Glimpses of azadi
IT is past 10 at night. But Tikona Park, a hub of eateries between the Jamia campus and the girls’ hostel is still abuzz with groups of students sipping tea and sharing kebabs. As the university is surrounded by many congested residential and shopping localities, this is not an unusual scene. Jamia students can be seen gathered at different tea shops near the university library and in adjacent localities, chit-chatting and practicing the newly learned academic language in everyday conversations. Urban campuses offer unmatchable public spaces to hang out, where conversations range from local everyday gossip, concerns of classes and exams to weighty matters like politics and society. However, this scene has been, and still is, mostly male dominated.
What is new at Tikona Park is the presence of several women, many of them in hijabs. These changes are due to the fact that the ‘curfew time’ of women’s hostel, the time by which the residents have to return to the hostel,1 has been now shifted to 10:30 pm, as a response to a long struggle by the student body. The scene at Tikona Park presents a cross-sectional view of community life in Jamia. What is interesting here is one can find similar scenes unfolding from the university campus to the nearby neighbourhood almost seamlessly. The conversations in front of the reading room can be followed to the Bismillah Hotel in Batla House. The trivial discussions that had started over Zehra ki chai could become heated by the time they reach the hostel.
It was here that I met R., an MA student interested in global politics, in January 2020. She described to me the significance of the students’ victory in getting the ‘curfew time’ extended from 7:30 pm to 10:30 pm. ‘When they finally agreed to make the curfew timing the same as the men’s hostel, that is 9:30 pm, we had raised the bar. Once the curfew times had been made equal, nobody would remember the long history of inequality. We started demanding the curfew timing be 10:30 pm.’ She describes how important it was for the students that everyone came together to protest this without fear or frowns from both university authorities and family.
‘Life has changed after this’ I was told. ‘This street used to be deserted by 8 pm. Yes, there were people, but not women. When my hostel mates used to get even a little late they felt unsafe and intimidated by the deserted streets. The hostel authorities too would look at the latecomers as if they had done something immoral. Since only a few people would come late, they were easily identifiable. Now everyone goes out for something or the other. Sometimes just to have tea here at Tikona Park. You can see, we have changed the colour of the street.’
She thinks that this was what Jamia meant to her: ‘The fact that we could have open conversations and come together despite our differences made this possible. From the day I joined the university, I learned to question myself as well as the society. There is something about the campus that makes one think and talk freely.’ She describes Jamia as a ‘new world’, a place where she witnessed first-hand what freedom looks like. ‘We can joke about cousin marriage and meat eating2 with each other without anyone taking it to heart. For a Muslim girl like me raised in a traditional family, it is difficult to imagine being friends with boys from Haryana. But I met them here and they are my good friends. There is something about the campus that transforms you. It is difficult to put it in words, but it seems like a place that is separate from the rest of the city, in a good way, like how you see people acting in a more disciplined manner in Delhi Metro compared to when they are on the streets.’
The diversity that R. points to can be found in many campuses, but Jamia students cannot stop talking about it. They also describe how they don’t feel comfortable, at times plain unwelcome, in other campuses, because of their identity, class, or for not speaking sophisticated English. One of the ways in which the diversity is obvious is the relationship the campus has with the neighbouring locality. Unlike most university campuses, Jamia is not an insulated place. The real and conceptual boundary between the campus and the localities of Jamia Nagar is porous.
Even at the linguistic level, Jamia is at times used interchangeably for the campus and the residential mohallas. R. describes that Tikona Park is also a place for meeting her friends who live in Abul Fazal Enclave, Noor Nagar and Batla House.3 ‘This seamless connection’, R. continues, ‘is also because of the greater tolerance for difference. I have been ridiculed for wearing hijab by even woke Muslim men when I was interning in a media organization. In Jamia, those who wear hijab and those who wear skirts can be seen having chai together, a scene that you might not easily find anywhere else.’
