Aligarh Muslim University: Tradition, modern and the ‘new’ | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Aligarh Muslim University: Tradition, modern and the ‘new’

Jan 15, 2024 09:21 PM IST

As a seven-judge bench decides the status of the university as a minority institution, a look at its legacy in the past and in the present

Some universities play an outsize role in the life of their nations — Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and Harvard and other Ivy League universities in the US. In the case of our national imagination, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) come to mind. AMU was originally founded as the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College in 1875 by Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) who was a social reformer and prominent advocate of modern secular education for Muslims.

Aligarh Muslim University. (File Photo) PREMIUM
Aligarh Muslim University. (File Photo)

The original buildings of the university were modelled on the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge after Sir Sayyid’s 1869 travels in England. The MAO college had a very distinctly anglicised environment, bolstered under a succession of English principals such as Theodore Morison and Theodore Beck. The major aim of the MAO college was for its Muslim students to join the Indian Civil Services (ICS) and attain parity with the ruling English.

In 1916, its sister institution, the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) was created. Four years later, MAO College became the Aligarh Muslim University. This was the time of the Non-Cooperation Movement, which led to the creation of Jamia Millia Islamia University, initially set up as a breakaway institution in Aligarh, before it moved to Delhi.

AMU was synonymous with fostering a modern secular educational ethos among Indian Muslims and was thus considered to be a minority educational institution.

However, in 2005, its status as a minority institution was challenged — not for the first time — when a bunch of petitioners moved the Allahabad high court over the matter of reservation for Muslims in post-graduate institutions. The matter before the current constitutional bench of the Supreme Court, however, dates back to a 1981 SC ruling that referred a judgement delivered by a five-judge bench to a higher bench. The earlier judgement was made in 1967 in the matter titled S Azeez Basha v Union of India and it ruled that the AMU was not a minority institution. Meanwhile, the state too has changed its stance — under the United Progressive Alliance, the state-supported AMU’s minority tag; under the National Democratic Alliance, it doesn’t. A minority institution is granted some inviolable rights, including reservation, as well as Central and state grants.

Like any major university, AMU has spawned a distinct culture and ethos with an often-exaggerated emphasis on the university’s traditions. It is often characterised by high-flown Urdu spoken by its students and faculty with witty flamboyance and combined with a distinct sartorial sensibility — the famous Aligarh cut pyjama and black sherwani. So well known was this association that romantic Muslim social movies of the 1960s would portray this too — think Rajendra Kumar singing the haunting Mere Mehboob.

The sprawling AMU campus is a collection of very distinct architectural styles. The earlier buildings combined Islamic and British motifs and the more recent ones incorporate contemporaneous elements. These buildings house faculties ranging from cutting-edge science and technology to theology. AMU faces problems that are typical of most other Indian universities: high levels of faculty indifference to teaching and research; and a steady encroachment of local and provincial interests. This prevents the university from attaining higher universal aspirations.

Like most other politically prominent campuses, AMU has frequently experienced violence and student unrest. This has been made worse by hostile media coverage. Much before the depredations of social media and the advent of the raucous nature of breaking news channels, AMU received a great deal of bad press from local Hindi dailies, one of which back in the early 1990s made baseless claims that patients in its medical college were being killed, rather than treated.

Aligarh, like other university towns, notably Oxford, is afflicted especially acutely by the rivalry between the ‘town’ and ‘gown’, the latter a stand-in for the academic gown. In the case of Aligarh, this rivalry has perhaps rather unfortunately been accentuated by the city’s communally sensitive nature. This itself has been the subject of two highly acclaimed books The Production of Hindu Muslim Violence in Contemporary India (University of Washington Press, 2003) and Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India (Yale University Press, 2002) written by political scientists Paul Brass and Ashutosh Varshney respectively. The posher Civil Lines area where the university campus is located is separated from the rest of the town by the railway line that connects Delhi and Kolkata. Communal violence has been known to often affect the town, or “shahar” as the university residents are wont to call it, rather than the campus. This is the subject of a recent book City on Fire: A Boyhood in Aligarh by journalist Zeyad Masroor Khan.

Universities have been considered active agents in nation-building and it will be intriguing to watch the tradition-laden AMU’s role in the new India of the unfolding 21st century.

Amir Ali teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is the author of 'South Asian Islam and British Multiculturalism' (Routledge, 2016) and ‘Brexit and Liberal Democracy: Populism, Sovereignty and the Nation-State’ (Routledge, 2022) His areas of research and teaching are political theory, multiculturalism, British politics and political Islam. The views expressed are personal.

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