Aligarh: Much like the rest of India, the political mood in the lock-making hub of Aligarh in this election is swinging between two poles — joblessness and nationalism. But depending on who you ask, the hero or villain of the story differs.
Both these issues are closely tied to perceptions about the city’s politically-polarising institution, the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).
Deepak Kumar and Manzoor Ahmad, both in their early 20s, have little hope of getting employment. Their politics today is shaped by the looming shadow of the 99-year-old AMU, but that’s where the similarity ends. Kumar argues that AMU doesn’t “give admission to Hindus”, which has led to their psychological alienation in the city. AMU records show that it has enrolled many Hindu students and faculty. But the perceptions that are gaining ground about the university has no room for facts. Ahmad praises the composite culture of AMU and points out that it opened up opportunities that his parents never had.
Kumar claims he is pursuing an undergraduate science course through ‘distance learning from a private institute in Aligarh’, while Ahmad is studying linguistics and mass media at AMU. Kumar plans to join the armed forces. Ahmad is considering a career in journalism.
“My primary concern after leaving the university will be to get a job and I want a government which ensures that there are enough job vacancies. AMU has helped us in acquiring skills for employment but if there are no job vacancies, what will we do with these skills?” the 21-year-old Ahmad asks.
In Barauli, around 20 kilometres away from AMU, 20-year-old Kumar says: “The most important issue for us is access to education and unemployment. There is one famous university here but they do not take non-Muslim students like us. Now, it has become infamous for anti-national activities that go inside the campus… If all the seats are taken by one community, where will the rest of us go for higher education?”
AMU and electoral politics
These views are not accidental. As recently as 11 April, AMU’s name found mention in the election speech of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath at Atrauli in Aligarh.
During a public meeting in the constituency, Adityanath claimed that SC/ST and OBC reservation will be implemented in AMU while praising sitting BJP MP Satish Kumar Gautam for raising the issue of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s image in the varsity. The CM, while referring to Jinnah, maintained that there was no respect for people who divided the nation.
Last year, Gautam had written to AMU authorities and sought an explanation on Jinnah’s image being displayed the AMU Students’ Union office. The university administration explained that Jinnah was a founder member of the university court and also a donor. They added that he had been given life membership long before the demand for Pakistan had arisen.
According to BJP sources in UP, it was the Jinnah portrait episode that made the party field Gautam again.
“(Rajasthan Governor) Kalyan Singh belongs to Atrauli area of Aligarh, and his family holds sway over nearly two lakh voters of the Lodh community. There was talk of the Aligarh ticket being given to one of his family members, but that did not happen and the Hindutva image of the sitting BJP MP made the party field him again,” a senior BJP leader says.
Gautam is taking on BSP-SP-RLD candidate Ajeet Balyan and Congress’ Brijendra Singh, a former MP and four-time MLA. The constituency goes votes on 18 April.
More incidents on campus
More recently, in February, the AMU campus had witnessed a crackdown following a clash between student groups. Fourteen students were booked under sedition charges, but later, these charges were withdrawn by the police due to “lack of evidence”.
The clash had erupted after protests and an alleged attack against a television crew which was visiting the AMU campus.
In the weeks that followed this incident, two controversies had hit AMU — when a law student and kin of a local BJP leader had taken out a ‘Tiranga Yatra’ without permission, and demanded the construction of a temple inside campus to enforce AMU’s “secular character”.
All discussions lead to AMU
At Barauli village, Kumar and his friends Bipin Kumar (19) and Anurag Singh (18) gather near a kirana (grocery) store, listening intently to the shopkeeper stating that bad roads in the area are a major concern in this part of Aligarh Lok Sabha constituency.
But no matter what the conversation is about, everything in Aligarh quickly devolves into what AMU has come to represent in the popular imagination.
Interrupting the shopkeeper, Deepak Kumar says: “Employment is the biggest problem. The government should set up factories here so that we can get some jobs. Otherwise, we have to travel 20-25 kilometres to find employment.”
The conversation soon turns to higher education and when asked where the ‘degree college’ is, Singh replies: “There is no college in this area. The foundation stone of a degree college has been laid recently, but let’s see when it gets constructed…There is a big university in Aligarh but we know what happens there.”
Bipin Kumar adds: “They have images of Jinnah on their campus. Why would a university keep photographs of Pakistan’s founder? Some of their students have been involved in nefarious activities and are supported by terrorist groups.”
Deepak interrupts to say: “They don’t even easily allow Hindus to get treated in their hospital, no matter how high your caste is. My relative had fallen ill and he was taken to the Aligarh Medical College, but it took them many hours to treat him. Had he been a Mulla, 10 doctors would have been circling around him.”
It’s not just the history and politics of AMU, but even its prospect as a job-generator is contested.
“They have hijacked the university even though it is owned by the government. Their people get admission in the university and jobs,” adds Singh, who finished high school last year and also wants to join the armed forces like Deepak Kumar.
Wrestling with the image
At AMU, both students and faculty are grappling with this very image of AMU.
K. Gautam, a cabinet member of the AMU Students’ Union and a postgraduate student, says: “The first thing that comes to the mind of people when you mention AMU is the Jinnah portrait. Why is it kept there, people ask.”
Another MA student, Rounak Shah, says: “There is an image outside that people at the AMU are a typically conservative set of people. That is not true. We are just like any other lot of students — we are not the conservative class and we are not the Taliban gang.”
The two postgraduate students, however, maintain that there is one aspect which is peculiar to the being a student at AMU.
“We are the discriminated lot. When the JNU episode happened, nobody was asked to go to Pakistan; they were not made to feel that they don’t belong to this country. Here, anything happens, you are sent a ticket to Pakistan. We are at a university which has a history of nationalism, we have made contributions to this country and so this hurts,” Shah adds.
“Therefore, during voting our motive will be justice.”