IT IS time the Indian political class rethinks its attitude to what is erroneously referred to as ‘Muslim universities’. For starters, it should insist the historic Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) should have the same rules other Central universities commonly follow in appointing their vice-chancellors. This will ensure AMU is not dogged by anomalous situations, the most bizarre manifestation of which is having a retired lieutenant general heading it.
The current vice-chancellor (VC) of AMU, Lt Gen (retd) Zameeruddin Shah, is an army commander. Under him, though, AMU appears to have the administrative paraphernalia of a military formation — the Pro-VC is a retired brigadier; and the Registrar is a former group captain.
In 1996, Lt Gen (retd) MA Zaki was the first general to become the VC of yet another so-called Muslim university — Jamia Millia Islamia. But army officers aren’t the only non-academic VCs to descend upon AMU and Jamia. Sample these figures: from the time Jamia became a Central university in 1988, it has had six VCs, of whom three, or 50 percent, belonged to either the IAS or the army. Again, from 1980 till date, AMU has had eight VCs (excluding acting VCs), of whom six (or 75 percent) belonged to the IAS, IFS or the army.
Perhaps you think the post of VC in central universities is a sinecure for superannuated non-academicians. Well, think again. From Independence till date, Delhi University (DU) has had just one civil service officer as its VC — the redoubtable CD Deshmukh, who had been India’s Finance Minister between 1950 and 1956, before he became DU’s VC. Now, you can’t really call Deshmukh a typical civil servant, can you?
Visva Bharati has had just one non-academic VC, SR Das, who was the fifth Chief Justice of India. Banaras Hindu University (BHU) has never had an IAS or a general as its VC. Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in its initial years had two diplomats — G Parthasarthi and former President KR Narayanan — as VC, but none in the past three decades. A general hasn’t been sent as VC to even North Eastern Hill University, which is located in a region infamous for secessionist movements.
True, at least two IAS-turned-VCs of Jamia — Najeeb Jung and Syed Shahid Mahdi — have had a few years of academic experience, as did, another IAS officer, Syed Hashim Ali Akhtar, who was AMU’s VC between 1985 and 1989. Yet their academic achievements and experience pale before the eminence of many professors, including those Muslims, who belong to AMU and Jamia. You could gloss over these appointments had they been too few and far between. Indeed, had this been the trend in other Central universities, rest assured the country’s intellectuals would have denounced the move as anti-education as well as an attempt to surreptitiously impose State control over them
So then, what is so special about these two universities to warrant a surfeit of non-academic VCs? The fault is as much the Indian State’s as it is of the Muslim political elite, who harp on their right to determine the working of these two universities, particularly AMU. To appease them, as also to uphold a very warped notion of secularism, the Indian state amended the Aligarh Muslim University Act in 1981. Its consequence was to introduce a new procedure for the appointment of AMU’s VC. Till then, AMU had followed the rules still prevailing in other Central universities: a three-member search committee lists three names as possible candidates to the Visitor, usually the President of India, who then chooses the VC.
Under the amended Act, however, a 27-member Executive Council of AMU prepares a list of five names as possible candidates for VC. This list is sent to the 183-member University Court, which whittles down the list of five to three, with each member casting three votes. The Visitor of AMU usually appoints the candidate with the highest number of votes as VC. The Act was amended to ostensibly render AMU responsive to the Muslim community, the leaders of which have been clamouring for minority status for the institute. In reality, though, it gave them control over AMU. How? See who constitute the court which elects the VC — there are 20 representatives of the alumni association, another 10 of donors, 10 of the “learned professions, industry and commerce”, 15 of Muslim culture and learning, four chairmen of Muslim Waqf Board, 10 of Parliament, etc. Thus, AMU academicians were effectively reduced to a minority.
It can be argued that the Executive Council is the original sinner, for the court only elects the VC from the list of five the former prepares. The council could therefore send to the court names of academicians alone, thereby obviating the possibility of a non-academician being elected as VC. However, for a 27-member council, it has a high percentage of nomination — three from the President and one from the chief rector, who is the Uttar Pradesh governor. Add to this list the VC, overwhelmingly non-academicians in the past three decades. To the VC, in turn, are obliged three other members of the Council — the Pro-VC, the senior-most provost, and the proctor — which endorsed their appointment at his recommendation. In addition, the court elects among its members six people to represent it in the council, none of whom can be an AMU employee. It also elects the honorary treasurer who too is a Council member. So 15 out of 27 members a non-academic VC can easily rally behind him to implement the Centre’s wishes or push his own friends from the IAS cadre.
There are differences between VCs who are academicians and those not. AMU’s experience testifies that the former demonstrated a propensity to plan for its educational enhancement. By contrast, non-academicians tend to stress on the development of physical infrastructure. For instance, it was Vice-chancellor Prof Mohd Naseem Farooqui who overcame tremendous opposition to introduce AMU to the culture of the computer, making it among a few outside the nucleus of IITs to offer a BTech degree in computer engineering then. Even Prof PK Abdul Aziz, whose 2007- 2012 tenure as VC was controversial, is credited for vigourously implementing the idea of AMU centres outside Aligarh. Then again, it was Syed Hamid, an IAS officer an IAS officer-turned-VC between 1980 and 1985, who introduced the practice of summoning police to tackle student agitations in AMU. Barring the spell of Emergency, policemen, it is said, would change into civilian clothes before entering AMU. Or again, take the case of Jamia — it was Prof Mushirul Hassan who as VC held elections to the student council after a hiatus of over a decade.
FURTHER, THE new procedure erodes the moral authority of AMU’s VC, required as he is to canvass among influential factional leaders of the court, without which he can’t hope to trounce the other four in the election. Promises of future favours are made and lavish parties thrown. Worryingly, this process has turned AMU into a playground of community leaders who are Sunnis, often illiberal, having foggy ideas of modern education. Thus, for the post of VC, count out Hindu professors, as also those Shia, however brilliant, Leftists and atheists. Women? Stop joking. Indeed, AMU’s emphatic turn to Islamic Right has been in the years following the 1981 amendment.
Nevertheless, AMU’s flawed system can’t absolve the Indian State of playing games in the shadow. For instance, Jamia follows the system of the search committee, yet it has had 50 percent of its VCs as non-academicians in its 24 years of being a Central university. It suggests to the manipulative powers of the State and the susceptibilities of Muslim academicians to play its game. AMU’s tragedy is greater, lulled as it is into believing it has elected its VC. It’s a classic case of the State applying gloss to its intent of controlling the politically conscious AMU through conservative community leaders who are willing to do its bidding, content with the clout they enjoy. Simultaneously, the Indian State can’t be blamed for the decline in its educational standards as it can justifiably argue that, well, Muslims wanted to choose the AMU VC.
AMU and Jamia need to introspect, the starting point for which ought to be the question: why haven’t IAS officers and generals been appointed as VCs to DU, BHU, Visva Bharati or JNU in recent decades? Hopefully, their introspection should lead them to understand that their plight is directly linked to that idea of secularism which empowers community leaders whose notions of education lack the imagination befitting the 21st century. Muslims should not want this sort of secularism, good neither for their education nor for India.