My five decades in Jamia

Published in March 2021 Issue of Seminar

THIS may sound like a cliché, but one has to revisit the past to make sense of the present. When I try to understand the Jamia of todayandI look back at the last fifty years or so, I am inclined to divide its history into two broad phases. The first begins when I was growing up and ends sometimes in the late 1980s, and the second when I joined Jamia as a student for an MA in 1990 and this continues to the present. This piece is a sketch of growing up in what is typically referred to in Jamia as the Jamia biradari, looselytranslated as theJamia fraternity. Isaylooselybecause this is like an extended community comprising those who have any association with Jamia. They could be members of its faculty, student or staff, or a relative of any of them, or just happen to be living in the region surrounding Jamia.

Jamia is now a hundred years old and I have lived here for more than fifty of those years. My paternal grandfather, Shafiq Ur Rahman Kidwai, was one of the founders of Jamia and my paternal grandmother Siddiqa Kidwai established the Balak Mata (mother-child) centre, an extension of Jamia in the walled city of old Delhi. My grandfather was part of the freedom struggle and was in and out of prison. Thus, to quote my father, Sadiq Ur Rahman Kidwai, his parents ‘deposited’ him in Jamia school hostel when he was in class two. He studied in Jamia School until class ten before moving to Aligarh for further studies. He then went on to teach at Delhi University and J.N.U., but continued to stay in Jamia, where we still live.

It would not be till the mid-1980s that Jamia would be shaken out of a somewhat idyllic existence. Until then Jamia and its biradari lived in a relatively isolated manner, untouched by the larger political and social upheavals happenings in the world outside; content, in fact revelling in what is now nostalgically described as the Idea of India. The biradari was largely Muslim yet it had fairly large number of non-Muslims. The physical and social boundary of the university was fluid; it comfortably and unknowingly intermingled with the rest of the biradari in everyday life. Holy Family hospital, on the western end and thus the main entrance to Jamia, was the most prominent landmark and the nearest chemist was five kilometres away, in Jangpura. When returning to Jamia in a DTC bus, once you crossed Holy Family, it was rare to spot a passenger who was not familiar to the others in the bus.

The infrastructure of the university could be described as what in environment studies is called a commons, a space where resources are shared and which belong to everyone. It was a small cosy biradari, comprising of students and staff and faculty of the university as well as of the small Okhla village. The most visible members of the residents surrounding the university were those who lived in what is still called the Panjabiyon ki Gali, mostly comprising of Hindu refugees who had arrived and settled there after partition. They were grocers, sweetmeat shop owners, and petty traders supplying goods to the larger biradari.

There were also Muslim milkmen, who were called by their sub-caste name, ghosis. The ghosi neighbourhood (opposite the entrance to Batla House, where the alleged encounter took place in 2008) had an akhaada (wrestling pit) that would host regular bouts of wrestling competitions. The spectators largely comprised of Jamia students and kids from the biradari, each of who had their own favourite wrestler. In the summer, every morning and evening was taken over by herds of cattle that the ghosis took to bathe in the Yamuna river.

The Yamuna river and the Agra Canal, built by the British in 1874, were the impromptu picnic and socializing space for the biradari. Hoards of university students and residents would come to swim in the river, to learn diving and to just sit around. My father learnt to swim, like all his other schoolmates, in the Yamuna. There were occasional drowning; the legendary swimmer Mumtaz bhai, who himself was a student, was called upon as a lifesaver. I still bump into him when he is returning home from his early morning walks.

Another attraction for the students at the Yamuna was that it housed the Sailing Club, run by the Indian Navy. Students who wanted a day picnic would walk to the Raite ka Tila (the Sand dune) at the eastern edge of Yamuna. The tila still exists, and the according to local folklore, it is a natural sand dune that existed from time immemorial. The dune supplied sand to large parts of south Delhi. Just next to the dune there was a Khachar basti (mule herder’s colony). The fisher folk from the surrounding areas would come to catch fish in the fresh waters of Yamuna and there were a few stores in the Punjabiyon ki Gali that stocked fishing nets and rods. In the evening they would sell fresh fish near the Okhla bus stand on their bicycles. The Yamuna was almost an extension of the habitats that comprised Jamia.

The only TV that existed in the entire neighbourhood used to be in the residence of the hostel warden. I recall one of the long serving boys hostel wardens was a well known educationist, Prof Salamat Ullah. Those days there was no live telecast of test cricket on TV. Only half hour highlights were shown on the day following the test match. During the test series in which India was playing, Salamat Sahab would lend his TV to the students so that they could watch the matches. The neighbourhood children were always welcome to the party.

