Jamia’s founding spirit


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JAMIA Millia Islamia (hereinafter ‘Jamia’) originates in the political context of the alliance between the non-cooperation and Khilafat movements. These mobilizations endorsed the aim of self-governance and the struggle for full independence (purna swaraj). At the same time, the Indian opposition to the Rowlatt Act unfolded in the wake of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on 13 April 1919.

Established on 29 October 1920 at Aligarh, the Jamia was a realization of an old dream nurtured in the critical spaces within the fold of Aligarh’s educational movement. Jawaharlal Nehru described Jamia as a ‘lusty child of the non-cooperation days.’1 The idea representing Jamia was reflected in the quest for a self-directed education (azad talim), different from the one which Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College, chartered for the Indian Muslims. In 1920, the British government conferred upon the college the status of a university.

The founders of Jamia strongly believed that education was to be free from British control, the medium of instruction to be the mother tongue of the learner, and the curriculum based on religious, moral and cultural traditions familiar to the students and the teachers. Above all, they wanted the curriculum to be responsive and relevant to the growing nationalist aspirations of the Indian people.

The idea of an autonomous educational institution gained ground among a section of Aligarh’s first generation that found it difficult to bridge the divide between Aligarh’s ideals and their social consequences. They therefore expressed their sense of disquiet not merely against the English teachers and administrators but also against the educational set-up and the intellectual atmosphere it generated. Syed Mohammad Tonki, an ardent associate of Jamia, describes how the university graduates added to the décor of the government’s offices and departments, to the fanfare of the inner circles of the rulers, who were unmindful of the world outside where people lived in poverty and unemployment.2

Dr Kunwar Mohammad Ashraf, an alumnus of early Jamia, commented on how the British rulers fashioned education in line with the purposes of the police and army. Thus education was narrowly focused on the youth learning the etiquette of compliant behaviour towards the rulers, and to abstain from any social movement that opposed the government.3 Syed Mohammad Tonki catches a glimpse of how history was taught in a government college: the formulaic comparison of the Mughal and the British, and how the former were autocratic, and the latter democratic.

Similarly, the subjects of Mahmud of Ghazni, Aurangzeb and Shivaji endorsed communal prejudices. This was imbued with racist and arrogant comparisons of the West with the East, white with black et cetera. A student’s takeaway from such classes was a sense of self-denigration and inferiority.4 Mohamed Ali quipped that an employee’s talent to interpret and obey the orders of their superiors was not far from the art that the Roman slaves routinely practiced.5

Limited to securing a government job, this education served little civilizational purpose, and was, for Dr Zakir Husain, both ‘incomplete and worthless’ (adhoori aur chhichhori)! The students growing up in such an educational milieu became dependent and servile towards authority.6 They were products of what Maulana Azad described as ‘a cold corpse of education’.7 The death-ridden condition was brought back to life when the twin movements of educational and intellectual freedom blended with the nationalist mobilization for India’s independence.

Krishna Ashram in Aligarh (1920) where Jamia is said to have begun. Courtesy: Jamia’s Premchand Archives and Literary Centre.


Thus, the non-cooperating impulse in education was about several distortions Jamia addressed: one, that education was too focused on producing low-cost clerks for the colonial bureaucracy, thereby limiting learning to securing livelihood. This echoes the contemporary debate whether education is a public good or just a commodity for private consumption. Akbar Allahabadi, the 19th century Urdu poet lamented over the plight of the graduates rat racing around for government jobs in the following couplet:8

Hum Kya kahen ahbab kya kaar-e-numaya nkargaye

BA huay, naukar huay, pension mili, aur mar gaye.

(What do I say of the glorious deeds our fellows have performed! / Graduated, got a government job, earned a pension, and died).


