A blot on India’s secularism

The country failed to give the Jamia Millia Islamia University its dues as an institution founded by a minority community with the objective of serving India’s Muslims as well as the ideals of independence and nationhood.

Published : Jun 07, 2017 12:30 IST

Mahatma Gandhi  with Dr Zakir Husain. Gandhi was a steadfast friend of the Jamia from the beginning.

Mahatma Gandhi with Dr Zakir Husain. Gandhi was a steadfast friend of the Jamia from the beginning.

“THE way Aligarh participates in the various walks of national life will determine the place of Muslims in India’s national life. The way India conducts itself towards Aligarh will determine largely, yes, that will determine largely the form which our national life will acquire in the future,” said Dr Zakir Husain as Vice Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) on the occasion of President Rajendra Prasad’s visit to the university.

It took a decade and a half for India to redress the wrong done to AMU in 1965 by the government’s dishonest denial of its hitherto unchallenged character as an educational institution established by a minority, the Muslims. It was entitled, therefore, to the protection of the fundamental right embodied in Article 30(1) to administer it autonomously.

Only a few years later, the Rajiv Gandhi government got enacted the Jamia Millia Islamia Act, 1988. It was an accurate reflection of the bogus secularism of a Prime Minister who had, among other things, got the locks of the Babri Masjid complex opened in February 1986.

By its very terms, the Act stands exposed as a palpable fraud. Section 2(o) says: “‘University’ means the educational institution known as ‘Jamia Millia Islamia’ founded in 1920 during the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movements in response to Gandhiji’s call for a boycott of all government-sponsored educational institutions which was subsequently registered in 1939 as Jamia Millia Islamia Society, and declared in 1962 as an institution deemed to be a University under Section 3 of the University Grants Commission Act, 1956, and which is incorporated as a University under this Act.” The tortuous phrasing, no less than the historical reference, reveals a guilty mind.

The Jamia Millia Islamia was a product of India’s movement for freedom and was blessed by Gandhi at its very inception. Even before Independence it won high praise internationally. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who lived in Lahore in the 1940s, was a socialist and a strong opponent of the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan. His book Modern Islam in India: A Social Analysis (Gollancz, 1946) contains a long discussion of the Jamia’s striking achievements in the field of education and the work of its Vice-Chancellor (Sheikh-ul-Jamia) Dr Zakir Husain, who selflessly devoted long years to sustain and build it when it was gasping for breath.

Warm appreciation

Smith wrote: “When at last India becomes a free and progressive nation, a great deal of its present educational system will have to be scrapped at once. For it is almost irrelevant to freedom, and only remotely allied to progress. But there is at least one institution of Muslim education in India both independent and advanced; of outstanding significance now, in its difficult struggle to elaborate and practise a new education within the prevalent oppressive atmosphere of the old; and to be, surely, of outstanding importance later, when with a new society the new education will not only have a chance to flourish, but will be suddenly called upon to flourish rapidly and far. This institution is the Jami‘ah Milliyah Islamiyah (Islamic Community University) at Delhi, familiarly known simply as ‘the Jami‘ah’.

“The Jami‘ah, thus born in the throes of 1920 enthusiasm, was able, surprisingly, to survive the collapse of that enthusiasm, the collapse of the Khilafat, Non-Cooperation, and Hindu-Muslim unity movements, the collapse of nationalism. It has survived the schism whereby religious intellectuals turned communal and reactionary, progressive intellectuals turned agnostic. It has persisted under severe difficulties; but somehow it has advanced and developed, until now it flourishes, rather quietly no doubt, but well. In 1925 it was moved from Aligarh to near Delhi; this marked the end of the spirit of pure opposition to Aligarh and the government. In its new site, where it is gradually building up an extensive and remarkably beautiful home for itself, it has embarked on a more positive programme.