As children we had full access to the playground of the university, Bhopal Ground (now known as Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi Stadium), and what was considered to be the hockey field in the teachers training college or as it is still called, the TTI (now part of the Faculty of Education). The children had a sense of entitlement over the playgrounds, we would demand that the keepers and gardeners occasionally repair the cricket pitch, we would organize local cricket tournaments and invite university professors to inaugurate them. We would use the space under the staircase next to the playground in the college building to leave our kits, to be picked up for another day’s game. The TTI also housed the only Boys Hostel of the university. It had a common room with a carom board and table tennis tables. Like the playground, the children of the neighbourhood had full and equal access to the common room.

To the south of the ground in TTI were slush pits and sprawling wetlands. If our cricket ball happened to fall there it would be impossible to retrieve it because our feet would get stuck in the slush. There were horror stories, perhaps apocryphal, of children who, trying to retrieve their cricket balls, died by drowning in the slush. The wetlands have now been reclaimed by the Jamia authorities and sprawling structures, concrete buildings, have come up in their place which house several new faculty and administrative buildings.

In this sense the story of Jamia’s ‘development’ is not different from the rest of Delhi’s. Bhopal Ground has become a modern floodlit cricket stadium, where international cricket tournaments are held. TTI grounds are swanky, manicured lawns and gardens have come up where there used to be fields. But like the rest of Delhi, the Jamia campus, too, has become gated, and ‘outsiders’ are not allowed entry.

A cluster of shops and restaurant opposite the Jamia school was called the Store. That was the hub of political and social activity until it was demolished sometime in 2001. It is believed that the place was called the Store because it was here that the first grocery store on the university campus was established, way back in the 1940s. Subsequently, other shops came into existence.

The hub consisted of several eating joints, many of them named after their owners. There was Mualana’s car workshop, Nagina general store, Mumtaz paan wala, Baban ki dukaan, Shakir’s dhaba, Babu Ram cholewala and others. It also had the post office, Shafiq Club, a club of the non-teaching staff, and the books and stationery shop of the in-house Jamia publication, the Maktaba Jamia. Just down the road was the only bank, the Central Bank that ran the accounts of faculty, staff and students of the university and of the biradari. Habib Tanveer, the famous playwright and actor, held the initial rehearsals and shows of his iconic play ‘Agra Bazar’ in Jamia. Some shopkeepers from the store and faculty members acted in it.

The Store was centre of all the political activity. The student’s union elections were occasions for hectic political gatherings and speeches. Until the 1980s, all the prominent student union leaders belonged to the majority Hindu community, a numerical minority within the university. The old timers of the biradari still fondly remember these student leaders. This nostalgia is so heady because now one cannot imagine a non-Muslim union leader in Jamia. There was Ramesh Chand Tongar, the late Rohtas Bhardwaj, Subhash Sharma and some others. They were all residents of the localities and villages around Jamia. Some of them, because of their flamboyance and popularity, became household names.

As children who were growing up in the biradari, and had no formal association with the Jamia school and had never met these characters, their names were still very familiar to us. So much so that I vividly recall thinking that Subhash Tongar was one individual. I met Rohtas and Tongar briefly three years ago, just before Rohtas died an untimely death. I met them during a mushaira that was part of the annual celebrations. It was a large gathering and no one had noticed them until a few of us joined them. We stood there quietly; one of them said that Jamia had changed so much from their days. The other half-heartedly agreed, and responded that many things were still the same. They both smiled and glanced at the students indulgently.

Maulana’s canteen, next to the Bhopal ground, a few hundred meters west of the Store, was in many ways was an extension of the Store. It was part of the physical structures that were called ‘Dumpo’. They had circular barrel like asbestos roofs and, along with the canteen, they housed several classrooms and administrative offices. Maulana, who died a few years ago, ran the canteen, but it has always remained a mystery to me why he was called Maulana. He was a drunk and freely threw the choicest of curses at the students. His andaaz (mannerisms), diction and the style of delivery of his four-letter curses has remained a part of folklore among the old timers.

Maulana was popular and loved because of his generosity to students. Several students bought snacks and tea from him on credit, but he never noted their dues. When in a rage, however, Maulana would launch into a series of abuses and ask the students to settle their accounts.