For the Jamia’s founders, the aim of education was to build a free nation that was culturally diverse and represented a composite nationalism (muttahida qaumiyat). Also, Jamia expected its students to acquire educational skills that made them self-reliant and free from the lures and limits of government employment. Some activists asked Mohamed Ali: what would happen to the Jamia graduates if Jamia did not cooperate with the government’s institutions that had offers of jobs? His reply: ‘Jamia should be thinking on ways to do without the government jobs and make its students self-employable.’9

Mahatma Gandhi, who was associated with Jamia from its inception, and mentored the institution through its critical stages, introduced the value of craft in Indian education. For Gandhi, ‘every handicraft must be taught not merely mechanically as is done today but scientifically, i.e. the child should know the why and the wherefore of every process.’10

This way education became a direct intervention addressing the prevailing social divide between those who worked with mind and those with their hands. The latter were treated lower in rank and stigmatized in the caste hierarchy.


As part of the curriculum, a master craftsman, degraded in wider society, acquired the respectability of becoming a teacher at Jamia. The students learnt lock making, shoe making, carpentry, metal work, and cotton spinning. In connecting education and wider society as a continuous space, Jamia’s alternative education gained recognition in Gandhi’s Nai Taleem, succinctly defined as ‘education for life through life.’11

The second distortion in the prevalent education that Jamia opposed was a disproportionate emphasis on reading loads of textbooks in a short time to obtain a degree. Mohamed Ali used the Quranic metaphor of a mule (Surah Al-Jumu’ah: 62.5); evident in a learner’s plight, ignorant of the load it carried. Thus, the following couplet in Persian:

Chaar paaye biro kitab-e-chand

Na mohaqiq shawad na danishmand.

(Some books on a mule’s back make it neither a researcher nor wise).


This echoes Gandhi’s views on textbooks that were neither serving the living world of the teachers nor their pupils.12 ‘The true textbook for the pupil is his teacher. I remember very little that my teachers taught me from books, but I have, even now, a clear recollection of the things they taught me independent of books.’13 Jamia’s educational tradition came to privilege pedagogy over the curriculum. This made teachers and the students’ part of a community of common purpose laden with the principle of the educational reconstruction of the sovereign Indian nation.

Jamia’s educational venture blended the teaching of history and geography with the learning of vocational skills. Various occupations bearing a caste stigma became part of the school curriculum. The purpose was to activate the dormant resource within an artisanal craft to ensure no prejudice.

Active learning involved a learner’s mind as well as the body and the two were not seen in a hierarchy. Jamia challenged traditional education that glorified the learning of prescribed books but ignored the rich experiences of people who worked with their hands, scarcely recognized for purposes of formal learning. Some educationists point out that the educational reconstruction of a just and equal society can scarcely be left to learning through the ‘head’ alone. Learning must be active not passive, full-bodied and not just neck-up!

The wider issue was about breaking the fixity as well as the monopoly of textual knowledge. More generally, this ‘fixity’ is evocative of Paulo Freire’s ‘banking’ concept of education (2005) in contemporary times where the major expectation of pedagogic authority is that the students’ learning remains limited to ‘receiving, filing, and storing the deposits’ from the prescribed texts.14 In contrast, Jamia’s emphasis on project method allowed students to organize their own curriculum with their teachers as facilitators. Pursuing the themes through the project method allowed the students to see how various aspects of their life were inter-related.15


The third distortion in the prevalent education Jamia addressed came from English as the medium of instruction. This became an issue where English was not the learner’s first language, their mother tongue, so to say. Mohamed Ali who led the breakaway group of Jamia from Aligarh, explained Jamia’s emphasis on the mother tongue of the learner through the metaphor of a horse pulling a carriage on a smooth road. If the road was not smooth (‘learning without one’s mother tongue’), then the horse pulls the carriage and wastes energy in overcoming obstacles on a rough track.16

Gandhi recalls his experience of learning through English: ‘…the schoolmaster’s business was to drive English into the pupil’s head. Therefore, more than half of our time was given to learning English and mastering its arbitrary spelling and pronunciation.’17


The educated Indian was imagined as a babu, a native Indian clerk in British India, who often took pride in the cultural resemblance to the tastes of the English masters. One poet sarcastically captured the vain pride:

Paida huay thae aap to Lundun ke wastey

Budqismati se baap ko Hindi bana diya18

(You were born for London. Unfortunately, your father was an Indian).

