January 09, 2018

India: Why Does the UGC Want to Drop the ‘M’ from AMU? Laurence Gautier

Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 53, Issue No. 1, 06 Jan, 2018

Why Does the UGC Want to Drop the ‘M’ from AMU?


Laurence Gautier (lmagautier[at]jgu.edu.in) teaches at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O P Jindal Global University, Haryana.

A University Grants Commission panel went beyond its mandate to suggest that Aligarh Muslim University drop the word Muslim from its name. Such a recommendation has been made by government authorities and parliamentarians in the past as well. But in the highly vitiated and polarised atmosphere prevailing in the country today, it can be seen by Muslims as yet another assault on their symbols and institutions.

A University Grants Commission (UGC) panel, formed to probe into alleged irregularities in central universities, in October 2017 suggested that Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Banaras Hindu University (BHU) should drop the words “Muslim” and “Hindu” from their names. In their eyes, these religious markers are incompatible with the secular character of these institutions. mandate: their mission was to investigate the finances, infrastructures, and academic conditions of 10 central universities. BHU was not even a part of this list. Yet, changing AMU’s and BHU’s names appeared important enough for the panel to include this recommendation in their report. As if there was a direct connection between the universities’ denominational character and their infrastructural, financial or academic problems. As if changing their names would help address these issues and make the two institutions more secular.

Nothing New about the Suggestion

However, there is absolutely nothing new about the suggestion that AMU and BHU should drop their denominational names. In the first years of independence, government authorities and parliamentarians had already started discussing this option. As early as 1948, Maulana Azad, the then education minister, declared that the government “[did]not consider it proper that an educational institution should be known by acommunal designation” (CAD 1948).1

Around the same time, Jawaharlal Nehru confided to AMU’s students that he too did not “like this university being called the Muslim University just as [he did] not like the Banaras University to be called the Hindu University,” as he opposed “the intrusion of thiscommunal spirit anywhere, and least of all in educational institutions” (Gopal 1984). Like Azad, Nehru suggested that the universities’ denominational names could promote, if not justify, a “communal spirit” among their members.

In AMU’s case, more particularly, Nehru and Azad feared that to insist too heavily on the institution’s Muslim character could encourage the resurgence of “separatist” trends within the university. At the time of partition, many critics saw AMU as a “hotbed of communalism,” the originating source of Muslim separatism (Brass 2003: 74–75, 126), particularly since large sections of students had supported the Muslim League’s campaign for the creation of Pakistan (Abbas 2012: 130–81). Instead of penalising the institution for supporting the Muslim League’s stance, Nehru and Azad tried to reform the institution and supported the appointment of Zakir
Husain, who was close to both Nehru and Gandhi, as AMU’s new vice chancellor. Together, these men tried to transform the institution into a national and secular university. Their objective was not to erase the university’s Muslim character but rather to dissociate the institution from its Muslim League legacy so that it could become a symbol of “composite India” (Gautier 2016: 66–109).

While Nehru and Azad suggested that AMU should leave out the word “Muslim,” as if to prevent the resurgence of divisive politics, Husain vigorously defended the idea that AMU should retain its full name. According to him, a secular republic “will have a Hindu university and a Muslim university as central universities, because only a secular republic has the large-heartedness, the tolerance and the vision to have them both” (Hameed 2000). Husain tried to imagine a form of secularism which would “weave the various cultural influences in [India’s] life into a harmonious and mutually enriching pattern” (Hameed 2000). He sought to dissociate AMU’s Muslim character from its separatist legacy. He argued that it was because of its Muslim character, not in spite of it, that AMU could contribute to the construction of an inclusive secular India (Gautier 2016: 69).

Despite these efforts to reconcile AMU’s Muslim character with its mission as a national secular institution, the university’s character has remained since then a deeply contentious issue. In the 1960s, the question of AMU’s name came back to the fore amidst bitter controversies over its minority status. For instance, in 1965, Akbar Ali, a Congress Member of Parliament (MP), suggested that AMU should drop its Muslim name to become a non-denominational Urdu-medium university.2 Again, in 1972, a communist MP, Z A Ahmed, argued that the words “Hindu” and “Muslim” should be removed from BHU’s and AMU’s names so that religion could remain entirely separate from education (Times of India 1972). The universities’ denominational names continued to be seen as a problem—the marker of the universities’ insufficient transformation into secular national institutions.

Streamlining AMU’s Procedures

The recent suggestion of the UGC panel therefore sounds very much likedéjà vu. The panel members do not explicitly use the word “communal.” Yet, they too seem to consider that AMU’s and BHU’s denominational character can become a threat to the development of a united, secular nation.