An annual, somewhat carnivalesque, ritual in Jamia used to be Maulana’s birthday celebrations. On any given day of the year, the students would decide to celebrate Maulana’s birthday. He was presented with a new set of clothes, garlanded and taken on a procession around the Jamia campus in a vintage car with drums beating and wild dancing. The other Mualana at the car workshop located in the Store arranged the vintage car. The procession would end with Maulana cutting a cake, sometimes accompanied by a drink. A stick doubling up as a mike was arranged, and Maulana was asked to name and ‘shame’ the students who had not settled their accounts. Others would also give speeches in honour of the Maulana.

Continuity and change have a tangible resonance in the daily lives of individual and institutions. In the case of Jamia, there was a sense of calm continuity until the mid-1980s. It was in the 1980s that change started to challenge the comfort and the ostensibly seamless continuity of Jamia’s past. At this point the larger political climate in the rest of the country started to resonate in the everyday life of the university community.

A large number of students in Jamia came or had family connections with the towns and villages of the North Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. There were numerous incidents of communal violence spread across UP and Bihar, the most infamous being Moradabad (1980), Merrut-Malliana (1987) and Bhagalpur (1989). There was also the Nellie massacre in Assam (1983). These shook the conscience of the Jamia biradari. There was the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi; a large number of shops and residences were burnt to ashes in the neighbouring localities of New Friends Colony and Taimur Nagar.

It was also the time when the Ram Janambhoomi movement was gathering momentum and the Mandal Commission recommendations had been accepted. The students of Delhi University were agitating on the streets. Jamia students were, however, indifferent to the Mandal recommendations. It would be much later, in 2011, that the then ruling UPA government at the centre, led by the Congress, granted minority institution status to Jamia. This bought in 50 per cent reservation for Muslims students. Quite correctly, this was seen as a cynical move by the Congress government at the centre to lure the Muslims voters of Uttar Pradesh to vote for it in the state elections of 2012.

The mid 1980s-90s, though, saw a drastic transformation of the demography of Jamia. Delhi was being urbanized rapidly and Jamia too experienced a sudden expansion of populations. New localities like Abu Fazal Enclave, Ghafar Manzil, Zakir Nagar and Shaheen Bagh emerged, inhabited by Muslim migrants. The vast majority of them came from UP and Bihar. Jamia became part of mainstream Delhi, while simultaneously being labelled a Muslim-majority area. The term ghetto was now freely used to characterize Jamia, which further stereotyped the area.

It was in this communally atmosphere of the late eighties, amid a growing sense of insecurity amongst the Muslims of North India, that two events took place one after the other that created turmoil in the secular and inclusive soul of Jamia. First, it was the judgement related to Shah Bano that was overturned by Parliament (1986) under the pressure of a certain section of the Muslim clergy and politicians. That was soon followed by the controversy over the demand to ban Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses (1988). Liberal commentators accused the then Rajiv Gandhi government of bowing down under the pressure of sections of the Muslim clergy to curtail the rights of women and freedom of speech.

Jamia, being a predominantly Muslim institution, felt the reverberations. On the issue of the Shah Bano case the faculty of Jamia was divided down the middle. There were meetings and gatherings within the university by the two opposing groups; students were also not untouched by this. Until this point the left groups who were integral to student’s politics, became vocal in their opposition to the scrapping of the Shah Bano judgement. Not surprisingly, a right wing group, the Students Islamic Movement (SIM), which suddenly gained traction among a large section of the students, challenged them. There was no violence but the tension was apparent in the air. The cosy and friendly nature of student politics suddenly seemed a thing of the distant past. The Store and other places didn’t remain untouched by this tension. Now groups would gather there and talk in hushed tones, which was absolutely alien to the culture of the Store.

Soon after the Shah Bano episode, the well known historian, the late Mushirul Hasan, Jamia’s pro-vice chancellor in 1998, gave a statement condemning the ban on Satanic Verses. He argued that the ban went against the spirit of freedom of speech. A very vocal sections of students and faculty condemned Hasan for making this statement, arguing that what he said was anti-Islamic. They demanded his immediate resignation from the post of pro-vice chancellor and was assaulted when he arrived at the campus. He never resigned but did not enter the campus for the next four years.

In many ways, the controversy that erupted after Hasan statement was a watershed moment in Jamia’s history. The Store was converted into a site of protest. For the first time there was an atmosphere of anger and hostility amongst the students. They adopted different modes of protest to demand Hasan’s resignation. The student union president and other office bearers led the movement, a tent was pitched at the Store and there were rallies, speeches, hunger strikes and gheraos.

