Noted Urdu satirist and humourist Rasheed Ahmad Siddiqui (1892-1977) had a delightful pastime. Whenever he came across a well-mannered stranger, he would ask him whether he had ever been a student of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). It would please Siddiqui if the stranger turned out to be an AMU alumnus; it didn’t surprise him at all that the stranger was so charming. But it saddened Siddiqui if the refined stranger told him that he had never studied at AMU. Siddiqui would feel sorry that such a nice person had been deprived of the nemat or boon of studying at AMU.”
Thus begins Mohammed Wajihuddin’s book on AMU — and as can be inferred from the above lines, the significance of the university and its impact is well-described in the first paragraph of the book itself. Aligarh Muslim University: The Making of the Modern Indian Muslim is a detailed look at the history of the seminal university and its impact on the socio-political life of India, not just on Muslims. A journalist himself, Wajihuddin brings immense research into this book.
AMU celebrated its centennial year in 2020. Originally founded Sir Syed Ahmad Khan as the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College in 1875, it received the status of university in 1920 under the Aligarh Muslim University Act. For decades after, it remained the hub of cultural and political activities for Muslim students. In fact, such was its impact that former President of India and former Vice-chancellor of AMU, Dr Zakir Hussain, once said, “The way Aligarh participates in various walks of national life will determine the place of Muslims in India’s national life. The way India conducts itself towards Aligarh will determine largely, the form which our national life will acquire in the future.”
The author, an alumnus of the institute, starts by saying his fascination with the university stems from his own days there. He goes on to add that the book is “an attempt to understand how Sir Syed’s movement and his college, and then university, have impacted Indian Muslims.” Starting with a short biography of Sir Syed right to the state of the university in 2020 — the book spans over a hundred years in its attempt to understand the question. The university’s relationship with leaders like Gandhi, Jinnah and Azad pre-independence, the effort to strengthen its position post-independence, and the loss of the prominent position and power it once held are captured in the pages of the book.
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While it doesn’t set out to explore every detail of the university, I find some jarring omissions. While it explores political movements in India in elaborate detail, I find a description of university life missing from the book.
Furthermore, it is very male-centric. Even though the author mentions women being admitted to the college and some female alumni who remain connected, there is hardly any exploration of the life they led in university or the impact of the university on the lives of Muslim women. Instead, the author spends several pages talking to alumni who express their love for the college but have no significant insight into their time there or the impact their education has had.
The first two chapters (The Making of AMU and Aligarh and Partition Pangs) are interesting and well-defined. The author does a great job of describing Indian society at the time, the motivations for the university’s foundation, and the prevalent political nuances.
However, the later chapters don’t have the same excitement or seamless flow. The only part that stays with you is the exploration of why AMU has lost some of its prominence for a pan-India audience today. The author says “AMU is losing the centrality it enjoyed in the lives of Indian Muslims.” He ascribes this to the opening of several private universities in the last part of the 20th century and the university’s lack of students from different parts of India.
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Yet, despite its shortcomings and the fact that the book is essentially about a powerful Muslim institution that has lost much of its stature, it is an important book to read (and write) in the current political scenario in India. It is vital that the students of AMU keep contributing to “mould the mizaj” of not just its student communities but of all Indian Muslims, says the author.
Further, AMU represents a tradition that is now fading: the tradition of having an educational institute that doubles as a centre of religious and political dialogue in the country.
Today, there is almost a conscious effort to move these conversations away from our students and our universities. This book shows us how it is possible for places of learning to be the driving forces in our nation’s history, politics, and culture.
Title: Aligarh Muslim University: The Making of the Modern Indian Muslim
Author: Mohammed Wajihuddin
Publisher: HarperCollins India
Price: Rs 399
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