IF you walk down the tree-lined road from Bab-e-Syed at AMU’s southern periphery to Centenary Gate on the university’s northern boundary, you may bump into many young sherwani-clad bearded men. It is not that the sherwani or beard is a new fashion fad on the campus. They have always been there. In fact, sherwani and the Aligarh-cut white churidar for men have been a sort of uniform for formal occasions for ages here.

But in some quarters, the opinion is that they are more visible because of an increasing number of madrassa students joining courses at AMU. Many first-time visitors may mistake the campus for an advanced madrassa. Maulvis who have already acquired some learning in the Islamic religious texts enter the mainstream secular courses courtesy a provision in the Aligarh Muslim University (Amendment) Act, 1981.

Section 5(2)C of the Act mandates the university to “promote educational and cultural advancement of Muslims in India”. A committee headed by a former pro-VC, Prof Mohammed Shafi, was set up in 1986 to recommend steps for implementation of this section. Among other things, the Shafi Committee suggested that a centre be established to carry out the mandate in the Act.

The Centre for Promotion of Educational and Cultural Advancement of the Muslims of India (CPECAMI) was thus established in 1988. It was under the same Section 5(2)C that the Centre for Promotion of Science was established in 1985. Its primary objective was to create awareness among Muslims about the need to acquire scientific knowledge and promote science education in Muslim-managed educational institutions, including madrassas.

So, how did AMU, a modern institution over which founder Sir Syed had faced strong opposition from the maulvis in the last quarter of nineteenth century, become a magnet for madrassa-educated students? Many on the campus hold two former vice chancellors – Saiyid Hamid and Lt General (Retired) Zameer Uddin Shah – responsible for opening AMU’s gates wide for the maulvis.

Saiyid Hamid was an AMU alumnus and a retired civil servant. His term as VC (1980-1985) saw huge protests by students, one of whom was even killed in police firing at a demonstration. But Hamid introduced many changes too. Farrukh Waris, an AMU alumnus and family friend of Saiyid Hamid, remembers an interesting anecdote about him. She says that when the campaign against Saiyid Hamid became virulent and he too grew impatient and wanted to resign, he contacted then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Farrukh Waris says:

“Indira Gandhi told Saiyid Hamid that ek Syed ne AMU qayam kiya aur doosre Syed ko AMU ko bachana hai (One Syed, that is Sir Syed, founded AMU and another Syed, or Saiyid Hamid, had to save it). And Saiyid Hamid left no stone unturned to not only rescue the university from going to the dogs, he also enhanced its stature.”

Ishtiaq Ali was an MA student when the agitation against Saiyid Hamid was at its peak. He was the convener of the Students’ Academic Forum, a platform created to support Saiyid Hamid while the students’ union was opposing him. Ishtiaq Ali says that several senior students had been occupying the hostel rooms for years and would not vacate them even as the newcomers were facing difficulty in getting accommodation.

This problem had become acute during the time of Saiyid Hamid’s predecessor, the economist AM Khusro, who allowed laxity in admissions and other irregularities. Sunil Sethi, then correspondent of India Today, had visited the AMU campus in February 1981 to report on the turmoil that was happening. He found that an interview given by the eminent historian Prof Irfan Habib, who was dean of the faculty of social sciences, had further stirred the agitators. Sethi reported:

“Ostensibly, it was what Habib said in an interview with the Indian Express on January 13, 1981 that made them intensify their agitation and demand Habib’s immediate suspension not only as Dean of the Faculty but also as professor. In the interview, Habib came out with some sordid home truths about his University, saying that ‘the criminal elements have intensified the problem by getting into the hostels where they not only get protection but concessions’.”

Students began demanding the suspension of Habib for his “insults”.

“On January 23, the students carried out their protest further to demand an ‘assurance’ from the vice chancellor that Habib would not be allowed to attend the special convocation for visiting Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam. Two days later the VC is gheraoed and the gherao continues, forcing the VC to close the University sine die.”

Saiyid Hamid believed that the students’ demand for sacking Prof Habib was unjust, even as he wanted many hostelers who had occupied room for years by virtue of their admission in one course or the other to vacate the rooms. The students, recalls Ishtiaq Ali, didn’t understand Saiyid Hamid’s intentions. He was a well-wisher of the university and not a corrupt man. He brought the university back from the brink, says Ali.

Among the good steps that he took was the revival of the Tahzib-ul-Akhlaq, the magazine Sir Syed had brought out soon after his return from England in 1870. The magazine, as we have seen in the earlier chapters, had created a stir in the Muslim society. Saiyid Hamid aptly believed that the magazine was relevant even in these times.

