When Najma Akhtar was appointed Jamia Millia Islamia’s Vice-Chancellor in April last year, the buzz around the first woman V-C was also about her perceived proximity to the RSS — and, therefore, the ruling establishment.
However, in the recent protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act as well as the heavy-handedness with which the government and the Delhi Police have handled students, she has stood out for being almost the lone university head to raise her voice. Her stand rang out particularly loud as the BJP made its Delhi Assembly poll pitch all about the Shaheen Bagh protest — which was sparked off by police action on the Jamia campus on December 15.
If the lasting image of her April 2019 appointment was a photo of RSS National Executive member Indresh Kumar blessing her, the picture that did the rounds after the Jamia violence was Akhtar dropping in to meet her injured students. A comparison was drawn with JNU Vice-Chancellor
M Jagadesh Kumar, his failure to make any such reconciliatory gesture, and the continuing imbroglio at that university.
In a rare interview (she says she gets “tongue-tied”), Akhtar told The Sunday Express that the anti-CAA protests at Jamia had come as a surprise. “India did not expect it. The CAA was unexpected, and the reaction to it too. It was a totally new reaction both from the people and the government.”
However, Akhtar has many detractors still, who accuse her of not doing enough post-December 15, and doing what she did only under student pressure. In his statement after he was shot at by a gun-toting miscreant near Jamia on January 30, Shadab Farooq, said, “The Jamia administration and V-C too should be blamed for what happened. Had they taken action against police brutality at earlier events, this might not have happened.”
Born into a prominent Uttar Pradesh family, the 67-year-old Akhtar’s brother is former IAS officer Jawed Usmani, who was considered very close to the Samajwadi Party and is now Chief Information Commissioner of the state. Her late husband, Akhtar Majeed, was professor with Aligarh Muslim University’s Political Science Department.
An alumni of AMU and a PhD (Education) from Kurukshetra University, Akhtar served as Controller of Examinations at AMU in the early Nineties — her first administrative post — and as Head of the Department of Educational Administration at NIEPA for 15 years before coming to Jamia.
The Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM), an outfit patronised by RSS leader Indresh Kumar, admits recommending her name for Jamia V-C. Its chief convenor, Mohammad Afzal, told The Sunday Express, “Akhtar has never been a member or activist of the MRM. But the fact is that four-five professors approached the MRM for Jamia vice-chancellorship, and while all were eligible, we found her candidature most appropriate.”
Sources in the RSS add that Akhtar was picked as she was considered aligned to neither the Congress nor Left. He says that after 2014, as the Narendra Modi government looked around to fill V-C posts at institutes which had always had Muslim heads, their challenge was to find a “nationalist”, who was “not controlled by Congress people or Left parties”. Consequently, several scholars and academics approached Indresh Kumar, seen as the only one well-connected to Muslims among the RSS leadership.
Soon after her appointment, a former AMU Students’ Union president alleged there was “institutionalised corruption” during her tenure as Controller of Examinations.
Speaking to The Sunday Express, Akhtar insisted she was “apolitical”. Denying the allegations of corruption, she says AMU was her “training ground”. “That was also 30 years ago. I was 30 years younger,” she says, with a smile.
That said, she denies her actions post the police action at Jamia were reflective of lessons learnt from the administrative handling of violent situations at JNU or AMU. “I don’t take lessons, every university is different,” Akhtar says.
Soon after police entered the campus, vandalised the library and beat up students on the night of December 15, Akhtar had put out a video message saying she stood with her students and criticising police. The next day, she had called a press conference where, surrounded by senior officials, she had reiterated that police entry and action were without permission and condemnable.
According to Akhtar, what helped her was that she had a good team in place. “When I came in, the support system in the sense of people in the administration was missing. I’m a team player, so I built my team. The teachers were also very cooperative.”
In the 10 months she has been V-C, Akhtar has made roughly 150 promotions and over 60 fresh appointments. She has also got UGC sanction for four new departments, and has talked of bringing in more women students.
Says a faculty member, “We have to admit that at least she has had a much more responsive attitude, even if it’s under student pressure. That way we are much better off than teachers and students of JNU and AMU, but students expected her to do more.”
For example, the students ask why Akhtar did not follow up on Jamia’s police complaint. It was only after a gherao of the V-C’s office on January 13, nearly a month since the incident, that the University said it would move court to get an FIR registered.
Arguing that much of what Akhtar did was optics, under their pressure, Laraib Neyazi, a student of gender studies, says, “After the December 13 incident when police lobbed tear gas shells, lathicharged and detained students during a protest, she didn’t meet any student… She also didn’t say anything about the police action that day. If she had, December 15 would have never happened.”
Contesting this, Ahmed Azeem, Jamia PRO, says Akhtar wanted to visit students after the December 13 incident but couldn’t do so as the road outside the University was blocked and due to health issues. “She is unable to climb stairs, and most of those students stayed on upper floors at hostels. We didn’t think it would be right to ask them to meet her, so it took some time. After 15th, we made an attempt to visit hospitals the very next day, but either roads were blocked or the hospital didn’t respond to our requests.”
A private person, Akhtar admits to hardly having any friends and to her life outside her office revolving around her twin grandsons, born just before she took over as V-C. “They are my stress busters. When I enter home, I become a grandmother,” she laughs.
Akhtar stays with her son, an interaction designer who creates web user interfaces, and and his wife, who works at the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Her daughter is settled in the US.
Students continuing the anti-CAA protest are preparing for what will happen after Saturday’s elections. “The administration has been supportive, but the real test is after the Delhi polls. Right now it suits the Centre to let the protests continue so that they can milk them,” says a student, who did not wish to be identified.
Not denying this, a faculty member notes that it wouldn’t be right to blame Akhtar alone though. “The university administration and V-Cs are not as autonomous as they used to be. You are answerable to the government now in a way that was never before, so that also clips the wings of the V-C.”
Meanwhile, even as the Shaheen Bagh protest continues, a day before Delhi went to polls, Akhtar managed to convince students to shift their continuous protest at Jamia Gate No. 7 temporarily, as the previous spot was within 100 metres of a polling location.
Asked whether she would allow students to continue the protest, Akhtar said, “There are students protesting outside gates of many universities all over the country. My students will move when students from all the other gates move.”
With inputs by Shyamlal Yadav
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