Book extract: A fading glorious past
AMU has kept its doors open for everyone since its inception and that its first graduate was a Hindu—Ishwari Prasad
Noted Urdu satirist and humourist Rasheed Ahmad Siddiqui (1892– 1977) had a delightful pastime. Whenever he came across a wellmannered stranger, he would ask him whether he had ever been a student at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).
It would please Siddiqui if the stranger turned out to be an AMU alumnus; it didn’t surprise him at all that the stranger was so charming. But it saddened Siddiqui if the refined stranger told him that he had never studied at AMU. Siddiqui would feel sorry that such a nice person had been deprived of the nemat or boon of studying at AMU.
If Siddiqui were to return to the AMU campus today, he would be hugely disappointed. The ‘Aligarh ethos’ that had moulded him and countless others, and which he longed to discover was behind any decent denizens he would meet, is gone.
Yes, there are well-cut black sherwanis and tight-fitting churidar pyjamas aplenty on display, especially on ceremonial occasions like the founder Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s (1817–1898) birthday on 17 October, which is celebrated as ‘Sir Syed Day’ by the Aligs, or alumni of AMU, globally. A sherwani, churidar-pyjama and Turkish cap for men, and niqab or a hijab for women, were once the uniforms on the campus.
M. Hashim Kidwai (1921–2017), who taught political science at AMU and served the university as provost of the residential halls and proctor of the university before he became a Rajya Sabha member (1984–1990), writes in his autobiography, 'The Life and Times of a Nationalist Muslim', that the sherwani and the Aligarh-cut pyjama began taking a backseat in the late 1950s. Until then, the male students wore sherwani and churidar even during summers.
The dress code at AMU had entered the popular imagination so much so that Hindi cinema had lapped it up. Remember the debonair Rajendra Kumar, smartly dressed in a white sherwani churidar, crooning the romantic number ‘Mere mehboob tujhe meri mohabbat ki kasam, mera khoya hua rangeen nazara dede’ (My beloved, please return my lost romantic view) from the 1963 film Mere Mehboob?
The song features a scene where a sherwani-clad Rajendra Kumar unintentionally collides with the burqa-clad Sadhana, clutching a bunch of books to her chest. The books fall and both kneel down to pick them up. While doing so Kumar touches Sadhana’s hands, a reason for the poet Shakeel Badayuni to describe the scene in the sugary, romantic strain ‘Marmari haathon ko chhua tha maine' (I had touched those marble-like hands).
That popular image of AMU boys and girls is fading. And the change is not merely sartorial. It is also in the way AMU is perceived. For decades in the last century, AMU remained an epicentre of Muslim politics, a nerve centre of Indian Muslims’ intellectual life. It made or marred the ‘Muslim destiny’ like no other institution.
However, despite the noticeably painful downfall in the delightful tradition and culture Aligarh (the city of Aligarh and AMU became interchangeable over time) used to boast of, AMU does retain some of its original charms. Mara hathi bhi sawa lakh ka hota hai (even a dead elephant fetches Rs 1.25 lakh), goes a popular Hindi idiom, denoting the value of a once-giant entity.
Despite its considerably reduced utilitarian value for the community—after all, one university cannot fulfil the educational needs of a twenty-crore-strong community in the country—AMU remains a centre of intellectual life for Indian Muslims.
Mukhtar Masood studied from school (in one of AMU’s sub-institutions) up to M.A. at AMU before his family migrated to Pakistan in 1948. He joined Pakistan’s civil service and became a famous writer of Urdu prose. His books on Aligarh, though one-sided and written from a Pakistani perspective, are a tour de force and make for delightful reading. Masood first met Mohammad Ali Jinnah at Aligarh in 1938.
Never a great speaker, Jinnah, who spoke English fluently and was not comfortable with Urdu idioms and couplets—which most Muslim leaders then peppered their speeches with—had electrified the AMU students.
Masood recalls: "He (Jinnah) seemingly lacked in the traits that were necessary for a Muslim politician. He had lived in London for years and was [a] stranger to many. He was not even a religious scholar and dressed like an English(man). He didn’t know Arabic and Persian and not even Urdu… His personal life was very lonely. His wife (Ruttie Petit) came into his life quite late (he was forty and she was just sixteen when they had married) and left early. He had a few friends and one daughter (Dina) whom he had disinherited (because she married Mumbai Parsi industrialist Nevile Wadia against his wishes)."
