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On Campus and Beyond, Aligarh Muslim University Is at Centre of UP BJP's Communal Politics

The century-old central university has emerged as a flashpoint of the BJP’s majoritarian politics in the last five years as central universities, known to be liberal spaces of learning, have come under attack in the Modi decade.
The AMU entrance gate. Photo: Sravasti Dasgupta

Aligarh (Uttar Pradesh): If Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s openly communal remarks accusing the Congress of redistributing “mangalsutra”, “gold”, “land” and “property” of “mothers-sisters” to Muslims by misleadingly referring to a speech by his predecessor Manmohan Singh was meant to pitch a communal narrative in a manner symptomatic of the ten years of his government’s rule, nowhere is it more apparent than in Uttar Pradesh’s Aligarh, synonymous with the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). The century-old central university has emerged as a flashpoint of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s majoritarian politics in the last five years as central universities, known to be liberal spaces of learning, have come under attack in the Modi decade.

Along with seven other seats in Uttar Pradesh, Aligarh goes to the polls on Friday (April 26).

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Despite the criticism that Modi’s communal speech on Sunday faced, the prime minister doubled down and reiterated a version of the same speech while campaigning for sitting BJP MP Satish Gautam in Aligarh on Monday.

“The ‘Shehzada’ of Congress says that if their government comes to power, they will investigate who earns how much, who has how many properties, who has how much wealth, who has how many properties and homes, they will investigate this,” he said.

“Not just this, they also say that this property will be taken over by the government and be distributed. This is what their manifesto says. Think about this. Our mothers and sisters have gold. This is not just to wear on their bodies but it is their stree-dhan no matter how less it is. It is considered sacred. Even the law protects it. Now their eye is to change the law and snatch the property of our mothers and sisters. They are eyeing their mangalsutra. They want to steal the gold of our mothers and sisters.”

At the same rally, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath accused the Congress and the Samajwadi Party (SP) of “playing with faith” in Aligarh.

With the communal pot kept boiling in this election, students who constitute young voters – a key constituency being wooed by the prime minister himself – say that they are battling politics of hatred, and looking for answers to their concerns of employment.

Also read: Uttar Pradesh Police Arrests 9 Muslim Youth in Two Months in Crackdown Against ‘ISIS Module of AMU’

Religion over employment

Bindusar, a PhD scholar, said to The Wire that conflicts on campus have been given a political colour in recent years, while the political narrative remains focused on religion rather than employment.

“The amount of exploitation that the BJP has done with education, no one other party has. Applicants are increasing for limited posts but jobs are not. Primary teacher vacancies have not come in the last five years. Students are becoming older but employment is not coming. Politicians and the youth should be talking about this. It is not about Ram Mandir. The Mandir has been built. But even to give donations to the Mandir, one needs money. Where will that come from without jobs?” he asked.

Bindusar. Photo: Sravasti Dasgupta

Sadaf Tasneem, a 22-year-old MA student, said that while students in AMU have been “villainised”, the question of employment makes her “anxious”.

“When a communal issue is brought forward, people stop thinking rationally. As AMU is a minority institution it has been villainised. But what makes me anxious is employment. There are paper leaks constantly happening in Uttar Pradesh for government vacancies. But the government is not taking cognisance. There are vacancies but the government is not filling them,” she said.

Outside the university campus, Mukesh earns about Rs 1,000 a day selling coconut water in Aligarh city. About Rs 6,000 is spent just on educating his two young primary school going sons. Speaking to The Wire, he said that while there has been development under Modi including improved roads, employment remains a concern.

“Modi will win because there is an image he has created in people’s hearts. But employment is the main issue as without jobs, nothing is possible. Hindus and Muslims are living peacefully in this country. Politicians should talk about how they will create jobs,” he said.

BJP’s sitting MP Gautam, who is seeking a third consecutive term, has time and again placed AMU at the centre of his politics in the region. A year before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections he had, in a letter written to then vice-chancellor Tariq Mansoor, objected to hanging the picture of  Muhammad Ali Jinnah on the walls of the AMU student union office. In November 2018, he had in another letter to the vice-chancellor said that the university is run on “Taliban ideology” and referred to some Kashmiri students offering funeral prayers after the death of former PhD scholar-turned-militant Mannan Wani.

Shortly after he won the 2019 election, Gautam vowed that his first priority would be to send the portrait to Pakistan. Meanwhile, other BJP leaders have also referred to AMU as a “hub of terrorists”, with a UP minister making the claim as recently as October, after students organised a march in support of Palestine.

“In 2019 I contested the student body elections and one candidate defined AMU as a hub of terrorists and I defended it in front of everyone,” said Bindusar.

“Satish Gautam raked up the issue of the Jinnah portrait before the previous Lok Sabha elections. The issue on campus was not about supporting Pakistan or Jinnah but that he is a historical figure. Earlier things would get resolved within the campus but now everything has got a political colour.”

Students at the Maulana Azad Library canteen. Photo: Sravasti Dasgupta

How AMU has remained at the centre of BJP’s Aligarh politics

Long known for its vibrant student movement, AMU shot to the spotlight months after the Modi government was sworn in for its second term after the police crackdown on the CAA-NRC protests rocked the campus in 2019.

“Any protest or issue that is taken up by students in AMU becomes political and then students are called terrorists. If BHU (Banaras Hindu University) students protest, such criticism is not there. It is a question of us being minorities and a narrative being built across the country,” said 22-year-old Kashish Khan, an MA student.

Since the CAA/NRC protests, students have been booked and activists jailed for speeches on campus. The last time student body elections were held was in 2018.

While the question of the university’s minority status is in the Supreme Court, it had been functioning under acting vice-chancellor Mohammad Gulrez from April 2023 until Monday, when his wife Naima Khatoon took charge.

