Beyond scholasticism

The second existential crisis of the Aligarh Muslim University since 1947 requires the central government to respond judiciously and urgently

Syed Shahbuddin Delhi

Between 1966 and 1981, particularly after 1972, the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) was the rallying point of agitation by Muslims seeking restoration of its autonomy and the recognition of its minority character, which was taken away by the government in 1965, to be followed by the Acts of 1968 and 1976. These Acts virtually converted AMU into another central university. The alienated Muslim community resorted to mass struggle for the restoration of the AMU to the community. That chapter was closed in 1981, when the AMU Act was amended. Though not fully satisfactory, it recognised the AMU as a Muslim educational institution under Article 30 of the Constitution.

However, a legal flaw had been pushed under the carpet while amending the AMU Act in 1981 and ignored in the euphoria generated by it. In the Azeez Pasha (1968) case, the Supreme Court had concluded that its historical character notwithstanding, the AMU was "established" in 1920 not by the Muslim community but by the Act of the Central Assembly. But the Supreme Court had failed to consider that every university is "established" in the sense of being incorporated, by an act of the legislature and thus chartered to award degrees. That is why a jurist of HM Seervai's eminence called the Supreme Court judgement a "bad judgement" and two years later two sitting judges of the Supreme Court had suggested a revision of the ruling but the Supreme Court did not take notice.

Historically, from its very inception, through its progress to a college, the institution founded and established by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was acknowledged by everyone to be a Muslim institution established and managed by the Muslim community with their donation. The AMU was incorporated in 1920 as a result of the movement launched and financed by the community. Its Muslim character was fully recognised by the government from 1921 to 1947. The university raised the levels of both education and political consciousness. During the non-cooperation movement of the 1920s, it gave birth to Jamia Millia Islamia, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, some of its faculty served as the brain trust for the Pakistan movement and some of its students became active in the Muslim League, but the university maintained its secular and nationalist traditions and its academic pursuits. Both Jawaharlal Nehru and MA Jinnah were invited by its students union to address it. On independence the AMU was targeted by the Hindu communal forces who demanded its closure, giving rise to Muslim apprehension about its survival and migration of some teachers to Pakistan. It also lost part of its hinterland. But independent India treated the AMU graciously and generously, as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Dr Zakir Hussain desired, and the AMU has moved from one milestone to another to become one of the premier universities of the country, with a budget of Rs 200 crore, almost wholly funded by the central government.

The AMU was never a religious seminary.  It was always a centre for liberal, secular education. It was however an overwhelmingly Muslim institution with both Hindu students and teachers. Over the years it developed a consensus for a balanced mix of 2/3 Muslims and 1/3 non-Muslims among students, the proportion of Muslims varying from year to year in various courses. To respond to the fear, particularly after the 1960s, that the AMU shall be inundated with non-Muslim students, the university took some measures. In the 1960s, reservation was instituted for internal students i.e. for those who had received their secondary or higher secondary education in the schools maintained by the university. This device failed to protect even a Muslim majority in professional and more marketable courses because non-Muslim students began enrolling themselves in the university schools at the high school level. This device also compromised the quality of Muslim input, which was confined largely to Aligarh and neighbouring districts and to the children of lower-salaried staff of the university. The AMU, in effect, became a regional university, catering to a few districts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. 

The 2005 admission scheme in February 2005 abolished reservation for internal students and reduced the Vice-Chancellor's (VC) quota to 5 per cent, introduced 50 cent reservation for Muslims in some technical courses to attract Muslim talent from all over the country and to make it a truly pan-national institution and a centre of excellence, while retaining its minority character.

In dealing with a petition seeking strike down of the above mentioned reservation Justice Arun Tandon of the Allahabad High Court invoked the long-forgotten 1968 Azeez Pasha Judgement to deny the minority character of the AMU because a minority institution would enjoy the freedom to formulate its admission policy under the recent T.M. Pai Case.

This infirmity had been pointed out in the discussion on the 1981 Bill and was felt all along by the AMU authorities ever since the Act was passed. In fact a section of the Muslim leadership denounced the 1981 Act for pulling wool over Muslims' eyes, and for drumbeating the claim that the minority character had been restored. In the event, the university authorities had sought alternative remedies to maintain a Muslim majority among the students for 25 years as stated earlier but did not introduce reservation for Muslims. But neither had anyone tried to exploit the legal infirmity for 28 years, till Justice Tandon hit upon it and reopened the issue.

Logically, in a non-discriminatory selection system, purely on merit, if the AMU admission policy provides for no reservation for Muslims, directly or indirectly, the proportion of Muslims in any marketable course is bound to go down to 10-15 per cent. With expansion of higher education in the country, the estimated number of Muslim students in universities, today, despite their manifest educational backwardness, would be about 5,00,000 (at 5 per cent of the total enrolment). Of these the AMU (schools excluded) caters to only about 20,000. Yet this is not a question of numbers, it is a question of trust and confidence and of equity and justice and of the non-quantifiable sentimental attachment of the Muslim community to the AMU.

While the Tandon Judgement has been reinforced by a 2-Judge Bench which went on to declare 1981 Act itself to be unconstitutional, there is a rising demand from the Muslim community to restore the minority character and place it on assailable foundations. The Left and Aligarh's Muslim aristocracy have criticised reservation on religious grounds for different reasons. The Left wants to protect the interest of local staff, while the aristocracy its share in nomination by the VC.

To prevent the reopening of wounds and protracted litigation the government has no option but to seek reversal of the Allahabad Judgement from the Supreme Court or, if the process is not complete before the next academic year begins, to place the case before Parliament. The constellation of forces in 2006 is much better than in 1981. The university, the community and the government are on the same side. The United Progressive Alliance government stands committed to recognise the AMU as a Minority Education Institution (MEI) and cannot take a U-turn under majoritarian pressure. Nor can it afford to revive the turmoil of the 1990s.

The government must without loss of time issue an Ordinance, explicitly recognising the minority character of the university and making necessary changes in the Constitution and the 1981 Act. The Constitutional amendment should clarify that the term "institution of their choice" in Article 30(1) includes a university. The amendment to 1981 Act should a) nullify all judicial orders and judgements to the contrary and b) recognise the AMU explicitly as a MEI under the Constitution.

It has been argued that after all the AMU is wholly funded by the central government, it is an aided institution; it should be open to all; the merit principle should prevail over any group interest. Unequal groups cannot be treated alike. If the Muslim community is educationally backward, to raise it, it should enjoy reservation as a backward class in all universities of the country. In any case, the AMU should be recognised as a MEI.

Happily, the Supreme Court has firmly laid down that once an educational institution is recognised as a minority institution, the government cannot discriminate against it in grant of aid, under Article 30(2). There is no doubt that some universities like the Banaras Hindu University, the AMU, the other central universities and the IITs have generally received higher grants per student than other run-of-the-mill universities which have been created by the states and often cannot make their ends meet.

The liberal attitude of Nehru and Azad raised the AMU from the depth of 1947 to the heights it occupies today. This should continue as a symbol of secular values. To quote Zakir Hussain, "The way India conducts itself towards Aligarh will determine largely the form which our natural life will acquire in future." AMU has reached a second critical point in its history since independence. The central government must rise to the occasion.