Print edition : March 15, 2019

Police personnel deployed on Aligarh Muslim University campus after the trouble on February 12, photographed on February 15. Photo: PTI

The sedition charges against AMU students show that the university continues to fall prey to right-wing mobs who seize every opportunity to demonise its students, often with help from a partisan police force.

ALIGARH Muslim University (AMU) was recently in the news as 14 of its students were charged with sedition and non-bailable warrants were issued against more than 50 students after two separate first information reports (FIRs) were lodged by Mukesh Lodhi, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader of Aligarh city, and Nalini Sharma, a reporter of Republic TV. On February 12, a minor fracas between a Republic TV team and the security staff and some students, after Nalini Sharma allegedly called the university a place of terrorists, turned into a bigger issue with an armed right-wing Hindu mob trespassing into the university and clashing with students. The collusion of the Republic TV crew and the saffron mob on the one hand and the “indifferent” response of the police, on the other, put the university on the boil once again. Students sat on dharna demanding action against the intruders on the campus.

The incident soon opened up some of the issues that have been festering for long but have come to the fore particularly in the last five years. One of these is the growing interference of local Hindu right-wing political bodies in the affairs of the university, and the other, which has more to do with national-level politics, is the pressing demands on the university to come clean on its patriotism.

The university has not always had a smooth relationship with city-based political organisations. Usually, Aligarh city and AMU have remained almost segregated spaces, and worse still, suspicious of each other.

Recent history of Hindu right-wing assault

Things took a bad turn in 2014 when Aligarh’s Member of Parliament, Satish Gautam (BJP), threatened to forcibly enter the university campus to instal a statue of Jat Raja Mahendra Pratap (1886-1979), projecting him as one of the founders of the university on the basis of a claim that his contribution was similar to that of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. A clash was somehow averted after the university proposed to honour the raja, an AMU alumnus, by organising a seminar in his memory. (See, Sajjad, rediff.com, December 1, 2014; Asim Siddiqui, rediff.com, December 4, 2014.)

Gradually, some Hindu right-wing groups of Aligarh city have become so emboldened that they trespass into the AMU campus on the slightest pretext. A group of hooligans entered the campus and created a ruckus on May 2, 2018, breaching the security of former Vice President Hamid Ansari who was visiting the university.

On February 12, an armed right-wing group, led by Mukesh Lodhi, as if in collusion with the Republic TV team, entered the campus and clashed with students and the university’s security staff. On both May 2, 2018, and on February 12 this year, the police allowed these hooligans to enter the university premises, escorting them rather than stopping them at the University Circle a few hundred metres from the VC Secretariat of the AMU campus.

However, the moment the students came out of the campus to register their protest, they were lathi-charged brutally, in much the same manner as they were during the controversy over a portrait of Jinnah on May 2, 2018. (See, Sajjad, Economic Times, May 5, 2018; and rediff.com, May 2, 2018).

As AMU, unlike Banaras Hindu University, does not have a walled campus, and there are many entry points, insiders apprehend that worse could be waiting to happen.

Competitive communalisms

It is not only the outsiders from the city but also the nature of student politics on the campus that complicates the situation. Though the students’ union elections are not contested on party lines, many student leaders do nurture political ambitions and the union is certainly a good platform to launch them into State- and national-level politics. Asaduddin Owaisi had been invited by AMU Students’ Union secretary, Huzaifa Amir Rashidi, who is the son of a leader of a Muslim conservative outfit, Rashtriya Ulema Council (RUC). Though Owaisi cancelled his programme at the last moment, the proposed visit was used by Hindu right-wing groups in Aligarh, actively helped by a student leader of the university, Ajay Singh, grandson of the BJP MLA from Barauli (Aligarh). Both Huzaifa Rashidi and Ajay Singh are said to be aspiring to contest the next Lok Sabha elections. While Owaisi is said to be contemplating fielding some candidates in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP’s MP from Aligarh is apparently facing competition in securing the party’s nomination from the likes of Ajay Singh.

Ajay Singh has been trying to bolster his political career through divisive and polarising activities on the campus. Having lost the AMU Students’ Union election, he resorted to taking out a tiranga yatra ahead of Republic Day. Reminded of last year’s Kasganj violence, an alarmed AMU administration asked him why he would not join the week-long Republic Day celebrations organised by the university.

On his part, Huzaifa Rashidi chose to ignore the implications of Mukesh Lodhi’s recent ultimatum issued to AMU on the construction of a temple inside the campus (The Indian Express, February 8) and chose to go ahead with the invitation to Owaisi for a felicitation. If at all the AMUSU had to host an event of parliamentary debates, which is a convention with the students’ union since the late 19th century, the venue should have been the students’ union hall rather than the Faculty of Social Sciences.

The way things happened suggests a game of competitive communal polarisation that was being played out. The allegation that both Huzaifa Rashidi and Ajay Singh were using AMU as a launching pad for their political ambition gains further traction when it turns out that despite a head-on collision, the AMUSU did not press for an FIR against Ajay Singh and Mukesh Lodhi. The police did not convert AMU’s complaint into an FIR. Yet, neither the AMUSU nor the AMU Teachers’ Association (AMUTA) moved court to get an FIR registered against the duo.