It is because of this close relationship between the university and the neighbourhood, the problems too are shared. I remember the aftermath of the police shootout at Batla House in 2008,4 when I was studying in Jamia. It was a difficult time for the students and residents, with a virulent media campaign maligning the image of Jamia and everyone associated with it. I remember one of my classmates commenting, ‘we do not enjoy the privileges of JNU students, who get space to study away from difficulties of everyday life. We have to live with all this and somehow find the space and time to study as well.’ As R. and I continue our conversation, a small group of students pass by us holding candles. They are coming from the anti-CAA demonstration at the university gate, heading to Shaheen Bagh to join the sit-in,5 where they plan to spend the night.
K., a former student of Jamia, had returned to the campus 11 years after her graduation, moved by the images of the ransacked library after the police action on the campus. The first time I had met K. was in the Jamia library itself, in 2007. She had given up her hostel seat objecting to the restrictive curfew time and had rented a place in Okhla Village, 100 meters from Tikona Park. Coming from a conservative Hindu family in West India, renting a place in a Muslim neighborhood was unusual, but she was prepared to try new things in order to keep her protesting voice alive.
Among her many stories while at Jamia, the one that stands out is when she led a student’s march to the VC’s office protesting the construction in her department that was encroaching upon the students’ common space. Like other protests, Jamia authorities did not take kindly to it and much of her time at Jamia went in facing the consequences and fighting for her rights.
One day, I asked her if she felt scared coming from outside Jamia and taking on such a big fight. She replied, ‘Of course, I was scared, anyone would be in my situation. Like, when I first came to live in Okhla Village, some crooked neighbour tried to warn my landlady about me claiming that there were many bar girls from Bombay on the run and I might be one of them. The aunty not only told me this but also said that she had told off that neighbour, adding that I was a Jamia student. I was amazed; for someone uneducated and having no formal connections with the university, the fact that I was a Jamia student was enough to rent me a place.
She further told me that if I had any issue in Jamia, I could come and tell her. This might be a normal thing that one hears about, but I never felt such strength and solidarity anywhere before. How can I describe the feeling when a stranger opens her house and her heart to you? And for what, because you are a student of Jamia?’
These are a few of the many examples of how students of Jamia describe their association with the campus. Since the context of above conversations was the ongoing anti-CAA movement, it describes the innumerable instances of students standing up for themselves. These are as much stories of addressing campus issues as they are of negotiating one’s own identity and crafting connections with the other. These are stories of azadi. ‘Azadi’ was also the slogan that stood out in the Shaheen Bagh protests6 – it was painted on the walls, on street surfaces and endlessly repeated in the crowd chorus. The word became symbolic of coming together to register citizens’ voices even at a time when it seemed impossible to protest. The pro-establishment sections denigrated the slogan by comparing it to the Kashmir movement, and by equating a simple demand of freedom to that of freedom from the country (sic).
But the university’s relationship with azadi goes way back. The association of Jamia with Gandhian philosophy is well known and documented.7 Old timers from Jamia don’t tire of recalling how Jamia is not just a university, but also an intellectual movement. The history of Jamia Millia Islamia is deeply entrenched in the nationalist movement of India’s independence. The dramatic departure from Aligarh University and strict refusal to accept any kind of support, monetary or otherwise, from the colonial government, and its close association with Gandhi, gives an immensely impactful sense of history. These stories are told, sung and reprinted several times over on campus.
