Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s picture had apparently hung in the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) Union for decades, until Hindutva activists out to remodel the landscape saw a business opportunity. Students suffered head injuries in the clashes which ensued over an issue literally prestidigitated from a hat. Apologists protest that Jinnah played a role in supporting the university, but they should let him rest in peace.
The idea of India is much older than right-wing nationalism, and he has a permanent place in the history of the Subcontinent. This issue should not preoccupy AMU at all, beyond the present need to keep the peace. Because the mandate under which it was founded stands — to provide a modern and progressive education to the Muslim youth in India.
Founded by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in 1875, AMU has been a central university since 1920. But it lost the status of minority institution in 2016, when the government refused to contest a court order stripping it of its rights under Article 30, on the plea that a minority institution could not claim state support. The question of status was emotive but equally, it serves to refocus the institution. Its original mandate stands, and millions of young people — not only Muslims — are still in search of quality education. AMU, based on the campuses of Oxford and Cambridge, can continue to serve them. But times have changed, and it is necessary to take the campus to them, instead of expecting them to come to Aligarh. The university already has facilities in Murshidabad, Kishanganj and Malappuram, and more locations should be explored.
There’s a lot of unfinished business at AMU. In 2014, a request from the women’s college to access the university library was turned down on the outlandish ground that it would create a discipline issue. Women were not granted access to the library from its inception, when the segregation of the sexes was commonplace, but the world had changed since.
To imagine that women might distract from academics, when they would actually contribute to its quality, was completely bizarre. The Allahabad High Court had to step in to enforce the basic right of equal access. What AMU needs is a debate on how to strengthen its academic credentials. And surely that does not mean taking a portrait off the wall.