Of AMU Imbroglio: Responsibility, Strategy and the Way Forward

With even the chilling cold of north India’s coldest winters failing to dumb down the numbing trauma of December 15 incident at AMU and the recent revelation of its Vice Chancellor’s urgent secret letter to the Police demanding security for himself and family (NDTV January 12), it is but imperative for someone who teaches security at AMU to dispassionately dissect the how, when and why of the incident so as to have an informed understanding which might help in charting out a direction towards some sort of redress. It becomes particularly important because in the shril din of the cacophony of voices coming to the mainstream, the power dynamics, which is at display in the most brutal form throughout the country, can easily be discerned in terms of the space given to the differing narrative in the mainstream regarding the incident. At a time when the mainstream media space and the social media both are bubbling with video footages of claims and counter-claims on the why of the incident, and those who ought to have risen above the immediate being more concerned about ‘their image and its tarnishing’, it becomes all the more important not just to try deciphering the reason for the occurrence of the current incident but also to delve deeper into the structural factors which lead to the creation of a situation in which incidents like these happen and keep happening.

Not to speak of the current rightward tilt of the polity and its concomitant repercussion which specifically targets minority institutions, flagrantly violating all constitutional ethos and safeguards, at the heart of the present problem at AMU are frustrated students, regimented teachers, and stubborn administrators compounded by a severe sense of despondency coming to the students, abysmal myopia capturing the teachers, extreme insecurity engulfing administrators and the over-ambitiousness of some police officers.

As a longtime student of this university studying international politics and currently teaching, I am more than perturbed at the response of some of the students in coming out with threatening show-cause notices, though their sense of anguish and betrayal at the way things unfolded in the campus as a result of the university administration’s unpragmatic and indecisive handling of the issue, may not be passed as misplaced altogether.

Whereas the undemocratic and unilateral action of the university administration is reprehensively unfortunate, dare I say, even bordering on extreme callousness, the responsibility of teachers and well-wishers of the university may be ignored only at the risk of trivializing the serious issues at hand.

The use of such massive force (buttressed by video footages) by the police that too under the legal authority of its Registrar with due approval of the Vice Chancellor himself (unlike the case in Jamia Millia) who in the tradition of AMU is considered the guardian of students and the Students Union has even a long-held tradition of keeping the VC its patron, it is justifiably incomprehensible even to the extent of reasonable pessimism of the student fraternity of AMU which unlike many newly established modern ‘atomised’ campuses, carries a rich heritage of its ‘communitarian’ culture. Most, if not all the graduating students of the university get acquainted with the rich culture, tradition and ‘tehzeeb’ of the university in which relationship between seniors and juniors and the resulting love and affection, respect and regard are internalized in the psyche of the students.

Among the many other such parables on which the university tries to build its distinctive cultural capital, unique to it, an important university anecdote which does the round revolves around another famous protest of some of the students against some action of the then Vice Chancellor, Dr Zakir Husain. It is said that, on their demands not being met, the students sat on dharna infront of the VC’s residence and when night befell they slept there. In the middle of night, when some of the students woke up, they saw an old man sleeping with them. That old man sleeping with them was their Vice Chancellor himself. On being asked the reason for joining the sleeping students, Zakir Saheb replied,  “Beta aap log baahar thand me khule aasmaan ke neeche pade the, to mujhe ghar ke andar neend kaise aa sakti thi. Toh maine ye behtar jaana ke mai apne bacchchon ke saath hi aake so jaaoon”…

We do understand, to expect this from a VC in this age of heightened neo-liberal ethics and hierarchized academic bureaucracy will be too much but at the same time, denying, to the extent of perceived mocking, our own culture and ethos has its own cost. Zakir Hussain saheb later on rose to become the President of the Republic, thus, very explicitly underlining this fact that personal ambition need not demand sacrificing everything at its altar. 

Coming back to the incident again, however important it might seem at this moment to quickly forget, forgive and move forward, for a durable solution to prevent incidents like this, as such incidents are taking place in very quick succession, fixing of responsibility for the lapse is critically important.

As there has arisen a plethora of allegations and counter-allegations and out of context peddling of concocted narrative, what can’t be denied is the fact that students bore the brunt and their bodies still carry the marks of brutality even though the circumstantial evidence might have been wiped out with the connivance of unscrupulous elements as injured students claim. Police personnel, it is alleged, also faced some stones.

An impartial judicial enquiry, therefore, becomes crucial to clear the air of allegations, counter-allegations and complicity. The sense of fear, retribution and limitless angst permeate the environment in which the undue and unapologetic arrogance of those at the helm of affairs will not just be stifling normalization but may also prove counter-productive. An atmosphere of dialogue, discussion, empathetic understanding on the part of the university and district administration and a feeling of learning, understanding and moving on, on the part of the students, will go a long way in bringing the university to its normal course.

