Reading the tea leaves of history, it is evident that events and actions of the past dictate the narrative of the future. Academic populism is not an exception. Almost a century has passed since their inception, but both Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) continue to generate heated debates and grab headlines thanks to their middle names; and not courtesy academic performance.
Last week, an Audit Committee of the University Grants Commission brought the spotlight back on them by asking UGC to drop ‘Hindu’ from BHU and ‘Muslim’ from AMU. The latter no long enjoys the legal status of a minority university following an Allahabad Court verdict. But partisan political poseurs and minority mavens are fighting to restore its religious tag. These universities dictate the intellectual identity of Varanasi and Aligarh. Their vast campuses and the quality of education imparted to both outsiders and local students make them part of the intellectual, cultural and emotional ecosystem of their cities. Though they are not the Oxford and Harvard of India, history’s imperatives and the exalted status of many of their alumni have awarded them a lofty place in Indian academia.
Oddly, these two of India’s 300-odd universities are fertile playgrounds of vote bank villains and liberals in search of a cause. Any demand to drop the religious nomenclatures from the names is seen as an attempt to either suppress and hurt the sentiments of the Muslims or polarise Indian society along communal lines. For the past seven decades, many political and academic battles have been fought to retain these middle names.
The unhealthy fallout of this war of names has been their plummeting credibility as institutions of academic excellence. Notably, both AMU and BHU share a common factor. Former or active Congressmen, who were leading warriors of the freedom struggle, were their promoters. However, there is a significant difference as well. It is not by name alone that AMU has acquired the controversial image of an institution with religion on its mind.
Its founding purpose was to shepherd the educational and religious interests of the Muslim community while no similar declaration was made while setting up BHU. Sir Syed Ahmad bin Muttaqi Khan, the founder of AMU—which had started life as just a college—had a clear mission. A Muslim College Foundation was first established to raise funds for establishing the college. The Viceroy and Governor General of India Lord Northbrook donated `10,000 to the scheme and Lt. Governor of the North Western Provinces contributed `1,000. Within few months the corpus had grown to `1.5 lakh—a massive sum in those days. According to AMU's official website: “In 1877, Sir Syed founded the Mohammadan Anglo Oriental College in Aligarh and patterned the college after Oxford and Cambridge universities that he had visited on a trip to England.
His objective was to build a college in tune with the British education system but without compromising its Islamic values.” Sir Syed enjoys iconic status in Pakistan as one of its intellectual fathers, since according to published reports he was the original prompter of the Two-Nation Theory. Moreover, many pre-Independence leaders, who played an important role in the creation of Pakistan, were educated at AMU.
Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first Prime minister; Khwaja Nazimuddin, the second governor-general; Malik Ghulam Mohammad, a leading Pakistan Movement leader; both Fazal Ilahi Chaudhry and Ayub Khan who became Presidents of Pakistan; Khan Habibullah Khan, acting President of Pakistan (1977-1978); Khawaja Nazimuddin, Governor General and later Prime Minister of Pakistan were all AMU products.
On the other hand, Madan Mohan Malviya, who left public life and the legal profession to establish BHU, never claimed its purpose was meant to promote Hindus or politics. No faculty or student leader of BHU supported the partition of India along religious lines. At the Benaras Congress session in December 1905, Malviya declared his intention to start a university in Varanasi. His vision was to encourage the evolution of education as a tool to combat poverty and correct income disparity among Indians by inculcating scientific temper among students.
He meant university education to promote technology, science and the study of India’s religion and culture. He firmly believed: “The millions mired in poverty here can only get rid (of it) when science is used in their interest. Such maximum application of science is only possible when scientific knowledge is available to Indians in their own country.” Significantly,
BHU wasn't funded with help from the British establishment. With over 40,000 students it is today Asia’s largest residential university. Famous academics like former President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan taught in BHU. Over one-fourth of the Union Council of Ministers since Independence is its alumni. A large number of its students occupy, or have occupied, important posts in the judiciary and bureaucracy.
Both Universities have an academic record that rivals other educational institutions in the country.
Both host debates, discussions and seminars involving opinion-makers across the political and communal spectrum. Yet, their middle names have of late brought them adverse publicity. Unfortunately, a common factor seems to be gender inequality. For example girls are not given equal opportunities or facilities in either university. Until few years ago, female students of AMU were denied access to a better library by the Vice Chancellor using the ridiculous excuse that their presence would attract more boys and crowd the library.
Female students of BHU were not allowed to stay out from their hostels after evening. Every unpleasant incident on their campuses from faculty recruitment, to student admissions, to academic events and the selection of new courses have acquired communal colour. Any incident in BHU or AMU, which would get scant notice in any other Indian university, attracts national media attention was it to occur at AMU or BHU with real or imagined religious connotations.
The Centre has dismissed the idea of tinkering with the age-old names of BHU and AMU. However, if they would drop the religious accreditation of their monikers, the exclusive tag of ‘Institutions of Excellence’ would be undoubtedly theirs. There is nothing academic to their middle names except religious references, which only places them at a distinct disadvantage by making them vulnerable to insidious communal agendas that are imperilling academia with ideology and invective.
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