The century-old Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) wants its glory back.
After the murders of three students this year alone, campus protests over everything from security to dress code—and classes that have become sporadic at best—a new vice-chancellor is enforcing a strict code of conduct to help make the chaos and mayhem associated with AMU a distant memory.
He also wants to restore the status of the university, founded in 1875 to promote modern education among Muslims and modelled after the University of Cambridge, to an institution known for teaching and research.
Depending on whom you ask, the measures range from draconian to necessary.
This month, as students began returning to class after a two-month hiatus, women were told to be in their hostels by 6:30pm, men by 9pm. No cars, scooters or motorcycles are allowed in hostel areas. Strikes and protests have been outlawed. Elections for students’ unions have been called off, to avoid emotional flare-ups or inciting regional politics. If another incident of violence occurs, the university could cancel the whole academic year.
In many ways, AMU’s dilemma is representative of many college campuses across the country: from the role of students’ unions in governing universities to reservations in admissions, to how women should dress, to the university’s rules and responsibilities for students in hostels. AMU, though, is facing these questions all at once—sometimes with deadly consequences.
Troubled present: The main entrance of the Aligarh Muslim University, which was founded in 1875
Ironically, students, many away from home for the first time, don’t seem to mind the curfew and other prohibitions outlined in the two-page code as much as the loss of their voice at this college with a rich history of activism.
The first Indian to demand complete independence in 1921 was Hasrat Mohani, an AMU student, Urdu poet and co-founder of the Communist Party of India.
“With no students’ union in place, teachers will start behaving as dictators,” fears Mohammad Ibrar Khan, 18, a first-year science student from Patna. “We don’t know how to redress our grievances now.”
And they have many.
The campus has been targeted in an inexplicable series of murders that began with the killing of theology teacher Iqbal Hasan Khan in 1994, then history teacher I.G. Khan in 2003, two murders in April of this year, followed by another of science student Mazhar Nayeem in September. Police have arrested three suspects in connection the last killing, and believe they were trying to steal Nayeem’s mobile phone.
In February 2006, Farah Aziz, a 23-year-old postgraduate student, was mocked for her dressing habits—and told to choose salwar kameez over jeans and T-shirts—and then harassed more when she raised concerns over the inactivity of a women’s cell on campus. “There is no official dress code on campus, but informally, females are encouraged to dress modestly in salwar kameez and dupatta—or face teasing,” Aziz says.
While students insist the campus’ problems are more cultural than religious, the debate over dress seems an appropriate modern-day quandary for a campus founded out of a desire to help Muslims feel part of an evolving India.
After the rebellion of 1857, Muslim social reformer Syed Ahmad Khan founded AMU because he felt Muslims needed exposure to modern education—from English to science—to become involved in public life and government.
Last year, the Supreme Court, reversing a prior Allahabad high court decision, restored the minority status of the university.
But no percentage has been allotted for Muslim reservations yet. Currently, admissions to higher courses are split equally between internal (meaning already enrolled) and external students (who did their previous courses from outside the university).
About one-third of the 28,000 students are not Muslims, and although no statistics exist on the Hindu population, most are believed to local enrolments. The university’s prestigious medical and engineering wings boast about 50% non-Muslims.
How and which students receive admission has been another controversy on campus.
In many ways, P.K. Abdul Azis, who took over the vice-chancellor’s office in June, inherited a public relations disaster. And he has been on the receiving end of much of students’ anger. After the September murder, the proctor’s office was burned while his residence was ransacked. Following this, Azis issued the order to close the university. The students’ unions, whose terms expired a few months ago, will not face elections again.
“I am unhappy with the way the students’ union functions in the university and I do not intend to re-institute it in the near future,” he says.
Most students and faculty insist relations are mostly harmonious, but some say the unions helped fuel divisions. For instance, a student from Bihar running for office will typically get votes from students of that state—and on and on.
“Students’ unions function on regionalism and it does not help students,” said 21-year-old Waqar Usmani, a second-year law student. He feels that students are not mature enough to have a union and agrees with the code of conduct.
For their part, the now-dissolved unions deny this. “We welcome the administration’s criteria to give admission to students on the basis of merit and internal and external criteria,” says Nafees Ahmad, 28, the last union leader and a graduate student from Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh. “Although there have been clashes among student groups, none of them have been due to religion differences.”
Change agent: AMU vice-chancellor P.K. Abdul Azis.
He says he plans to meet students and then appeal the vice-chancellor’s decision.
“Even if the VC wants AMU’s glory back, the student union should never be banned. To have a union is a democratic right of all students,” says Aziz. “But if elections are allowed, different ideologies should be propagated in the campus. Unlike Jawaharlal Nehru University, we don’t have party-backed candidates.”
His reference is to New Delhi’s premier university where rival unions have the backing of rival mainstream political parties such as the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Security is the need of the hour, vice-chancellor Azis maintains, and he is relying on an elaborate e-governance system that will give high-speed Internet connectivity to all the departments. Teaching is resuming in a staggered fashion this month, depending on the course.
In the long term, he says he has his eye on building back the university’s brand name. A four-member committee, chaired by former vice-chancellor M. Saleemuddin, has been convened to rejuvenate research and teaching.
Amid the chaos, the campus is worried about more than safety.
“With teaching resuming in a staggered fashion, students have already lost so much of their time,” says Usmani, the law student. “We would hardly get any time to prepare for exams—that could further widen the gap between students and teachers.”