I was a student of Jamia at that time. Like me, those who disagreed with the protestors were isolated. Arguments with fellow-students, even friends and comrades, became bitter. Some of us were threatened with violence. Three of my friends, who were vocal in their opposition to the movement, were chased and beaten up by ‘unknown’ students. When they decided to file a complaint with the authorities, they were advised to ‘forget and forgive’. This was by their ‘well-wishers’ in the university administration. The police upped the ante when they entered the campus, beat up and arrested student leaders. The situation limped back to normal but it had become, in today’s parlance, the new normal. Mushirul Hasan returned to the campus four years later – on 3 December 1992. As he entered his office a flower pot was thrown at him; luckily he escaped unhurt. Three days later a Hindutva mob demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, UP.

Hasan would go on to become one of the most popular vice-chancellor’s of Jamia (2004-2009). Besides aiding the academic and intellectual climate in the university, he also stood by those students who were vilified as terrorists after the infamous Batla House encounter (2008). Many saw this anti-Mushir movement as that moment in Jamia’s history when the dominant discourse of secular and inclusion was challenged by that of identity and exclusion.

Both the Shah Bano judgement and the controversy around the Satanic Verses were, in a way, a challenge to the Constitution through the prism of Muslim identity. There may be an element of truth in this argument, but as mentioned earlier, we must not forget that this rage and fury among Jamia students had surfaced at moment when North India was beginning to be increasingly polarized. As in the case of the Meerut-Maliana violence, the police was accused of playing a partisan role, and communal violence had become a regular feature of life in North India. The much touted phrase, the Idea of India, of which secularism and religious tolerance are the cornerstones, was itself being challenged in the larger polity.

Speaking of watershed moments in Jamia’s history, the non-violent nature of the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests, and the coming together of Jamia and Shaheen Bagh protestors, albeit in different locations, created a biradari like atmosphere. What stood out was the participation of women, many wearing their hijab with pride and confidence. Protest art, music and poetry added spice, making the agitation joyous and diverse. The protesters reassertion of faith in the Constitution of India and in a nationalism that is inclusive and tolerant rekindled memories of Jamia’s role in India’s struggle for independence. The subsequent brutal police crackdown on the student agitators, the erasure of paintings and murals, the creative symbols of the protest, and the subsequent arrests of students for their alleged involvement in the communal violence in North East Delhi is still horrifyingly fresh in our memories.

However, I am reminded of the late Prof Mohammad Mujeeb, who was one of the founders and the longest serving vice chancellor of Jamia. He also wrote that path-breaking book, The Indian Muslims, published in 1967. While he was the VC, a Jan Sangh member stating that undue preference was being given to Muslim students in the admission process raised a question in Parliament. Mujeeb was asked to respond to this allegation by the government. He replied by saying that he was not aware of any such discrimination. A query came back asking him to look at the section on religion in the admission forms and send the data about the break up of religious identity of the students. To this Mujeeb replied that he could not send the data because there was no column in the admission form where students were required to declare their religious identity.

Those enquiring, however, were relentless. They asked Prof Mujeeb to guess the religion of the students by looking at their names. Prof Mujeeb sent the forms in cartons to Parliament with a note saying that he didn’t have time for such matters; those who were so keen to discover the religion of the students by reading their names could do it themselves.

Some of these events recounted above have been shaped by political and social forces on which Jamia has had no control, like the communal polarization that began in the 1980s, the recent amendments to the Citizenship Acts, and the insecurities created by so-called love jihad and cow vigilantism. There were times when the wounds were self-inflicted, as in the case of the anti-Mushirul Hasan agitation.

My own education in politics began in Jamia in 1984, when I was still in school. I would accompany Jamia students, teachers and biraadari to volunteer in the relief camps set up for the survivors of the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi. Then in 1993, soon after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Mumbai riots, members of right wing groups decided to invade Jamia and empty it of ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’. There was a massive counter mobilization in Jamia. Students, teachers and large sections of the non-Muslim members of the biraadari formed a human chain near Holy Family Hospital, at the entrance of the university. The mob came, but went back when it saw the determination of the human chain.

1984, 1993 and the more recent anti-CAA protests (2019), are moments in history that define Jamia’s resilience, inclusivity and determination. It makes me proud to be both witness and participant in this journey.

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