In the background of long-standing animosities between Hindus and Muslims, Rabindranath Tagore reflected on the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and the Benaras Hindu University (BHU), which were established in the first two decades of the twentieth century. In 1911, there were considerable discussions about their desirability and in that context, he analysed taking into account certain developments like the quest for freedom among different nationalities in countries like Belgium, Finland, Ireland and Wales. Tagore commented that the two institutions would be able to create lasting unity in society.
The Muslim aloofness was due to Hindu aggressiveness and lack of sincere efforts to nourish and build unity between the two communities. This prompted a section of Muslims to proclaim their own identity. As their quest for modern education did not receive proper attention, this section of the Muslims was on the backfoot. In their quest for equality, they demanded a larger share than the Hindus in the political arena. Tagore supported the establishment of the AMU, viewing it as a reasonable demand of the Muslims as it would enable them to acquire rights, which would be particularly pertinent in view of the limitations they faced in the political arena due to lack of proper modern education. The efforts to establish a separate centre of higher learning reflected a competitive spirit, but more importantly, it was a manifestation of their desire to strengthen their identity and enable the community to retrieve its greatness.
Tagore supported the BHU for reasons that were different from those that he advanced in his support for AMU. He pointed to the lost heritage of the Hindus which forced them to acquire Western knowledge. He hoped that the BHU would rectify that loss. But he also had major concerns. The BHU had to become a centre for coordinating and refining the treasures of ancient India for modern times and at the same time, reject the rituals that formed the basis of such knowledge. To ignore this goal would render the entire project futile. Tagore, like Gandhi, was proposing the modernisation of traditions.
Tagore supported both the institutions as he was convinced that in the course of their evolution, they would correct their individual shortcomings. This would be possible if they were committed to the search for truth and in course of time the two communities would realise each other’s truth. In accepting this pluralism, there would be no attempt to impose one’s world view on the other. Instead, they would be motivated to integrate and reconcile the diverse world views with their own.
Tagore was aware that the establishment of the two universities — one for the Hindus and the other for the Muslims could have negative consequences — especially, promoting exclusiveness. To obviate this, and as a proper course, he proposed that the AMU and BHU attempt to link themselves with the rest of the universities of the world while preserving their individual identities. At the same time, cautioned against assimilation, homogenisation and uniformity. That was the sanctity of the words “Muslim” and “Hindu” in the two premier centres of higher learning.
(The writer retired as professor of political science in Delhi University)