The incident of a saffron-clad Hindu Mahasabha leader shooting at Gandhi’s effigy is only the latest in a city systematically polarised over the last few years.
Aligarh: A day after Mahatma Gandhi’s effigy was shot at and torched by a group of Hindu Mahasabha leaders in Aligarh Wednesday, idle chatter about the incident dominated discussions among locals.
“It may be too extreme to shoot at and burn Gandhi’s effigy, but why does the rest of the country celebrate the man responsible for India’s painful, ugly partition?” says Akash Gupta, a mobile repair shop owner in Aligarh, who is close to several Right-leaning organisations in the city.
“He sowed the seeds of Muslim appeasement in the country decades ago, and we are still paying the price for it…The difference is now, some leaders in UP, and particularly in Aligarh, are challenging this narrative.”
“Not just about Gandhi, but on several issues of national importance, Aligarh is leading the way,” he adds.
The “issues of national importance” Gupta is referring to include assertion of Hindu pride, rejection of politics of “minority appeasement”, and fixing what are perceived to be warped notions of history.
To that extent, the incident of a saffron-clad woman leader of the Hindu Mahasabha shooting at Gandhi’s effigy on his death anniversary is neither sudden, nor shocking — the city which comprises 55.36 per cent Hindus and 42.64 per cent Muslims (2011 census data) has been systematically polarised over the last few years.
‘Mindset of AMU students’
At the centre of Aligarh’s polarisation lies a century-old Muslim university — the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).
Over the last few years, AMU, the first Muslim university in the country, established in 1920 — 11 years after the establishment of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) — has made more headlines for communal controversies than it has for any education-related issue.
On the day Gandhi’s effigy was shot at in Aligarh, in AMU, students reportedly hanged an effigy of Nathuram Godse, the Hindu Mahasabha leader, who had shot Gandhi.
Days earlier, the university was in the news for issuing a show-cause notice to some students, including local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA Dalveer Singh’s grandson, Ajay Singh, for organising a ‘tiranga yatra’ in the campus without the requisite permissions.
But none of this is new for AMU.
Since 2014, the university has been a volatile battlefield for communal politics to play out.
“In Aligarh, this whole thing of Hindu-Muslim is very common,” says BJP MP from Aligarh Satish Gautam.
“It is mostly because of AMU and the mindset of its students and administration. The students there indulge in anti-national activities, and the administration turns a blind eye,” he adds.
Since he was elected as an MP from Aligarh in 2014, AMU has been at the centre of Gautam’s politics. Back then, when he was invited to the campus for celebrations marking the birth anniversary of the university’s founder, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Gautam sparked a controversy by insisting that the birth anniversary of Jat ruler Raja Mahendra Singh, “a generous contributor” to AMU, must also be celebrated on campus.
‘Muslim is a hard word’
“The problem is that the mindset of the university is just Muslim-oriented,” says Gautam.
“I don’t know why MPs before me did not do anything about it, but AMU is a central university, just like the BHU, so why should it give special treatment to one community?” he asks.
“The university serves vegetarian food which is cooked in the same oil as meat to Hindu students, it has given seats reserved for the disabled to Muslim students, students there protest against the hanging of Afzal Guru and Ajmal Kasab, and the killing of Burhan Wani…How can I turn a blind eye to all this?” he rues.
“As the elected chowkidar of Aligarh, I would be failing my people if I keep quiet even after these anti-national activities come to my notice,” says Gautam, who wants to ensure that AMU does not become “another JNU”.
Recently, Gautam had issued a statement saying the word ‘Muslim’ should be dropped from the name of the university. When asked to explain his statement, Gautam tells ThePrint, “The word ‘Muslim’ sounds too hard, so it is my personal opinion that it should be dropped.”
“The word ‘Muslim’ is not the same as ‘Hindu’,” he elaborates. “’Hindu’ is a soft word, has sentimental value…Muslim is too hard.”
The ‘Muslimness’ of AMU
Last year, Gautam triggered a row when he demanded that the portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah be removed from the university. An event at which former vice-president Hamid Ansari was to be conferred with a lifetime membership of AMU, had to be cancelled due to violence by radical Hindu groups, in which dozens of people were injured.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath too weighed in on the controversy, arguing that there is “no question” of celebrating Jinnah in India, and ordered an inquiry into the matter.
Weeks later, Adityanath again sought to make a political statement by invoking AMU. Addressing a public meeting in Kannauj, Adityanath said that there must be Dalit reservation in AMU and Jamia Millia Islamia.
In 2016, AMU came under the scanner after the central government filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court opposing the university’s minority character.
Why AMU matters to national politics
According to former Lt General Zameer Uddin Shah, who was vice-chancellor of the university until 2017, targeting the university is a well-thought-out-strategy to stoke communal passions in the city.
“AMU is used as a punchbag to whip up communal issues,” says Shah.
“What happens in AMU percolates down to the rest of the population and keeps communal tensions alive,” he adds.
Students of the university, who he describes as “hot-blooded youngsters”, are deliberately provoked by BJP MP Gautam to gain political mileage for his party, says Shah.
Former Congress MP from Aligarh, Chaudhary Bhupendra Singh, agrees. In the last five years, the BJP has systematically tried to polarise Aligarh using AMU, he argues
“They target Aligarh because it is so close to Delhi…What happens in Aligarh makes national headlines, so they keep trying to divide the electorate with issues of gau hatya (cow slaughter), triple talaq, etc.” says Singh.
“And then AMU is a well-known university across the country, so it becomes an easy, effective target.”
The politics of AMU has an impact across the city.
“We never even step into AMU,” says Gupta, the mobile repair shop owner. “In Aligarh, they are the Pakistan, and we are the Hindustan.”
While leaders across the political spectrum insist that Aligarh has been largely peaceful despite the high-octane communal rhetoric, the former Congress MP believes that it is only due to “God’s grace” that riots haven’t erupted in the city as yet.
“There is large-scale polarisation happening in Aligarh, and they want to create a riots-like situation, but everyone is turning a blind eye,” he adds. “Up until the Lok Sabha elections, I fear, this will keep happening, and can get much worse.”
According to Singh, the UP police too looks the other way. “What do you say when even the police indulges in fake encounters and kills people from a certain community?” he asks.
Last year, the UP police eliminated two Muslim youth after accusing them of killing six people, including two Hindu priests, in what was widely believed to be a fake encounter.
While the police maintained that Naushad (17) and Mustaqueem (22) had killed the two priests, a family member of one of the two slain priests reportedly alleged that the two were killed as a result of political pressure that the police was facing.
A Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) functionary from Aligarh, who has campaigned extensively across the city to mobilise Muslim women against the practice of triple talaq — another political hot potato — says that the RSS is keeping Aligarh on the boil to reap political benefits.
“The electorate of Aligarh is very peaceful…This propaganda starts and ends with politics.”