A tale of two speeches at AMU

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the centenary celebrations event of Aligarh Muslim University through video conference from New Delhi on December 22, 2020. Photo: PIB via PTI  

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the centenary celebrations of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) on December 22, 2020, via video conferencing.

AMU, given it’s chequered history, and being the site of a high density of modern, educated Muslims, has immense symbolic value for the Muslims of north India as well as for the rest of the country, for the narratives permeating the political atmosphere have emanated from the north.

Also read | Modi’s AMU outreach sparks debate on campus

Mr. Modi’s address came as a surprise to many as his ideological vantage doesn’t countenance AMU’s historical significance and its symbolism. Therefore, this move must have been taken to signal the ruling dispensation’s desire for a recalibration of the relationship with the Muslim minority.

Over the last five decades or so, no Prime Minister visited the AMU’s campus though it is a fully funded government institution, a Central university, situated not far from the national capital. The last Prime Minister to visit AMU was Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1964. Before him, Jawaharlal Nehru gave the convocation address on January 24, 1948.

Nehru’s speech

Aware of the university’s symbolic value, Nehru used AMU as a platform to address Indian Muslims. Nehru had been among the very few to sympathetically look at founder Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s strategic antipathy towards the Congress and the national movement. Sir Syed feared that his qaum (community) was not ready for the political plunge which could invite British wrath and sabotage his mission of spreading modern education among Muslims. Nehru opened his speech bemoaning how he had not been not allowed in AMU for many years. The plaint had added poignancy as someone else had been visiting the campus in the years when he couldn’t: Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Also read | Mixed response to PM’s speech at AMU

Despite the “convulsions and heartbreaks” of Partition, Nehru wanted to ascertain afresh “where we stand and what we stand for”. He had come for a frank conversation with a people who, in his view, needed to revise their understanding of India and redefine their cultural moorings and political orientation. In his earnestness to leave behind the “doubts and disillusionment” of the recent past, and in his hope that “ if we are wise and strong enough to think and act rightly even now, we might succeed in erasing that mark,” he wanted to meet everyone and “probe somewhat into your minds, and to let you have a glimpse of my own mind.” It was an imperative for Nehru to “build up a free India of high ideals and noble endeavour where there is equality of opportunity for all.”

However, he was clear in his mind that equality, or any other right for that matter, flowed from the acceptance of duties and obligations. He situated the dyad of rights and duties in the context of belonging and ownership of the country’s history and culture. Therefore, he raised the question which was at the root of the recently experienced “catastrophe and disaster”. Having stated that “I am proud of our inheritance and our ancestors who gave an intellectual and cultural pre-eminence to India,” he posed a soul-searching query: “How do you feel about this past? Do you feel that you are also sharers in it and inheritors of it and, therefore, proud of something that belongs to you as as much as to me? Or do you feel alien to it and pass it by without understanding it or feeling that strange thrill which comes from the realisation that we are the trustees and inheritors of this vast treasure?” His emphasis on a shared past was for the sake of a common future. He considered that politics dangerous which attempts to “change the spirit of India” and “reverse the historic process through which we had been passing for long ages past”.

Therefore, in the spirit of compassionate candour, he talked to his Muslim audience about the country which they had helped bring into existence and deeply cared for. Although he considered Pakistan to have come into being “rather unnaturally”, he reassured them that India didn’t want to undo Pakistan, wished it well, and wanted good neighbourly relations with it.

Nehru wore his heart on his sleeve and spoke in a cathartic manner. He neither harangued his audience nor displayed the presumption to think on their behalf. Instead, he urged them to work all this out in their own heads. He concluded with the words, “Do not think that you are outsiders here, for you are as much flesh and blood of India as anyone else, and you have every right to share in what India has to offer. But those who seek rights must share in the obligations also... I invite you as free citizens of free India to play your role in the building up of this great country and to be sharers, in common with others, in the triumphs and setbacks alike that may come our way.”

Modi’s speech

Mr. Modi’s speech gave the impression that time has come a full circle. He discounted all of Nehru’s apprehensions and vindicated his optimism. Nehru had asked: “Do we believe in a national State which includes people of all religions and shades of opinions and is essentially a secular State?” Mr. Modi’s speech provided an affirmative answer to this question based on the presumption that his audience agreed with him and that they clearly understood what he wanted to convey.

Also read | Text of PM’s address at centenary celebrations of Aligarh Muslim University

At first, Mr. Modi’s address seemed like a routine speech made to just any university. It was free from the urgency and predicament of an extraordinary situation which many perceive to foretell a fundamental shift in the contours of our polity. But his polite platitudes before a sceptical audience may have a profound impact, for such utterances signify a reaffirmation of shared normative principles.

Nehru had flagged some basic ideological and political issues. Mr. Modi treated them as settled and, therefore, no longer relevant. Mr. Modi’s speech was an improvement on, and a departure from, Nehruvian concerns. Unlike Nehru, he credited AMU for playing a sterling role in the freedom struggle — sometimes rewriting of history and amnesia can be socially therapeutic too.

There was a shift from Nehruvian candour to courteous commendation. The statements that “jo desh ka hai wo har deshwasi ka hai (that which is the country’s belongs to every citizen)”, and that “no one should be left behind because of his religion” were made to reassure the audience that no one needed to worry about their constitutional rights. Coming as they did after the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens, they renewed Nehru’s assurance that “you are as much flesh and blood of India as anyone else...”

Mr. Modi might have said, “Society mein siyasat ke ilawa bhi doosre masle hain (society has many other concerns beside politics)”, to invoke rising above politics in matters of national importance. Muslims would do themselves a favour by focusing on social upliftment rather than the politics of identity which is divisive in spirit. For this they need to define their relationship with the country in cultural, not political, terms.

All the right words that needed to be spoken have been spoken. Their loyal translation into action would depend on absolute congruence between the intent of the message and actual decoding of the same by the intended audience.

Najmul Hoda is an IPS officer. Views are personal

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2021 4:20:49 PM |

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