“From the seed we sow today there may spring up a mighty tree, whose branches, like those of the banyan of the soil, shall in their turn strike firm roots into the earth and themselves send forth new and vigorous saplings; that this college may expand into a university, whose sons shall go forth throughout the length and breadth of the land to preach the gospel of free inquiry, of large-hearted toleration and of pure morality,” said Sir Syed Ahmad Khan at the time when Viceroy Lord Lytton laid the foundation of the MAO (Mohammadan Agro-Oriental) college on January 8, 1877. The prophetic words of the founder have come true as Aligarh Muslim University is today an internationally-acclaimed university and a unique symbol of India’s composite culture. At a function to unveil the university’s centenary celebrations today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in attendance.
Historian Hamilton Gibb had called the institution the “first modernist organisation of Islam”. The university has rightly been recognised as an “institution of national importance” by the Constitution. It has produced heads of state of several countries, including India. Two its alumni, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Zakir Hussain, were conferred the Bharat Ratna.
The cornerstone of Sir Syed’s philosophy was the development of a scientific spirit, which he considered to be a sine qua non for intellectual advancement and social progress. He faced stiff opposition from fundamentalist Muslims and more than 50 fatwas were issued against him for his progressive views on Islam and emphasis on western education. Sir Syed was a great nationalist. On Hindu-Muslim relations, he had said in 1883 that by living together for centuries in India, Muslims have acquired hundreds of customs from the Hindus just as Hindus learned hundreds of things from the Muslims. In Gurdaspur in 1884, he remarked: “O Hindus and Muslims! Do you belong to a country other than India? Do you not live on this soil and are not buried under it or cremated on its ghats? If you live and die on this land, then, bear in mind, that… all the Hindus, Muslims and Christians who live in this country are one nation.”
The Scientific Society founded by Sir Syed in 1863 was national in character. Apart from the British members, it comprised 82 Hindu and 107 Muslim members. Even the 22-member managing committee of MAO College included six Hindus. The first graduate of the university was Ishwari Prasad and the first MA was Amba Prasad. Strangely, famous colleges of England did not admit non-Christian students even as late as the beginning of the 20th century.
True, Section 2 of the MAO College Laws, 1877 clearly provided that “the college is primarily for the Muslims and so far as consistent with above objectives for others”. But this is exactly what the Supreme Court of India held in Kerala Education Bill (1957), when it observed that minority institutions are primarily for the minority that has established them. The TMA Pai judgment (2003) reiterated this view while dealing with the relationship of Article 30(1) with Article 29(2). AMU does not have religion-based reservation but most people do not differentiate between reservation in state institutions and minority institutions. While the former cannot have religion based reservation due to Article 15(1), the latter are entitled to it under Article 30(1) if it is a religious minority institution. As minorities are an integral part of India, AMU as the greatest citadel of minority education is simultaneously an institution of national importance in respect of which only Parliament can legislate. Many erroneously believe that a government-aided institution cannot be a minority institution. Article 30(2) explicitly negates this view. The Court has consistently held that government “aid” cannot come with such conditions that will “annihilate or destroy minority character” of a minority institution.
No one has ever doubted the minority character of MAO College. The Supreme Court in 1967 and Allahabad High Court in 2005 admitted the so-called “deep green” character of the MAO College. This college was converted into a university in 1920. Section 5 of the AMU Act even today says AMU shall inherit not only all debts, liabilities, etc. of the MAO College but also its rights. Even Justice Chagla, while introducing the 1965 amendment, had told Parliament that the government has no intention of changing the character of the university. Yet, departing from its otherwise liberal approach, the Supreme Court in 1967 opined that it is not clear from the text of the 1920 Act that the university was established by Muslims. H M Seervai termed the judgment as “productive of great public mischief”. Parliament responded to court’s anxieties through an amendment in 1981 to clarify and explicitly state the historical fact that Aligarh Muslim University is “an institution of their choice established by Muslims of India” and that it “in fact originated as MAO College” and was merely “incorporated” and not really “established” in 1920. In 2005, Allahabad High Court struck down this amendment as a “brazen overruling”. The SC quickly stayed this judgment and in 2019 agreed to reconsider its own 1967 judgment.
AMU always received full support from successive governments. Since PM Modi has given the slogan of sabka saath, sabka saath and sabka vishwas, he may not only give a big financial package to the university but also assure the over-anxious AMU fraternity about his resolve to preserve, protect and defend the historic and constitutional character of this great institution so that AMU realises the vision of its founder by producing enlightened and liberal citizens. Investment in the secular and modern education of minorities helps the nation in many ways.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 22, 2020 under the title “The composite campus”. The writer is president of Consortium of National Law Universities and vice-chancellor of NALSAR, Hyderabad. Views are personal