“The Jami‘ah has been constantly growing, ever refurnishing its methods, and branching out from time to time to meet new needs. It has been elaborating an education that would put into practice latest methods, ideals, and discoveries of the modern West and at the same time be thoroughly relevant to the unique conditions obtaining in India. Its education has aimed at being, and has been, progressive, Indian, and Muslim. Among its able staff, the most eminent is the present principal, Dr Zakir Husain. He is a good worker, a good scholar, a good teacher, and a first-class educationist. In fact, the institution has been almost precariously indebted to this one man’s personality and obvious excellence, for its survival of various difficulties…. The Jami‘ah’s educational system remains one of the most progressive and one of the best in India.”

Contrast Smith’s warm appreciation with the grudging recognition in the Act of 1988. One of the finest Indian chronicles, Abdul Ghaffar Mudholi’s work Jamia Ki Kahani (The Story of Jamia; Maktaba Jamia, Delhi), is an authoritative and definitive history of the Jamia. This writer drew on it and on his many interviews with Dr Zakir Husain for its history in the writing of his biography (A.G. Noorani; President Zakir Husain: A Quest forExcellence ; Popular Prakashan; Bombay, 1967).

I have now drawn on Mudholi’s book and on the interviews to write this brief account of the Jamia’s birth and its struggles before it won universal acclaim. The year 1920 was fateful. On March 10, Gandhi first indicated his plans for non-cooperation with the British rules of India. There was also the Khilafat movement in which he had joined hands with the Ali brothers, Mohammed Ali and Shaukat Ali. Zakir Husain was then a student lecturer in the AMU.

A special session of the Indian National Congress held at Calcutta in September urged inter alia “gradual withdrawal of children from schools and colleges owned, aided or controlled by government, and, in place of such schools and colleges, the establishment of national schools and colleges in the various provinces.” The resolution was carried by 1,886 votes to 884.

Professor Khalid Ahmad Nizami says in his book History of the Aligarh Muslim University (Idaarah-i-Adabiyat-i Dilli, 2009, Qasinjan Street, Delhi): “The Khilafat and the Non-Cooperation Movements could hardly leave Aligarh untouched. Maulana Shaukat Ali, Maulana Mohammed Ali, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Maulana Hasrat Mohani, Dr M.A. Ansari, and others turned to Aligarh. Mahatma Gandhi issued an appeal to the parents of the students studying at Aligarh, exhorting them to withdraw their children from the college. He said that the government had betrayed the Musalmans of India and had humiliated the nation through its barbarous treatment of the Punjab. The College Syndicate, in its meeting held on 10 October 1920, decided to oppose the Non-Cooperation Movement. The next day Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Aligarh accompanied by the Ali Brothers. They were received at the Railway Station by a large number of students. On 12 October 1920 he spoke at the Union Club for four hours. He left Aligarh the same evening. The field was left for the Aligarians to cross words and decide. A meeting was held on 13 October in which the Khilafatists and those in favour of a pro-government policy came into open conflict. The Union Hall resounded with stentorian voices. Maulana Mohamed Ali and Shaukat Ali made fiery speeches, and ultimately turned the tables. The following resolution was adopted at the meeting.”

Nizami’s book has a page on the Jamia: “The students of the M.A.O. College, Aligarh, condemn the attitude adopted by the British government towards Turkey at the Treaty of Sevres. They approve the suggestion made by the Central Khilafat Committee that the aid received by the College from the government should at once be given up. They urge upon the Board of Trustees to stop receiving aid from the government and disaffiliate the College from the Allahabad University. The students have decided to employ all means to turn this College into a National Institution and they will refuse to have any connection with any government chartered university, if the trustees did not accept their terms by 26 October 1920.

“The secretary called a meeting of the Board of Trustees for 27 October to consider the situation arising out of the ultimatum given.... The trustees met at the residence of Nawab Muzammilullah Khan and decided to reject the ultimatum and close the college for a month. Maulana Mohamed Ali, who was operating from the Old Boys Lodge, was ejected by the police on 31 October. Two days earlier, on 29 October, he had announced the opening of Muslim National University, the Jamia Millia Islamia. On 22 November, a Muslim National University foundation committee was set up under the presidentship of Hakim Ajmal Khan.”

