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'For AMU, minority status is a life and death issue'

By Rashme Sehgal
Last updated on: April 05, 2016 10:39 IST
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Aligarh Muslim University

IMAGE: Aligarh Muslim University.


'The HRD minister said AMU was not a minority institution. I told her the matter would be settled in court.'
'The prime minister did not say anything so categorical. He heard me out very sympathetically. His body language was very different.'

'AMU has ABVP. I did receive a letter from them asking why you are constantly brandishing your service to the country. My reply is: Why shouldn't I?'
'I served the country for 40 years and I am very proud of this service performed for my country.'

Aligarh Muslim University Vice-Chancellor Lieutenant General Zameeruddin Shah (retd) met Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a second time to highlight his concerns about the recent government move to take away AMU'S minority status.

General Shah, below, left spoke to Rashme Sehgal on his meeting with Modi.

You sought a second meeting with Modi to discuss the issue of restoring AMU's minority status. What did he tell you?

The prime minister said the issue is sub judice. He gave no commitment.

I gave him a memorandum and stressed that the sentiments of the entire minority community are attached to AMU.

The Muslim community was extremely disappointed at how the attorney general of India had turned 180 degrees and had gone back on the affidavit that had been given to the Supreme Court.

Surely the attorney general could not have taken this U-turn without the prime minister's knowledge.

I have no comments on that.

What exactly was discussed when you met the prime minister?

I sought the government's support on restoring the varsity's minority status because this would have a salutary effect on the minorities who are agitated and apprehensive that their rights are being trampled upon.

I also brought to his notice that the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), when it was part of Janata Party under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani, had in its manifesto promised to restore the minority character of the university.

I also mentioned that Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani had said that the varsity's three off-campus centres in Bihar, Kerala and West Bengal were illegal, but these are very much legal.

Subsequent to this meeting (with the prime minister), the HRD minister's position has changed.

From saying these centres are illegal, she now stated these centres were not doing the work for which they were created. She informed me that no worthwhile research was being carried out in these centres.

I informed her it was very difficult to carry out any research from these temporary buildings. Give us necessary funds and research will be done. There was a change of attitude with the HRD minister.

The fact that she acknowledged that research should be done meant that she accepted that the centres were established legally.

You are reported to have Modi that you had not been able to meet the HRD minister.

I told him that I had been asking for a meeting with the HRD minister for the last one year. I told him that I was able to meet you twice, but have not been able to meet the HRD minister so far.

The minister has had meetings of all vice-chancellors, but these do not allow for an opportunity to have a face-to-face interaction.

I also told the prime minister that in all the key subjects including engineering, medicine and commerce, the number of Hindu students in our university were at par with the Muslim students.

It was in subjects such as study of Arabic, Persian and Islamic studies that the numbers of Muslim students were higher.

Lieutenant General Zameeruddin Shah (retd)Why should the HRD minister come to the conclusion that these varsity centres are illegal especially since I understand the prime minister had sanctioned money for these centres some time ago?

An alumunus of AMU -- who I do not want to name -- convinced her that these centres are illegal. I told the HRD minister you are listening to the wrong person.

Who is he?

A politician, who was a member of the Rajya Sabha for 18 months. She was misguided.

How old are these off-campus centres?

One is five years old. One is only a year old. The centre at Kishanganj was inaugurated by Sonia Gandhi in Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's presence. We were under pressure (during the United Progressive Alliance government) to put these up within a certain period of time. We did it all.

There was a report that the Kerala chief minister met the HRD minister regarding the centre in Kerala. And the minister asked you to leave the room.

No comments. No answer is in itself an answer.

Have you asked the HRD minister to increase the funding for AMU?

We are grossly short of funds. There is a complete inequity of funding. The Benares Hindu University, which is the same size as us, receives Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion) more while Jamia Millia Islamia, which is a smaller university, receives Rs 50 crore (Rs 500 million) more.

You raised the issue of AMU's minority status with the HRD minister.

The HRD minister said it was not a minority institution. So I told her the matter would be settled in court. The prime minister did not say anything so categorical. He heard me out very sympathetically. His body language was very different.

You also had a subsequent meeting with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

I basically went to him for two reasons. AMU is celebrating the bicentenary of our founder Sir Syed Ahmed in October 2017. We want to open a museum at his birthplace in a haveli in Daryaganj.

We also requested a place for an office to help with the placement of our students. Corporate honchos find it difficult to come to Aligarh, so we feel we should have an office where our students can be interviewed.

Kejriwal assured me he would examine it. I told him he could give us a derelict building and we would transform it.

There is a property in Connaught Place under the Waqf Board which was bequeathed to AMU in 1945, which we lost because of a lack of attention. He has agreed to look into the matter and have the records checked.

You don't think it was politically inappropriate for you to have met Kejriwal especially since he is not known to be in Modi's good books.

Nothing should be read into this meeting. I met Kejriwal for a specific aim. Our reason for meeting Kejriwal was very different. The Waqf Board is under the state government as all revenue records are with them. He did, however, endorse AMU's minority status.

Universities are facing a great deal of unrest as has been epitomised by events at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Do you feel that events at JNU should have been handled differently?

We do not believe in curbing the freedom of speech of students and teachers. Traditionally, several bodies have criticised the government, but a criticism of the government should not be seen as anti-national.

During the events at JNU, we advised our students to stay calm and maintain tranquillity. We have faced unrest, but have dealt with it at the university level.

What do you feel about the national-anti-national debate ignited by events at JNU?

I have no comments to make. Students of AMU are true to their salt and would not be inclined to participate in any activity not permitted by the Constitution.

We stress we will not curb free thinking, free expression, which should not be viewed as being anti-national.

It is not our policy to allow police on the campus. We resolve problems on our own. If the police are called, this will only aggravate matters. Students do not relish the police being called on the campus.

Do you feel the autonomy of our universities is being systematically downgraded?

We are closely monitoring the situation including the selection of vice-chancellors. We have our own unique process of selection as mentioned in our university statute that has been passed by Parliament.

We are not willing to accept university regulation 7.3.0 as this would undermine the autonomy of the university.

Are you agreeable to flying the Indian flag on the AMU campus?

We have no problem. We will fly the Indian flag with pride.

What are your views on a single uniform curriculum being designed for all universities and also on a single university cadre that can be transferred as seems to be in the process of being devised by the HRD ministry?

We oppose the proposal to have a common entrance test and other things that impinge on the autonomy of the university. We have always opposed it. This is a cause of concern more so because ours is a minority institution.

Is there an increasing ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) presence on the AMU campus?

The AMU has ABVP. I did receive a letter from them asking why you are constantly brandishing your service to the country. My reply is why shouldn't I? I served the country for 40 years and I am very proud of this service performed for my country.

The date of the minority status case in the Supreme Court is on April 4.

Yes. For us, it is a matter of life and death. This is where all our energies are directed (for the present).

(On April 4, the Centre told the Supreme Court it would withdraw the UPA's appeal, push for non-minority status for AMU)

Photographs: Kind Courtesy Aligarh Muslim University/Facebook; General Zameeruddin Shah: Kind Courtesy Mohammad Waseem Ansari/Wikipedia

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Rashme Sehgal