that reservations for Muslims in AMU, a university founded by Muslims, were wrong.
It’s hardly surprising that the Modi government has jumped on the opportunity provided by the UP court ruling, to argue before the SC that it does not consider AMU a minority institution. Aligarh is not merely a university founded by Muslims. It remains the most potent symbol of their identity, an institution that inspires immense pride in a community that has been left with few of them. It is this pride and identity that is under attack, as has been the case with all other institutions and symbols of India’s secularism and diversity under this dispensation.
The Hindutva groups, whose very existence is based on perpetual Muslim bashing and crying about the imagined atrocities during the 1,000-year long Muslim rule won’t rest until they have obliterated it. Clearly, India of their dreams only has place for a Banaras Hindu University but not an Aligarh Muslim University or Jamia Millia Islamia, another proud institution of the community.
So the BJP government with the brute majority that it enjoys in Parliament may after all succeed in its attempts to divest Aligarh and Jamia of their special character. But a country in which religious minorities do not have the freedom to practice their faith and run their institutions could claim to be neither secular nor democratic. Without Aligarh, India will not be the same again.