For a fuller account one must turn to Mudholi and Dr Zakir Husain’s speeches and interviews. He was saddened at Gandhi and the Ali Brothers’ failure at Aligarh. The latter returned the next day as the students were deliberating. Zakir Husain resigned his lectureship and delivered an impassioned speech. Thus was the tide turned and the resolution was passed. He and his colleagues were prepared to leave the AMU, provided alternative educational facilities were provided to them.

They differed from the emotional Mohammed Ali who sought to capture AMU and turn it after his heart’s desire. Even after the Jamia was founded, he fancied it as a base from which to mount an assault on AMU.

Birth of the Jamia

The Jamia was born on October 29, 1920, a month after the Congress resolution. It was a remarkable assembly that met in the mosque of the Aligarh College, animated with nationalist spirit and religious fervour. The Shaikh-ul-Hind, Maulana Mahmud-ul-Hasan, a respected divine, formally inaugurated the proceedings. Since he was unwell, Maulana Shabbir Ahmed Usmani read out his inaugural address. Hakim Ajmal Khan was nominated the first Amir-e-Jamia (Chancellor) and Maulana Mohammed Ali, the first Shaikh-ul-Jamia (Vice Chancellor). Members were duly enrolled, Zakir Husain ranking second, the first being a colleague, F.R. Husain.

Now the college authorities declined to act. One day, soon after the early morning prayers, what did the students find but that the college was surrounded by the police. A police officer served on Maulana Mohammed Ali an order to leave the premises with the students.

It was a remarkable procession which the Maulana headed. Hakim Ajmal Khan had resourcefully arranged for some tents out in the open and there this procession reached. Order and routine were soon established, classes inaugurated, teachers appointed: Zakir Husain for Economics, K.A. Hamied for Chemistry, Rauf Pasha for Arabic, Syed Nurullah for English and Syed Mohammed for Islamic Studies. Not only the students of Aligarh, but also some teachers of the college joined hands to found this great institution. Others from outside Aligarh also came, notable among them being A.J. Kelat, who served Jamia with dedication for years thereafter.

What happened at Aligarh happened elsewhere also, as the Congress historian Dr Pattabhi Sitaramayya records in History of the Indian National Congress , Volume 1: “Thus in the course of less than four months, the National Muslim University of Aligarh, the Gujarat Vidyapith, the Bihar Vidyapith, the Kashi Vidyapith, the Bengal National University, the Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapith, and a large number of National Schools of all grades, with thousands of students on the rolls, were started in all parts of the country as a result of the great impetus given to National Education. In Delhi, this movement was inaugurated by some teachers and many students of the Anglo-Arabic College and an Azad School was started.”

Living up to ideals

Although much else changed over the years, the Jamia strove successfully to live up to the ideals which it had set before itself at its inception, and which years later the famous Turkish writer and educationist Halide Edib so accurately set out: “The institution has two purposes. First, to train the Muslim youth with definite ideas of their rights and duties as Indian citizens. Second, to coordinate Islamic thought and behaviour with Hindu. The general aim is to create a harmonious nationhood without Muslims losing their Islamic identity. In its aim, if not always in its procedure, it is nearer to Gandhian Movement than any other Islamic institution I have come across.”

Beating the odds

Thus, a month after the Jamia’s birth, the Khilafat Committee itself decided that the Jamia should be an autonomous institution free from any external control. Two years later, Dr Ansari issued an appeal to the public for funds as a step towards the realisation of the ideal. By early 1923, the Jamia began to be free from the influence of the Khilafat Committee. The following year the crisis had come. Political fervour had subsided. The Khilafat movement was now a thing of the past. So was its help to the Jamia. Political celebrities who had enthusiastically espoused the Jamia’s cause were now avoiding it. To no small extent was it due to the fact that a good many shared Mohammed Ali’s raison d’etre of the Jamia. But there were others who could not bear the thought that the Jamia should perish. A few students and workers of the institution cabled to Zakir Husain in Germany that the Jamia’s end was being openly talked of and asked what he thought of it. Prompt came the reply: “My friends and I are ready to dedicate our lives to the Jamia. Please see that it is not closed before our return.”

