Tiding Over Controversies: AMU Fraternity must rise upto the Occasion

17th October is the birth anniversary of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, founder of MAO College, which later became the Aligarh Muslim University. The university and its alumni all over the world dedicatedly celebrate this day as the founder’s day and this year being the 201st birth anniversary of the founder and the closing year of the grand bicentennial celebration in honour of the founder, it holds special significance. In view of the importance of this years founder’s day and more so in the light of the recurring controversies which AMU has been embroiled in, it will be befitting to the legacy of the founder, if we move beyond the customary celebratory remembrance of the founder and undertake a critical introspection of the performance trajectory of Aligarh on the fulcrum of the founders aims, objective and teachings.

The Beginning

The genesis of AMU lies in Sir Syed’s endeavor towards the emancipation of Indian Muslims, one of the most deprived communities of his times, in the immediate aftermath of the cataclysmic impact of the failure of the first war of India’s independence in 1857. Devoid of any meaningful direction, ill-equipped with the then mode of socio-economic and political ascendancy and not sure of future course, Sir Syed’s rising upto the occasion breathed the elixir of life to the failing and defeating spirit of the Muslims who otherwise were continuously dripping deeper into the ever widening morass of decadence. 

At a time when it was not just difficult but seemingly impossible for Muslim thinkers to favourably respond to the new impulse of the time, Sir Syed with his perceptive eyes and visionary mind, not only just charted out the strategy of survival of the Indian Muslims but also helped them inculcate the spirit to carve their own independent niche. Very skillfully, he devised a meticulous plan, through the establishment of Scientific Societies and Educational Institutions, initiating translation of scientific texts, bringing out magazine and popular write-ups exhorting social reform etc., for the Muslims to imbibe the progressive ethos, discard the decadent aspect of their culture while remaining rooted in their own distinct identity.

AMU and Controversies

Embroiled in seemingly uncalled for but assuredly instructive controversies all through its history; first, with regard to the very nature of its establishment, initiated by the orthodox clergy who were opposed to the very modern, scientific and English orientation of the university; then related to the diversity of ideas germinating here which didn’t necessarily toe the lines of the powers that be, supported by the colonial masters who had otherwise expectations from this place; subsequently connected with the trauma of partition of the country, fanned  by the forces opposed to the idea of a plurally inclusive India – but each time  the university has not just stood the test of time but has emerged stronger.

In the post independent India as well, despite being mandated by the protection of the Constitution which specially called for among other important things, rights for minorities’ education and culture and social justice for the marginalized, AMU and controversies didn’t leave each other. From the slurs of communal baggage, the identification with creating island of separateness, to the aspersion of creating a ground for instilling sympathy with forces inimical to India, the university has been resilient enough to face the crises gradually- initially with nervousness in the fifties, graduating through stoic silence in later years to facing the predicament with matured conviction as democratic ethos deepened in the republic with the passage of time.

Therefore, it is not for nothing that the first Prime Minister of India said about AMU, “We need AMU more than AMU needs us”. Or the first Education Minister of the republic retorted in one of his convocation addresses, “ The India of tomorrow also stands to be enriched by the contributions, which AMU will make in the years to come.”

The Aligarh of contemporary times has, however, not lived upto the expectation, which it once espoused. AMU was expected to be a role model for the Muslims not only of the subcontinent but of the whole world with its unique blend of rootedness in its own culture alongwith imbibing the spirit of modern scientific temper. With the art of enlightened moderation in terms of religion, acumen of bringing one’s own discourse in the litany of powerful hegemonic discourses at times abetted by the states, the knack of being fearless in putting arguments howsoever uncomfortable that may be for the ruling dispensation etc., so carefully and diligently nurtured by the founder, have been conveniently ignored. Under the garb of political expediency, the later leaders of AMU fraternity which includes all - the alumni, the administrators, teachers as well as students, chose to undertake the easier pathways when the need of the hour called for standing for ideals and principles. The very recent example of such laxitious attitude on the part of AMU fraternity relates to the controversy surrounding the suspension of students from Kashmir. While the apologists will readily proffer the argument of hyper nationalism and the fear of right wing’s ire to justify their decisions but being part of a university which is a centre for advanced learning and moreover being custodian of the teaching of our founder Sir Syed, the AMU fraternity should have taken the tougher but more proper and urgently required task of engaging with the minds of those students. The university has, in fact, a responsibility to nurture a culture, which challenges certitudes instead of re-inforcing passionate intensities. This is how Sir Syed would have responded and that would actually be a beginning towards a solution of the problem – dispassionately diagnosing the real causes first and then searching for durable answers.

For example, in the aftermath of the revolt of 1857 when political expediency demanded that nothing critical should be said about the all powerful colonial administration, Sir Syed was forthright enough to write to the Crown in his “Asbaab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind”, that in fact, it was the British themselves who were responsible for the occurrence of 1857. In socio-cultural field too, Sir Syed didn’t shy away from taking the tough route of confronting head-on the dogma and disdain of the powerful clergy when he advocated the cause of liberal English education or when he undertook the task of interpreting religious texts from rationalist perspective.

Another very important example is Sir Syed’s response to William Mayur’s book The Life of the Prophet in which he went against the grain and was able to convince the hegemonic ideologues of his times by the power of his logical argument. At a time when considerable amount of university’s energy is unnecessarily spent in defensively responding to the deliberately created, ill-founded, illogical and blatantly atrocious allegations and misinformations regarding the university, it is not just prudent but urgently important to relive our founder’s spirit of setting the right discourse through the power of counter narrative and not getting intimidated.

The Aligarh fraternity has also altogether missed out on the task of carrying forward the mission of socio-cultural reform within the community – an ideal which was the main focus of its founder. The reason Sir Syed emphasized on “Tarbiyat” and culture alongwith education was actually meant to promote the transformative aspect of education – a concept which finds echo in the recent focus by UGC on social relevance and contribution to society as a parameter of educational excellence.

It is high time the AMU fraternity pays its real tribute to the founder by following his teachings in true spirits.

Dr Syed Tahseen Raza is Assistant Professor in the Department of Strategic and Security Studies, Faculty of International Studies, Aligarh Muslim University Aligarh