Jamia was not just one of the key centres of the movement for independence, it also critically examined the nature of azadi. Much has been written on the educational interpretation of azadi and the attempt to create a nai taleem that is different from colonial education, which could become a means of self-expression of the countrymen. At the same time, the philosophical meaning of the word was also looked at carefully. Mohammad Mujeeb, one of the key players in Jamia’s institutional history, articulated the purpose of the university: to ‘train young men as citizens for carrying on the struggle for freedom and for giving meaning and content to freedom once it had been achieved.’8
In 1932, Maktaba Jamia, the publishing house of the university, published a translation of John Stuart Mill’s Liberty into Urdu by Maulvi Saeed Ansari, with the Urdu title of Azadi. Mohammad Mujeeb wrote a long foreword, situating the book in the Indian context and launching philosophical polemics on the question of freedom in India. The primary axis for him was to contrast political freedom with individual freedom. While regarding political freedom in India as necessary and inevitable, he makes a case for individual freedom as the true meaning of azadi.
Mujeeb interprets this question in the context of the prevailing social conservatism and religious orthodoxy, and opines that political freedom is fine but what really matters for national progress is individual freedom. ‘The individual azadi is far more important than political freedom, for healthy progress in the worldly as well religious sphere. Think of it as the salt of life, as everything becomes tasteless without the individual azadi.’9
Mohammad Mujeeb even goes further to state that if the freedom of citizens is not protected then there would be no difference between democracy and monarchy, and political freedom would have no meaning. ‘Whoever is not azad is not human since when we refuse to give complete azadi to someone we actually refuse to acknowledge them as human beings.’10 He accepts that while everyone admits the importance of individual azadi, they are under the misconception that political freedom would automatically lead to individual freedom. He adds that Mill wrote the book precisely to correct this misconception, and why it needs to be read in the context of the ongoing freedom movement.
To secure political freedom, one has to fight colonialism, an external force, but for individual freedom one has to take on the society, the traditional and the religious disciplining of life. ‘It is easier to be martyred in the battlefield, since one has to die there only once, and it’s quick, but it is difficult to fight for an ideal and independence of thought since that is a fight with kinsmen, with friends and with the whole society. The fight is daunting and continuous and rather than dying one has to stay alive whatever be the situation.’11
When religious conservatism was on the rise and religious identity was taking centre stage in politics, Mohammad Mujeeb pitched this fight right at the heart of religious thought. ‘If a student doesn’t go to play no one gets to know of it, but if he misses a namaz the teachers get mad at him. But the importance of hockey and other games is explained to him but in the case of namaz he is just told that he has to do it because God has said so… To leave religious issues as a matter of personal experience and individual choice is deemed dangerous… Whatever be the name of a religion, it can be called a true religion only when human experience establishes its truthfulness.’12 He continues, ‘people are really scared of azadi. They think if they give azadi in the case of religion, then people will eventually lose their belief.’13
The most important reason for so much emphasis on azadi is the need for critical thought not just for the individual, but also for the progress of the national and human community. The sheer force in the following polemical excerpt, whatever one thinks of its content, is enough to explain the value of azadi and criticality even today:
‘The Europe is right in its criticism of us. We have no capacity for criticality and taking a stand (tanqeed o inkar). Neither do we have that independence that we look at life from our own eyes and grasp it from our own experience and thought. Neither do we have that stubbornness that we follow through what we have decided till our last breath. Nor do we have the courage to accept our weakness and fight for the truth. Our worldview is: whatever has to happen will happen; whatever has happened had to happen; and whatever is, leave it be. We dodge the questions of right and wrong. Rather than removing the obstacles [from the path of criticality], we change our path.
‘We could never contemplate that monarchy is only one of the many possible political systems and if its disadvantages outweigh its benefits, we can try other political systems. We rather thought that there is no other way. Some just bowed to the kings whether they were rewarded or punished. And others showed "intelligence" and kept themselves away from politics. We just keep giving the taxes without thinking how our money is spent. Even if it bothered us, we never voiced it and rather expressed gratitude and praises for the government. We never give our true opinion and never register our objections. When it was "our own" regime, we had the same tendency, and even in the British raj, we follow the same policy.’14
Irfan and his family live in an ‘unauthorized’ neighbourhood of Jasola, around two kilometres from the Jamia campus. It was in 1988 when he moved to Delhi in search of work as a tailor. It was only after some years that he was able to bring his family to Delhi. He lived at several places in the outskirts of Delhi before he could afford 25 square yards of land in Jasola block C15 in the late ’90s. It took him another 12 years to build a modest dwelling on it.