Jamia’s pedagogy was learner-centred and enjoyed remarkable autonomy in directing the transaction of the prescribed curriculum. This education for national reconstruction can be assessed through Abdul Ghaffar Mudholi’s autobiographical account, Ek Muallim ki Zindagi (Life of a Teacher). Mudholi’s story spans twenty-one years, starting from 1920 to 1940-41.

The book’s cover depicts an elderly man in a relaxed kneeling position resting on his heels with his body showing a slight forward bend. A young child rests on his back. Three other young children face the elderly man. The sketch conveys the affectivity of primary relations in a family. The elderly man – Mudholi himself – was highly respected and endeared himself to his pupils, who described Mudholi as a teacher who taught fraction in arithmetic with pieces of orange.


One day he brought three oranges to explain the fraction 1/2, 1/3, 1/7. He began with one. This was followed by the counting of the total number of segments in each orange. Mudholi said, ‘suppose I give a segment to Nabi Ahmad. Nabi promptly stated:‘Why suppose? Let me have it.’ He took a piece from his teacher and ate it. At this point, Mudholi realized that teaching fractions in arithmetic through oranges would be a costly affair.

Years later, Nabi Ahmad and his friends recollected the incident in describing their special teacher. Such teachers, for Dr Zakir Husain were exemplary; it is ‘love’ not ‘knowledge’ that is inscribed on the title page of their life-book: ‘love for the fellow humans, for the society and its qualities, and for the growing characters of children and young adults.’19

The reciprocal relation between Jamia’s education and the wider Indian society was evident in the observance of Qaumi Hafta, the remembrance of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The memory of the tragic episode was made the basis of several educationally creative curricular programmes, such as the student-led Ek Din ka Madarsa (One day school), and the outreach projects in adult learning and poverty alleviation programmes for the neighbouring marginalized communities.20 Most of these programmes served the educational purposes derived from the much-celebrated learner-based project method.21

From 1921 to 1926, the episode was remembered around 13 April involving the faculty and the guest speakers who would draw upon their own experiences and communicate the same through emotionally charged metaphors and images. Some students were also motivated to write brief essays. Subsequently, in 1927, under the guidance of its faculty member, Professor Ramchander ji, the commemoration was re-imagined beyond simple remembrance and speech making. It was therefore decided to give tangible expression to the principle of equality upheld during the freedom struggle.


This led to an educationally innovative programme in the co-curricular activities of the school. During the national week programmes, one day was slotted for students to take over the teaching and administration of the school while the teachers and the administrative staff went out for a picnic. In the spirit of equality, the students distributed among themselves the whole range of roles in the school in a non-discriminatory manner.

Accordingly, students performed the roles of the school principal (school nigran) and teachers (asatiza), the watchman (chowkidar), cleaner (chaprasi), sweeper (khakrobe), water carrier (bhishti)22 and the office keepers.

An autobiographical account of a teacher in 1927 describes how, on 13 April the students took over various manual chores:23 the sweepers cleaning the floor with their brooms, the water carrier shouting on top of his voice urging bystanders to clear the way, and his fellow students reacting in a similar tone, ‘Can’t you see me standing? You have splashed water on me. When will you learn to work properly?’ The day ended with the various employees and role-players gathering at a common place and sharing their experiences of the day.


This mode of commemoration was transformed when the activities during the Qaumi Hafta were linked to the courses. Following from this, the preparation began two weeks in advance to allow students to work on specific projects. In this way, the commemoration of an event developed into a full-fledged programme that addressed itself to the practical problems of society. It also helped to draw up a curriculum that sensitized young students to important social issues.

Another change in the Qaumi Hafta programme was the formulation of a scheme involving people living in the neighbourhood. Thus, one of the projects focused on unemployed men and women in Karol Bagh; it involved organizing widows and old women with a charkha and raw cotton that was to be then processed into bundles of cotton yarn. This scheme enabled them to earn their livelihoods. Furthermore, the advantage of working among the weavers in the locality saved time between the processing of cotton yarn and the weaving of cloth. The time thus saved ensured that wages were paid without much delay.


