A century for Jamia Millia Islamia and somewhere people are discovering that it is not just another educational institution, certainly more than what the police action of mid-December 2019 made it appear. While several of its current students and alumni are in jail, charged with worse than treason, and the Delhi High Court ploughs through arguments about the sanctity of the university campus, it is an apt moment to recollect that the university shall forever be a lasting tribute to freedom fighters. Of course, it is sad that the zeal for remaining unconquered should today be received as contempt for the current generation of patriots and their slogans of azaadi. The ruthless assault on students in the library was not just an act of desperation caused by cynicism about democracy but also a public repudiation of the legacy and heritage of Independence.
Lest we forget, Jamia was born in 1920 as an act of repudiation of the British Raj and the universities under its mandate. Starting from a mosque in Aligarh, the small band of dreamers persuaded by Gandhiji, Hakim Ajmal Khan and the Ali brothers put up at a rented accommodation in Karol Bagh before setting up camp on the banks of the Yamuna. There was little money, but no lack of determination. Zakir Husain took leave for completing his PhD and chose Germany over Britain, where most of the top people were educated. As Jamia struggled for funds, he sent messages of encouragement, beseeching that Jamia be kept alive with his promise to return soon. When he did return, he brought some brilliant young Indians, including Mohd Mujeeb and Abid Husain with him, who dedicated themselves to Jamia. Along with them came a German Jewish lady who spent the rest of her life at the fledgling institution, having donated all her savings to it. When Delhi was burning in the riots of 1947, Mahatma Gandhi would repeatedly ask, “Is Jamia safe? Is Zakir Husain safe?”
Months earlier, when Jamia celebrated its silver jubilee on November 17, 1946, Zakir Husain, the Shaikh-ul-Jamia, addressed an audience that had Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Liaquat Ali Khan and M A Jinnah among others and said: “You are the stars of the political firmament. This is not the time to ask who lit the fire. It is time to extinguish the fire. The fire is burning in a noble and humane land. (But) How can I protect these beautiful buds from the fire all around? These words might sound too harsh. (But) at the rapidly deteriorating situation today, harsher words would still be far too mild. We know not how to express the anguish we feel when we hear that even innocent children are not safe in the reign of terror. An Indian poet has remarked: ‘Every child who comes to this world brings along the message that God has not yet lost faith in Man. But our countrymen have so completely lost faith in themselves that they wish to crush these innocent buds before they blossom’.”
Jamia won some outstanding personalities as adherents; men like Devdas Gandhi came and served it. Gandhiji’s support was the Jamia’s greatest asset, and his first visit after its transfer to New Delhi was a memorable occasion. With him were the Ali brothers, Hakim Ajmal Khan, M A Ansari, Jamnalal Bajaj and Mahadev Desai. Gandhiji sent his grandson Rasiklal to Jamia for his education. The death of Hakim Ajmal Khan deprived it of a great benefactor and Zakir Husain of a guide he greatly respected.
This was the Jamia for which Gandhiji spoke of going with a begging bowl and threatened to boycott it if, as some people suggested, the word Islamia be dropped from the name. Many years later, when legislation was being passed in the Parliament to grant university status to Jamia, Atal Bihari Vajpayee insisted that no attempts be made to tamper with the character of the institution he described as rich and unique in its quality.
For many years after its establishment, Jamia continued to be a close-knit family referred to as Jamia biradari. Its galaxy of legendary teachers presided over a unique on-the-ground experiment of Gandhiji’s Bunyadi Taleem. The pupils grew their own vegetables on campus, had a bank they managed on their own and once a year sent their teachers on picnic and ran the school by themselves. Both the junior as well as the senior schools had elections each year to elect the students’ union; the annual celebrations known as the Taleemi Mela included displays of exhibits prepared by various departments and some remarkable art work. There were exhilarating baitbazi poetry contests, debates and evening theatre. In keeping with the tryst with nature, all hostellers swam in the Yamuna. The university anthem appropriately describes Jamia as “Dayar-e-shauq” and “Sheher-e-Arzoo”.
With dramatic changes all around, Jamia too has understandably changed. For one, the day scholars dramatically outnumber those in the hostel. The compact biradari feeling might have been diluted and growing competition may have made the university population less insular and self-contained, but the feeling of being a Jamei is still the same. The Turkish writer Halide Edib is reported to have said that someone visiting India who has not been to Jamia would never know what India is. In its centenary year, one firmly must continue to believe that about Jamia, but yet, also say, “Is Jamia safe? Is India that we know safe?”
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 4, 2020 under the title ‘The original campus of protest’. The writer is senior Congress leader and former external affairs minister
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