Jamia Millia Islamia

An 'encounter' and a Vice-Chancellor

Manisha Sethi

BATLA House lies less than a kilometre from the farthest end of the university. In one of its narrow lanes lies building number L-18, no different from any other—lean and tall, holding eight modest identical builder flats with two entrances each at right angles, a feature common to many Muslim homes. On 19 September 2008, the Delhi police special cell claimed that they had kicked open one of these doors on the fourth floor flat—in the court later one of the heroes of the operation, now reprised by John Abraham on screen, failed to recall which door it was though their story turned on that very fact, but that is another tale—only to be met with a hail of gunshots. They returned fire and by the end of the hour, goes the special cell version, an officer had been shot, two young men inside the flat gunned down, two more arrested. More arrests followed that evening and over the next twenty four hours. The dead and the arrested boys were pronounced variously, the masterminds and executors of the bomb blasts that had rocked Delhi a week before.

What did this have to do with Jamia Millia Islamia? A great deal, it turned out. By the evening of the police operation, news channels had begun to declare that among those killed and arrested were students of Jamia University. A narrative immediately congealed that created an arc of terrorism—from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, the town the two slain boys had belonged to, to Jamia. The town, the university, and indeed the entire community was rendered suspect. Television reporters crawled out from everywhere—some stood outside Khalilullah masjid, a stone's throw from where the shootout had unfolded, and announced confidently that this was the very spot from where terrorists had fled. Others preferring one of the baabs (gates) of Jamia as the background screamed into their microphones that Jamia had turned into a 'nursery of terror'. Security analysts busied themselves discussing the intimate relationship between educated Muslim youth and terrorism.

In the maze of contradictory news emanating from different media houses, all attributed to unnamed police sources, the university's initial response was to deny—wrongly it later turned out—that one of the deceased was ever a student, and to immediately suspend Zia and Zeeshan, the two students arrested. Up to this point one could say that a predictable script unfolded. This is what university officialdom anywhere would do: trust the police's word implicitly, stay loyal to the government which was defending the 'encounter' as genuine, in face of widespread incredulity, condemn the accused, to sunder all ties with them to preserve one's purity. Remember, this was Jamia Millia Islamia—the burden to prove one's patriotism was heavy, and the association with terrorists and bombers was possibly the harshest slight and the worst nightmare.

It is the nature of human life that with time, the rawness of fear ebbs, transforming it into a memory one may tell amusing tales about—but in those days, fear was like a cold knife pressing against the chest, always, unrelenting. The wail of a siren was enough to freeze the blood coursing through one's veins. At the mosque for the jumanamaz, most stared at their feet or the floor, avoiding eye contact with everyone—because potentially anyone could be on the police watch list. A sense of foreboding stalked the lanes of Jamia Nagar as the locality pulsated with nervous stories of someone being picked up by the Special Cell. Not all were baseless rumours. Few were willing to speak out, except for sundry civil liberties activists who raised questions over the police version. The university was on the edge, the students fearful, even beaten.

And then the Vice Chancellor Professor Mushirul Hasan departed from the script everyone thought was laid in stone. Instead of carrying on as though nothing had happened now that the deviants had been purged; or clamping down on students, and reinforcing the regime of suspicion—issuing warnings to students to be wary of the company they kept, and their activities and political sympathies they nurtured—as would have been par for the course, Mushir sahib reached out to the students. He addressed them directly—as a father would his children, he said not once, but it wasn't a paternalism that sermonized or made any demands. He simply told them that they had nothing to be ashamed of, and that theirs was a proud legacy.

At that time, this was an extraordinary gesture from the head of the institution. This was followed by an even more unprecedented act. Mushir sahib led the university community in a march. As thousands poured on to the streets there was a sense of communion and community as we hadn't felt before—nor ever experienced again. What Mushir sahib had done was to transform the moment of tragedy, confusion and insecurity into strength. This is often spoken as rhetoric but anyone who was in the march that day can vouch for the singular magic of the moment—the sense of collective, almost as a tactile feeling.