“Saiyid Hamid was a man of modern thinking and scientific approach. He was a product of this university and had imbibed the spirit of the Aligarh Movement. He revived the magazine with a hope to reintroduce the scientific temperament among Urdu readers, especially the AMU community,” recalls retired professor of Urdu Asghar Abbas, who has written extensively on Sir Syed.

Abbas had seen Saiyid Hamid very closely and was among his ardent admirers. So, how does he assess Saiyid Hamid’s tenure as VC? He says: “Bus yeh samajh lein ke Syed Hamid ne ek girti huee deewar ko sambhal liya (Saiyid Hamid saved a crumbling wall). He infused new life into a dying institution.”

Professor Najma Mahmood, who taught English at AMU, was among those who supported Saiyid Hamid to the hilt when many on the campus wanted him to resign. In 1984, she wrote an essay in his support in Urdu, which was later included in her book Saiyid Hamid: Ke Gum Usmein Hain Afaaq. Describing Saiyid Hamid’s devotion to AMU, she had written:

“Saiyid Hamid is an image of Sir Syed. He has great love for this institution and he can even give his life for it. This is our duty to recognise and respect the greatness of his personality. This is our weakness that we don’t see the beauty which is visible to our eyes. Only a jeweller understands the value of a diamond.”

As an educationist, Saiyid Hamid was genuinely pained by the educational backwardness of Muslims. He wanted reforms in madrassa education. Since some of the leading madrassas in north India, like the Darul Uloom of Deoband in Uttar Pradesh, didn’t seek government support, they also resisted introduction of modern subjects in their curricula. Educationists like Saiyid Hamid favoured the idea that the degrees granted by some of the leading madrassas should be recognised by AMU for allowing them admission.

Students from Deoband, Nadwatul Ulema, Lucknow, and a few other madrassas found entry into the “bastion of modernity”. In the same way that all pass-outs from AMU are called Aligs, the products of these madrassas carry the name of their institution as a badge of honour. So, a product from Deoband is called a Qasmi, as Qasim Nanautvi (1833-1880) was one of the main founders of the Darul Uloom Deoband. A graduate from Nadwatul Ulema in Lucknow is called Nadwi.

Ariful Islam, a retired professor of statistics from AMU, has been noticing the “infiltration” of madrassa students into AMU for quite some time. “I too am for reforms in madrassa education. But instead of modernising the madrassas, they are turning a modern institution like AMU into a madrassa,” he says. He holds Saiyid Hamid responsible for giving an opening to madrassa students, which led to the floodgates being opened for the maulvis to occupy this premier institution of modern education.

If Saiyid Hamid gave a small opening to madrassa students at AMU, Zameer Uddin Shah, vice-chancellor from 2012–2017, opened the floodgates to let the maulvis in. Under CPECAMI, he introduced a one-year bridge course for madrassa students. The bridge course has an intake of 100 students, seventy-five boys and twenty-five girls. During the course they are taught English, the humanities, law and information technology. After successful completion of this course, the students are awarded certificates which are equivalent to the certificate of completing the twelfth standard in a standard school.

“The holders of bridge-course certificates can sit for entrance exams for various courses in universities like AMU, JMI and Jamia Hamdard. Many Hafizs (those who remember the Quran by heart) and other Maulvis have joined the mainstream secular courses. Since the madrassas oppose any modernisation attempt, this is the only way by which you can modernise some of those who pass out of madrassas. The madrassa students who do this course will enhance their employability in the job market,” says Zameer Uddin Shah, now president of Sir Syed Education Foundation.

The foundation was created while Shah was still VC of AMU, and its purpose was to establish good, English-medium schools as feeder institutions for AMU. “The serving vice chancellor was supposed to be the foundation’s president, but that didn’t happen as according to the AMU constitution, it cannot open its schools beyond 25 km from the Jama Masjid at the university. So I remain its president and we have so far established four schools in Uttar Pradesh,” says Shah.

The biggest lacuna bedevilling AMU, says Shah, is the alarmingly poor quality of education at a couple of schools AMU runs. Shah had sacked thirty teachers who were found to be inefficient, but they got reinstated through the courts.

“I found that many teachers at these schools educate their own children at good convent schools but bring them back in the ninth and tenth standards so that they can become internal students and benefit by getting admission in professional courses. Upgradation of these schools is a must to ensure that a pool of good students is provided to the university,” he says.

Shah’s term as VC was not without controversies. Among others, one related to denial of permission to girl students to visit the central library of the university, the Maulana Azad Library. It remained in the headlines for many days. At a function at the Women’s College, reacting to the demand from girl students for permission to visit the main library, Shah said: “If you girls are allowed, there will be four times more boys at the library.” In his memoir, The Sarkari Musalman, Shah blames some “parasites” for recording this statement and feeding it to the media.

Excerpted with permission from Aligarh Muslim University: The Making of the Modern Indian Muslim, Mohammed Wajihuddin, HarperCollins India.