Aligarh Muslim University – A culture of decency (2010)

In 1939, Inam ul Haq from Delhi, still only eighteen, arrived in Aligarh for MA studies in English Literature. This extract is from his memoir  ‘Ayam-e-rafta’,. A later edition in English, Memoirs of Insignificance, was published by Dar-ut-Tazkeer, Lahore, 1999.

F.J. Fielding Sahib (MA Cantab.) taught me English Literature in the first year of my MA: Chaucer, Spencer, Milton etc. He was a linguist but my real interest was in literature. [. . . .] Many students sought out the help of Khwaja Manzoor Hussain. He had studied at Oxford and was immensely well read. His dress was invariably a sherwani with churidar pyjama and the conversation was sweet and enriching. All his students loved him. Khwaja Sahib’s lived with his father-in-law, the philosophy professor M.M. Sharif. Their beautiful house was named ‘Gul Fashan‘. It was near a sesame field through which passed the colourful trains of the East India Railway. I would often spend my evenings at Khwaja Sahib’s and we would stroll and converse in his lawns [. . .] he introduced us to twentieth century novelists, seventeenth century poets and to literary criticism. I remember he spent a whole month analysing Joseph Conrad’s novels…he loaned me Thomas Mann and Kafka from his personal library [. . .]

It is amazing that while at Aligarh I never spent time on typical student activities such as going to the cinemas or the kabab-and-paratha places. Neither was I interested in union activities or ever voted. However we used to enjoy picnics at the ruins of a fort and overdo on tea and halwa! We had to wear Fez caps and black sherwanis. The proctor monitors were tough and would take spot checks on uniforms. Aligarh had a problem with mosquitoes and it was obligatory to have a mosquito net at night. I used to play cricket every evening and was a member of the Aftab Hall team [. . .]

It was very difficult to get a First in English at Aligarh. Those who obtained a Second Division and were with me included Syed Hamid (later Vice Chancellor of Aligarh), Hassanuddin (later a wing commander in the Pakistan Air Force) and Abdul Shukoor (sub editor of Dawn newspaper). Ghazi Hussain Khan was another friend who had come with me to Aligarh from Urdu College, but he studied for an MA Urdu. He later became a professor at the University and was also a vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia. He was the nephew of Dr Zakir Hussain Khan Sahib [. . .] I would often have a cigarette and tea with a fine friend from Delhi, Syed Athar Mahmud, who was also at Aftab Hall. He made excellent tea and smoked superior cigarettes [. . .]

The Aligarh boys seeking a time out would descend on the railway station and would more often not buy tickets for the Aligarh-Delhi travel – they considered the EIR as the Sir Syed Railway. It used to be quite intense during the election periods. There were often mushairas attended by renowned poets such as Jigr, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, N.M. Rashid. Then Aligarh itself had Raaz, Murad Abadi, Jansar Akthar, Moin Ahsan Jazbi, Israr ul Haq, Majaz etc. I have not come across more delightful poets than Jigr and Murad Abadi. They were the life and soul of the mushairas [ . . .] Among the well-known faculty were Dr Hadi Hassan, professor of Persian who spoke as the Iranians do and was a master of the English language as well. Professor Rashid Ahmed Siddiqui was among the well-known Urdu scholars – a man who never laughed himself but knew how to make others roll over [ . . .]

Our vice-chancellor was Dr Sir Ziauddin. All the administrative workload was taken over by the pro-vice chancellor A.B.A. (abba) Halim. When World War II was at its heights many students went away to serve in the army [ . . ] .a significant proportion of the students from Aligarh obtained commissions and after the formation of Pakistan rose to become colonels and generals. The students of Aligarh also worked strenuously for the Muslim League and played an important role in winning the elections. Mohamed Ali Jinnah himself came to the Muslim University and addressed the students. The Aligarians were to become well established in the civil service. Pakistan’s Muhammad Ayub Khan and Ghulam Ishaque Khan had studied at Aligarh. Perhaps if there had been no Aligarh there would have been no Pakistan.

Whatever one were to say of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan – that he worshipped the British, or was a nechari [sought natural explanations for the miracles described in the Qur’an] or was in awe of the West – he stood for the well-being of the community. He enabled the community to have confidence in itself and saved the Muslims from Hindu entanglements. However it was important that he should have included an Islamic education and conduct and a spiritual dimension in the curricula but this did not come about [. . .]

In any case, those who passed through Aligarh loved the place dearly. There was something about it that made it dear, to be fondly remembered. There was a sense of brotherhood amongst the students. There was a spirit of generosity and a shared awareness of the community’s difficulties that was not found anywhere else.