Today, when people have become prone to seeing university heads indulge in eager sycophancy, genuflecting before powers that be, performing yoga and leading swaccha-bharat campaigns, it bears recalling that the march where students carried posters rebuffing the taint of terrorism and questioning security agencies was led by a vice chancellor. The students' confidence emanated in part from Mushir sahib's reassurance to his students that he believed in them.

The university under Mushir sahib held a series of meetings—an open house for students at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, another symposium at the auditorium to restore the confidence of a besieged community which served a therapeutic purpose. He also constituted two committees through resolutions passed in the academic and executive council meetings. The first was assigned the task of raising funds to meet the legal fees for the defence of the two students arrested; and the second had the even more onerous task of coordinating with the lawyers. The resolutions stated that the university felt a moral obligation to protect its students until they were proven guilty. For the record, monies were collected from the community, with students and staff seeking donations in the streets and outside mosques, and not a single paisa was diverted from the university funds, though much heat was generated.

For one thing many colleagues on the campus thought that the collective of teachers—Jamia Teachers' Solidarity Group (later renamed as Jamia Teachers Association or JTSA), formed in the immediate aftermath of the 'encounter' to seek a judicial probe into it—was working under his patronage but the simple truth is that students had many run-ins and arguments with him, and many often thought that he was not doing enough, or was being too staid, tied by the conventions of his post. For example, when students met him on behalf of some students from Azamgarh, who complained that their landlords were turning them away, or they were finding it difficult to secure rentals, to request him to accommodate them, even if temporarily, in the university hostels, or to hire a building, he gently but firmly refused. Again, the university did not waive off the attendance requirement for the two students arrested when they wanted to appear for their examinations. Finally, they sat for the examinations after the Supreme Court granted them permission.

The two committees formed by him ultimately dissolved—whether by official fiat or if it was a slow natural death, one cannot recall now. In any case, if it would have been possible for the university to formally manage this arrangement for any length of time, but the announcement of the support served a purpose. It nursed a grieving and injured student community reeling from the continuous assault of a jingoistic media and an impervious government, which seemed utterly unmoved by any appeal for enquiry into the shootout, its reluctance only adding heft to the incredulity around the encounter and subsequent arrests. In those times, to simply assert that one was innocent till proven guilty was a radical measure. The committees were therefore a grand idea. And no one loved grand ideas like Mushir sahib.

Of course, none of this passed unnoticed. News channels and political leaders cynically twisted the legal aid fund to imply that those accused of terrorism were being funded out of the Consolidated Fund of India. 2008 was also the year of assembly elections in many states, and before the year ended, we saw the horrific carnage in Mumbai, often referred to mimetically as 26/11.

Terrorism came to be at the centre of the election campaign with the then opposition attacking the government for pandering to 'vote banks', a barely veiled euphemism for linking terrorism with Muslims. Jamia became easy grist to jingoistic mills. Mr Modi, past master of dog whistle politics, relished in invoking all the tropes in his armoury. 'There is a university in Delhi called Jamia Millia Islamia,' he said, lingering on 'Islamia'. 'It has publicly announced,' he charged, 'that it will foot the legal fee of terrorists involved in the act.' 'Go drown yourself, was his advice to the vice chancellor. 'This Jamia Millia is being run on government money and it is daring to spend money on lawyers to get terrorists out of jail. When will this vote bank politics end?'

The Delhi Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) unit issued an advertisement attacking the university for 'funding the defence of terror accused'. The university was forced to file a formal complaint with the Election Commission, which in turn reprimanded the party for issuing advertisements that were factually incorrect and in violation of the electoral code of conduct. It was a slight rap on the knuckles that the party merrily ignored and has, in fact, from time to time returned to castigating Batla House and Jamia Millia as a 'safe houses for terrorists', as did V K Malhotra in 2014.

