Every institution of higher learning develops its own character and identity based on its history, leadership, scholarship and student body. Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), which occupies a unique place among pre-Independence universities in India, carries an identity which depicts the idea of India in its character of pluralism, inclusiveness and unity in diversity. It may or may not be a minority institution in the strict legal sense, but it is an institution for minorities fully financed by the Indian state which showcases how minorities are treated in the Republic even after the forced Partition of the country based on religion.
A vehicle for community uplift
Like the author of this essay, thousands of non-Muslims who could not have access to higher education in the so-called leading universities in the country were attracted to Aligarh because of its low cost, excellent academic ambience and equal opportunities provided for learning and research. For several decades, AMU continued to be the destination for Muslims from all over India seeking higher education, with the result one finds many of them in leadership positions in nation-building activities across the country and beyond. In Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and a few other States, every educated Muslim has some link or the other with AMU which, in turn, helped to fulfil the mission of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of AMU, to uplift the community from backwardness and isolation. I would argue that if a large section of Muslims refused to migrate to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and preferred to stay back in secular India, it is partly because of the influence of AMU education on them and their families. Thus perceived, AMU requires special treatment in the Indian scheme of things.
The liberal democratic polity India adopted provided abundant space to test its strengths and weaknesses. Despite having paid a heavy price, India stood by its ideals and endeavoured to cultivate an inclusive society based on democratic values, showing to the world that diversity can be a virtue in peaceful development and coexistence. If this analysis still holds good, one need not get upset by occasional manifestations of extremism and distrust raising its ugly head in campuses, including Aligarh. To be fair, AMU has been relatively peaceful and free from extremist activities for several years now though it also had its share of violence in the past.
One may recall an ugly incident from the 1960s to illustrate the point. A distinguished diplomat from an aristocratic family and a personal friend of the then Prime Minister was the Vice Chancellor. The faculty and the students broadly belonged to three segments, one group communally inclined and active, another group Left-oriented and ideologically motivated, and a third neutral group devoted mainly to academic pursuits. A rumour floated that the new Vice Chancellor was handpicked by the Central government to compromise the perceived minority character of the institution. Aligarh being a small town and the university the only dominant public institution in the city, rumours emerging from the university got quick currency in every home. One day when the Executive Council was in session, a section of students led by the union president barged into the hall, disrupted the meeting, assaulted the Vice Chancellor and physically dragged him out, hitting him mercilessly. All this happened near one of the hostels of which I was the warden. Subsequent events proved that there was no substance to the rumour and that it had been orchestrated by a few extremist elements to advance their own agenda of having monopoly control over the institution.
A university that doesn’t discriminate
Such instances happen on other campuses as well and things return to normal when facts are brought to light. In my seven years at Aligarh, initially as a postgraduate scholar and later as a member of the faculty, I never experienced any discrimination whatsoever and received friendship and respect from all sections of the AMU family. Everyone eats the same food supplied at heavily subsidised prices by the university and gets equal access to all facilities on campus. The teacher-student relationship is exemplary. Of course, the student body is predominantly Muslim and that is what it was meant to be; but no meritorious student is excluded on the ground that she is not a Muslim. Given the fact that there is inadequate representation of Muslims in many universities outside, it is not surprising why AMU’s staff and students are predominantly Muslims and that too from the lower income groups. The university is a source of livelihood to thousands of poor Muslim groups in the neighbourhood.
It is clear that AMU is an institution of national importance and should be treated as such by the Central and State governments. Of course, there is scope for negotiated settlement of friction points which arise from time to time. The university stands to gain monetarily and otherwise if it has minority status. Even without that, the government can treat it differently from others acknowledging its unique character in the government’s policy of inclusion which is manifest in the slogan “sabka saath, sabka vikas”. The university on its part should recognise its social responsibility under the Constitution by giving preference in admission to Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe groups and backward sections across communities. A memorandum of understanding between the university and the government with an oversight body representing the two sides should be able to get the objectives of the two sides accomplished to each others’ satisfaction.
Like every other Aligarian, I was happy when the President, as the Visitor of the university, allowed AMU to set up campuses in West Bengal, Bihar and Kerala where the respective State governments — realising the potential it holds for minorities’ education in their States — liberally made land grants. The brand name has its own value; but the quality of education and character of the institution depend on the local leadership and the relationship it builds with the parent university. The beginning in Malappuram in Kerala, where it got over 300 acres of prime land, was impressive and promising. Students across all communities applied in large numbers for its programmes despite the fact that classes were to be held in rented buildings. Contract teachers assembled hurriedly worked under a curriculum set by the Aligarh faculty that wasn’t customised to local requirements. Yet learning went on, examinations were held and programmes completed on schedule, giving the message that AMU is capable of imparting quality higher education anywhere in the country.
There is no reason why the initiative should be thwarted because of some legal or technical hurdles. It is now a question of the future of thousands of students and the prestige of a great university which has established its credentials in higher education for almost a century. After all, State governments have invested in the venture and people everywhere have supported it. Given the fact that the representation of the largest minority group in higher education is still very low, there is no reason why the Central government should not be equally enthusiastic and encourage it as it has done before. Of course, the present role of AMU in these campuses is that of an incubator and eventually they must become independent universities possibly competing with AMU for quality and excellence in scholarship. It is also not necessary that all campuses outside Aligarh should be alike in structure, programmes and management. They can develop through public-private partnerships as institutions of excellence primarily catering to higher education needs of minorities and backward classes, paving the way for inclusive development of all sections.
(N.R. Madhava Menon is a legal educator, Chancellor of two Central universities, and an alumnus of AMU.)
The government can treat AMU differently from others by acknowledging the university's unique character as part of
its policy of inclusion