I did not feel like ever leaving Aligarh. After completing my MA instead of finding a job I settled for a student assistant post – delivering eleven lectures and taking seven tutorial groups a week . . .] there were 100 to 125 students per class and it was difficult to keep them under control. Only the better and more experienced teachers could cope. The boys took delight in conferring nicknames on the staff: one was called ‘duck’, another ‘crow’ and one was ‘bul-bul’. I used to go and pray tarawih in the Jame Masjid. Some teachers would also attend. There was no electrical lighting on the roads and we would make our way by lanterns. There was a compulsory ‘Islamiat’ hour but the boys would bunk off, jumping out of the class windows. There was a single mosque shared by the Sunnis and Shias. There was no feeling of sectarianism[ . . ] I earned 50 rupees a month with an additional 80 rupees from tuitions. I used to send some of it home. Sometimes I paid may rent and often did not. It was not uncommon for the teachers to put up students at their residences [. . .] Aligarh was the preeminent centre of learning for Muslims. The success of the Muslim League rests on Aligarh to a large extent”. End of extract

Salaam site background note

The red bricked colonnades of Aligarh have been silent witness to momentous happenings. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan founded the Muhammad Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College in Aligarh in 1875 [not to be confused with the Anglo-Arabic College in Delhi]. A fter almost five decades of persistent effort, a university charter was finally conferred in 1920 and the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) came into being. In 1951 four years after Partition, the university charter was amended by the Government of India to enable non-Muslims to serve on the senate – student admissions had always been open to all faiths. Aligarh today is still very much a university town with its own unique culture, heritage and traditions.

Sir Syed (died 1898) is remembered today as a visionary who took practical steps to reinvigorate his community. He made a tactical alliance with the Raj, trading off its patronage of MAO for a quietist approach towards politics. Without English language skills and education in the modern curricula, Muslims found themselves jobless and increasingly in debt to Hindu money-lenders, among the established families of the UP in particular. MAO started life as a school, but early success allowed it to soon obtain college status. Sir Syed was determined to model it on the lines of the Cambridge colleges he had recently visited. Funds for the establishment of MAO were obtained through public appeals – both the poor and the rich nawabs contributed – and some Government grants (about 50% of the budget) were also made available.

The early faculty included remarkable men like Theodore Beck, Thomas Arnold, Shibli Nomani (Persian and Arabic), Chandra Chakarvarti (Mathematics) and Sardar K.M. Pannikar (History). Englishmen like Beck and Arnold endeared themselves to all those around them. It is said that when Arnold first arrived, among his first acts was to don the kurta and churidar pyjama. MAO soon began to draw students from all over India and its BA exam results were outstanding. There were sufficient numbers of Old Aligarians in London by 1902 – studying for the bar or the ICS exams – for them to organise their first dinner. Notwithstanding financial scandals, personality clashes and committee disagreements, the early pioneers institutionalised MAO and placed it on a sound academic and financial footing within a period of thirty years. Moreover, those graduates who returned to join its faculty were able to preserve Sir Syed’s vision: that the need of the hour was socio-economic upliftment.

The drive to obtain a self-standing university charter for Aligarh commenced in earnest in 1910, also a time of intense politicisation – Britain’s lack of support for the Ottomans during the Tripolitan and Balkan Wars and the reversal of the partition of Bengal, to the detriment of the Muslims of the region, were defining events for a new generation. Now empowered through a command of English and their university education, from Aligarh or elsewhere, they were far less amenable to the quietist politics of the past. The mood was epitomised by the Ali Brothers – one of whom, Shaukat Ali was an old Aligarian. The pair was influential on the campus and launched a Turkish relief fund, also sending several students led by Dr Ansari on a Red Crescent Mission team to Turkey. A wary British Raj now insisted that university charter could not be conferred so long as executive control rested solely with the all-Muslim senate. This prompted a crisis within the Muslim camp, creating one group that was willing to negotiate their way forward because education was paramount, and another, led by the Ali Brothers, who called for disengagement and withdrawal of Muslims from British Raj institutions. University charter was granted in 1920 with a large measure of central government control. The first vice-chancellor was the Raja of Mahmudabad. The ‘opposition’ comprising the Ali Brothers and supporters crossed over to Congress, thus marking out the fault-line between Muslims who were to strive for community socio-economic well-being and cultural identity, and those who made common cause with the Hindus in combating a common enemy, the British Raj.