AMU is again becoming the leader of Muslim education

In the modern history of the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent after the end in 1857 of over six centuries-long Muslim rule, their emancipation by acquiring modern education starting in late 1800s represents a very courageous turning point. The widespread British suppression and degrading of Muslims of all classes following the failure of the 1857 revolution was savage and impacted all classes of Muslims.  However, in the late 1800s a few Muslim leaders across the country embarked on a path to liberate the Muslim community through modern education by building modern Muslim educational institutions. Two of them who succeeded and whose institutions have continued to flourish for over a hundred years now are Sir Syed Ahmad Khan of Aligarh and Badruddin Tyebjee of Bombay.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan built the Mohammadon Anglo-Oriental School and College in Aligarh in 1874, where he introduced a curriculum adapted from the prominent universities of Britain and employed British teachers. Also in 1874 Badruddin Tyabjee built the Anjuman Islam school and college in Bombay. Today over a hundred years later the initiative in Aligarh has blossomed into the large and renowned Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).

The other initiative in Bombay has also blossomed into the Anjuman Islam colleges and schools numbering about 80 across Maharashtra. In the pre-1947 era, both the institutions prospered with encouragement from the then British-Indian government. The Anjuman Islam colleges and schools were not built as residential and unitary institutions, but AMU was built as one.

While Anjuman emphasized education of Muslims but not the handling of their social-political issues, AMU did both with a view to create the future Muslim leadership. As the Pakistan movement heated up in north India in the 1930s, willingly or unwillingly the political future of the Muslims of India became a major feature of AMU. After 1947, while Anjuman Islam, not having been sucked into the vortex of the Pakistan movement did not suffer significant political recriminations in Hindu majority India, AMU suffered grievous discrimination for about a quarter century. Thus in post-independence India AMU became much more than a Muslim university; it became a symbol of the middleclass Muslims and a beacon of hope for the emancipation of the community.

Gradually over the years as the political parties and forces realized the importance of Muslims as an integral part of India and AMU too has shed its exclusivist tendencies, AMU is again being looked upon by successive governments and parties in power as one of the major avenues through whom the Muslim community should be approached.

In the last several decades the educational backwardness of Indian Muslims and its contribution to the overall socioeconomic backwardness of the community has become an open gnawing wound. The 2007 Justice Sachar Committee report on this subject has put the government’s responsibility to bring educational empowerment of the Muslim community on the front burner. Not only Congress party, even the BJP simply cannot ignore this need. It is this realization that led the government to plan the building of several higher educational centres for Muslims in various Muslim concentration districts in the country that could grow in due course of time into Muslim universities, as recommended by the Sachar Committee.

However, the government faced a major problem that the Indian constitution prohibits building such facilities for only one religious community and the sizeable anti-Muslim forces are in no mood to let that happen. That is when they thought of expanding an existing Muslim university by building remote centres attached to it across the country. They had only two universities to choose from: AMU and Jamia Millia Islamia. AMU is far more well-established with a well-established system of instruction, curriculum, research, academic management, residential facilities for students, large colleges of medicine, engineering, law, business management, science etc. Also in comparison, AMU is a century-old internationally known Muslim university with a bigger faculty and student population. Thus AMU became the government’s choice.

With the planned establishment of five AMU centres of higher education in places far away from Aligarh, three of which are well underway – in Murshidabad (West Bengal), Mallapuram (Kerala) and Kishanganj (Bihar) – AMU is being transformed from being a single university for Muslims into a university system for Indian Muslims.

While AMU does not have a reservation for Muslim students it does have a reservation for “internal students”. That means preferential admission of AMU’s own students to its professional and higher science colleges. Since the dominant culture and ethos of AMU is Muslim-centric, most students at higher secondary level where students are relatively young tend to be Muslims. So that makes the internal student reservation an indirect reservation for Muslims.

This system of “internal students quota” has been upheld by the Courts as being legal, as under Article 30 of the Indian Constitution minorities are allowed to set up their own systems of management. Also this is not a reservation for Muslims as anyone is allowed to become an internal student at AMU. By virtue of being centres of AMU, the internal student reservation system can be extended to its remote centres without infringing any laws of the nation. Thus the government can fund the establishment of the AMU remote centres. It should be noted that to-date none of the anti-Muslim parties and groups including BJP have raised any voice of protest against the establishment of remote AMU centres funded by the government.

The plan calls for the five AMU centres to grow under the administration at AMU, Aligarh, transferring academic management knowhow, management of teaching and student bodies, curriculum etc from AMU to its remote centres. The expectation is that in due course of time the remote centres will become Muslim universities in their own right. Since all AMU remote centres are being built in heavy Muslim-concentration districts, it is natural that it will spread higher education in the educationally backward Muslim community. That will bring empowerment and socioeconomic growth to the backward Muslim community in due course of time.

It should be noted that the first Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) was built in Kharagpur, West Bengal in 1954. Thereafter, utilising IIT Kharagpur’s system of academic administration, curriculum, bodies of teachers and students etc more autonomous IITs were built in Bombay, Madras, Kanpur, Delhi and later in Roorkee and Gauhati. From one IIT it became an IIT system. Today, all these IITs have developed their own culture and system and the coordination among them is happening very successfully. The plan for the AMU system and its centres expects to emulate the successful IIT model.

Just as in the pre-1947 era, AMU was a leader of higher education for Muslims in the Indian subcontinent and Muslims came from all over the country to study there, today AMU is again becoming the leader, leading the resurgence of higher education in the backward Muslim community all over the country, from West Bengal to Kerala. In the process, AMU is also on the path to lead the socioeconomic emancipation of the depressed Muslim community on an all-India basis.

Most Indian Muslims and alumni of AMU have welcomed this government initiative. But a few in the AMU community are apprehensive that the expansion of AMU from one university in Aligarh to the AMU system spread over the entire country may cause the dilution of the privileges they enjoy at Aligarh.

Their anxieties are imaginary and a generic reaction to change per se. But change is the law of nature and after 130 years AMU too cannot remain static. More than anything AMU must respond to the challenge that the extraordinary educational backwardness of the Indian Muslim community represents, and must lead the path forward the uplift of the entire Indian Muslim community. The expansion of AMU also represents the fulfilment of the vision of AMU’s founders who saw AMU’s future not just as one college but as a catalyst for the establishment of clones of AMU in Muslim communities throughout the country that will emancipate the entire community.
The writer is a community activist based in Washington DC.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-29 February 2012 on page no. 2

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