A delegation of old boys also met Hakim Ajmal Khan in Delhi, on the eve of the meeting of the Jamia’s executive, and begged him to do his utmost to keep the institution alive, assuring him of their own unflinching support. Hakim Saheb asked them: “If I bring the Jamia over to Delhi, precisely in what manner will you serve it?” They unanimously offered to serve the Jamia without any remuneration. Hakim Saheb’s mind was made up. At his instance the executive resolved, but not without a heated debate, that the Jamia be shifted to Delhi. Hakim Saheb offered to take upon himself the responsibility of running it.

Gandhi’s support

Through all this, there was one man who unwaveringly stood by the Jamia. It was Gandhi. Once, when Hakim Ajmal Khan narrated to him the differences of opinion on the Jamia’s future and expressed his own doubts, Gandhi replied: “If money is the problem I shall beg for it.” Hakim Saheb always said that this was a source of great encouragement to him and steeled his resolve never to let the Jamia die. Meanwhile, the foundation committee, the general body of the Jamia, met on January 28, 1925, at Hakim Ajmal Khan’s Delhi home, Sharif Manzil, and appointed a small subcommittee to consider and report on the whole question whether the Jamia could, indeed, continue as a separate institution. Apart from Hakim Ajmal Khan, the other members of the subcommittee were the Ali brothers, Dr Ansari, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Abdul Majid Khwaja, who was then the Shaikh-ul-Jamia.

The foundation committee again met the next day, but this time Gandhi joined in its deliberations. It was now resolved that the Jamia be kept in being and means devised for its continuance. When the foundation committee met on March 17, 1925, it ratified the executive’s decision to shift the Jamia from Aligarh to Delhi.

Zakir Husain’s return

In 1926, the Jamia received a shot in the arm. It was Zakir Husain’s return and his resolve to commit himself to the cause. He was appointed the Shaikh-ul-Jamia (Chancellor). Along with him came Mohammed Mujeeb and Abid Husain. K.A. Hamied, founder of the iconic pharmaceuticals company CIPLA, extended unstinted support from his base in Bombay (now Mumbai). The university was housed in a rented building in Karol Bagh in New Delhi.

When the Congress president Srinivas Ayyangar went to the Jamia, he remarked: “Other national educational institutions have become lifeless, but I see the Jamia pulsating with life and I wish to God that its foundations become more secure.”

The Jamia won some fine adherents; men like Devdas Gandhi came and served it. Gandhi’s support was the Jamia’s greatest asset, and his first visit to the Jamia after its transfer to New Delhi was a memorable occasion. With him were the Ali brothers, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Dr Ansari, Jamnalal Bajaj and Mahadev Desai. Gandhiji sent his grandson Rasiklal to the Jamia for his education. The death of Hakim Ajmal Khan deprived the Jamia of a great benefactor and Zakir Husain of a guide he greatly respected.

Meanwhile, efforts were under way to get the Jamia more firmly established institutionally. On March 17, 1927, the foundation committee of the Jamia adopted a new constitution and decided to get the Jamia registered as a society. Apparently, this new constitution could not be implemented for various reasons.

Hitherto, the Jamia was being run by its foundation committee, a Syndicate, and an Academic Council. A 30-member managing committee was now set up, charged with the task of administering the institution and solving the Jamia’s financial problems. Dr Ansari was its president and Zakir Husain its secretary. Jamnalal Bajaj was appointed treasurer. Among its members were Jawaharlal Nehru, the Ali brothers, Maulana Azad, Abdul Majeed Khwaja, T.A.K. Shervani, Maulvi Abdul Huq, Mujeeb, Altaf Husain, A.J. Kelat and Chaudhari Kaliquzzaman.

