The Aligarh Muslim University Teachers’ Association on February 17 passed a resolution condemning the Centre for encouraging hooliganism by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad “to stifle dissent and opposition” on university campuses. It cited the statements of Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Delhi, OP Sharma, who was caught on camera beating a political activist on the premises of a Delhi court on February 15, to ask: “Is this the kind of nationalism we want, that is vigilante in intensity and hatred towards whomsoever one does not agree with…”

But the AMUTA resolution will sound meaningless to us until the teachers and students step out to insist on the right of theatre-owners to screen the film, Aligarh, in Aligarh and that of its residents to watch it. They should voice this demand even though it is possible they believe the film scratches open the wounds that some in Aligarh Muslim University have inflicted on others.

Should AMU teachers remain silent to the district administration’s alleged decision to ban the film, or do not counter organisations menacing theatre-owners from screening it, they will rightly be accused of being selective in upholding the right to free speech. AMU will stand exposed as brazenly hypocritical, supporting the right to dissent at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and conniving in its denial to the residents of Aligarh. It will have tacitly encouraged the nationalism that its teachers view as “vigilante in intensity”.

Gay theme

Aligarh depicts the travails of Prof SR Siras, the sensitive Marathi professor at AMU, whom a band of teachers and students mercilessly hounded for his sexual preferences. The harassment culminates in his death. Whether he committed suicide or was poisoned, Aligarh leaves the interpretation to the viewer’s imagination.

Prof Siras’s homosexuality, however, is a trope for being contrarian, for belonging to a group decidedly a minority both in AMU and in India. Prof Siras was to AMU what Rohith Vemula was to Hyderabad Central University – both were victims of the powerful people who oversee the system, both died because they had been reduced to helplessness in their lives.

Given that the AMUTA resolution mentions Hyderabad university as one of the campuses where there has been a bid to stifle dissent, shouldn’t the AMU teachers publicly declare they have no opposition to Aligarh being screened in their city? Shouldn’t the students take out a march to have the film released in their city, just as they did in their support for JNU? Shouldn’t they invite the director to show the film in the AMU auditorium, just as students of many colleges had the documentary, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, screened on their campuses?

Nobody has asked AMU to stand up for Aligarh, but it is imperative it does because it is battling to retain its minority status. In an ongoing case in the Supreme Court, the Modi government on January 11, through its Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, revised the UPA’s position recognising AMU’s minority character. Rohatgi’s submission justifiably angered AMU and its alumni.

Empathy is essential

It does not behoove AMU to restrict the meaning of minority. True, the erudite professors of AMU will invoke the Constitution to claim the minority status for AMU. By contrast, homosexuality remains criminalised. They will, therefore, see no justification in supporting the screening of Aligarh, which subtly upholds the right to sexual choice.

But what AMU needs to comprehend is the spirit behind the Constitutional provisions guaranteeing religious and linguistic minorities the right to administer and manage their educational institutions. These provisions were introduced to assure the minorities that their religion and culture will be respected in Independent India, and that they wouldn’t be harassed for practicing and promoting their culture.

Sexual preferences were not a pressing issue at the time of India’s Independence, as they are now. But given the spirit underlying the constitutional provisions recognising the rights of minorities, AMU cannot but rally behind those whose sexual preferences are not considered mainstream or aren’t the dominant norm. It should oppose their hounding; it should ensure they are not compelled to live out clandestinely what is natural.

Aligarh portrays vividly the suffering of those who are forced to live a double-life, largely because they fear the majority’s response to their sexual orientation. AMU professors should have the empathy to grasp the horror those in majority can perpetrate on groups deemed minority because of their linguistic and religious affinities or sexual orientation.

They should have the empathy because AMU professors are overwhelmingly Muslim. They have the requisite experience of being a minority to fathom the fears and worries of the LGBT community. For starters, they should imagine what life would be for them in case the current Hindutva dispensation decides to convert India into a full-blown Hindu rashtra.

Would they bow their heads to Goddess Saraswati? Would they enjoy holding clandestine classes to explain different ideas of nationalism, their hearts racing at the thought of being raided and arrested? Would they teach their students that the idea of Muslims constituting a separate nation sprang from their university and, therefore, its character ought to be altered drastically, as so many Hindutva ideologues want?

It is a delicious irony that AMU and the BJP seem to be on the same side of the same-sex debate. The BJP mayor of Aligarh, Shakuntala Bharti, has been quoted in the media saying, “Aligarh is a city of culture and refinement… Aligarh Muslim University is world renowned. Are they trying to malign the city by naming the film after it? The city is being tarnished by showing that such people also live here.”

Many kinds of love

This is a puerile statement. Indeed, all of India knows that “such people” live in Aligarh as they do in other parts of India. More pertinently, her sentiments echo those who have been demanding over the last three weeks that JNU should be cleansed of students deemed as “anti-national”. They are anti-national because they malign India, because they avail of subsidised education and still have the temerity to question the Sangh Parivar’s version of Indian nationalism.

In not rising to demand the release of Aligarh in Aligarh, AMU stands indicted for tacitly supporting the hounding of those whose concept of love is different from its own. You can’t ask for the right to dissent to be upheld and still insist on whom a person loves and how.

It is to iron out AMU’s inconsistencies in its ideational position, that its Vice-Chancellor, Zameeruddin Shah, should inspire students and teachers to also pass a resolution demanding the release of Aligarh in Aligarh. It is time for AMU to stand-up and be counted.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.