Way back in 1985, my parents put me into Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) to make me a doctor. But with honesty and great humility, I report that I left, or was rather forced to leave the university, as a patient. Well, I was felled by an illness which, for want of a better expression, I call angrezi mania. Like a rebellious child who does everything that he is told not to do, I went against my parents' wishes.
They wanted me to learn science, get benefit of 50% reservation for internal students at AMU's MBBS entrance exam, become a doctor and earn loads of money. However, after a few months at AMU's leafy campus, my fascination for science flagged. Having born and brought up in a remote village, I was awestruck when I first saw. It was love at first sight. Soon, I started seeing it as not a factory of producing professionals. To my young sensibilities, the university appeared as a window to the world. Aligarians will tell you countless stories about boys loitering around Abdullah Girls College. They will recall the romance which begins in university canteen and ends at the steps of students' union club.
But my romance was a bit different. AMU made me fall in love with the firangi language. My love with the English language began inside the massive, air-conditioned Maulana Azad library. The romance never went to the rocks. The fascination for the firangi language never ebbed.
I didn’t do well in the 12th standard exam because I would bunk Biology and Chemisty classes to read newspapers. I would spend more time with M J Akbar, Khushwant Singh, Neruda and Naipaul than in Physics lab. My father's dream of seeing me as a doctor went for a toss. He pulled me out of AMU.
After he brought me back from an intellectually fertile AMU to an academically stagnant Patna, he thought he had purged me of the virus of English. He was miserably mistaken. He cursed himself for sending me to Aligarh which instilled in me an interest in a language which eventually led to journalism.
I don't blame my father for his conservative outlook. That's how a highly competitive society prepares you to see the world. So a brilliant boy is doomed if he fails an exam. We seldom try to identify and nurture a child's other qualities.
At hindsight, now I realise how AMU nurtured me. I might have stayed there barely for three years, but I earned a lot. The university helped me discover myself. It told me about many missions of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. It introduced me to the fascinating world of Meer, Iqbal, Ghalib, Faiz and Firaq. It made me aware of a world beyond boring textbooks. It's here that I understood the true meaning of Iqbal's immortal couplet:
"Sitaron se age jahan aur bhi hain/Abhi ishq ke imtehan aur bhi hain"
It's here that I first heard of Tagore's evocative, lyrical line:
"Where mind is without fear and head held high."
AMU taught me to be patient and persuasive, rational and liberal. But the best lesson that it taught me is: to agree to disagree. Dissent is a democracy's essence. And AMU, above all, was created out of dissent.
It was one man's rebellion against a set of norms. It was a voice of opposition amidst chants of conformism. When Sir Syed set out to establish Madarsatul uloom or the M A O College which later became Aligarh Muslim University, he had actully challenged an old mindset. He had dared to move against the stormy winds. He was opposed bitterly, mostly from the orthodox section which called him a stooge of the British raj. They thought his mission would eventually evangelise Muslims. A maulvi even went all the way to Mecca to fetch a fatwa of kufr against Sir Syed.
Undettered, the man went ahead. It would be unfair to confine Sir Syed's services to just as a founder of AMU. He was an educationist, a visionary, a reformist, all rolled into one.
Post-1857, Indian Muslims needed a panacea. A visionary, Sir Syed saw Muslims' salvation in education. Pained at the community's unfathomable ignorance, he once lameted (And I quote the original Urdu):
"Is mulk mein hamari qaum ka haal nehayat abtar hai. Agar hamari qaum mein sirf jahelat hi hoti to chanda mushkil na thi. Mushkil to yeh hai ke qaum ki qaum jehal-e-murakab me mubtila hai." (In this country the condition of our community is highly deplorable. It would not have been difficult if they were just illiterate. But the difficulty is that we have generations of Muslims caught in deep ignorance).
Sir Syed's observations sadly sound relevant even today. For that we just have to give a cursory look at the Sachar Committe Report which unambigiously said that the Muslims's condition is worse than that of the Dalits.
Almost a decade after Lord Lytton laid the foundation stone of MAO college, Sir Syed and his companions founded Mohammedan Educational Congress in 1886. Later, it was renamed as All India Muslim Educational Conference lest the word Congress created a misconception that it was an offshoot of the Indian National Congress. The Educational Conference proved to be a clarion call for the Muslims. It awoke them from their slumber. It was not just a movement for education. It was a call to Muslims to reinvent themselves, to discard old customs and face the challenges of modern age. It told them to see the world from a fresh perspective, to judge and evaluate their strength and remove many weaknesses.
At the Conference's inaugural session in Aligarh, Sir Syed had observed:
"Hamari halat-e-zaar ab is darja par pahunch gayee hai ke ghair quamein bhi ham par aansoo bahati hain aur hamare bachchon ki taalim keliye khairaat se roopiya jama karne ki koshish karti hain (Our condition has reached such a pitiable state that other communities lament our lot and agree to donate to the education of our children).
Apart from fighting to make the MAO college into a university, the Conference endeavoured to communicate with the community in simple, cogent Urdu. Sir Syed influenced several companions to write impressive prose. Those who came under Sir Syed's direct influence included Nawab Mohsinul Mulk, Deputy Nazir Ahmed, Maulana Hali, Shibli Noamani, Maulvi Zakaullah and Maulana Wahiduddin Salim. I am reminded of a well known story. Once Sir Syed joked: "When Allah asks me on the day of judgment what I did in the world, I will tell Him that I got Hali to write Musaddas."
True, Hali's Musaddas is not just a fine tribute to the founder of Islam, it's a running commentary on a great faith's exciting journey.
The Conference fought battles on several fronts such as safeguarding of the wakf properties, caring for the sick in the community, establishing a network of educational institutions across the country.
On Sir Syed Day, when we remember that great stalwart, we must spare a thought for the future of the institution he built. I don't need to tell what's happening at AMU right now. Recent events don't seem encouraging. It has not lived up to Sir Syed's dreams. Educated Indian Muslims cannot afford to sit back and see AMU slip into a cesspool of anarchy. It's not a feudal lord's fiefdom. It is certianly not some petty politicians' hunting ground. It's a symbol of our composite, syncretic culture. AMU epitomises Indian Muslims' collective dream, their aspirations.
I am an obsessive optimist and I hope that AMU will bounce back. At this point I sing the line in the beautiful tarana penned by Majaz:
"Zarrat ka bosa lene ko sau bar jhuka aakash yahan/Hai sare jahan ka soz yahan aur sare jahan ka saaz yahan..."
[The writer, Mohammed Wajihuddin, is a Senior Assistant Editor, The Times of India, Mumbai.]