Not even once does Masood, an unabashed admirer of the Quaid-e-Azam (leader of the nation), mention his hero’s well-known love of pork and whisky, both taboo in Islam. In fact, Jinnah’s knowledge of Islam was not even rudimentary.
Scholar-politician and former minister of Maharashtra Rafiq Zakaria, in his book 'The Man Who Divided India', cites some interesting encounters that Jinnah had with some of his interlocutors, which show the scant regard the so-called Quaid-e Azam had for Islamic aesthetics.
Once, after Independence, Jinnah readied to address an Eid congregation in Karachi. Zakaria writes: Qazi Isa, a close associate of Jinnah, suggested to him that while addressing the Eid congregation he should recite a Quranic verse. Jinnah readily agreed and learnt one by heart.
As soon as he finished his address he turned to Qazi and asked him whether he had recited the verse correctly. Excitedly the Qazi exclaimed, ‘Alhamdollillah.’ ‘What does that mean?’ Jinnah asked. Isa said, ‘It means Allah be praised.’
‘Damn you,’ Jinnah shouted. ‘I did not ask you about Allah but about me.’ The Qazi coolly assured him, ‘You, my Qaid, are always right.'
Another interesting incident occurred when freedom fighter poet Maulana Hasrat Mohani (1875–1951), the man who coined the revolutionary slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad’, went to see Jinnah without an appointment. Jinnah was in his room and was as usual sipping whisky. He asked for the Maulana to be ushered in.
Mohani, with his deep orthodox Islamic background, was taken aback to see Quaid-eAzam drinking. Despite the anger seething within him, he composed himself. Jinnah saw the Maulana’s face change colour. To humour him, he asked him whether he would like to taste the forbidden drink. ‘No, thank you, Sir,’ replied the Maulana, ‘I have to answer my Allah.’
Jinnah sensed his discomfiture. ‘Maulana Saheb, I am a better Muslim than you. Unlike me, you have no faith in the mercy and benevolence of God.’
Over the years, the university has stopped being the ‘heartbeat’ of Indian Muslims, the ‘Qurtaba (Cordoba) of the East’, as AMU’s first chancellor, Nawab of Bhopal Sultan Jahan Begum, had called the university. What could be the reasons for Muslims ceasing to see AMU as their ‘heartbeat’ as earlier generations of Muslims, at least in North India, had?
As globalization happened and the economy opened up in the early 1990s, several private and government funded universities opened in almost every state. Though AMU is one of the central universities, it stopped attracting students from states other than UP and Bihar the way it used to till the 1980s.
While talking about AMU losing its grip over the hearts and minds of Indian Muslims, noted poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar once told this writer: ‘It is no longer an all-India institution. It looks like a state university of Uttar Pradesh where you have students from Azamgarh, Ballia and Bahraich.’
This may not be entirely true, but AMU undeniably doesn’t truly represent the aspirations of Muslims in India today. Since not many students from states other than Bihar and UP get admission here, Muslims in other states don’t identify with AMU. They don’t show interest in or warmth towards the university and its affairs.
Before the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic considerably curtailed travel, this writer spent one week at Aligarh in February 2021. Accompanied by Dr Rahat Abrar, former public relations officer at the university, I visited some of the old buildings and institutions created during Sir Syed’s lifetime. Not many students were on campus or in their hostel rooms as classes were being held online as per COVID-19 protocol. The scene was not a very happy one.
Whatever small fraction of students we saw or even met, they didn’t inspire much confidence. Missing was the zeitgeist once so characteristic of the Aligarh boys. Aligarh was not established just to hand out degrees. Its purpose was not just to create an army of employable youths. It was created to give leadership to the community and the country. And leadership here doesn’t mean political leadership alone.
Athar Parvez joined AMU in 1941 and spent over a decade there before he became an established Urdu writer, authoring several books, including many for children. In 1977, when AMU was celebrating the centennial of MAO College (founded in 1877), Parvez came out with a delightful book, 'Aligarh se Aligarh Tak' (From Aligarh to Aligarh), a fascinating account of life and times on the campus.