I interviewed him and his neighbours in 2012. He describes the difficulties that he had in educating his children in different Delhi government schools. ‘Not that those schools were any worse than what we have here, but there was no environment (mahaul) for education,’ he commented. His primary motive to shift to his current dwelling in Jasola was to seek the Jamia mahaul. ‘Since I never got a chance to study, I really wanted my children to have that opportunity. But, one cannot do anything unless there is a mahaul for it.’
Interestingly, none of Irfan’s children study in Jamia. They have appeared in the entrance exams for various courses but without any luck. He is most hopeful that his youngest son, who is still in school and studies in the government school at Noor Nagar, would one day be able to clear the entrance for the Jamia School. When I interviewed Irfan and his neighbours in 2013 for my PhD fieldwork, every conversation would veer back to the topic of education.
In this tiny congested block divided into plots of 50 square yards and 25 square yards each, most of the owners come from the working class and are not educated beyond primary school. They are specially keen to rent the extra floors of their houses to educated professionals and students. Several times in interviews they described their recently developed neighbourhood as ‘educated’. ‘Education’ captures their aspirations and an attempt to find roots in the city. The efforts to belong to Jamia, even from a distance, constitutes their sense of azadi.
1. The so-called curfew time of women’s hostels has been a contested issue in most of the Delhi campuses. There has been blatant inequality between the men and women’s hostel on this matter where women’s hostel curfew times are often quite early ranging from 6:30 to 8:30 pm. The universities often cite the unwillingness of parents to allow their daughters outside of the hostel at night to justify the restrictive rules. This is seen by students to be a major infringement on their freedom and most of the Delhi campuses have witnessed increasing numbers of protests in the past decade.
2. She is indicating here that one can joke about religious matters without hurting anyone. Jokes on religion have become a problem in public spaces due to increasing intolerance and hardening of community identities.
3. Different localities of Jamia Nagar.
4. Also known as Batla House Encounter. See Mohammad Sayeed, ‘All That Happened Inside the Happening: Fear, Law and Politics After the Police Encounter at Batla House, New Delhi’, Contributions to Indian Sociology 54(1), 2020, pp. 51-75.
5. The controversial Citizenship Amendment Act was passed in Parliament on 11 December 2019. The religious criteria of awarding citizenship to the refugees/immigrants was seen as a contradiction to the spirit of the Constitution and led to a nation-wide unrest especially among Muslims. On 15 December 2019, police lathi charged the protesting crowds at the university gate and chased the students inside the library. In response to the brutal police action, the residents blocked the road at Shaheen Bagh for a sit-in demonstration that continued for several months.
6. Azadi is a Urdu/Persian word and means liberty, freedom and liberation. Like liberté in the French Revolution, azadi has become a signature slogan in protests across South Asia.
7. See Laurence Gautier, ‘A Laboratory for a Composite India? Jamia Millia Islamia Around the Time of Partition’, Modern Asian Studies 54(1), 2020, pp. 199-249, and Afroz Alam Sahil, Gandhi aur Jamia. Insaan International Publication, New Delhi, 2019.
8. Quoted in L. Gautier, op. cit., p. 201.
9. Mohammad Mujeeb, ‘Dibacha’ in Maulvi Saeed Ansari, Azadi: John Stuart Mill ki Tasneef Liberty ka Tarjuma. Maktaba Jamia, New Delhi, n.d., p. 3.
10. Ibid., p. 5.
11. Ibid., p. 4.
12. Ibid., p. 2.
13. Ibid., p, 6.
14. Ibid., p. 2.
15. It is an ‘unauthorized’ locality of Jasola, adjacent to Jamia Nagar.