The story of Jamia, the “anti-national” university born of deep Indian nationalism

Politically sound.
Politically sound.
Image: REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas
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A burqa-clad woman defiantly standing up to an aggressive Delhi policeman has become the defining image of the ongoing anti-Citizenship Amendment Act agitation in India. It has spurred the country, especially its Muslims, into action, given that she was a student of Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. 

On Dec. 15, the university’s students protesting against India’s new and discriminatory citizenship law were brutalised by Delhi police personnel. They reportedly fired bullets and used tear gas inside the campus, badly damaging the library and rest-rooms, and injuring several students.

These dramatic developments would seem out of place in a campus that has for over a decade barred political activity. In 2006, Jamia’s students’ council was disbanded, never to be restored again despite a court order backing elections.

However, that doesn’t mean Jamia’s been politically barren. “My education at Jamia was fundamental to the evolution of my personal politics. I was challenged to think like never before,” says Samina Mishra, an independent filmmaker and a former student of the university.

The fact that the “anti-national” tag, after visiting the rebellious Jawaharlal Nehru University and the political hotbed of Delhi University in recent years, has finally arrived at its doorsteps only proves that century-old Jamia doesn’t need organised student bodies to make its politics known to the world loud and clear.

Back in the day

Jamia Millia Islamia, roughly translated as Islamic Nationalist University, has its origins deeply rooted in India’s freedom struggle against the British empire. It was set up in 1920 in Aligarh, around 150 kilometres southeast of New Delhi, later moving to Delhi’s Karol Bagh area, and eventually to its current campus at Okhla in New Delhi.

It was established as part of the Non-Cooperation movement of 1920 led by Mahatma Gandhi. Under this movement, Indians refuse to follow British systems in place in the India of that time: courts, civil services, and even infrastructure. This was in protest against a draconian law passed by the British Indian government barring Indians from bearing arms.

Under Gandhi, the Non-Cooperation movement was merged with the Khilafat movement of 1919 led by Muslims angry at the Turkish empire’s humiliation following the World War I—Istanbul was then the custodian of the holy Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina.

At this time, Jamia was a part of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in the United Provinces, now the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

A conundrum emerged here. For a movement boycotting all things British, the late AMU founder Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s own deeply pro-British leanings seemed to be at odds with the ideology of Non-Cooperation—AMU itself was often deemed the “Muslim Oxford.”

Finally, in 1920, four professors—Maulana Mehmud Hasan, Maulana Mohamed Ali, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari, and Abdul Majid Khwaja—quit AMU for its “pro-British” inclinations and set up Jamia as a separate university, turning it into a hub of Indian nationalism. Several of its students and professors were arrested by the British.

However, once Non-Cooperation and Khilafat were abruptly called off in 1922, Jamia’s funds dried up. It was then that, with Gandhi’s assistance, Ajmal Khan, Ansari, and Khwaja moved Jamia to Karol Bagh in Delhi.

Funds still remained a problem though. The British did not want to support a Congress-backed university and the Muslim bodies saw Jamia as a threat to AMU. However, thanks to a steady stream of benefactors and dedicated professors, Jamia survived, going on to lay the foundation stone for its current campus in Okhla, near New Delhi, in 1935. This was also the time that prominent educationists such as Zakir Husain left their cushy European jobs to serve the fledgling university. Husain would later go on to become the president of India in 1967.

Over the years, it added liberal arts, science, and professional courses, formally becoming a central university under the Indian government in 1988. 

Rooted in the political history of India, Jamia’s own campus had its brushes with warring ideologies.

No such thing as apolitical

It was in Jamia, in 1992, that professor Mushirul Hasan opposed the ban on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Widespread protests followed, with Badruddin Qureshi, president of the students’ union, wanting nothing less than Hasan’s resignation. More radical protestors even called for a death sentence on Hasan. Soon after this controversy, the students’ union was banned.

Hasan, who also became the vice-chancellor of the university, resigned in 2013 after he opposed Jamia’s desire to retain its minority status. The minority status grants an educational institution the right to reserve a large portion of the seats for the religious community it represents, and greater autonomy to preside over its own affairs. One of India’s most elite colleges, St Stephen’s, is also a Christian-minority college. Hasan, according to a report in the Hindustan Times newspaper, opposed the minority status since it perpetuated the “ghettoisation” of Muslims in India. 

Yet, despite the best efforts of Hasan, who passed away in 2018, Jamia remains a Muslim university. 

However, the campus itself barely stands out in that category. Of the 7,762 students enrolled with Jamia in 2017-2018, only about a third (pdf) were Muslims. In the same year, it had 2,003 PhD students, over 4,000 post-graduate students, and 8,733 undergraduate students enrolled across its 260 courses. That year, the university awarded 263 PhDs to its fellows.

“You come to our campus, and you will rarely be able to differentiate between Muslims and non-Muslims. You’ll find all of us sitting at the same table sharing a meal,” says Mohammed Nazeef Khan, a student of Jamia’s Faculty of Architecture and Ekistics.

Among students’, though, Jamia still isn’t one of the top choices.

The perception bind

“I applied to Jamia and I saw a lot of raised eyebrows that I was even considering a ‘Muslim’ university,” says Sahil Sharma, a student at JNU. “My family was concerned that JNU was ‘leftist,’ but their reaction to Jamia was tragicomical.” 

The truth, according to former Indian chief election commissioner SY Quraishi could not be further from this perception. “Of course it is a minority institution, but even when I studied there in the early 1990s, there were nearly 50% non-Muslim students,” he recalls. “In fact, when I finished my PhD in 1992, there were a lot of Hindu professors teaching at Jamia.” He, however, adds that it remained a foregone conclusion that if you were a Muslim, you would either study at Jamia or AMU.

This stereotyping is one reason why it is still not the most obvious choice for liberal arts and other courses even though it counts ace historians like Mukul Kesavan among faculty, said filmmaker Mishra, who was also a former professor at the university’s AJ Kidwai Mass Communication Research Centre (AJK MCRC).

“Jamia gets a lot of first-generation learners, both Muslim and non-Muslim,” says a professor at one of India’s private universities who didn’t want to be named. “Many women, particularly, are the first in their families to do a BA or MA. You just have to talk to them to see how articulate they are,” he adds.

Tragically, this biased perception of Jamia has crystallised further since the Bharatiya Janata Party under prime minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. “There is so much anger and hatred that this government has spread among people that this was bound to happen,” says Khan, the architecture student.  

Yet, a few schools have been able to uniquely transcend this prejudice. 

These have largely been the professional courses—engineering, law, mass communication—that generally have competitive entrance exams and the least amount of visible politics. The most coveted being mass communication.

Established in 1983, the AJK MCRC’s mass communication and filmmaking course is renowned across the country with names like journalist Barkha Dutt and Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan being counted as alumni. “Half the television media today is a product of Jamia,” says Quraishi.

Quraishi, whose brother Mahmood Quraishi was one of the first, and for a long time the only professor for radio and journalism at the AJK MCRC, believes this course helped re-shape Jamia’s image as a progressive university. “There were a lot of other progressive courses that have been introduced in the university over the years, and the acceptability quotient has trickled down,” he says.

The esteemed university, firmly rooted in Indian nationalism, may be battling prejudices. Its battle, however, may only be reinforcing age-old biases.

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