(Written by Syed Tahseen Raza)
The pandemic has been a very unsettling and disturbing experience for humankind. But it has also made us rethink and introspect. The centenary of an institution, during a global pandemic, should, therefore, also lead to self-reflection, rather than the jubilation seen in normal times. The Aligarh Muslim University’s centenary should be an opportunity for honest introspection – the dazzle of the celebrations should not blind us to the difficult reality that the institution has been confronted with for several years now.
This leads us to revisit some basic questions: What is the idea of a university? What does it stand for? Does it need to follow the popular current or is it required to play the part of a silent “conscience-keeper”? Do “grandiose gates” or “magnificent buildings” showcase the university’s progress or is that defined by the strength of character shown by its students? Is there a special role for a minority institution? Is AMU uniquely placed at a time when right-wing populism dominates the country?
There are no easy answers. But going back to the basics could help untangle several knots. Brick and mortar does not constitute a university. It is known by the values it upholds, the culture it develops and the elan with which it promotes its foundational principles. However, the fact also is that universities are not sacred spaces. They don’t exist in isolation from the world outside them. They have a duty to dispel unreasonable tendencies and discourage hubris of all kinds.
AMU, with the word “Muslim’ attached to its very name, is uniquely placed both for reasons of its history as well as for the hopes it instils in sections of the most marginalised. It was envisaged as an institute that would turn into reality Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s idea of utilising the liberatory potential of education.
But AMU, unfortunately, scores quite low on these yardsticks, given the nepotism, provincialism, elitism, lack of enterprise and promotion of mediocrity within the campus.
In an atmosphere rife with communal and anti-Muslim sentiments, AMU can’t take recourse to the plea: “These things happen elsewhere too.” Nepotism in appointments and contract allocation receives extra attention. Extra-liberal use of “emergency powers” by the university authorities for expedience may no longer evade the critical eye. The “Five Yearism” syndrome, which unfortunately seems to have captured the imagination currently, and the over-ambitiousness of those who matter, with their penchant for instant results by any means, are disastrous traits for any institution; they become even more lethal for an institution like AMU.
The institution could have played a role in creating a “domino effect” in several respects – visibilising Muslim women, for instance, by giving them leadership roles, developing a robust critique of the rampant Islamophobia. But it has done precious little on that count. The near absence of women in high ranking academic- administrative posts in the university is jarring. So is the lack of a serious attempt to develop a narrative to counter Islamophobia.
Weighing everything in terms of immediate profit and loss, doing things not for some higher aims but to manage “constituencies of different sorts”, postponing reforms in areas considered “potentially uncomfortable”, distance AMU from its foundational values.
Minority institutions of higher learning need to be aware of their historical legacy. Care should be taken to not let “short-term pragmatism” come in the way of wisdom distilled over a century. The ethos of transactional relationships and trade-offs may work well in this era of triumphant neo-liberalism. But in the long run, they would be inimical to the institution.
The university should judge its actions on the touchstone of Sir Syed’s vision of education as a necessary means to uphold justice and fairness; as well as the Gandhian idea of the welfare of the last man. Any other consideration will be mere gimmick.
To work towards propelling the university to newer heights, a judicious mix of both the “pessimism of the intellect” and “the optimism of the will” – to use the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci’s words — with clear-sighted focus on long-term progress will be required.
The writer teaches at the Department of Strategic and Security Studies, Faculty of International Studies, Aligarh Muslim University