A letter from Gandhi to Dr Ansari dated July 6, 1928, reveals the importance which the fledging institution had acquired. “I have had a full chat with Dr Zakir Husain. The position is certainly very precarious. The liabilities are accumulating and the monies collected for the Jamia Millia Fund cannot be realised till a proper trust deed is made, which is the condition in the original announcement. The constitution framed is acceptable neither to Jamnalalji nor to me, nor is it in accordance with the terms we discussed when you were here. What is to be done in the circumstances? I feel that the new committee should surrender all the powers to the professors who have pledged themselves to become life workers, or the committee should become an active working body and take charge of the institution so far as the financial liabilities are concerned. But from what I can see for myself, the committee will not act swiftly and effectively. And if it neither acts nor surrenders full control to the working professors, I can see nothing but a lingering death for the Jamia and that would be a terrible tragedy. One would not mind it if it was inevitable.”

National education society

A National Education Society was set up. The trustees of the university met in an emergency session and agreed to transfer their powers to the National Education Society. The society lost no time in assuming control. It met on September 3, 1928, and adopted a constitution running into 10 Articles. It defined the Jamia’s objective as the spread of education among the people in general and Muslims in particular, on the basis of two fundamental principles. First, that, until the country attained independence, the Jamia would neither seek, nor accept, any help from the government, and secondly, to treat all religions impartially. Membership was of two kinds, Life” and Ordinary. Life members pledged their services to the society for 20 years on a salary that would in no case exceed Rs.150. The society elected Dr Ansari as its president, Zakir Husain as its secretary, and Jamnalal Bajaj as treasurer. Mujeeb, Maulana Aslam, Khwaja Abdul Haq and Shafiqur Rehman Kidwai were appointed members of the managing committee.

When the university celebrated its anniversary day that year, many distinguished persons attended. They were Annie Besant, Motilal Nehru, Lala Lajpatrai, Maulana Azad, Maulana Mohammed Ali, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Srinivas Ayyangar, Satyamurti, N.C. Kelkar and Asaf Ali. Madan Mohan Malaviya unfurled the national flag to the singing of the national anthem. These celebrations were being held in conditions of acute financial distress, the worst ever in the history of the Jamia. But the institution survived and flourished.

Aims of the Jamia

Asked to define its aims Dr. Zakir Husain said: “To understand the Jamia’s ideals, it is enough to know that it was born in times when India’s Muslims were in a sorry plight and the two great communities of India, the Hindus and the Muslims, had joined hands in a concerted effort. Bearing this in mind, the Jamia, which is connected with both, Islam on the one hand and the nation at large on the other, will keep alive Islamic culture and education and also help in the realisation of the ideal of a common nationhood and the achievement of the freedom of the country. There can be no clearer and more precise formulation of our ideals than this. The rest, such as common dress and the like, are but mere externals.”

On December 21, 1933, he amplified: “I regard the Jamia as an Islamic institution whose objective is to provide education to the Indian Muslims on the basis of Islamic religion and culture. By the ‘religion of Islam’ is meant the religion which enjoins the worship of only one God and, thus, lays the basis for the fraternity of man the world over. By ‘Islamic culture’ is meant those practices which Prophet Mohammed followed and laid down as an ideal before us. To these objectives we add some more, having regard to the setting in which we function. These are: the love of freedom …. [and] service to Urdu …. In short, the Jamia’s objectives are Islamic education, the love of independence and service to Urdu.”

About this time, the Jamia was visited by a personality of international renown, the Turkish publicist Madame Halide Edib. She came to the Jamia on the invitation of her old friend Dr Ansari to deliver a series of lectures called the Jamia Millia Extension Lectures, 1935. They were published under the title of Conflict of East and West in Turkey by Muktaba Jamia Islamia, Delhi. They were a series of eight lectures and some of the foremost individuals in India’s public life presided at them in turn: Dr Ansari himself, Maulana Shaukat Ali, Iqbal, Sarojini Naidu, Bhagwandas, Bulabhai Desai and Maulana Sulaiman Nadvi.

The Jamia had prospered a little by then and enough money had been raised to buy land on the banks of the Jamuna at Okhla near Delhi. The youngest student laid the foundation stone, though the ceremonies were inaugurated by Halide Edib.