Despite the administrative challenges, the campus has not been free from the communal politics outside its walls. A row over celebrating Holi erupted as recently as last month. Adit Pratap Singh, a student who had sought permission to celebrate the festival, alleged that he had been stopped by some “radical elements”, according to a report by Press Trust of India.

Students at AMU said to The Wire that the festival was ultimately celebrated, but some students had boycotted classes while some chose to stay away fearing unrest.

Mohammad Shabib, a first year BA student, said that the institution had been founded to uplift the Muslim population educationally.

“Take the issue of Holi. There are problems on all sides. This kind of insecurity should not be there on either side. They are insecure because they don’t get space to discuss and people are not able to separate religion and politics,” he said.

A PhD student who did not wish to be named said that what is happening outside the campus walls is also taking place inside.

“Local leaders want to keep the pot boiling by keeping AMU in the news,” he said.

Institutional assault on central universities 

In the ten years of the Modi government, not just AMU but central government universities known to be liberal spaces of learning where critical thinking and democratic student movements have been fostered have come under attack. In 2015, months after the Modi government first came to power, students at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) including now Congress leader Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and others were charged with sedition in connection with an event on campus. In January 2016, a wave of protests followed after Rohith Vemula, a PhD scholar at University of Hyderabad, was pushed to die by suicide after facing systemic oppression. Both AMU and Jamia Millia Islamia University (in New Delhi) saw a crackdown by the police during the CAA-NRC protests in 2019-20. Since then, protests have been discouraged on campuses; JNU has even instituted new rules to punish protests with fines and rustication.

The assault on democratic educational institutions has also been intensified by fund cuts to central universities that provide higher education to the masses at subsidised costs.

According to a reply in the Lok Sabha by the Ministry of Education in July 2022, between 2014-15 and 2021-22 fiscals, the budget for AMU and JMI dipped by 15% while BHU’s budget rose from Rs 669.51 crore to Rs 1,303.01 crore. The allocation for JNU had remained stagnant.

The Maulana Azad Library canteen. Photo: Sravasti Dasgupta

In December 2023, the ministry in another reply to Lok Sabha said that overall allocation had increased marginally to central universities JNU, DU, Jamia, AMU, University of Hyderabad and Maulana Azad National Urdu University which received Rs 4017.83 crore in 2022-23 compared to in Rs 3191. 55 crore 2021-22.

According to Parvez Alam, assistant professor, department of political science, AMU, who has previously taught at JMI, the attack on educational institutions has been “unprecedented”.

“JNU has always been a political campus but this attack on education particularly since 2014 is unprecedented. This has to do something with the fact that while the BJP visualises a Hindu rashtra, these educational institutions are the backbone of secularism, and pluralism so to attack that is to weaken the secular spirit. Because the knowledge we are producing in these critical institutions is anti-conservative, so that needs to be stopped. The BJP’s ideology on the other hand is narrow, parochial and inward looking,” he said.

Alam said that the attack on educational institutions under Modi is a continuation of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee years (1999-2004), which saw saffronisation of education in schools through textbooks.

“There has been a concerted effort to indoctrinate minds in school through textbooks as these students will be potential voters after about 15 years. Even when they were out of power, this communalism did not fizzle out because they were working on the ground. The backbone of the UPA government was higher educational institutions so they moved to these universities – whether it is Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad University, or the label of tukde tukde gang in JNU or how Jamia became a ‘centre of jihad’ and AMU became a ‘hub of terrorists’. These universities have been under attack because of their critical thinking, because the government wants to work in a comfortable environment.”

Co-opting elites while demonising common Muslims

While the Muslims are the only community the BJP wave has not touched, it has managed to co-opt a section of elites in the community, some of whom have incidentally been at the helm of universities like AMU and Jamia.

In July 2023, Tariq Mansoor was appointed as the vice president of the BJP just months after his tenure ended as AMU vice chancellor. He is also a member of the Uttar Pradesh legislative council. Mansoor is also a Pasmanda Muslim, a community that the BJP has been wooing. He had been the vice chancellor when the campus saw violence during the CAA/NRC protests. Former Jamia vice chancellor Najma Akhtar, who was at the helm when the campus saw police brutality during the protests, has also been seen in photographs taking blessings from the RSS.

Also read: University Vice-Chancellors Are Apparently Long on Loyalty, Short on Memory

Khatun’s appointment, during the Lok Sabha elections, is also noteworthy as the BJP woos Muslim women voters with its pitch of having removed triple talaq, and allowing women to travel for Hajj unaccompanied by a male companion.

Mohammad Sajjad, professor of history at AMU, said that while campuses like AMU or Jamia are funded by the secular state, “the BJP does not want a secular state”.

“As a student of history, I see history repeating itself as a huge section of Muslim elite had joined the ranks of the Muslim League in the last decade of the Independence struggle. The same thing is happening now, with Muslim academics from AMU and Jamia moving towards the BJP. And since the BJP is seeking a third term and is likely to secure it, this patronage network is working.”

While the prime minister’s renewed attack on Muslims in this election season harks back to the population myth over land and resources, any attempt by common Muslims towards upward mobility is also being thwarted by constructed narratives around these institutions.

“If a student from Jamia or AMU qualifies for UPSC ,they call it UPSC jihad. The government’s own initiatives – whether it is the Sachar Committee report or the prime minister’s 15 point programme – shows the condition of Muslims facing insecurity, ghettoisation, and if they are trying to do well that is labelled as UPSC jihad. In post-independence India, not even 2.5% Muslims have been clearing UPSC. Those who are trying hard to get an education to receive the fruits of development, it is part of their ideology to create a population myth of taking over land and resources, and the paraphernalia of this ideology creates hype around these institutions,” said Alam.

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