Since Parvez is a good storyteller, he keeps readers rivetted with his tales about or from people he met on the campus. There is one story Parvez says he heard from Dr Zakir Hussain, who piloted AMU through some of the toughest years (1948– 1956). Pervez quotes Zakir Sahab:
"Once an American millionaire reached Oxford and appreciated a lawn he saw. He was enchanted by it. As if someone had prodded him, the American millionaire asked, ‘How much does it cost to create such a lawn?’ The professor accompanying the millionaire said he headed the humanities department and didn’t know the details about that. ‘If you want, I can summon the gardener and ask him.’
‘Call him,’ the millionaire said. ‘I want exactly this kind of lawn back home, how much will it cost,’ asked the millionaire. The gardener replied, ‘Sir, it doesn’t cost much. A few dollars, just a few dollars. I believe you have the land. Just pave it a little and plant the grass in it. When the grass grows a little, run a roller on it. And keep doing that for around five hundred years. You will get a similar lawn’.
Moral of the story: nothing comes easily. Just as Rome was not built in a day, a seat of learning like AMU didn’t come up in one night. No magic wand was used to turn around things; no Aladdin’s lamp worked wonders here.
Sir Syed showed that he was secular in his actions too. He had many Hindu friends, ‘including Raja Jaikisan Das, whom he invited to the rasme bismillah of his grandson Ross Masood. Addressing the guests, Sir Syed remarked: “My cleanshaven friend (Das) is here and my grandson is sitting beside him. He is my friend and brother. Syed Mahmood (Sir Syed’s son) calls him uncle while he is ‘dada Raja’ to my grandson Ross Masood”.’
Mohan Bhagwat of the RSS would have also found that much before the cow vigilantes began using violence against people in the name of cow protection, Sir Syed had opposed the slaughter of cows and counselled Muslims to respect the sentiments of Hindus and slaughter only goat and sheep on Bakr Eid. He would have also noticed that ‘AMU has kept its doors open for everyone since its inception and that its first graduate was a Hindu’—Ishwari Prasad.
On 29 May 2017, a debate on Twitter began over whether non-Muslim students at AMU were forced to fast for Ramzan. It began when an advocate at the Delhi High Court, Prashant Patel, wrote on Twitter:
In Aligarh muslim university hostels, Lunch, Breakfast is not being served to Hindu students due to #Ramadan .... https://t.co/ ghUntAGj2p — Prashant Patel Umrao (@ ippatel) May 29, 20176
A storm on Twitter began, with many attacking AMU while others called the post fake. On investigating the matter, by checking with both the AMU spokesperson and Hindu students on the campus, The Quint found it to be false: The Quint also reached out to Jyoti Bhaskar, a mass communication student at AMU, who said, ‘It is a sad thing to bring a religious angle into the story.'
In February, when I was fasting during Navratri, the mess used to provide milk and bananas. We should respect the religious sentiments,’ Bhaskar added. He said that in MM hall, where he lives, breakfast and dinner is provided as usual.
However, lunch is not provided because most of the people working in the mess are fasting, and it is difficult for them to keep fast and work at the same time. He himself goes to canteens around the campus for his lunch. However, he added that the non-fasting students who couldn’t afford to eat out can still get lunch if they write an application to the Senior Food Monitor to provide them food, and the authorities will do the needful.
This is just one example of how baseless, malicious campaigns seek to tarnish the image of AMU. The AMU community, especially the students, will have to be prepared to counter such vilification campaigns.
Apart from showing restraint while protesting the injustices done to them or to the larger Muslim community or to anyone else in the country, they must remain nonviolent. There was a time when students and teachers at AMU would write articles and letters to the editor in the national dailies, highlighting incidents of slight, bias or violence against minorities.
Now, except for a few, this writer doesn’t see many names from AMU making reasoned arguments for the rights of minorities in the national press. Why is it so? It is so because of the general downfall in standards in the academic and non-academic arena at the university.
(The author is a senior journalist with The Times of India in Mumbai)
(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)