Rethinking The Debate On AMU’s Minority Status – OpEd
By Yanis Iqbal
In the ideological narrative propagated by Indian ashraf elites (upper caste Muslims like Syeds, Shaikhs, Pathans etc.), Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) is conceived as one of the last standing strongholds of Islamic tehzeeb (culture) where modern education is combined with theological morality. In times of Hindutva communalism, this discourse has dominated the Muslim response to debates regarding the institution’s minority status, preventing the formation of alternative perspectives rooted in the secular imperative to forge intra-subaltern solidarity.
According to senior advocate Mihir Desai, since the founding of the Indian republic, the Supreme Court has adopted the wrong criteria for determining the minority status, or otherwise, of an institution. The determination of the minority status of an institution should be based on whether it is being run for the benefit of the minority, and not whether it is established and administered by a minority. This concern with an institute’s identitarian origins rather than substantive policy dynamics has attached the question of minority status to the political principle of protecting cultural identity, to the exclusion of the social principle of backwardness related to issues of justice and equity.
In 2004, AMU, with the prior written approval of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, introduced a 50% quota for Muslim students in post-graduate medical courses. This reservation was challenged by the university’s own Hindu students in MBBS, who accounted for 45% of the students admitted in the course. In 2005 and 2006, the Allahabad High Court (HC) termed as “unconstitutional” the granting of minority status to AMU and 50% reservation to Muslims, striking down the provision of the AMU (Amendment) Act, 1981 by which the university was accorded minority status. The UPA government and AMU filed an appeal in the Supreme Court, which stayed the high court judgment and ordered the maintenance of the previous status quo. In 2016, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government withdrew its appeal against the Allahabad HC verdict, landing AMU in its present imbroglio.
Before the reservation, the admissions policy was based on a 50% internal quota and a 50% external quota, with the bulk of internal students being Muslims who had studied in the schools maintained by the university. This internal quota reservation favors those who are financially capable of studying in AMU from the school stage, or those who live in proximity to the Aligarh district and other regions of UP and Bihar. The AMU administration argued that this policy excluded more “meritorious” external applicants and worsened the university’s academic quality – issues that could supposedly be combatted by a 50% Muslim reservation.
Merit is always a result of myriad structural factors that shape the overall background of the student. The aim of a public university is to give opportunities to poor students so that the educational potential they embody can be realized through institutional support. But AMU’s 50% Muslim reservation went against this spirit of equality by seeking to attract the cream of Muslim students from all parts of the country.
It is important to note that UP and Bihar have the dubious distinction of having the most number of Muslims who live below poverty line. The dominance of the states in the university translates into the preponderance of unprivileged students (in the 3-year undergraduate program, for instance, roughly 81% students come from economically backward and socially challenged categories). Given the socio-historic context in these poor students are situated, it is the responsibility of the university to aid their intellectual development.
The failure of AMU to do so can’t be pinned on the students themselves. Academic quality has to be improved through sustained pedagogical efforts, not through a reservation policy whose objective is to attract the creamy layer of Muslims to the university. The fig leaf of academic quality was meant to hide the fact that a 50% Muslim reservation was aimed not towards the overall empowerment of Indian Muslims but towards the tokenistic inclusion of privileged Muslim voices who could preserve the so-called Islamic identity of AMU.
A Political History of AMU
Reservation for Muslims as a whole draws sustenance from a religiocized representation of Indian society, in which Indian Muslims are thought of as an internally homogenous community. Such a discursively constructed homogeneity ignores the inequalities of gender, class and caste, leading to a reservation policy that inevitably promotes the interests of the better placed among the Muslim population. This is the direct outcome of the legal narrative in which the topic of minority status is enmeshed, namely the cultural purity of the institution’s point of origin.
In any discourse, genealogical obsession with an origin serves to construct an absolute idea that is above the relationality constitutive of concrete reality. An ideal origin is supposed to exist as a self-sufficient center of positivist immediacy, capable of asserting its full presence without any reference to the web of differential relations in which any historical fact is embedded. By privileging the identitarian character of an institution’s point of origin, the Indian juridical discourse has reified minority status into a substantive thing that can be detached from the weave of histories and practices that compose the struggles of the minority community.