University teachers are certainly required to play a very crucial role in this, as unfortunately, hitherto in the whole incident their role as a whole had been quite wanting on many fronts if not insensitively indifferent altogether. Teachers of AMU, barring a few exceptions, have most often failed in their duty of providing rightful guidance to their students during testing times. They must realize that their responsibility augurs much more than the mundane teaching hours, invigilation duty and lab-periods. Teaching doesn’t only mean engaging students for 55 minutes in classes, delivering power-packed lectures, assisting them in their lab experiments, assignments, theses writing etc. It requires the shaping of the personality of the students and more so educating them against the pervasively negative effects of violence of any sort be it in classrooms, play fields or street. When the mayhem of 15th August night was going on, the fact is that there were only a few teachers at the spot though a majority of them live in the vicinity of the campus. This speaks volumes about their failure and their post-event smug justification that they were not asked to come by the authorities.

Apart from this, teachers of institutions like AMU and Jamia Millia have the additional task to free the young Muslim mind from the fear of the unchecked ‘authority of the state’. An intimidated citizenry or a fearful minority is not just a unhealthy sign of a democracy but is dangerous from the strategic point of view too. Youth from the minority community need to be nurtured and educated in a more delicate manner because on their shoulders lie the twin task of claiming the constitutional rights for their deprived ilk and at the same time proving their own worth in these times of increasing doubting Thomases at times abetted by the State itself. The collective rot in the entire body polity creeps with strategic silence. Youth from the minority community and more so those studying at institutions like AMU and Jamia Millia as such carry a precarious position and their teachers, therefore, must be mindful of this. They may do well to recall what Edward Said counseled intellectuals, “Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship. For an intellectual, these habits of mind are corrupting par excellence. If anything can denature, neutralize, and finally kill a passionate intellectual life it is the internalization of such habits.”

While the immediacy of the problem and the consequent urgency of response is something obviously warranted instantly, the coldness of response from the university authorities wrapped in intertwined bureaucratic reaction,representative at times of the erstwhile Muslim elite and dare I say ‘elitist arrogance’, is something not just worryingly disturbing but also strategically dangerous. Leadership, more so, of academic institutions, also demands rising up to the occasion, read the pulse of the students and channelize their ferment in positive direction. The district police in its SSP (Aligarh), only a day before the December 15th incident, provided a good example of mediating students’ restlessness by addressing the students and assuring them not just their right to conduct peaceful protests but even promising them to be of utmost help in conveying their demand to the President of the Republic, not even shying away from even personally going to the President’s office for the same. This proves that exercising the required will and responsibility expected of administrators, any crowd could easily be managed. Such presence of mind and deft handling of the emergent crisis, was unfortunately found missing from the part of those at the helm of affairs of the university. And add to that, the immediate closure of the university with ultimatum to vacate hostels, thus, bringing additional misery to the already distraught students who were in the last lap of their semester exams, will only go as one of the worst decisions in the annals of any university’s history. Howsoever justification and self-patting the university administration does, in claiming that they provided buses for the students to go home, they can’t absolve themselves of the responsibility, rather irresponsibility, of such a decision that was, as far a, we know, was taken without due process of consultation. Procedures, apart, at least in academic institutions, consideration of humanity and rule of law must guide any other deliberation.

Again, though it is very tempting to point fingers at the unfolding of the emergent crises of the 15th on the bureaucrats of the university only, yet, the entire AMU fraternity as a whole also can’t absolve itself of its part by shirking off responsibility, prodding the plea of hyphenated-helplessness. The governing council of the university, its advisory board, concerned alumni etc., all need to revisit the processes of the university administration to see as to why a situation like this emerges and as a countering mechanism, introduce the processes of due checks and balances, accountability, righteousness etc., in the administration of the university. This is a very critical juncture in nation’s history and all universities and institutions of advanced learning are at heightened risk. AMU being a minority institution invites added ‘gaze’ and as such it is high time attempts towards rightful corrective need to be made immediately.

We all must come together to convert this moment of crises into a time of opportunity to introduce urgently needed reforms in the university particularly in terms of its structural framework. As to why it is important, I would like to quote Dr Zakir Hussain, an illustrious son of India, a freedom fighter, former Vice Chancellor of AMU and the President of Indian Republic: “The way Aligarh participates in various walks of national life will determine the place of Muslims in India’s national life. The way India conducts itself towards Aligarh will determine largely, the form which our national life will acquire in future.”

The government of the day must also understand that the minorities, in the prophetic words of Cohen are like coal miners’ canary indicating the health of the polity. Let’s pray and fervently wish for better sense to prevail on all fronts in this New Year.

Dr Syed Tahseen Raza teaches at the Department of Strategic and Security Studies, Faculty of International Studies, Aligarh Muslim University Aligarh and is a part of AMU Teachers and Seniors Collective