The AMU test for Indian secularism

ONCE again the Aligrah Muslim University is back into focus. But this time round the big question that has emerged for Indian Muslims is: what should they do to seek education in India? And, what type of education should they opt for?

By Zafar Agha

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Published: Sat 15 Oct 2005, 10:41 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 6:53 PM

Should they limit themselves to the conservative seminaries called ‘madrassas’ or should they, like any normal Indian, opt for modern education and take to the national mainstream? The recent Allahabad High Court judgment striking down the minority status of the Aligarh Muslim University seems to be indicating that Indian Muslims need no education.

They rather deserve to be condemned to ‘madrassas’ so that they don’t take to modern education and rot. How else can anyone interpret the High Court decision to annul the Aligarh Muslim University's minority status, and its decision to aver that the university has not been established by the Indian Muslims?

Well, the honourable court may have its own reasons to interpret the AMU case the way it did. But the country need to be reminded that the Aligarh Muslim University is the first modern and secular institution that Indian Muslims started for educating and modernising themselves.

Syed Ahmad Khan, a nobleman from the last days of Mughal Delhi, not only established this institution, initially called the Anglo-Mohammedan College in 1877, but he also initiated the Muslim renaissance during the pre-Partition years. Syed Ahmad was knighted by the British for his efforts to spread education among the Muslims. Indeed, he deserved a pat for his courage of conviction to spread modern education among Muslims in those times.

It was no mean task for Sir Syed to tell the Indian Muslims that the ‘madrassas’ alone couldn't lead them to any kind of success in modern times. Sir Syed’s message to the Muslims was: have English education and modern vision and succeed in the modern world. He was, indeed, pioneering modernity among Muslims of his time. Like any Muslim moderniser, Sir Syed paid for his ‘kufr’ (blasphemy) and was awarded 18 fatwas, ostracising him from the community.

Many ulema (religious scholars) of his time even pronounced death for him for defying their conservative worldview . So, Sir Syed in effect was to the Muslims what Raja Ram Mohan Roy was to the Hindus of the 19th century. He was a moderniser, a pioneer in modern education, and a reformist like Ram Mohan Roy. And, the Anglo Mohammedan College — that the British converted into the Aligarh Muslim University in 1921 by a government act — was then the only means for the Muslims to keep away from conservative ‘madrassa’ education.

The Allahabad High Court, taking the narrow view of a legal point, has held that the Aligarh University is neither a Muslim institution, nor do the Muslims deserve any quota there. The honourable court quotes the 1968 Supreme Court judgment in the Aziz Pasha case wherein the highest court of the country had held that the AMU was established by a British government Act of 1921 and not by the Muslims.

The Supreme Court had then not taken into account the fact that the British government converted Sir Syed’s Anglo-Mohammedan College into a full-fledged university at the Muslims’ own request. Naturally, the Muslims wanted government patronage and greater financial assistance for the university. So, they petitioned the British government to convert the Anglo-Mohammedan College into the Aligarh Muslim University. Even the British recognised the Muslim character of the institution and retained the word ‘Muslim’ in its nomenclature.2 Courts may or may not recognise the Aligarh Muslim University’s role in bringing the Muslim community into the national mainstream.

But no one can brush history under the carpet and not recognise the fact that the AMU was the fountainhead of Muslim renaissance in the Indian subcontinent. Indeed, Muslim League politics did cast its shadow over the AMU during the pre-Partition days. But it did not mean that the Muslims did not establish the institution for themselves. There was nothing strange about it either. Every community and caste virtually launched educational institutions for their own benefit in those times.

The Hindu, the Christian, the Sikh, the Kayasths, the Agarwal, in fact educational institutions of every caste and creed proliferated in India during the late 19th and early 20th century. There was a kind of race within every Indian social group to take to modern education. The AMU played that role for the Muslims then, and is even now fulfilling that function for them.

Indira Gandhi in 1981 understood the historic nature of the Aligarh Muslim University and restored the minority status of the university, reversing the 1968 Supreme Court judgment to which the recent Allahabad high Court had taken recourse. Once the minority character was restored, the Executive Council of the university decided to hike the Muslim quota up to 50 per cent for the Muslims even in higher professional courses.

The Human Resource Ministry had only accepted the AMU executive council decision to promote higher education among Muslims even through the quota system — the cause for which Syed Ahmad Khan fought for and established the Anglo Mohammedan College, which is now titled the Aligarh Muslim University.

The AMU is the only modern educational institution of the Muslims in North India. It kindles the light of modern education in their life and helps them take to the national mainstream. Let Sir Syed’s mission of educating Muslims through the AMU succeed. If the AMU is snuffed out, the Muslims will be left with nothing but their madrassas and both the community and the country will suffer.

Zafar Agha is a prominent Indian journalist who has held senior positions at India Today magazine

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