Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) is one of the most prominent universities in the country. It has an eminent history, which is intricately linked with the freedom struggle and the formulation of the Indian education system. People across all communities have contributed to making it what it is today. It finds mention in the Constitution and falls directly within the power of the Centre, not the state government. Yet, there is an increasing demand that AMU be treated as a separate educational institution for Muslims alone. There are demands that the AMU be treated as a religious minority institution and its Muslim character be protected. Sadly, many cheer on this project of separatism.
That being said there are two broad questions that lie at the heart of the debate. One, what is a university for and can a university have a religious character. Two, what was the nature of AMU when it was founded?
Some of the oldest universities in the world, be it Oxford, Cambridge, Padua or Salamanca, had religious origins, but a university, as we know it today, forms the bedrock of a modern society, and is clearly a post-Renaissance development. In many ways, it is in these universities that the rebellion and dissent against the old religious world order was incubated and proclaimed. If the religious education system is a remnant of the old traditional sacred world, it is in the universities of the post-Renaissance Europe that the modern world was forged. Along the way, some of the old religious schools, patronised either by kings or the church, transformed themselves into the world famous universities. However, they continued to carry some of the quaint rituals and remnants of their religious origins but such rituals didn’t change the character of the university. Just because sermons continued to be delivered at the university church in Cambridge did not make Cambridge a Christian university. Interestingly the Al-Azhar university in Egypt was not a university till 1961 and opted to become one after it explicitly took up teaching secular subjects and became non-sectarian, even though its history is deeply linked with the Al-Azhar Mosque from 972 CE.
The progression from religious education into a modernist one lies at the heart of being a university. A religious educational institution by its very nature is exclusive. A university, on the other hand, is inclusive. It is neither a madrassa nor a Sanskrit tol nor a convent school. It receives students from all walks of life. In the 20th and 21st century, a university is the crucible of the modern, progressive world, and by definition cannot have a religious character.
This applies more to a national institution like the AMU, which not only finds mention in the Constitution of India — Entry 63, List I of the Seventh Schedule — that provides it with a unique identity but is also accorded special benefits as a national public university. This is the essential difference between the AMU and any other Muslim religious educational institution, which enjoys protection under Article 30 of the Constitution. The AMU is not the Darul Uloom of Deoband. While the latter is entitled to protection as an institution that has been established and administered by a religious minority, the AMU remains a national public university as per the Constitution itself. The word “Muslim” in AMU’s name cannot be taken to be an indicator as to the nature of the university, just as the Banaras Hindu University cannot be said to have a “Hindu” character.
The fact that the AMU’s origins can be traced to the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College is as relevant today to decide the nature and character of the university as the role or intention of the church at the time of the foundation of the Oxford University. The fact that a lot, but not all, of a university’s students came from the Muslim community is a strange parameter to decide the character of any university.
This leads us to the second question: What was the intention of the founders of the AMU? Two broad answers are quite clear. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan wanted a university in the true sense of the word. He did not want a religious educational institution. He wanted an educational institution on the Oxbridge model. There was a reason why the educational institution, which began as the Madrasatul Uloom Musalmanan-e-Hind did not retain that name. Sir Syed wanted to create a non- sectarian educational institution. Sir Syed wanted the AMU to be like Oxford and Cambridge, which were non-sectarian despite originating as religious educational institutions. In fact, even 14 years after the establishment of the MAO College in 1875, Hindus outnumbered Muslims in college-level enrollment. This was also the reason why the first generation at the AMU went to such great lengths to get the Aligarh Muslim University Act passed by the government in 1920. The stature of the AMU throughout India has been always based on its educational achievements, and not on its sectarian character.
Pluralism and scientific temper are the two pillars on which the future world is being created. It is, therefore, not surprising that the voices who would be the most affected by the same are trying to create isolated islands of refuge from the oncoming waves. The people who have the best interests of the AMU in their mind should, therefore, opt to make the AMU a plural and representative university where religion is reduced to an ever insignificant role and which strives to live up to the constitutional objective of social justice.