‘Aligarh Muslim University’

Shafey Kidwai

Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) is not just about a sprawling and lush green campus and awe-inspiring buildings. It aims to strengthen religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural identities. Teaching and research at AMU is not an end but a means to rediscover, understand and spell out the contours of the cultural aspirations that shape the collective life of a community.

There are very few insightful appraisals of the role that a particular university has played in the process of community identity formation and nation building. Veteran journalist Mohammed Wajihuddin’s ‘The Making of the Modern Indian Muslim; Aligarh Muslim University’ uses exactly this frame of reference to produce an engaging debate on the functioning of AMU, which is neither a hotbed of communalism nor a bastion of liberal values. Today, despite the proven academic credentials and secular vision of its founder Sir Syed (1817-1898), AMU often makes it to national media for the wrong reasons. Its name evokes admiration and aversion with almost equal intensity.

In 10 concise chapters, Wajihuddin provides a dispassionate, thoughtful and well-rounded account of this 101-year-old seat of learning even as he seeks to tell the story of the modern Indian Muslim mind.

The author tries to locate the university’s role in making the community realise that a longing for the past cannot be its only identity marker as the past can never be the future. The pertinent question that runs through the book is: Did AMU create the open atmosphere its founder desired for the discussion of the difficult questions that defy the easy answers provided by a traditional world view? The author asserts that despite nurturing political, educational, social and cultural aspirations and instilling new hope in the beleaguered Muslim community, the university, born at a tumultuous point in the history of modern of India, did not carry forward Sir Syed’s legacy vigorously enough.

The book delineates how it faltered and still fumbles. However, the analysis draws heavily on anecdotal pieces of evidence, interviews and observations of eminent alumni. Empirical evidence and opinions repeatedly surface, which can hardly be taken for academic rigour. The third chapter, The Inheritor of Sir Syed’s Legacy, is a pleasant departure from this general trend as it carries the fruits of painstaking research. The story of Sir Syed’s grandson Ross Masood – to whom EM Forster dedicated A Passage to India (1924) – is told with nuance. Wajihuddin rightly points out that Ross Masood, who served as AMU’s vice chancellor (1929-1934), was a representative of the modern, forward-looking community Sir Syed strove to create. Masood tried to put the university on the path of progress by stamping out nepotism, regionalism, political opportunism and communalism. He invited Gandhi, Nehru and other nationalist leaders to lessen the growing impact of the Muslim League on campus but was checkmated by Ziauddin, who later took over as VC. This heralded the decline of pluralism and the proliferation of parochialism.

Wajihuddin quotes Sir Syed’s lesser-known speech, delivered at the initiation of Masood’s education, that absolves him of the charge of communalism. “My community is in dire straits, so I mostly speak about it, but I love other community members, just as I love my own people. When Ross Masood was born, Mr and Mrs Ross gave the newborn boy their name. He became Ross Masood. Raja Jaikishan Das is like my brother. Syed Mahmood calls him “Chacha” or uncle, and Ross Masood calls him “DadaRaja”. I love my friends and do not discriminate.”

The first chapter, The Making of the University, gives an account of the gruelling efforts of Sir Syed and his companions, who got tremendous support from the British. It seems incredible that two viceroys visited Aligarh when it was just a college, that too one at a nascent stage. The campaign for converting MAO College into a full-fledged university was seriously impeded by the movement for Jamia Millia started by Mohammad Ali, Shaukat Ali, and some others and Wajihuddin documents it with thoroughness. In 1920, AMU got the status of a public university. Still, the demand for Muslim educational institutions affiliated with AMU was never met.

Highlighting the secular and plural ethos of the university and referring to the illustrious alumni such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Zakir Hussain (Bharat Ratna awardees), Raja Rao, Irfan Habib, Manto, Shahryar, Javed Akhtar, Anubhav Sinha, Zafar Iqbal and the like, the author also initiates an informed debate on how two Muslim organisations, the Jamaat Islami and the Tablighi Jammat, took root at AMU. Wajihuddin rightly decries the attempts to reduce a modern institution to a Madrasa. Equally perceptive is his take on Partition and Aligarh. The two chapters of detailed discussions on Dr Kafeel Khan and Abidullah Ghazi hardly align with the book’s title. This aside, the book provides a brief and insightful description of one of the country’s premier universities without rhetorical flourish and the author deserves appreciation.

[Shafey Kidwai is a bilingual critic and a professor of Mass Communication, AMU, Aligarh.]

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Vol 54, No. 35, Feb 27 - March 5, 2022