Beside their recommendation to change AMU’s name, the panel proposes a few more recommendations, supposedly to streamline the functioning of the university. They suggest that AMU should adopt the same procedure for appointing vice chancellors as that followed by other central universities. They also point out the need to contain inbreeding practices on the campus. At first sight, these comments seem to have little to do with AMU’s denominational character. They appear as valid, reasonable suggestions to improve the functioning of the university. Let us take the example of inbreeding practices. Research scholars have shown that the recruitment of home-grown students as faculty members generally has an adverse impact on the academic performance of universities (Altbach et al 2015).3 These research works have also shown that, despite their negative impact, these practices are very common in India as well as abroad, a fact which the UGC has itself highlighted in an earlier report (UGC 2003).

The problem is that if inbreeding is such a widespread practice, why focus on AMU alone? In their report, the UGC panel members refer specifically to AMU, as if such a problem did not exist in other universities. Interestingly, they do not evoke poor academic performance to condemn the “menace of inbreeding.” Instead, they argue that inbreeding practices affect the “diversity” on campus (Pandey 2017).

What kind of diversity does the panel have in mind? According to a senior ministry official, the recruitment of former AMU students as faculty members “affects diversity as students from across the country should be considered” (Pandey 2017). Is it really the geographic origin of students that the panel has in mind? Even though the majority of students come from Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar, AMU does have students from other states, notably from Bengal and Kerala.

What the panel had in mind when they pleaded for greater “diversity” had probably more to do with the proportion of Muslim and non-Muslim students than with the students’ regional origins. It is true that, in the absence of formal Muslim reservations, “inbreeding” practices, that is the recruitment of home-grown students and teachers, probably contribute to preserving a Muslim majority on campus. Is the problem then the fact that AMU tends to privilege its own students in the recruitment of teachers? However, AMU is certainly not the only institution in the country to follow this practice. Or does the problem lie in the fact that it remains a Muslim-majority institution?

AMU has for a long time had a significant proportion of non-Muslim students, particularly in engineering and medicine. In 2005, for instance, there were about 30% non-Muslims in both departments (Outlook 2005). By contrast, in the same year, there were only 1.3% Muslim students in the Indian Institutes of Management and 1.7% in Indian Institutes of Technology at the undergraduate level. In top medical colleges, Muslims represented merely 4% of the student body, much below the share of Muslims in the total Indian population (GoI 2006). Yet, it is at AMU, more than in any other university, that the UGC panel sees inbreeding practices as a “menace,” affecting the “diversity” of the institution.

What the panel seems to forget is that one of the reasons why AMU’s Muslim character is such a sensitive issue is that a large number of Muslim students feel under-represented, if not discriminated against, in other institutions. From their perspective, the existence of a Muslim-majority university can be seen as a meagre compensation for Muslims’ under-representation in the rest of the country. For the panel, however, it is the existence of a state-funded Muslim university in a secular country, more than the structural under-representation of Muslims in educational institutions, which appears to be the issue.

Amending the Selection Process

Let us now focus on the panel’s proposition to modify the appointment process of AMU’s vice chancellor. Again, this recommendation appears reasonable. If AMU is a central university, why should it not follow the same selection process as followed by other central universities? However, we could ask another question: why is AMU’s current recruitment process considered inadequate? Currently, the university’s executive council proposes a panel of five names out of which the university court, AMU’s “supreme” governing body, selects three names. These are then forwarded to the President of India who, with the counsel of the central government, takes the final decision.

Unlike other universities, where the government appoints a panel to select a list of candidates, at AMU, the university’s administrative bodies play a key role in proposing and selecting candidates’ names. The AMU court performs a special symbolic function. This vast body includes not only teachers, students, alumni and non-teaching staff representatives but also representatives of Muslim culture and educational institutions (AMU Act 1981).As such, the court is supposed to represent the entire Indian Muslim “community” looking after the university. This important role played by the court in the vice chancellor’s selection can be seen as an attempt to reinforce AMU’s status as an all-India Muslim institution. Hence, changing the method of recruitment of AMU’s vice chancellor would not only reinforce the government’s influence, it would also deny the court, and thereby, symbolically, the “community,” a role in this process.

From this perspective, the panel’s suggestions to make AMU’s campus more diverse and streamline the appointment of the vice chancellor are not merely practical measures to improve the functioning of the university.. They can be seen as renewed attempts to normalise the institution, that is, to contain, if not to question, its Muslim character. In its report, the panel does not directly evoke the question of AMU’s minority status, which is still sub judice. Yet, it implicitly challenges the idea that AMU has a special role to play for the Muslim “community.” Combined with the proposal to change AMU’s name, these “practical” suggestions betray a discomfort with the idea that a national institution can simultaneously remain a Muslim institution.

Discomfort with AMU’s Muslim Character

As suggested earlier, the discomfort with AMU’s Muslim character is not new. Nehru himself feared that a strong assertion of AMU’s religious character may hamper its transformation into a national, secular institution. Yet Nehru did not reject AMU’s Muslim character altogether nor did he deny the institution’s symbolic value for many Indian Muslims. In fact, he tried to use AMU’s symbolic power to his own advantage, as a means to reach out to large sections of the Indian Muslim population and to rally them around his nation-building policies.

