In Jamia students' anti-CAA protests are echoes of the university's challenge to British occupation of India
A century ago, Jamia Millia Islamia was founded as an act of resistance against the British occupation of India. As part of his Non-Cooperation Movement, Mahatma Gandhi had called for the boycott of all educational institutions supported or run by the colonial regime.
A century ago, Jamia Millia Islamia was founded as an act of resistance against the British occupation of India.
As part of his Non-Cooperation Movement, Mahatma Gandhi had called for the boycott of all educational institutions supported or run by the colonial regime.
Responding to his call, a group of young teachers and students came forward to form the National Muslim University, later known as the Jamia Millia Islamia.
In attempting to write the history of Jamia Millia Islamia, two things emerge: First, the institution’s history cannot be viewed in isolation from that of a pre-Independence India; and second, little documentation of the university’s early days is now available to us.
A century ago, Jamia was founded as an act of resistance against the British occupation of India. As part of his Non-Cooperation Movement, Mahatma Gandhi had called for the boycott of all educational institutions supported or run by the colonial regime; among these was the Aligarh Muslim University, which received government funding.
On 12 October 1920, Gandhi visited AMU, calling for a boycott of the British-funded education system. Responding to his call, a group of young teachers and students came forward to form the National Muslim University, later known as the Jamia Millia Islamia. Jamia’s first batch of students — young men — were ready to compromise their futures for the sake of being enrolled at a university deliberately formed to challenge oppressors.
Why was wresting control of the Indian educational system from the British such a fundamental tenet of the Non-Cooperation Movement? “Students [under the British system] were not taught to be independent, or to learn skills that would benefit them,” notes Sabiha Anjum Zaidi, director of Jamia’s Premchand Archives, which attempts to restore, recreate and archive all documents and artifacts pertaining to the university’s history. Subservience and obedience were drilled into students under this regime, such that they wouldn’t dare to question British authority.
But Jamia owed its formation to more than just the Non-Cooperation Movement. The Khilafat Movement, which unified Muslim voices in India against British oppression also played a vital role. Two of Jamia’s founders — Mohammad Ali Jauhar and Hakim Ajmal Khan — were also the main leaders of the Khilafat Movement. They were later elected as the university’s first vice-chancellor and chancellor, respectively. All five of Jamia’s founders, including Zakir Hussain (the youngest of the co-founders), were nationalist freedom fighters.
Jamia’s inauguration was a simple ceremony, conducted in a mosque in AMU. There was no music, no foundation stone, no ribbon cutting to announce the inauguration. There are no photographs. All that remains from the ceremony is oral history, and some written records in books such as Jamia Ki Kahani by Abdul Ghaffar Mudholi, one of the teachers who left AMU to form Jamia.
The inauguration was among the last significant events that Jamia founder Maulana Mahmud Ul Hasan — popularly known as “Sheikh-ul-Hind Hasan” and among the best known — was present at. He died a month later. Sabiha Anjum Zaidi says there is not much documentation of the khutba (inaugural address) — delivered by Hasan’s favourite disciple, Maulana Shabbir Usmani — available, adding, “Hasan was ailing and weak, having spent time in exile, and was leaning on a pillar as he heard the address. We tried to recreate it through paintings, and after 2-3 attempts the students came up with one that closely resembled the event.” (The first draft, Zaidi recounts with a laugh, was factually incorrect as the students painted young men and women in modern attire, like jeans. She regrets not saving a copy of that first attempt.)
Only some rare photographs and Urdu newspaper clippings remain, documenting Jamia’s foundation. The Premchand Archives has collected photographs, the gown Hakim Ajmal Khan wore to the university’s first-ever convocation, the handspun khadi worn by the Jamia founders, as well as the chairs and tables they used.
Jamia Millia Islamia was originally established at Aligarh in the United Provinces, was shifted to Karol Bagh in Delhi in 1925, and finally moved to its current location at Jamia Nagar. Some of the institute’s buildings which were still at Karol Bagh were damaged during the communal riots post-Partition in 1947. Those associated with the university estimated the damage amounted to Rs 7 lakh at the time — a major setback for Jamia. Beginning as a project to destabilise the British hold over India, Jamia became a Central University in 1988, by an act of the Indian Parliament.
Historian Laurence Gautier, who authored the paper ‘A Laboratory for a Composite India? Jamia Millia Islamia around the Time of Partition’, wrote about the founders’ aspirations to make the university a laboratory-like space for political as well as educational experiments, and also about the role of Muslims in the freedom struggle of India.
“Jamia definitely emerged out of the anti-colonial struggle. But after the 1920s, the Non-Cooperation and Khilafat movements had both collapsed, Jamia still retained the values of both the movements. People like Zakir Hussain (who was Jamia’s vice-chancellor for a period of 22 years, from 1926-48, going on to become the third President of India in 1967) reinvented the way the university functioned,” Gautier said.
Politician and advocate Salman Khurshid is Hussain’s grandson. Khurshid says, “For him [Hussain], the university was a sacred space…too sacred to be defiled by the [recent] police brutality against students.” Khurshid is referring to the December 2019 violence visited on the Jamia campus by the Delhi Police, amid the ongoing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC).
“The BJP is not the first government to react to protests with police violence. But in these particular protests, there is a determined attempt by the government to stifle it,” Khurshid notes, adding that in an ideal scenario, students — while displaying remarkable zeal in the case of the anti-CAA movement — shouldn’t have to protest. “But there is a huge sense of distress created by the current government. They are just not comfortable with dissent and they consider students as soft targets. They have also refused to keep any channels of communication open.”
Looking at the protests by the Jamia students now, it is easy to draw a link with the anti-establishment spirit in which Jamia was founded.
Neyaz Farooquee, author of An Ordinary Man's Guide to Radicalism, about growing up Muslim in India, talks extensively of the history of his alma mater, Jamia, in his book. "The ongoing anti-CAA protests in Jamia have an important role in giving a vocabulary to young Indian Muslims — values of constitutionalism, rights, and equality — while resisting the state's repression and injustice," Farooquee says.
"They [students] will increasingly articulate the Indian Muslim's voice in times to come," he adds. "In the fight for a just India, their voice will remain significant. And it must be highlighted that they are not seeking exclusivity, they are in fact demanding inclusivity — unapologetically. We are not realising it now, but Indian democracy in future will be indebted to them."
Looking at the spirit of the protesters today, founder Zakir Hussain’s words seem particularly resonant: "The movement of Jamia Millia Islamia is a struggle for education and cultural renaissance. It will prepare a blueprint for Indian Muslims which may focus on Islam but simultaneously evolve a national culture for common Indian. It will lay the foundation of the thinking that true religious education will promote patriotism and national integration among Indian Muslims, who will be proud to take part in the future progress of India."
Jamia Millia Islamia undeniably played a significant role in the building of India's past, but as the anti-CAA stir makes evident, it has an equally important role to play in India's future.
Sabiha A Zaidi's 'History in Stone' published in the special edition magazine marking the 98th foundation day of Jamia Millia Islamia in 2018
Neyaz Farooquee's 'An Ordinary Man's Guide to Radicalism'
Laurence Gautier's 'A Laboratory for a Composite India? Jamia Millia Islamia around the time of Partition', published by Cambridge University Press, 2019
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