In the eye of its beholders, Jamia began to acquire a personality. A generation of its alumni, the proud Jamai imagined their alma mater as a living being who grew, needed help, suffered, was happy or worthy of being served. Such bonding with Jamia is probably one tangible outcome of a robust community of learners where students and their teachers enjoyed autonomy through their willing submission to the educational and national imperatives.

In Jamia’s anthem (Jamia ka Tarana), its poet Mohammed Khaliq Siddiqui sees Jamia as an assembly of heart (bazm-e dil). The strong affect in the bond between Jamia and its members was viewed in some memoirs of its faculty as ‘ishq’ (intense love). Such emotion ensured that a Jamai would always stand on the side of its alma mater whether the circumstances were comforting or risky.

In the silver jubilee year, 1946, Jamia celebrated its much-acclaimed pedagogy in the making of active citizens for a free India. Soon after 1947 happens and Jamia, its students and the faculty, are seen standing stead-fast in defence of their institution. The teachers organized themselves in patrol groups at night around the campus.24

Around 1948, the rising violence in Delhi had to be stopped. The Punjabi refugees and the displaced Muslims needed to be provided food and shelter. This was a phenomenal task. The Jamia community happily volunteered for the massive relief work. Begum Anis Kidwai who had lost her husband during the Partition riots, mobilized volunteers for relief work in the refugee camps at the historic Humayun’s Tomb and the Purana Qila. Begum Anis Kidwai in her memoirs25 of the relief work, found Jamia student volunteers to be the most earnest and efficient in looking after the special camps for orphaned children. They would consciously ignore the insults and communal slurs some refugees heaped upon them.

To an outsider, the graduation of Jamia’s faculty and students into relief workers, stitching wounds and providing a healing touch seemed amazing. But there existed a continuity of the educational principle that connected pedagogy with practice in society. Earlier, what was taught and learned in the classroom was deemed to be socially relevant. Now, teachers and students alike were physically present to put order in chaos.26


In the 100th year, Jamia finds itself in a political and educational ethos that is evocative of the year 1919 when intellectual and political freedom of expressions were viewed as a crimes against the state. Parallel evocations of the Rowlett Act are evident in 2020 when students raising questions against government policy were sanctioned under the sedition act. Similarly, the NEP 2020 is silent on the issue of education as common national good. It is indifferent to the state’s duty to ensure the right to education for all children of India. The emphasis on ‘merit’ downplays the urgent need to address reservation and positive discrimination to attend to the socially excluded and the disadvantaged minority communities.

The policy emphasis on vocational education is like state charity to the poor that is further removed from the way craft (minus the caste stigma) was imagined educationally in the early Jamia and in Gandhi’s Nai Taleem. Jamia’s learners were groomed to become active citizens who were committed to social equality and justice, and to celebrate India’s unity in diversity with courage and determination.


Jamia’s founding spirit is not some cluster of the brick-walled institutions or their formal statutes. For Dr Zakir Husain, Jamia is a story of our hearts, like a flowing stream whose network waters the earth and nourishes human life.27 Jamia’s spirit was born in the nationalist determination. In today’s manner of speaking, it stood for decolonizing education.28 Jamia’s spirit may be fully or partially realized in an actual segment of its history, but it continues to remain an agile, creative and critical principle that informs the struggles in our collective national existence and the ever-expanding frontiers of ‘We the people of India’. In the process, its self-directed learning has vitality to bring life back to the educational fold. Such a relationship between education and collective life flourishes in a sovereign space and must inform the constitution and transaction of various disciplines.


* The author is a Jamia alumni from school (1971), to MA Sociology (1976). He taught Sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia from 1979 to 2001.


1. Cited in Mushirul Hasan and Rakhshanda Jalil, Partners in Freedom: Jamia Millia Islamia. Niyogi Books, Delhi, 2006, p. 14.

