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Published in the 16-31 Dec 2003 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Law Watch
AMU autonomy under attack again
By Tahir Mahmood

Aligarh, the Taj Mahal among the Indian universities, is in turmoil once again. An official circular reportedly issued by the University Grants Commission binds the grand old alma mater to the norm of making admissions to its professional courses, inclusive of those in the medical and engineering colleges, through common all-India tests. Naturally there is great resentment all around. Teachers, students, old boys and well-wishers of the University, all are disturbed. So are the votaries of Secularism -- genuine, not pseudo -- and Rule of Law.

Sir Syed's Oxbridge in Aligarh had become a university in 1920. Half a century had elapsed by then since Sir Syed had returned from England with a firm determination to awaken the Muslims of India to the pressing need for modern education and to set up a university for that purpose on Oxford-Cambridge pattern and standard. Within five years of returning home he had succeeded in laying the foundation of a Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh. By the time he breathed his last twenty-three years later his college had become a household name nationwide and attained a global reputation. The grand old man of Aligarh, the great Messiah of the Muslims of India, had left for posterity a Taj Mahal of educational excellence no less majestic and glorious than Shah Jahan's Taj Mahal of archeological beauty in Agra.

Sir Syed's successors pledged their lives to his great institution and further nurtured it on the path of intellectual glory. Inspired by the emergence of a Hindu University in the temple town of Benaras in 1915, the Muslim leadership of the time began a movement for its elevation to the status of a parallel Muslim University. An Act of the then central legislature passed in 1920, describing itself in its short title as "An Act to establish and incorporate a teaching and residential Muslim University," eventually upgraded the late Sir Syed Ahmad Khan's MAO College and re-christened it as the Muslim University.

Years later Aligarh played an active role in our Freedom Struggle. It did survive the historical calamity of partition thrust upon the Nation by some self-seeking politicians in a hurry to make a fortune out of our hard-earned Independence from British rule then in sight. The unchallenged architect of modern India, Jawaharlal Nehru, stood as rock to save Aligarh from the wrath of communalists. Along with his illustrious comrade in governance, the great Abul Kalam Azad, he eminently succeeded in giving Aligarh a new lease of life. The Constitution of Independent India, painstakingly written by the top-ranking secularist leaders of the time committed to an absolute equality of the citizens, made adequate provisions for the protection of the then existing minority educational institutions and for an un-arrested educational growth of the minorities through the establishment of more such institutions. And yet they did not take the risk of leaving Aligarh to the mercy of the narrow-minded. local rulers. AMU was declared, under the Constitution, to be a central university directly under the control of the Union Government. This very fair provision also affirmed the national character of the institution. The 1920 Charter of the University was, of course, modified to adapt its provisions to the basic principles of Independent India's secular Constitution. 

Maulana Azad's death in 1958 did not orphan Aligarh, as Nehru -- its saviour -- was still alive. His exit from the political scenario six years later did leave Aligarh unprotected. The very next year massive amendments were introduced into the AMU Act of 1920 divesting it of its minority character. An excuse for it was made readily available by the foolish players of the unprecedented Ali Yavar Jung drama on the Aligarh campus known for its tradition of utmost respect for teachers.

Then came the wonder ruling of the apex court in Aziz Basha's case. Wholly overlooking almost a century-old history of Aligarh well known to the world and putting a literal construction on the words of the 1920 Act, the court ruled that AMU had been 'established' by that Act and not by the Muslim minority. It seemed like saying that Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti's tomb in Ajmer had been brought into existence by the 1955 Parliamentary legislation enacted to streamline the management of the shrine. After its electoral debacle of post-Emergency era the Congress Party felt the constraint of putting the record straight. The 1981 amendments to the AMU Act 'redefined' the institution as "the educational institution of their choice established by the Muslims of India which originated as the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College and was subsequently incorporated as Muslim University." This measure brough back AMU within the fold of Article 30 of the Constitution which guarantees to the minorities a Fundamental Right to "establish and administer" educational institutions of their choice.

In recent years while the very sensible and just provision of Article 30 itself has been suffering all sorts of onslaughts, Aligarh has been facing all sorts of problems at the hands of those elements in politics and bureaucracy who have never pardoned Nehru and Azad for letting Aligarh survive the holocaust of Partition. With no legal backing the executive decision for 22.5% reservation for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes was arbitrarily thrust also on minority institutions - while by another arbitrary decision of the Executive no Muslim or Christian can even be a Scheduled Caste. In 1998, while the UGC had stopped the grant of AMU to compel it to strictly follow the SC reservation policy, Vice-Chancellor Mahmood-ur-Rahman sought my help as the sitting Chairman of the Minorities Commission. Exercising the Commission's statutory power I demanded from the UGC a reply to my query 'under what law' it had taken the impugned action. Nobody in the UGC had any reply to give. The NCM directive to release the grant till the UGC could give a satisfactory reply had then to be met, though with great resentment. I have no information of further developments in the matter. I had also issued an Explanatory Ruling based on Supreme Court decisions that minority institutions were not bound to adhere to the government's SC reservation norms, as steps for the amelioration of one weaker section of the society could not be taken at the cost of another such section. Whether that ruling survived my laying down the office is also not known to me.

And now comes the 'common entrance-test' crisis. I am at a loss to understand how an executive decision, however sound it may seem to the powers that be, be allowed to counter the clear provisions of the Constitution. That supreme law of the country does empower the minorities, and unconditionally at that, to "manage" the institutions established by them. An executive directive cannot override this provision of the Nation's basic law. If this country is governed by the dictates of the Constitution and the doctrine of Rule of Law, Aligarh can hope to wriggle out of this latest crisis. I do wish my alma mater, the Nation's educational Taj Mahal, a grand success on this front. 

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