By Mohd Asim
The recent developments at the Aligarh Muslim University are worrying and dangerous. A portrait of Pakistan founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah at the Students Union Hall of the AMU is at the centre of a raging nationwide debate. Suddenly the nationalist TV channels, rightwing groups, government representatives are all worked up over the portrait that has been there for decades. Is Jinnah an icon for the AMU? Should the man who divided India be idolised? Isn’t it time to dump Jinnah? Questions such as these are blaring on TV screens on prime time.
The answers are obvious. But sadly, we live in a time when real issues are buried on a daily basis under the cacophony of such “burning questions”.
The politician-media nexus has turned into a potent hate machine, so these questions will be repeated ad nauseum to paint Muslims of this country into an anti-national corner.
First, the controversy itself. The portrait of Jinnah at the centre of the row has been there for 80 years. It was installed after Jinnah was accorded the lifetime membership of the AMU Students Union in 1938. Many others such as Mahatma Gandhi, BR Ambedkar were given the same tribute much earlier and their portraits also grace the walls of the same hall.
Now, in 2018, the BJP MP from Aligarh Satish Gautam discovers this portrait and cries treason. Why?
This is not the first time that Mr Gautam has ignited a controversy related to AMU. Soon after being elected, he questioned the university about why it didn’t celebrate the birthday of one the initial donors to the AMU, Raja Mahendra Pratap. As is the case almost all the time with the BJP/RSS appropriating historical figures, they bothered little to check on the antecedents, ideology or philosophy of Raja Mahendra Pratap, a Marxist who fought the Jana Sangh all his life. In 2014, this BJP MP reduced Raja Mahendra to just a Hindu being denied his due by the Muslim University.
In 2016, the BJP government argued in the Supreme Court that AMU should not be treated as a minority institution because it was set up by the government and not by Muslims.
Last year, some right-wing groups and BJP leaders spread the news that non-Muslim students at the AMU hostels were being denied breakfast and lunch during Ramzan. Some TV channels, without bothering to check for themselves, ran provocative headlines such as “Is AMU starving its non-Muslim students?” The bluff was called when non-Muslim students t said that it was all propaganda aimed at futhering hatred for the institution and Muslims in general.
Just days before this latest controversy, we saw the same “nationalist”/ hate-mongering TV channels debating why AMU wouldn’t allow a RSS shakha inside its campus. Questions were put to the AMU community in the most revolting language.
I have listed all these incidents to impress upon the fact that just like JNU, the AMU is also being targeted systematically and consistently by the same nexus of hate groups and TV channels who are ever ready to amplify propaganda through their prime-time vitriol. Their agenda is simple: JNU is anti-national and AMU is pro Pakistan. And the country/Hindu “khatre mein hai”.
Back to the Jinnah portrait. If the AMU Students Union had put up the picture now or recently, I would have been the first person to object to it and ask for its removal. But it lay there for 80 years, symbolising an event in the history of the AMU Students Union. Did the portrait, by just being there, in any ways impact the minds and hearts of the AMU community or was it being celebrated or garlanded on any particular occasion? No.
It just represents a moment in the very complex evolution of the Aligarh Muslim University, which was born out of the efforts of all shades of opinion – Nationalist, Communists, Islamist, etc all collaborating in the pursuit of education for the Muslims of India.
Of course, this complexity is too much for a matric pass politician such as Mr Gautam. Can we expect him to appreciate complexities of history, when he and his organisation are out to “cleanse” Indian history of all that doesn’t fit with their narrow view of this lovely, plural, complex country?
It is in this context that the BJP MP has dusted and dragged an 80-year-old portrait to play his sinister contemporary politics. The portrait is the latest tool to put the patriotism of the Muslim Indians in question.
Now whether this portrait stays or goes is immaterial. The purpose has been achieved. AMU and Muslims have been painted as Jinnah-lovers by the hate machine. The fact that the majority of Muslims were the first ones to reject Jinnah’s two-nation theory and chose to stay in a secular, constitutional democracy rather than a theocracy would not cut much ice in the face of primetime xenophobia raining down thanks to the neta-anchor nexus.
TV headlines will fade in a few days. “Nationalist”/ hate-mongering anchors will invent some other divisive issue to deal another blow to whatever is left of communal amity in the country, but this portrait will continue to be hung around the neck of Muslim Indians like the proverbial albatross.
No coincidence that we are in election season, of course.
[Mohd Asim is a Senior News Editor, NDTV 24X7 and an AMU alumnus]