2. Syed Mohammad Tonki, ‘Jamia ke Taleemi aur Siyasi Moharrikaat’, Jauhar (Jamia Jubilee Number), 1946, pp. 43-49.

3. Mohammad Ashraf, ‘Jamia ka Siyasi Pasmanzar’, Jauhar (Jamia Jubilee Number), 1946, pp. 17-33.

4. Ibid., p. 46.

5. Mohamed Ali Jauhar, ‘Jamia Millia Islamia Hai Kya: Az kaleed-e Din dar-e duniya-kushad’, Hamdard, 8 January 1928.

6. Dr Zakir Husain, ‘Jamia Millia Islamia’, Hamdard-e Jamia, January 1937.

7. Syed Mohammad Tonki, ibid., p. 47.

8. Quoted in Mohammad Ashraf, ibid., p. 19.

9. Mohamed Ali Jauhar, ibid., p. 44.

10. Harijan, 31 July 1937, p. 197.

11. Hindustani Talimi Sangh, ‘Two Years of Work: Report of the Second Basic Education Conference’, Jamia Nagar, Delhi, April 1941. Hindustani Talimi Sangh, Sevagram, 1942, pp. 31-2. For an analysis of Jamia’s relationship to Basic Education, see M. Mujeeb, Dr. Zakir Husain: A Biography. National Book Trust, New Delhi, 1972, pp. 101-25.

12. ‘Text Books’, Harijan, 9 December 1939.

13. M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: Or the Story of My Experiments with Truth. (Tr. from Gujarati by Mahadev Desai). Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1926, p. 407.

14. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (30th Anniversary edition). Continuum, New York and London, 2005, p. 72.

15. One Jamia teacher reflects upon the project method in Abdul Khaliq, ‘Talim ka Maqsadi Tariqa’, Hamdard-e Jamia 1, 8-11 March 1937. For case studies of some projects, see Abdul Ghaffar Mudholi, Chand Projects. Maktaba Jamia, New Delhi, 1946.

16. Mohamed Ali’s outline of the Jamia’s first syllabus is worked out from ‘Jamia Millia Islamia ki chand aur Khusoosiyat: Madri Zabanmein Taleem’, in Muhammad Sarvar (ed.), Mazameen-e-Mohamed Ali, vol. I. Maktaba Jamia, New Delhi, 1938, pp. 383-430.

17. Harijan, 9 July 1938, p. 176.

18. Cited in Mohammad Ashraf, Jamia ka Siyasi Pasmanzar, in Jauhar (Jamia Jubilee Number), 1946, pp. 17-33.

19. Dr Zakir Husain, ‘Achchha Ustad’, Hamdard-e Jamia 3(1), December 1936, pp. 3-7.

20. I have outlined this in the chapter on Jamia Millia Islamia in Mushirul Hasan (ed.), Knowledge, Power and Politics: Educational Institutions in India. Roli Books, New Delhi, 1998, pp. 156-187.

21. Abdul Ghaffar Mudholi, op. cit., 1942, pp. 124-8 and 1965, pp. 128-32.

22. A Muslim caste that used to supply water from a goatskin bag known as the mashq. The bhisthtis were relevant where the source of drinking water was the dug up wells.

23. K.G. Saiyidain’s ‘Report of the Educational Reorganization Committee’ (1939) proposes labour week as part of school education. During the week the students were expected to engage in manual work relevant for the school. Accessed:

24. The year 1947 forms a historic turning point in the story of Jamia Millia Islamia. This outline is based on Abdul Ghaffar Mudholi, Aman ka Rasta. Maktaba Jamia, New Delhi, 1948, pp. 93-115.

25. Begum Anis Kidwai, Azadi ki Chhaon Mein. National Book Trust, New Delhi, 1980.

26. For more details on Jamia and relief work following partition, see Shamsur Rahman Mohsini, Qaumi Taleemi Tehreek: Jamia Millia Islamia. Maktaba Jamia, New Delhi, 1986, pp. 130-36.

27. Quoted in Abdul Ghaffar Mudholi, Jamia ki Kahani. National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL), New Delhi, 2004, p. 254.

28. Jamia’s historic struggle to decolonize education evokes parallels in the contemporary global movements to unsettle the supremacy of top-down education. For a comparative global perspective, see Gurminder K. Bhambra et al. (eds.), Decolonizing the University. Pluto Press, London, 2018.