Outburst of bigotry

Print edition : June 08, 2018

Aligarh Muslim University students stage a protest over the issue of the Jinnah portrait in Aligarh on May 6. Photo: PTI

Satish Gautam, the MP of Aligarh, a file picture. In a letter, he asked the Vice Chancellor to remove Jinnah's portrait. Photo: V. Sudershan

Hindutva forces strike again, this time with an attack on Aligarh Muslim University for having a portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the students’ union hall.

SEVENTY years after the death of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, his name continues to stoke old fires. If Jinnah was seen as responsible for the division of India before Independence, today his portrait at the Aligarh Muslim University Students’ Union (AMUSU) hall is at the centre of a controversy. On May 1, Satish Gautam, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament from Aligarh, asked the Vice Chancellor of the university to remove the portrait within 48 hours or face consequences. He said: “A picture of the man responsible for India’s division cannot be accepted in a public-funded institution.”

Before a letter on this issue reached the Vice Chancellor, its copies were circulated in the local media. The matter went viral, with a large section of the national media, especially TV news channels, running endless debates since May 1 on Jinnah’s portrait in AMU.

The next day, on May 2, former Vice President of India Hamid Ansari was to be conferred the honorary life membership of the AMUSU. Even as Ansari waited at the university guest house, located close to the Bab-e-Syed (university gate), activists of the Hindu Jagran Manch and others, armed with pistols and sticks, barged into the campus raising provocative slogans. A few students and the university’s proctorial guards confronted the attackers, some of whom were handed over to the local police. However, after a while the Hindutva activists returned and burnt an effigy of Jinnah at the University Circle. “Soon after,” said Prof. Shafey Kidwai, member in charge, public relations, “AMUSU leaders, on their way to the Civil Lines police station, were intercepted by the police, the PAC [Provincial Armed Constabulary] and by the RAF [Rapid Action Force] near Hydel and [they] unleashed an unprecedented brutal lathi-charge, inflicting serious injuries on more than 30 students.”

Since then, AMU students have been protesting against the attack on the university by right-wing groups and the use of force by the police against students. A large number of students have been sitting on a dharna demanding a judicial probe into the police action and the manner in which a row erupted after Gautam’s insinuation.

The portrait of Jinnah has been in the hall since 1938 when he was accorded life membership of the students’ union. Significantly, this was much before the demand for Pakistan was made. Traditionally, the photographs of all life members of the students’ union are displayed on the union hall’s wall, and Jinnah’s portrait has shared space with the pictures of luminaries like Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar and C. Rajagopalachari.

Apparently, Gautam himself was aware of the photograph much before the controversy erupted though he claimed that he saw it for the first time on April 30 this year and shot off a letter to the Vice Chancellor. An application filed under the Right to Information Act by Alok Kumar, an RTI activist, revealed that Gautam was part of the university’s court, the highest decision-making body on the campus for three years, from 2014 to 2017, and that in 2017 court members were taken on a tour of the campus, including the hall where Jinnah’s portrait hangs. Those court members who did not attend the tour were told about the Jinnah portrait in September 2017.

As the Hindutva brigade’s move made headlines, the university’s old boys’ associations across the world swung into action, denouncing the violence against the unarmed students. AMU’s alumni in Delhi, supported by students of Jawaharlal Nehru Univeristy (JNU), Jamia Millia Islamia and Delhi University, sat on a dharna demanding action against the policemen and hooligans who had stormed the university. They alleged that the hooligans could have targeted Hamid Ansari.

Meanwhile, the old boys’ association in the United States took to social media to appeal for peace, but did not shy away from saying that the university had always played a critical political role and had had space for people with varying ideologies. Those in the United Kingdom raised their voice by using ongoing seminars to focus on the happenings in AMU. India’s Consulate General in Saudi Arabia received a memorandum signed by the alumni of AMU stating: “The hooligans were armed with pistols and revolvers.... Their plan was to attack Hamid Ansari, former Vice President of India, who was present on the campus to attend an event.”

Though the Jinnah controversy took the outside world by surprise, trouble had been brewing for some time. A few days before Gautam’s warning, an activist of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), Amir Rasheed, had written to Vice Chancellor Tariq Mansoor to grant permission to open RSS shakhas on the campus.

Asked about it, the Vice Chancellor responded: “We are not considering any such proposal about allowing anyone to organise any shakha. My office has not received any request from RSS activists.” He also clarified that contrary to Gautam’s claims, the university had not received any letter with respect to the Jinnah portrait. “I have not received any letter from the MP. The portrait has been there since 1938—much before Partition. I got to know of the letter through the media,” Mansoor said.

Prof. Kidwai said: “As per AMU’s tradition, the university’s students’ union grants honorary memberships to prominent people; the first such was given to Mahatma Gandhi in 1920. Similarly, in 1938, much before the demand for Pakistan was made, Jinnah visited the university and was granted a lifetime membership.”

His claim was seconded by the eminent historian Prof. Irfan Habib, who recalled that Jinnah was taken from the local railway station in a carriage pulled by the students themselves. “His portraits hang at various places. He was a part of the independence movement for a long time. He had fought the sedition case for Bal Gangadhar Tilak,” said Prof. Habib. Meanwhile, yet another controversy has erupted over AMU allegedly not giving due regard and importance to Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh, Raja of Mursan (Hathras) and a prominent freedom fighter, who reportedly gave some land to the university. The Hindutva brigade, including BJP leaders and RSS ideologues, want a statue of Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh to be installed on the university campus and the university be named after him.

The university acknowledged Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh’s contribution, saying he did lease 1.221 hectares (3.04 acres) of land in 1929 at Rs.2 a year to AMU. “We are proud of the fact that this freedom fighter was our alumnus, and AMU has had close relations with him and his family. However, the fact that AMU’s main campus was established on the land donated by him is not correct. The bulk of the land was procured from the British government, which was in the process of closing down the Aligarh Cantonment from which Sir Syed got 74 acres,” said Prof. Kidwai, adding: “On Raja Mahendra Pratap’s land, there is a big playground of the AMU City School, which is located on G.T. Road, near the Aligarh Exhibition ground.”

Interestingly, the university has installed his portrait in the central hall of Maulana Azad Library with a plaque below it, acknowledging his contribution.

However, the Hindutva brigade, never strong on facts or history, continues with its vilification drive to malign the image of the university. And Jinnah is only a convenient target. Remember, even L.K. Advani was not spared after he praised Jinnah following a visit to his mausoleum in Karachi.

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