In the Ashraf narrative regarding AMU, the 1857 rising, which resulted in the British exile of the last of the Mughal emperors to Burma, serves as the foundational event that highlighted for Sir Syed Ahmad Khan the vulnerability of the Muslim population. He thought that this defeat of Muslims was the result of their lack of attention to the norms of respectability found in Ashraf culture. This perception of civilizational loss “fed a homogenizing narrative that privileged the Muslim elite of North India as the hereditary leaders of Indian Muslims, but risked excluding others who did not fit into this narrow identity.”
While this narrative had its positive effects in the form of the reformist zeal regarding the pursuit of Western education, the wider context within it was situated can’t be ignored: bridging the gulf between the British government and North Indian Muslim elites so that the latter could more efficiently compete with the English-educated and already established Hindu (particularly Bengali) elite.
Since Sir Syed’s objective was the social upgradation of the Muslim community for the modernization of its elites, the Aligarh Institute found itself unable to address questions of wider political and cultural import. Mushirul Hasan writes: “The ambition of an average student, drawn from the landed class and the upper bourgeoisie, was to enter government service. His pride was soothed, thanks to early Pan-Islamic stirrings, by being reminded that he was a unit in the great democracy of Islam, and in witness of this brotherhood he jauntily wore the Turkish fez on his head. The traditional curricula at the college, emphasis on fidelity to the raj, and the social origins of its students bred a ‘sectarian’ milieu.”
During the first decade of the twentieth century, the situation changed with the emergence of a liberal-socialist combine, which enthusiastically participated in the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation movement. Support for the pro-Congress All-India Students’ Federation was fairly strong. Further, “the themes of capitalist exploitation, class conflicts, of revolt against imperialism, of nationalism, and of socialism figured in the works of several important writers and poets at Aligarh, including Hasrat Mohani, Sajjad Hyder Yaldaram, Vilayat Ali ’Bambooq,’ Qazi Abdul Ghaffar, and Abdur Rahman Bijnori…The Progressive Writers’ Association, formed in the mid-1930s, represented the continuation and development of the literary and political trends set by writers who were either in or closely connected with Aligarh.”
However, by the early 1940s, the dominance of the All-India Muslim Students’ Federation (AIMSF) grew and the students of AMU were called upon to support the Muslim League’s demand for a separate nation.
In the post-Independence period, the legacy of AMU’s pro-partition separatism converted the institution into a potential source of foreign disturbance – its loyalty remained in permanent doubt. The post-colonial state’s specific conception of secularism hardly helped the matter. Secularism was regarded not as the civic equality of different denominational communities but as the civilizational practice of inter-religious tolerance. The idea behind toleration is to merely resist interfering in the internal affairs of other religious communities, even when one has the capacity to do so and even when one feels moral distaste for their practices. All religions base their doctrinal coherence upon the supposed distinctiveness of their theological precepts: a person follows a particular religion only insofar as he/she believes in its intrinsic superiority. Since the very structure of religion contains feelings of superiority, the latent tendency to inferiorize other religious communities was engrained in the Indian construct of secularism-as-toleration. The potential to activate this tendency is differentially distributed among religious communities according to the position they occupy in the nation.
In the post-partition context of a weakened Muslim population – whose elite segments had migrated to Pakistan – Hindus enjoyed a dominant religious position in civil society. As such, the notion of tolerance resulted in a patronizing attitude toward Muslims: the Indian nation-state expected that modernization and education would lead Muslims to shed their separatist mentality and become assimilated into the national body; the yardstick of secularism in this case was the Hindu population which was assumed to possess unique virtues of tolerance.
This identification of tolerance with Hindu values did not lead to full-scale Hindu communalism due to the existence of the Nehruvian state, which used ethical and educational tools to foster secular rationality, evident in the new textbooks of the period. But this use of political society for the spreading of secular ideas failed to confront the divisions that ran deep through civil society. They could be bridged if the Congress party was willing to advance a radical programme that subverted the structural foundation of obscurantism, namely feudal production relations. However, the Indian state, controlled by the big bourgeoisie and the landlords, chose to preserve the economic hierarchies that the British had bequeathed to them. Thus, land concentration remained high and neo-feudal exploitation of the small peasantry and landless agricultural workers, mainly from the oppressed castes, continued.
Insofar that the Nehruvian state only temporarily resolved the problem of communalism, it was just a matter of time before the contradiction between the juridical figure of political society and religious figure of civil society would explode in a dangerous manner. This has happened with the rise of Hindu majoritarian entities, who are sharpening the edges of entrenched religiosity to make it more exclusionary towards Muslims.
