A portrait on a wall in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) is at the centre of a massive row. Displaying the Muslim League leader and founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the portrait has hung there since the late 1930s, comfortably sharing space with other stalwarts of Indian history like Mahatma Gandhi, CV Raman and C. Rajagopalachari among others. Earlier this week, however, the portrait’s presence was questioned by BJP MP from Aligarh, Satish Gautam.
In defence of the portrait, AMU spokesperson Shafey Kidwai said Jinnah was accorded life membership of the AMU students’ union in 1938, during undivided India, and that traditionally all life members’ portraits are placed on the walls of the AMU students’ union hall.
Jinnah’s portrait at AMU, however, is also a reminder of the multi-dimensional nature of Indian history. The campus of AMU had been buzzing with political activity ever since it was established in 1875 as the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College by social reformer Syed Ahmad Khan. From being a bastion of staunch supporters of western education and British rule, to transforming into a space bustling with slogans of the nationalist movement, to turning into a university that strongly supported the Muslim League and its demand for a separate nation for Muslims, is noted to have changed political colour in keeping with the changing atmosphere of the time.
Jinnah’s portrait inside its campus today needs to be looked at keeping in mind the multi-coloured richness of AMU’s history.
AMU and the nationalist movement
Since its inception in 1875, the educational centre that went on to become AMU had played an instrumental role in providing intellectual and political leadership to important sections of the Muslim community. During its initial days, the AMU held a strongly pro-British policy. Its founder, Syed Ahmad Khan, was of the firm belief that a western mode of education was the only way to uplift Indian society and rejuvenate the Muslim community. Consequently, the college premises served the purpose of grooming students in British mores and habits, along with cultivating in them a European educational spirit.
But things changed rapidly with the advent of the twentieth century. The agitation against the Nagri resolution in 1900 and then the students’ strike of 1907 were just some of the events that bore testimony to a change in the political atmosphere at MAO college. “This most ‘benighted’ and conservative of institutions suddenly exploded into political activity confronting the British with the most serious Muslim movement of dissidence they had faced since the 1857 revolt,” writes historian Mushirul Hasan in his work “Nationalist and separatist trends in Aligarh, 1915-47.”
Encouraged by the change of character in the university life, Gandhi and his Khilafatist allies turned to them for support for the Non-cooperation Movement of 1920. When Gandhi visited Aligarh to address the university crowd, he is known to have been warmly received by the students’ union. Similar welcome was also accorded to Jawaharlal Nehru when he addressed a meeting at Stratchy Hall of the University in 1933. The students’ newsletter, ‘Aligarh Magazine’, frequently published articles invoking a united nationalist spirit. Addressing the university in 1930, the vice-president of the students’ union spoke of AMU’s role in the freedom movement in the following words: “Turn ourselves into the biggest, the most disciplined, the most educated and the most united army that India possesses, to fight against the evils that have made India the laughing stock of the world and let nobody say that Aligarh lagged behind anybody in India’s battle of freedom.”
AMU and Jinnah
It is only from the late 1930s that we see a sudden shift in loyalty towards Jinnah. This change in attitude was rather surprising to many contemporaries. Previously, for a long time, Jinnah’s relationship with the university was quite tenuous. His attitude towards the alumni ranged from being indifferent to hostile. But there are several reasons that contributed to AMU suddenly welcoming Jinnah with open arms.
Mushirul Hasan believes that there are three major reasons behind this switch in political character of the university. First, by now the Muslim intelligentsia, feeling rather alienated by the Congress and also quite alarmed by the growth in Hindu-Muslim frictions, were keen on developing a solidified Muslim consciousness. Second, Jinnah filled up the space for a much needed uniting figure among the Muslims who were hitherto segregated along regional lines. Third, this was also the time when the Islamic community at large throughout the world gained a new-found communal consciousness on account of the Khilafat issue. Jinnah’s call at this juncture was just the need of the hour for what the students’ union of AMU saw as necessary for the larger interests of their community.
Lastly, Jinnah himself made every effort in gaining a stronger foothold on the university. “He sedulously cultivated Vice-Chancellor Ziauddin, maintained regular contacts with the League and the AIMSF organisers, offered generous funds to the Muslim University City League, and made frequent trips to Aligarh, which were observed as ‘Jinnah week’ in the University and formed an important event in Jinnah’s political itinerary,” writes Hasan. But, of course, there were many in the university who fervently voiced their protest against the League’s political activities. Eminent among them were names like Rashid Ahmad Siddiqi and Mohammad Habib.
When the Partition took place, the AMU found itself in a state of crisis. “The number of students began to fall heavily, and despite the arrival of refugees from Pakistan, the fall in numbers continued,” writes academic Shamin Akhtar. “Thus, Aligarh’s response to the Pakistan movement needs to be viewed in an all-India perspective, and its reasons must be located in the convergence of a wide range of factors which made the resolution of communal differences increasingly difficult,” writes Hasan. Over time, the university has retained its reputation as one of the finest educational and cultural centers of the country. Its association with Jinnah was one among the many twists and turns that history has accorded to any and every institute of relevance within the subcontinent.
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