Teachers’ roles

The AMUTA maintained almost complete silence, save for going through the ritual of passing brief resolutions. The teachers should have tried to engage with the students on the political fallout of the manoeuvrings of politically ambitious student leaders and helped them to adopt a mature political position. A consequence of this lack of engagement and guidance was that on February 15 the AMUSU aligned with the right-wing Students’ Islamic Organisation (SIO), and held a press conference in Delhi, ignoring the fact that the nation was in a state of shock following the Pulwama terror attack. It was as unseemly as the BJP’s political rallies close on the heels of the tragedy. It also reflected a lack of tactical thinking: the event would in any case not get media attention at such a time.

The AMUSU still intends to host a “Muslim Parties” meet in AMU in order to have their grievances taken up at the national level. AMUSU leaders forget that in the Hindi belt Muslim political parties are not taken seriously even by Muslims. Here, the nuances of the issue need to be considered with meticulous care. In the era of rising majoritarianism where Muslim electorates are sought to be rendered irrelevant, where secular formations tend to look away from Muslim grievances, lynch mobs get state support, and even non-saffron “Muslim-friendly” parties ignore pressing issues of security for Muslims, “polarisers” and “rabble-rousers” such as Owaisi have begun to get some appeal and attention, at least among a section of Muslim youths.

In this dire situation, the liberal and secular intelligentsia needs to pay serious attention to the problem. AMU teachers should be much more prudent; more importantly, they need to engage with the students with greater foresight, conviction and determination in order to guide young people towards strengthening secular plurality and resisting conservatism. The “misguided” or even self-serving youths need to be convinced that one communalism feeds on another. Minority conservatism feeds majoritarianism. Falling into the lap of Muslim conservatives or communal forces will not help resist majoritarian bigotry. In February 2017, the student activist Shehla Rashid was not allowed to participate in an event in AMU simply because one of her Facebook posts was declared blasphemous by such conservative elements within the campus. They went on to lodge an FIR against her. They did the same thing with some students whose photographs on social media of dining in a Delhi restobar on a Ramzan evening had become public. (See Sajjad, rediff.com, June 15, 2018.)

Importantly, even in times of relative calm, the university is painted as a hub of reactionaries, anti-national elements and even terrorists. It does not help when any old or current student of the university comes on the radar of intelligence agencies or the police. Thus a Manan Wani makes the entire university suspect, which surely is not the case if a student of BHU or Allahabad University is arrested for some crime. AMU is always under pressure from Hindu right-wing groups and the media, which lap up such stories and blow them out of all proportion.

Guilt of Partition

Another familiar pattern in attacks on the university is the issue of its supposed role in the partition of India. There are write-ups that, citing right-wing ideologues such as V.D. Savarkar, quote AMU’s history out of context to blame it for what happened in 1947. Partition is still an unfinished project, and Partition historiographies in both India and Pakistan present contradictory pictures, often according to the current ideological compulsions of the two post-colonial states. It is difficult to deny the role of the competing communalisms of both Hindus and Muslims for Partition.

As for AMU’s role in it, historians like Mushirul Hasan have identified different political threads and trends in its long history, both conservative and progressive. Even liberal-secular historiography has been fixing almost all the guilt of Partition only on the Muslim League. In academic and popular domains, Muslims and the Muslim League are shown to be synonymous. That the roles of the British colonial power, Hindu majoritarianism within the lower ranks of the Congress, and that of the Hindu Mahasabha-Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh were no less important is something yet to be driven home to the people at large. This flawed historiography has been playing a substantial role in demonising India’s Muslims and spreading hatred. (See Sajjad, rediff.com, May 24, 2018, and December 16, 2017.)

Even if one accepts, hypothetically, that an overwhelming majority of AMU students and teachers sided with the Muslim League in the build-up to Partition, how can the present generation of AMU students be held responsible? Yet, the burden of Partition forces AMU to proclaim its nationalism and shout its patriotism from the rooftop. This explains why the AMU Students’ Union collects funds to hoist a flag in AMU “which should be tall enough to be seen from Nagpur”. This explains why the Students’ Union feels that merely expressing its shock and taking out a candle march over the Pulwama tragedy is not enough: union president Salman Imtiaz proclaims that AMU students will stage a dharna outside the Prime Minister’s residence in Delhi unless India attacks Pakistan.

This also explains why the union goes an extra mile to make an offer to the martyrs’ families that their children should be sent to AMU and that the union will bear the cost of their education. The union does not make such offers for Muslim victims of communal violence and of lynching by cow militia. No such offers were made to people displaced in the Muzaffarnagar-Shamli violence of September 2013, not far away from AMU.

One hopes that, if the long-standing factors of prejudice and hatred are addressed properly, out of the current AMU imbroglio a great opportunity can be seized to build a better and more plural India.

Professor Mohammad Asim Siddiqui is with the Department of English, AMU, and Professor Mohammad Sajjad is with the Department of History, AMU.

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