Aligarh is about Hamid Ansari. Aligarh is not about Jinnah. I was ensconced in Guest House number 2 right next to Bab-e Syed in Aligarh for close to 24 hours meeting union members, students, faculty, alumni, guests and staff.
There is brewing discontent about how the entire fracas regarding Jinnah’s painting in the student union was being used to misrepresent Aligarh’s loyalties. The ‘portrait problem’ was deployed as a countermeasure to cover up for the fact that a mob of people had arrived on campus shouting slogans about a former Vice-President of India who was about to be made an honorary member of Aligarh Muslim University’s (AMU) student union. Indeed, the disruption of the ceremony in which one of India’s most accomplished Muslim citizens was about to be inducted into the union and the subsequent furore about a dead one time Indian, later Pakistani Muslim clearly illustrates the divisive and reprehensible politics behind this entire charade.
Hamid Ansari is one of the most distinguished alumnus’ that Aligarh has produced. The attack against him is not something new because members of the BJP have previously questioned his patriotism. On demitting the office of Vice-President, PM Modi spoke of how Ansari might experience ‘mukti’ or freedom from the ‘chatpatahat’ or uneasiness that he might have felt when he moved from the Muslim world of West Asia to that of the constitutional role of Vice-President. He added that Ansari might feel at ease again at being able to go back to that world. If the Prime Minister can speak about a departing Vice-President in this manner then why should we be surprised that the BJP’s foot soldiers shouted obscenities as they made their way to the Guest House in AMU.
The slogans against Ansari called him a ghaddar or traitor and while the security breach and insult against someone who held a constitutional position was ignored, fake videos went viral purportedly showing students in AMU shouting slogans for ‘azaadi’ or freedom. Everyone assumed they meant freedom from India and ‘noise’ o’clock news dubbed it a hotbed of secession and anti-nationalism. ‘Another JNU’, declared an anchor to an anxiously awaiting nation. The real slogans, which I also heard, were actually about ‘azaadi’ from the RSS! While Ansari’s induction ceremony was the real target, the portrait commemorating the honorary life membership of a dead, one-time Indian, Pakistani Muslim was used to obfuscate the reality of the entire charade. AMU, Ansari and Jinnah were reduced to their Muslim identity and therein lies the rub.
The focus on Jinnah and the pitiable coverage of the attempted attack against Hamid Ansari illustrates the crux of the problem. Today, the BJP and the RSS are intent on placing the weight of their binary, black and white history onto those Muslims who chose to remain in India in 1947.
The agenda is to provoke polarisation by framing issues in a way that compels Muslims to foreground their religious identity in everything. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the Kairana bypolls are around the corner and the vote bank of the BJP politician who died, Hukum Singh, needs consolidation, despite a potential sympathy vote for his daughter, Mriganka Singh.
Another loss after Gorakhpur and Phulpur would not bode well for the BJP. What could be better than to rake up a non-issue in order to shine light on the spectre that haunts the BJP’s politics: dead Muslims. Tipu Sultan, Akbar, Jinnah, take your pick!
Leaders of the students’ union Mashkoor Ahmad (with a brace around his neck), Fahad Hasan (sitting in a wheelchair), Mazin Husain (with 36 on his head) and others all said to me that they did not want to defend or indeed even talk about Jinnah’s politics. What they do want is to protect the autonomy and sovereignty of their institution.
They said in their speeches that they ask the HRD ministry to communicate their instructions in writing. Imran Ghazi, while adjusting his arm sling, wondered aloud whether the goons would have the gall to storm the Mumbai High Court and demand the removal of Jinnah’s photo from there? Indeed it speaks volumes that the media whipped up a veritable frenzy about Jinnah and ignored the abuses and callous disregard heaped on an Indian Muslim who held one of the most senior constitutional offices in the country.
As one of the young law students, Aiman Zehra, pointed out, Aligarh is one of the few universities that is mentioned by name in the Constitution. It is precisely this recognition that irks members of the BJP and RSS and as with their attacks on the other institutions of India, the frontal assault on Aligarh is part of this wider offensive against the institutional bedrock of India’s democracy and therefore the heart of the country: the constitution of India. Indeed, the cooption of leaders like Ambedkar by the BJP, highlights the fact that they have no ideological, intellectual or historical link with the constitution. Of course, the entire matter has been given a Hindu-Muslim colour by the BJP, RSS and a shrill media but in reality the problem confronting Aligarh is the problem confronting India: the systematic and overt attack against our institutions. The entire issue is also symbolic of the loss of autonomy of Indian Muslims over their institutions, their politics, their identity and even their bodies.
The sloganeering against Hamid Ansari, the lack of regard about his security breach, the manner in which the police accompanied armed members of the Hindu Yuva Vahini and Hindu Jagran Manch onto campus and conducted a lathi-charge against AMU students. The subsequent twisting of the narrative to frame the issue as one in which Muslims are fifth columnists, points to the nervousness that confronts the BJP as it prepares for the 2019 elections.
Subramanian Swamy, provocatively tweeted, “Someone needs to teach AMU a lesson. Who will do it?”
Nishant Bhardwaj is someone who might teach Swamy a lesson. A debater and an athlete for AMU, impeccably dressed in a black sherwani and Aligarhi pyjamas, Nishant insisted that he had not faced anything but inclusion in Aligarh. For this, he too suffered blows in the police lathi charge. In his words, “if you want any greater proof that Aligarh is an inclusive institution then all you have to do is look at me. If this place was not secular then you would have had Nishad Khan here instead of Nishant Bhardwaj.”
( The author is an assistant professor at Ashoka University where he teaches political science and history. His undergraduate degree was in Middle Eastern History and Political Science)