Zakir Husain was far removed from the Sarkari Musalman whom the Congress set up and who readily sold their souls to it. Zakir Husain proceeded to deal with the difficulties of providing national education in a heterogeneous society such as India with differences of culture, religion and customs. Consistently with his fundamental position, he argued that it would not only be politically wise but also educationally sound to allow the various cultural groups to flourish and impart education to their children through their own distinctive culture. “There are a few well-meaning but extremist nationalists who have a concept of Indian nationalism which will consider Muslims’ claim to such a right as dangerous to the integrity and progress of the country; but if our educationists earnestly consider the problem of Indian education, then I am sure they will willingly accept Muslims’ aspiration to base their education on their own culture. That, all will be good education and wise politics at one and the same time. You will forgive me if I express this view plainly before this august gathering that while among the considerations which wean away Muslims from Indian nationalism are personal selfishness, narrow-mindedness and the absence of a correct vision of the country’s future, it is also due to a large extent to the deep suspicion that under a national government the existence of Muslim culture will be imperilled.

Muslims are not willing to pay this price for unity under any circumstances. I, not only as a Muslim, but as a true Indian, am glad that Muslims are not ready to pay that price; because; not only will Muslims suffer thereby, but the composite culture of India will also be the poorer for the loss.

“That is the reason why Indian Muslims, because of their religion, history, culture, and their cultural aspirations consider their communal identity valuable not only for themselves but precious also for the Indian nationhood. They regard its destruction or weakening to be not only oppressive to themselves, but a betrayal of the nation as well. Indian Muslims do not love their country less than anyone else. They are proud of being part of the Indian nation, but they will never like to be a part whose very identity is destroyed. They aspire to be good Muslims and good Indians. No Muslim should be able to taunt them for being Indians, and no Indian should suspect them for being Muslims. In India their religion should not be the cause of their separateness from the country, but rather, it should impose on them a sense of responsibility to serve it. It should not be a blemish but a distinction. The result of such an outlook will be that, when Muslims enter the field of politics together with the rest of their countrymen, the quarrel over joint or separate electorates will be forgotten, and even in the field of employment Muslims as self-respecting persons would prefer to compete rather than insist on reservation of seats. At the same time, they will want also that their culture should fully play a role in their educational system. I am sure that a wise future Government of India will fulfil their wishes and thus contribute to the progress of Muslims and, with them, the strength of the country and its government.”

His hopes were belied, as the Act of 1988 shows. Jinnah distrusted Muslims in the Congress. Zakir Husain persuaded him to participate in the silver jubilee celebrations. Zakir Husain’s speech moved all: “For God’s sake sit together and extinguish this fire of hatred. This is not the time to ask who is responsible for it and what is its cause. The fire is raging. Please extinguish it. The problem is not of this community’s or that community’s survival it is the choice between civilised human life and barbarism. For God’s sake do not allow the very foundations of civilised life in this country to be destroyed.”

His hopes were belied and his fears came true. Even 40 years after the Partition, all that India could give the Jamia Millia Islamia was the Act of 1988.

By any test it was an educational institution established by Muslims. What H.M. Seervai wrote of the AMU applies also to the Jamia. “The Muslim community established the university and provided it with its total endowments. Even if the definition given by the court were correct, namely, ‘to bring the university into existence’, it is submitted that the Muslim community brought the university into existence 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 lands, buildings, colleges and endowments for the university, and, without these, the university as a body corporate would be an unreal abstraction” ( Constitutional Law of India , Volume 2, page 1322).

It is open to the Jamia to assert its claims in the Supreme Court—though the omens are none too propitious. They are daunting. The Jamia’s fate faithfully mirrors the dashed dreams of Muslims who opposed Partition and threw in their lot with the Congress. India has given a raw deal to the Jamia because it no longer shares the vision of its founders so well articulated by Zakir Husain.

As a crowning act of insult, the Narendra Modi government has appointed the legendary turncoat, a certain Najma Heptullah, as Chancellor of the Jamia. What hopes of a minority status for the Jamia under the Modi regime when it could plant as its Chancellor one who notoriously said that Muslims were not a minority. It was not illiteracy on the part of Najma Heptullah. It was rank dishonesty. One looks forward to the warm reception that she will undoubtedly get on the Jamia campus.

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