What do They Know of India Who do not Aligarh Know? – Salman Khurshid

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Aligarh Muslim University. (File Photo: IANS)

Salman Khurshid | Caravan Daily

BIRTHPLACE generally remains an important emotional bookmark in a person’s life story. Sometimes the page does not change whilst a lot gets written on it. For others the script moves to other pages with an occasional return to the bookmark. How much does the place of birth matter and why does a person wish to return there in advancing years or for eternal rest remain interesting questions.

For me Aligarh, particularly the Vice Chancellor’s Lodge retains a special emotional bond and a sense of nostalgia. The sentiments that come to mind are beautifully expressed in late Jagjit Singh’s voice: “Yeh daulat bhi le lo, yeh shohrat bhi le lo, bhale cheen lo mujh se meri jawaani, magar mujhko lauta do bachpan ka saawan!”

Of course in adult life I have discovered what Aligarh means to India and all Muslims of our country. This discovery of a special India has come both from reading historical literature beginning with Stanley Wolport’s “Aligarh’s First Generation”, and hundreds of books about Sir Syed and his colleagues; the personal experience of having spent hours with agonized AMU students after police firings and riots in the city; arranging meeting of generations of students with Vijay Dhar and the late Rajiv Gandhi. Not many people will know that the idea of Rapid Action Force (RAF) with their blue uniforms as well as the symbol of the dove was given by Aligarh students to Rajiv Gandhi who asked P. Chidambaram to implement it as the then minister of state for internal security.

For me the beacon for Aligarh has been my grandfather, Dr. Zakir Husain’s words, “In years to come how India treats its Muslim citizens will be judged by how it treats Aligarh.” I wonder if I would be considered impertinent if I were to add, “In contemporary India how Muslims treat Aligarh will decide how they wish to treat themselves.”

Of course, in that statement Aligarh is more than a town and gown for me. It is a valuable heritage of freedom and beyond; nationalism and democracy; our trials and tribulation; our dreams and nightmare. I should know what I am talking about because I have had the privilege to be received at the Union with a minute long shower of marigold petals; I have had to face a restless crowd for over an hour at the Kennedy Hall a few days after the demolition of Babri Masjid; I have been struck by the beauty of the Halls dining together at Sir Syed Day dinner; I have been told that Aligarh is out of bounds for Congress leaders; I have been made to feel as one of the family. Generations have come and gone; VCs have come and gone; hostels have been closed and reopened; after Indira Gandhi it took two decades for Sonia Gandhi to bridge the years and feelings with Aligarh. For us Aligarh’s importance will never diminish.

For me Aligarh will remain an object of affection. My prayer will always be that in Aligarh and beyond (including across the continents and oceans where Aligarh’s unique language is spoken by Aligarians) we will honestly cherish and respect. We have few minority institutions in the country that can match the history as well current standing of Aligarh Muslim University. We, therefore, must not take it for granted or allow its historical significance to be wasted or depleted.

Sadly debates about AMU are largely about what is rather than what it should have. We seem caught in the vortex of what AMU can offer to us as individuals rather than be asking ourselves what we can offer AMU? Words may offer comfort or cause discomfort, but perhaps it is time to go from words to action.

Since I am in government and that too as Minister for Law and Justice as well as Minority Affairs, there will be questions about our position on the minority character of AMU. It seems to me that de facto the minority character is quite obvious since the days of the last amendment and Aligarians can scarce point out any interference. The Allahabad High Court decision seeking to follow the Supreme Court Constitutional Bench judgment of Azeez Basha case is a routine step to get the matter re-examined in the Supreme Court.

The UPA government is committed to have the minority character upheld by the court. In recent weeks we have successfully steered Jamia Millia Islamia’s minority character, the matter being easier than AMU in some respects but more difficult on statutory considerations.

The TMA Pai Eleven judges’ matter regarding autonomy of educational institutions virtually wiped out the distinction between most institutions and minority institutions except for the right (duty?) of the latter to reserve 50 percent share for minority students. As a corollary they are obviously entitled to recruit staff of their choice in terms of community preference.

Reservations of course are critical for educational empowerment and inclusion. They have to be sustained and therefore the minority status has to be confirmed. But there is an important caveat: It is wrong to seek minority character from government; AMU must claim minority character as an attribute of its birth, with the government and courts merely accepting that claim. In addition, one must not forget that minority character has its responsibilities too; there cannot be any place for blowing hot and cold. AMU cannot claim minority character and its concomitant right of non-interference on one hand and yet seek government interference at other times when internal differences divide the Aligarh family.

There are many serious people including distinguished Muslim scholars who have periodically argued that granting of minority character to AMU and Jamia will wreck their standard. It has also been argued that national secular character and minority character are opposites. I believe both those arguments suffer from the myopia of inadequate understanding of democracy, secularism, nationalism and liberalism. Yet the fact that such people raise these concerns imposes a serious responsibility on all of us to not merely refute them but also ensure that AMU proves them wrong.

One day I hope AMU will shine glorious not just on the Indian landscape but across the globe. The “Bulbuls” of Aligarh will sing and the world will listen. “Jo abr yahan se uthega, wo saare jahan par barsega…”

I dream of the time when people will say, “What do they know of India who do not Aligarh know?”

(The article has been written in 2011 when the author was Union Law Minister)

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