Much as the BJP tried to meld Jamia's response with Congress' alleged vote bank politics, it is important to remember the distinction. Mushir sahib did not act as a government man. And for all the breast beating by individual Congress leaders, the government refused to assuage the anxieties felt by young Muslim men in those days of insecurity. In a sense, what the anthropologist Thomas Blom Hansen has described as the state's profane aspect—with its 'incoherence, brutality, partiality and banality of the technical sides of governance' triumphed over and tamed its sublime facet—that which is the site of impartial justice, the guarantor and protector, to which a wounded and brutalised community could turn with some expectation of justice. There was little pretension of dispensing justice in the Batla House case. And yet the propaganda machinery, through carefully calibrated signs and symbols playing on prevailing prejudices, sought to erase the boundary between the two.

It was puzzling to those who had deemed Mushir sahib deracinated, or worse, when the controversy over the banning of Satanic Verses broke in 1992, to see him standing resolute in defence of his Muslim students. It was seen as a volte-face, and confounded many. But really, both his stances—his defence of Rushdie's right to speech earlier, despite his misgivings about the book, and his opposition to the stigmatisation and witch hunt of students—was cut from the same cloth. They sprung from his lifelong engagement with Muslim communities—always in the plural—and Muslim intellectual thought as well as institutions, especially Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia. His writings offered a corrective to trite views, for example, to the picture of AMU being the epicentre of separatism and religious fundamentalism, he showed instead how liberal and secular traditions thrived before and well after Partition.

Even as he was attacked on the campus in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair, he continued to insist in his writings on the broad outlook and vision of the founders of Jamia—Mohammad Mujeeb, M A Ansari ('Gandhi's Infallible Guide', was the title of Mushir sahib's book on Ansari) and Zakir Husain among others, inspired by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad's religious universalism and commitment to that now quaint value of composite nationalism. Yet its cosmopolitan history and heterogeneous social composition—its Christian and Hindu teachers and students—did not mean renouncing its Islamicate inheritance.

The high founding ideals of Mujeeb and Ansari and Zakir Husain had long dissipated when Mushir sahib came to Jamia. He lamented the pincer grip of land mafias, religious fundamentalists and certain families on the university, but when he was appointed the vice chancellor, he set about in great earnest to excavate that legacy. The naming of the building and halls and gates, and even little nooks and pathways—from Chomsky building, to Castro café, to Tagore hall and Dayar-e-Mir—reflected the desire to take hold of the plural past that had nourished Jamia. The Talimi mela, with its baitbaazi, book fair, and food stalls became grander. He was fond of invoking Nehru's famous reference to Jamia as the 'lusty child of non cooperation movement', and co-authored a history of Jamia Millia, Partners in Freedom. It was not meant to be a chronicle of wistful nostalgia, but really a blue-print for the future of the institution.

Secular nationalism and composite culture were bequests from Jamia's founders, and indeed from modern India's architects that he felt he held in trust for future generations of students. On that day when he addressed students in Ansari auditorium, he was passing on that legacy, telling them that the frenzied vultures of media houses had no right to question their patriotism, that theirs was a proud past.

Vice chancellors, at least in the present, rarely reach out to their students in the manner he did. He was not obligated to—except perhaps in a moral sense. His gesture was all the more audacious because the turmoil was not local but tied to the question of 'national security', the ultimate taboo of politics. Why then did he do this? Why did he invite this wrath upon himself? Did he think there would be no consequences? He once said to students in passing that his minister—Arjun Singh—was solidly behind him. But both Arjun Singh and Mushir sahib were the last generation of leaders, political and educational, in the Nehruvian secularism mould. It was a model which many found inadequate and argued with when it was alive if only precariously, and are now left to grieve its passing.

Remembering Mushir sahib today is also to mourn the demise of the hopelessly utopian idea of composite culture. Perhaps it was always a chimera nurtured by romantics like him, to disappear as though it never existed. Perhaps it lies buried in the Jamia graveyard where Mushir sahib has been laid to rest.

[Source: Seminar Magazine]

Back to Home Page

Vol. 53, No. 37, Mar 14 - 20, 2021