Given that Indian secularism never diminished the competitive core of religions through a process of secularization, Hindutva ideologues are finding it easy to persuade Hindus that they are more “tolerant” than Muslims, that they need to fight against the “pseudo-secularism” of “primitive” Muslims, and that the ethos of Hinduism are better suited for helping India’s “civilizational” democracy. This is the natural result of the notion of tolerance, which, as KN Panikkar said, “is sufferance or endurance and can even turn into tyranny, when exercised by a religious majority. The ‘tolerance’ of Hindutva, for instance, concedes to the non-Hindus a subordinate position, devoid of rights and privileges.”
Countering Minority Communalism
From the previous section, it is clear that the identitarian exceptionalism of AMU’s elites was imbricated in a dynamic of communalization that constructed a sharply defined Muslim community capable of effectively bargaining with the British state. This communal conception was not confined to the Muslim community as it reflected itself in the Indian’s state notion of secularism-as-toleration, which was based on a conception of competitive religious communities who “would have liked to impose their ways on others had they the power to do it”.
This model of ineffectual intolerance rather than positive ideological understanding is ultimately founded upon the discursive construction of homogenous religious communities. Such a construct is evident in the issue of minority status also; it has been interpreted as a defense of the homogenous ideal meaning contained in the culturally self-identical Muslim community which established the institution. In opposition to this, we need to insist that minority status is meant to eliminate the multifarious hierarchies that vertically divide the Muslim community. This shifts the emphasis from an internally unified religious community to the multiple material and ideological contradictions that sustain religion as a conflictual historical category.
Since religion is no longer regarded as a complete totality but as a contingent and contradictory mode of social organization, the voices of subaltern constituents against the oppressions of communalism, neoliberalism, patriarchy and casteism become more important than the oneness demanded by tehzeeb. This centering of subaltern voices against interlocking discriminations has the potential to act as a significant counter-response to the minority communalism contained in the juridical basis of minority status. As we have seen, until now, the case for AMU’s minority status has been maintained through the insistence on cultural identity rather than social progress. This has led to the viewing of AMU as an institution where the separate religious identity of Muslims can be retained.
According to the historian Bipan Chandra, the basic assumptions of minority communalism are “that Muslims in India [form] a distinct Islamic community based on a distinct Islamic culture and that the life and education, etc., of Indian Muslims [are] to be determined by this community.” This communal feeling “among Muslims, that is, the feeling that Muslims have separate communal interests as Muslims in the cultural, economic and political fields apart from opposition to possible Hindu communal domination or discrimination,” is weakened when the objective of minority status is redefined: not the preservation of Islamic culture but the empowerment of subaltern Muslims against the hierarchies that exploit them.
Instead of being directed by minority communalists who profit from the perpetuation of religious hostilities, subaltern Muslims come to comprehend their commonness with the poor masses of India who, too, are exploited in the name of religion. In the realm of education, this can lead to productive changes in the cotemporary political narrative. In the words of Irfan Habib, the stress on minority institutions “appears to suggest that minority education is a private responsibility of the minority concerned to be undertaken with state aid. Such an impression should never be created. Rather, there must be a conscious effort to expand public funded education so that Muslims too can derive benefit from it in proportion to their numbers.” A re-orientation of the debate on AMU’s minority status is all the more important given the government’s attack on Muslim education. In December 2022, Union government discontinued the Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF) that was provided to researchers from minority communities at universities falling under the University Grants Commission (UGC).
The MANF scheme was launched after the Sachar Committee report (2006), which had noted that the literacy rate among Muslims was 59.1% against the national average of 64.8 %. Moreover, less than 4% of Muslims were graduates or diploma holders in contrast to 7% of the population aged 20 years and above. The MANF, established in 2009, allowed thousands of minority students to pursue PhDs at leading educational institutes. It particularly benefitted Muslim women since 30% of MANF was reserved for female students. In opposition to this, BJP is trying to stop the education of Muslim women through communal tactics such as the school hijab ban in Karnataka, which may prompt anxious parents to pull their girls out of schools.
As right-wing Hindutva groups intensify their anti-Muslim agenda, it is essential that the issue of AMU’s minority status be conceived as a fight for social justice against all forms of exploitation so that a broad-based secular platform can be created for combatting the ruling dispensation.