The suspension of an associate professor on the basis of his Facebook posts appears to have snowballed into a bigger issue than the administration at Aligarh Muslim University was prepared for. Associate Professor (History) Dr Syed Nadeem Ali Rezavi was suspended on July 22 after describing the vice chancellor, a retired Army officer, as “be-aqal” (brainless) and former VCs as “lotiya chor” (colloquial for petty thieves).
On Friday morning, prominent historians from all over India and academics threw their weight behind Rezavi. The matter is now not just about AMU, but about whether those from a military background should be sent to run academic institutions, and about freedom of expression on university campuses.
In a signed statement, historians Prof Romila Thapar, Prof B D Chattopadhyay (also president-designate of the Indian History Congress scheduled for winter this year), Prof S Z H Jafri (secretary, Indian Historical Congress), Prof B P Sahu (former secretary, Indian Historical Congress), Prof D N Jha, Prof Mridula Mukherjee and others have demanded that Rezavi be “reinstated forthwith”.
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They said the treatment meted out to Rezavi, “including the withholding of his order of appointment as professor for the last two years, suggests the preexistence of much personal prejudice against him. His suspension avowedly on grounds of some criticism he levelled against the vice-chancellor on the Internet betokens an extreme intolerance of dissent”.
Vice chancellor Lt Gen (retired) Zameeruddin Shah, however, told The Indian Express that what resulted in the suspension was not just the “be-aqal” comment but the culmination of things Rezavi had said on social media since September 2013. Describing the comments made by Rezavi about Shah’s role as an Army officer in the Gujarat riots in 2002 as objectionable, the vice chancellor says, “In slanderous mail on September 2, 2013, he accused me of inaction during the Gujarat riots of 2002. He writes, ‘Ek kam aql fauji jiske under Gujarat 2002 me jalta raha aur fassad badhte rahe, uski lagaane ka kya matlab? Yeh wahi to hain jinko Atalji ne Gujarat dange rokne bheja tha aur dange Army hone ke bawajud hote aur bhadakte rahe! Sherwani pahanke aur dua me haath uthhake nek niyati nahi aati!’ I summoned him to my office on September 16, 2013, and told him to find out from the Muslims of Gujarat the good work done by the Army, of which I was general officer commanding.”
The clearly miffed vice chancellor has suggested that “the brain behind” Rezavi’s posts is that of Prof Irfan Habib, renowned historian and currently professor emeritus at AMU. Because the university had decided to scrutinise the accounts of the Aligarh Historians Society, Shah said, historians are now “on the back foot.” . Shah also described Rezavi as a “protégé” of Habib.
Habib, when contacted, said he thought of the historian as one with promise and potential and the suspension as “wrong, an overreaction and must be withdrawn immediately”.
Historians Prof G Hargopal, Prof Anil Sadgopal, Prof Anand Teltumbde and Prof K M Shrimali, all associated with the All India Forum for the Right to Education, too have come out in support of Rezavi and made an issue of the “freedom of speech and expression” in academic spaces.
They have also commented how the VC as well as the pro VC at AMU have military and not academic backgrounds: “This contravenes the stipulation of the University Grants Commission that persons occupying these offices should come from academic backgrounds. Modes of military ‘discipline’ are alien to the ethos of academic institutions. However, recent experiences, notably at Delhi University and elsewhere, indicate that even in the central universities those who dare to question the arbitrary conduct of the authorities are being subjected to harassment and victimisation.”
Shah, meanwhile, said it was the last post by Rezavi on July 12 that was the last straw: “I could not tolerate my illustrious predecessors, including former President Dr Zakir Hussain and Vice President Mr Mohd Hamid Ansari, being accused of being ‘lotiya chors’. An emergency meeting of the executive council was summoned on July 22. I did not participate as I had a meeting… on that date. The executive council… authorised the vice chancellor to initiate disciplinary action, including suspension of Dr Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi.” Subsequently, the officiating vice-chancellor suspended Dr Nadeem Rezavi.
Rezavi has been elected the president of the mediaeval section of the forthcoming Indian History Congress in December and his publications on Fatehpur Sikri, in particular, have been described as having challenged several old ideas about buildings in that city and that period.