Jamia at 100

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Jamia Millia Islamia as an institution, from its inception in the 1920, has celebrated the interplay of ideas and practice. Ideas of composite nationalism, secularism, rebellion, inclusion, diversity and compassion are lived practices in the everyday life of Jamia. The university was founded in Aligarh and was housed at Krishna Ashram, as it ‘rebelled’ against the then compliant and subservient Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). On the call of Gandhi, it became part of the movement for the struggle of Indian independence. Once established, it also provided refuge and free education to Hindu children who had been orphaned in the communal carnage of the partition.

Jamia’s creation was the direct result of the Non-Cooperation and the Khilafat movements. In August 1920, Gandhi had given a call for non-cooperation, asking Indians to boycott the then British government’s educational institutions, courts, government services, foreign goods and elections and to refuse to pay taxes. In response to the call for non-cooperation and to break away from an education that was funded by the British government, Muslim nationalist leaders such as Maulana Mahmud Hasan, Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Dr Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, Abdul Majeed Khwaja rescinded their association with the AMU and founded Jamia. The university was later shifted to Delhi’s Karol Bagh in 1925 and thereafter in 1936 to its current location in Okhla, which is also known as Jamia Nagar.

Jamia’s foundations were laid by harmonizing ideas and values that would otherwise seem contradictory, in uniting secularism and a religious education that emphasized the tolerant and compassionate ideas of each religion. Thus it married idealism with pragmatism and a commitment to keep valuable traditions alive. These founding principles and the values of self-reliance and critical thinking were reflected in the curriculum that was designed to inculcate a respect for physical labour. Activities such as spinning, gardening, construction activity, bookbinding and tailoring were taught in Jamia School.

The founders were deeply political, yet intellectually committed to liberal and secular values. They built and nurtured the university by giving up flourishing careers in universities abroad and coming to Jamia to initiate the making of an educational institution; then building the institution brick by brick.

Zakir Husain, Abid Husain and Mohammad Mujeeb accepted the call of Hakim Ajmal Khan to come to Jamia and teach when they met in Europe. Others, like Shafiqur Rehman Kidwai and others not only travelled the length and breadth of the country but also even visited Sri Lanka to raise funds for Jamia. They persuaded the Nawab of Bhopal to donate the land for Bhopal Grounds, recently named after legendary cricketer Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. The Nawab of Hyderabad too started funding Jamia but withdrew his support when the British imprisoned Kidwai.

Such setbacks did not deter the founders of Jamia. They formed a committee, Hamdardaan-e-Jamia (sympathizers of Jamia) to raise funds from diverse sections of society. Those who contributed were small traders, farmers and even industrialists like Jamnalal Bajaj, who was a disciple of Gandhi. In January 1925, when the university was going through an acute financial crisis and there were talks of closing it down, Gandhi, insisted that it must continue. He is reported to have said to Hakim Ajmal Khan, ‘Aapko rupaya ki diqqat hai to mein bheekh maang lunga (If you’re facing a financial crunch, then I am ready to beg).’ Gandhi viewed Jamia as an instrument for winning freedom by adhering to a non-violent struggle.

Jamia has always been a place that has inspired writers, poets, painters and theatre personalities. Famous Hindustani writer Munshi Premchand wrote his short story Kafan when he came to reside in Jamia. The Urdu edition of his iconic novel Godaan was published by Maktaba Jamia, a copy of which is displayed in the Premchand Archives and Literary Centre at Jamia, which is also named after him. Shailendra, the famous Bollywood lyricist, involved in left politics, was given shelter when he was underground in what was then known as the old boys lodge in Jamia. Habib Tanvir’s famous play, Agra Bazaar, premiered in Jamia; members of the faculty, students and even shopkeepers played the roles. One of the much-awaited annual events used to be the Mushaira in the open-air auditorium of the Faculty of Fine Arts, in which well known poets from India and Pakistan would participate. This was held the day after the famous Indo-Pak Shankar Shaad Mushaira hosted by DCM in Delhi. Well known painters Paramjit, Ramchandran and Jatin Das were part of the faculty at the Fine Arts Department.

The idea of Jamia was often challenged, both physically and ideologically. During the time of partition when communal violence was at its peak and Delhi and its surroundings were burning, a mob had gathered outside threatening to attack the university. Mohammad Mujeeb and others reached out to the Congress leadership for support. Gandhi himself visited the campus on 8 September 1947. General K.M. Cariappa, the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, also visited, and the Madras Regiment were posted around the campus. On 21 August 1947, Zakir Husain was almost killed when he was taken hostage at Jalandhar railway station. A railway official recognized him and gave him shelter. Jamia’s property in Karol Bagh was attacked and Maktaba Jamia was set on fire.

In the early 1990s, there was a violent ‘student uprising’ against the then pro-vice chancellor, the late Mushirul Hasan, when he argued for freedom of speech in the context of the banning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. However, four years later not only did he return to the university but eventually went on to become one of the most popular vice chancellors of Jamia. In 2008, when there was anxiety and insecurity amongst the students in the wake of an alleged encounter in the university neighbourhood involving some Jamia students, he marched shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with the students and other members of the Jamia biradari. In many ways Mujeeb, Husain, Kidwai and Hasan, albeit in very different ways, symbolize Jamia’s resilience and character.

In more recent years, Jamia Millia Islamia has again been in the news for its leading role in the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) movement. Students, alumni and a section of the teachers of Jamia have been on the frontline of the struggle against these contentious laws, which have been described as ‘fundamentally discriminatory in nature’ by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Some of the students and alumni active in the movement are still languishing in jails on trumped up charges.

Jamia is familiar with these setbacks but remains uncompromising when its founding ideas are challenged. To put it in contemporary idiom, rebellion is intrinsic to Jamia’s DNA.

This issue of Seminar celebrates the centenary of Jamia Millia Islamia by documenting its history and legacy. Noted educationist K.G. Saiyidain, who was associated with Jamia from its inception, best captures the idea of Jamia in both letter and spirit:

‘It is the responsibility of every individual, every community, every institution to assess its past, taking care, however, that it does not get caught, like a bee, in its own honey, and remembering all the time that the present moves towards the future with the weight of the past on its back. It behooves us, therefore, not to forget it but to draw new strength from its success and new lessons from its failures and weaknesses. We should not worship it but sit in critical judgment on it, assimilating whatever is worthy, rejecting whatever is unclean or unworthy or tends to clip one’s wings. This challenge faces you as it faces all other universities – in fact the whole nation.’