Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the centenary celebrations of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) was a welcome and emphatic reaffirmation of the first principles of Indian democracy — that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the state, no matter what their identity. It struck a note of inclusiveness and accommodation, at the end of a year that began with unprecedented nation-wide protests against a citizenship law that was widely seen as discriminating against the country’s largest minority, and that has, most recently, seen a troubling criminalisation of inter-faith marriage in Uttar Pradesh. “The country is progressing on a path where no one can be left behind because of their religion,” the PM said, addressing the students of one of India’s oldest universities. He laid out a common ground of national aspirations — of self-reliance, development and women’s empowerment — and played down the compulsions of ideological differences and narrow politics.
There was no better occasion than the centenary celebrations of AMU to remind the country of its heritage of diversity. The roots of the university lie in the vision of the nationalist reformer, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who had set up the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College in the late 19th century with the aim of promoting a scientific temper and a modernist outlook in its students. Though set up as a minority institution, it opened its doors to students from across the Subcontinent without discriminating on the basis of faith, region or language. It remains true to that history. As the PM pointed out in his speech, it is a campus which accommodates both Urdu and Sanskrit, Quran and Ramayana. It is not only a “mini-India” but also a living example of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb. True to its character of being an institution that encouraged scepticism of received wisdom and freedom of thought, AMU became home to an anti-colonial spirit rooted in a sense of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood. The PM invoked that history while urging AMU students to work towards the goal of a stronger India.
This nationalism is a strength that matters more than ever at a time of increased social and political polarisation, because it seeks to inspire citizens without speaking a language of divisiveness. The legions of PM Modi’s followers in his party and outside, and especially in Uttar Pradesh, where minorities increasingly feel the heavy hand of a partisan state, will, hopefully, also take note.