Growing fundamentalism is a threat to secular Jamia: Mushirul Hasan

As Jamia Millia Islamia celebrates its 95th Foundation Day, Catch speaks to celebrated historian Mushirul Hasan, 66, who served as the vice-chancellor of the university from 2004 to 2009. Here they discuss the place and growth of culturally-rich Jamia in contemporary India.

KM: What is the importance of an institution like Jamia Millia Islamia in today’s India?

MH: Jamia Millia was founded at a time when the nationalist movement was at its peak. So, in that sense it is important. There were also other initiatives. But this was by far the most important one. Especially, considering the fact that it was founded in October 1920. There are three points that I think makes Jamia unique. First, it was founded during the Khilafat and the Non-cooperation movement.

Second, it was linked with the nationalist movement. People like Gandhi, Mohammad Ali and several other freedom fighters were associated with its founding. Third, it started as a small institution and developed into a big one. Not big as in the state of being but big enough to attract close attention in the time of Independence and later.

KM: At a time when the country was divided on the issue of religion, what role did Jamia play in bringing the communities together?

MH: Jamia has always stood for a composite way of life. It stood away from the Aligarh University brand of politics and has remained secular in every sense of the word. In that sense, it has been extremely composite, secular and multicultural both in its academic programmes and the way it conducts itself.

KM: Post independence, has Jamia played any role in the politics of the country? Zakir Hussain went on to become President of India.

MH: I doubt very much. But it is true that leaders and teachers like Zakir Hussain and Mohammad Mujeeb attracted a great deal of attention. More so because of their scholarship than anything else. Besides that, they didn’t receive much. Yes, they have held important positions. So it is for others to judge.

KM: Do you think Jamia has managed to fulfil its founders’ vision in the field of education?

MH: I do not think so. I do not think Jamia was a great success in terms of its activities of students and teachers. There are many shortcomings which it needs to look into and set right. Generally speaking about the institution, not as a language school or a college, it needs a great deal of up-gradation. It is required more today than five years ago.

KM: What kind of role has Jamia Millia played in the spread of modern education among Muslims of the country?

MH: Jamia has a multicultural character which is reflected in the way students and teachers interact with each other. When you walk around the campus of Jamia, you will not see any real difference between the Hindu and Muslim students. Same is true for teachers and students. In that sense, you notice the difference in Aligarh University – students and teachers wear black sherwani in the winters. In Jamia, those things never really took root.

KM: But there have been quotas for Muslims in recent times.

MH: Fundamentalism has grown. There is no question about it. I have no hesitation in conceding that. Whether it is Hindu fundamentalism or Muslim fundamentalism, they have both grown in their own respective ways. It has been a great challenge for Jamia to survive as a secular institution.

KM: Do you look at reservation for Muslim community in the same light?

MH: Well, it has not come into effect yet in the true sense of the word. But we will see as in when it is introduced in a regressive manner.

KM: You faced a very dark period at Jamia when you were physically attacked for defending Salman Rushdie’s right to free speech over the publication of Satanic Verses. So many years later, has Jamia managed to become a space where liberal Muslims find space?

MH: Yes and no. On one hand, Jamia Millia has greater tolerance if you compare it to Aligarh. But there is also greater intolerance when you compare Jamia to other institutions. It is difficult to guess the outcome of any incident that takes place in Jamia, in comparison to, say, Aligarh. The reaction could be the same. But the only difference is that Jamia is a big university – not in terms of numbers but in terms of the size.

Students come from different parts of the city and belong to different community, class and caste backgrounds. That makes bit of a difference. Whereas, Aligarh is a university town and there is a campus where you can live and interact with each other. So it is a different ball game. Making a comparison is rather difficult.

KM: What do you think about the political interference in the appointment of vice-chancellors at Jamia?

MH: I will regard this as an exaggerated statement. I think there is an element of politicisation that works in the making of vice-chancellors or in the process that leads to the rise of the vice-chancellors. But it is not necessarily the reason why people are appointed. There are pure academic reasons too. My own appointment was based on whatever academic standing I have.

KM: But we have seen IAS officers as well as former military men being appointed as VCs at Jamia. They do not have any academic background as such.

MH: Yes, but the present vice-chancellor is an academic one. But it varies from time to time. Any generalisation cannot be made.

KM: After 95 years, what does the future of Jamia Millia’s look like?

MH: Probably not very bright. But it is not very grim either. Jamia needs an upgradation of faculty at different levels to work as a national institution. That requires a lot of effort. God knows who is going to put in this effort.

KM: That is a rather grim picture.

MH: I’m actually sad. I have seen the institution grow and I have seen it decline. I have seen it decline further over the last few years or so. I certainly hope for the revival of Jamia Millia although that possibility seems rather remote.

Originally published at Catch News dated October 29, 2015

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