NAT_181120 Aligarh_University
Founded in 1875, the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) is located in the north Indian city of Aligarh. It has around 30,000 students. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

The Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) is not just a university. It is an institution in itself. Established in 1920 by the Muslim scholar Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, AMU was the voice of Indian Muslim community during India’s independence movement.

Over the years, the premier university has stood as a silent testament and witnessed the upheavals of history. AMU itself has fascinating history of the people, who helped the institution establish its crendentails.

Not only has it imparted quality modern education to hundreds of thousands over a century, the university has a formidable reputation as an intellectual hub of India.

Mohammed Wajihuddin, senior editor with Times of India and a keen observer of the Indian Muslims, has written a highly readable book on the history of the AMU. In an exclusive interview with Gulf News, he expresses hopes that AMU will meet its challenges boldly.

Many Indian Muslim intellectuals believe the AMU is no more epicentre of Muslim politics. It is the Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi that’s becoming voice of the Muslim youth. Do you agree?

For decades, both in pre and post-partition eras, AMU remained the epicentre of Muslim politics in India. Historically it has guided the community. AMU, because of its residential nature — since its inception of Mohammedan Anglo Oriental (MAO) College in 1877 (it metamorphosed into AMU in 1920) — is the only place in the world where so many educated Muslims live in one geographical area.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing the online centenary celebrations of AMU, called the varsity “mini-India”, AMU has the potential to guide the 200 million Muslims of India. Because of its location in the political capital (New Delhi), Jamia Millia Islamia has received prominence. But let us not forget that Jamia came out of the womb of AMU.

What are three most significant milestones of the AMU’s journey of 100 years?

First, it survived the pangs of partition in 1947. Since a section at AMU had backed Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s two nation theory, AMU faced a huge turmoil during the days leading to Independence and partition. However, Jawaharlal Nehru and his cabinet colleague Maulana Abul Kalam Azad prudently chose AMU alumnus and educationist Dr Zakir Hussain to lead AMU just after Independence.

He saved the university from ruination. Second milestone was when it completely shed off the pro-Pakistan tilt by the 1960s as elements with soft corner for Pakistan on the campus had either left AMU or were completely integrated. The third milestone was reached when it got the minority character status in 1981.

Since its inception the AMU has been accused of being an elite institution, founded by Muslim elites who were close to the British rulers. It’s unable to catch up with transforming India? Is it?

It is true Sir Syed and most of his associates were elites. But it is wrong to say AMU catered or caters exclusively to the Muslim elites. The number of students on the campus has increased manifold. It still reflects aspirations of a huge chunk of Muslims in India.

One university cannot cater to the needs of 200 million strong community. It can help transform the community and the country. We must ensure that the potential of the nearly 30,000 student community at AMU is channelised properly.

Nationally, many of its critics consider AMU narrow and communal in its outlook due to the reservation policy and due to its inherent resistance to left-to-centre views, making it look broadly conservative.

The right-wing propaganda paints AMU as communal. There is no Muslim reservation in admission at AMU. The university act clearly says that AMU will work for the educational and scientific advancement of Muslims in India. What is wrong with that?

As per the norms, 50% of seats in admission is reserved for students who cleared their last qualifying examination from AMU. So, everyone, Hindu and Muslim students, who clear 10+2 from AMU automatically become internal and can get benefit of being internal in admissions at Engineering or Medical courses.

How do you look at the future of AMU in the era where the Hindu identity politics is getting stronger?

AMU can survive the onslaughts from the rise of majoritarian Hindu identity. AMU will have to pull up its socks and utilise its time and energy, the huge infrastructure at its disposal, to create a culture of excellence. The future is bright provided AMU doesn’t fall in the trap laid by its enemies.

During your research were there some facts that you found about AMU which surprised you?

I found the life of Sir Ross Masood - Sir Syed’s grandson and a former vice chancellor - very fascinating. He was a true inheritor of Sir Syed’s legacy. Hardly anything substantial in English is available on him, although he pioneered AMU’s rejuvenation.

Due to internal politics on the campus, justice has not been done to Ross Masood. He wrote to Einstein, requesting him to send a Physics teacher. Einstein sent one of his students to teach Physics at AMU.

Masood was also a great friend of English writer E M Forster who dedicated his famous novel A Passage To India to Masood. He was also close to iconic Urdu-Persian poet Allama Iqbal whom he hosted at AMU and at Bhopal while Masood worked as education minister with the Nawab of Bhopal.

Masood was also instrumental in getting Osmania University established at Hyderabad. Except for a hostel named after him, there is hardly anything at AMU commemorating the memories of this great internationalist and a pioneering son of AMU.

What are your views on the controversial issue of retaining its ‘minority status.’ How Will the final judgement impact its existence?

It depends on the final verdict of the Supreme Court where it is stuck. The snatching away of minority character which is not reservation for Muslims alone but all who are internal candidates will be a big blow to the varsity. It may take away its unique character and ethos.

What should AMU do to remain relevant in 21 century India?

AMU must move with the times. Blending modernity with tradition, it must move cautiously. It cannot afford to become communal or conservative in its conduct and it must face the new challenges boldly. Sir Syed spoke of large-hearted tolerance and modern and scientific approach. It must uphold its famed founding father’s ideals.