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* Some reservations at Aligarh

Some reservations at Aligarh

Tahir Mahmood
Posted: Jun 11, 2005 at 0000 hrs IST

The world will judge India’s secularism by the treatment she metes out to Aligarh.” These meaningful words were uttered in the early years of our post-Constitution era by one of the greatest sons of India, Dr Zakir Hussain, who eventually rose to the presidency of India. Ironically, half a century later the place and role of Aligarh in India’s educational scenario remain as much disputed as the connotation and nature of secularism under its Constitution.

The institution now known as the Aligarh Muslim University grew out of the Madrasat-ul-Uloom founded by the great 19th century educationist, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Motivated by the glory of the Hindu College in Benaras where he was then posted, Sir Syed formed in 1870 a “committee of Muslims desiring educational development” which spent five years collecting necessary funds and through a referendum opted for Aligarh as the seat of the proposed college. Also christened the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, the Madrasat-ul-Uloom was inaugurated in December 1875. Sir Syed soon shifted to Aligarh and nurtured it till he breathed his last in 1898. His successors, all leading Muslim scholars of the time, continued his mission with great zeal. At the turn of the century, the movement for elevation of the Hindu College of Benaras to the status of a “Hindu university” encouraged them to seek incorporation of MAO College as a “Muslim university”. Necessary legislation to arm the two colleges with the autonomy and powers of degree-giving institutions was eventually adopted by the central legislature of the time. The Hindu University became functional in 1915 and the Muslim University five years later.

This in short is the history of AMU. Very clearly, if India had attained freedom due to the struggle of Mahatma Gandhi and his associates and not by virtue of the British Parliament’s Indian Independence Act 1947, then AMU was established by the Muslims of India and not by its parliamentary legislation of 1920. In 1947 AMU was likely to fall victim to the unfortunate partition of India — demands were heard even for “exchange” of its campus with Lahore’s DAV College. Jawaharlal Nehru then played the role of a saviour and gave it a new lease of life under the patronage of Maulana Azad, independent India’s first education minister.

In the year after Nehru, bitten by an unfortunate incident of violence on the AMU campus, Maulana’s successor M.C. Chagla deprived it of its autonomy through an ordinance later turned into the AMU (Amendment) Act 1965. It was challenged in the Supreme Court in the Aziz Basha case. What the petitioners had sought was restoration of AMU’s autonomy and not a verdict on whether it had in fact been established by the Muslims — that indeed was a historical fact not requiring judicial affirmation. But since the petitioners had pleaded, inter alia, that AMU was a minority institution entitled to the protection of Article 30 of the Constitution Justice K.N. Wanchoo chose to give a startling ruling that it had been “established” not by the Muslims but by the government of the time through its 1920 statute. H.M. Seervai called this the “product of great public mischief (that) should be overruled”. A public agitation followed, but while the autonomy of AMU was restored in 1972, the government took another eight years to set the record straight by a statutory clarification that it had in fact been established by the Muslims.

Undoubtedly AMU is a minority educational institution governed by Article 30 of the Constitution. As affirmed by the Supreme Court of India, reservation of seats in any minority institution is an inevitable corollary of the fundamental right guaranteed by Article 30. The verdict is surely not inapplicable to university-level institutions. AMU’s new admission policy providing reservation for Muslims thus eminently conforms to the philosophy and rationale of Article 30, as borne out by its judicial interpretation. Those who are questioning its legal validity are virtually challenging the wisdom of the framers of the Constitution and of the nation’s apex court.

Reservation for the Scheduled Castes in all educational institutions of the country is the order of the day, while they too are clearly a religion-based group confined to three religions. Initially restricted to and still dominated by the Hindus, this group now includes some Sikh and Buddhist castes too — but legally no Muslim or Christian can be included. Yet the UGC demands that AMU must have reservation for the Scheduled Castes, frequently threatening to stop its grant if this is not done. No votary of secularism has ever frowned on this blatant injustice. It is, then, strange logic that while AMU must reserve seats for Scheduled Caste Hindus (including Sikhs/Buddhists), it dare not make any reservation for its own founder-community since “we are a secular nation”.

The principle of secularism was adopted in India for the protection of the minorities; it cannot be misused to deny them their legal rights and legitimate aspirations. And, by what logic can the minority character of AMU detract from its national character, unless it is presumed that the words “minority” and “national” are each other’s antithesis?

The writer was chairman of the Minorities Commission