For Nehru, it was not Islam specifically, but religious differences in general, which constituted a potential threat to the nation’s unity. In fact, for him, the main threat came from Hindu nationalists within and outside the Congress more than from Muslim “communalists,” much weakened after the partition. Moreover, Nehru was deeply aware of the need to reassure minorities, particularly Muslims, in the aftermath of partition. His efforts to ensure a stable future for AMU can hence be seen as an attempt to dispel Muslims’ apprehensions and to secure their sense of belonging to the nation, a task he considered as essential to build a secular composite India (Sherman 2015).

By contrast, the current government seems much less concerned about the growing sense of marginalisation among Muslims. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s weak response to a series of attacks on Muslims perpetrated in the name of cow protection did little to change this impression. Meanwhile, state authorities in UP have not shied away from displaying their religious affiliations. After all, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chose none other than amahant (chief priest of a temple) to head UP. A mahant, who is himself quite happy to slip back into his role as a religious leader during major Hindu festivals.

Though the panel has been equally critical of both AMU’s and BHU’s names, its effort to present a balanced view seems rather unconvincing in the prevailing political scenario. At a time when government authorities surround themselves with Hindu symbols, it is the existence of a Muslim institution as a central university which irks our secular conscience. For who would suspect BHU members of nurturing divisive feelings? Who would argue that the Hindu character of their institution may come in the way of their Indianness? AMU, by contrast, remains for many alieu de mémoire (site of memory) of partition (Brass 2003: 152), a Muslim institution that can never be “quite Indian” (Pandey 1999).

The UGC panel may have put BHU on par with AMU, but it is AMU’s Muslim character, more than BHU’s Hinduness, which appears to many as the “real” problem. No matter what this Muslim character may mean for university members, it continues to be seen as a threat to the nation’s unity, a communal marker incompatible with the state’s secular character. Even if the panel’s intentions may have been different, their suggestion to drop the word Muslim tends to reinforce this discourse. It marks a step, consciously or not, towards delegitimising the presence of Muslim symbols in the nation’s “secular” public sphere.

Challenging Muslim Symbols

The panel’s report was published in October 2017. Later that month, the Taj Mahal controversy erupted in UP. Built by a Muslim ruler, the Taj Mahal, as we all know, is the most famous Indian monument in the world. Combining both Persian and Hindu influences, the monument is often considered as a proud symbol of composite India. Hence, the discomfort of many a BJP officials in UP. Since they cannot completely ignore the monument, these officials have to find another way to tone down its Muslim character, if not to deny it altogether. Some have argued that it was originally a Hindu temple; others, like UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, prefer to say that it was made “by blood and sweat of Bharat Mata’s sons.” Can a Muslim monument be an Indian monument?4 Clearly, for these BJP leaders, the answer remains a problem.

It may seem a bit far-fetched to draw a comparison between the UGC report and the Taj Mahal controversy. However, there are a few interesting similarities in both the cases—not just in regard to the focus on Indian Muslim symbols but also in the reaction of the central government or state authorities. What is striking in both the AMU and Taj Mahal cases is that there seems to be a great deal of confusion among state actors as to what should be the official discourse on these matters. In AMU’s case, the Union Minister of Human Resource Development, Prakash Javadekar, rejected the UGC’s suggestion to change AMU’s and BHU’s names on the very day this suggestion came out in the press. However, it is difficult to imagine that the ministry had no prior knowledge of the panel’s report. Or that it opposed it from the start, especially at a time when the government has openly challenged AMU’s minority status. In the case of Taj Mahal, the state of confusion is even more baffling. After the UP government published a tourist brochure which omitted the Taj Mahal and after a BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) bluntly argued that the mausoleum had been built by “traitors” who “wanted to wipe out Hindus,” the chief minister in a damage control exercise publicly spoke about the importance of the monument for the state and country.

Of course, we could argue that these contradictions merely reflect the disagreements and miscommunication among state officials. However, whether these contradictions are intended or not, in practice, they allow officials to make controversial statements, particularly regarding Muslim symbols or institutions, for which the government or the administration need not be held accountable. Soon after these statements are made, either they are revised by other officials or retracted. The very instability of the official discourse allows the government and its allies to speak different languages at the same time—to defend secularism on the one hand and to comfort Hindus’ sense of dominance on the other. It also makes it all the more difficult for anyone to offer a rational, consistent, and persuasive response. Meanwhile, in the absence of a powerful counter-narrative, these statements can contribute to the atmosphere of uncertainty and angst, particularly among India’s largest minority. These can reinforce the idea that Muslim symbols are not completely legitimate in the nation’s public space. As if, 70 years after independence, Muslims still did not quite belong here.


1 Emphasis mine. See CAD (1948).

2 See “Aligarh Ordinance Justified,”Patriot, New Delhi, 25 June 1965, as cited in M C Chagla papers, Nehru Memorial Library, File 90.

3 Also see Gupta, Madhavi and Pushkar (2017).

4 I am referring here to the title of Pandey’s famous article “Can a Muslim Be an Indian?” (Pandey 1999).


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