Will Sonia deliver on her Aligarh pledge?

UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi had to call off what could have been a historic visit to the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) due to “bad weather” this past Saturday (February 16).

Instead, she made a convocation speech from Delhi, played out to students via an audio conference system.

Gandhi, speaking in some chaste Urdu, seemed to back a “minority status” for the university, a key Muslim demand, caught in a long legal dispute.

“Mai aap logon ko yakein dilana chahti hoon ki iss azim university ki taarikhi kirdaar aur kudmukhtari ko banaye rakhne ki har mumkin koshish karungi (I assure you that I will try everything possible to preserve the historical character and autonomy of this august institution,” the Congress chief said. She said she was aware that the matter was before the Supreme Court.

Although it was to have been an apolitical visit, Gandhi’s address to Aligarh was keenly watched by the community ahead of a general election, which some analysts predict, could be less than a year away.

She held up university’s multi-cultural traditions, referring to its “Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb”, a well-known phrase Muslims proudly use to describe Hindu-Muslim cultural confluences in British-era Awadh.

Had the visit gone through, the Congress leadership would have got a first-hand opportunity to gauge the political mood in the aftermath of the Afzal Guru’s hanging. The government has faced criticism from various quarters for the execution and there had been some resentment on the university campus, popular with Kashmiri students.

Is it probably the case, as some rumours suggest, that this could have weighed in on her decision to visit the university?

Gandhi attributed her aborted trip to rainy weather — much of north India faced squally conditions last week. She was supposed to take a helicopter to the venue, which was not possible.

Yet, I am sure she would have got a warm and uproarious welcome by Aligarhians.

Muslim educator Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan had founded the Aligarh Muslim University (then Anglo-Mohammedan Oriental College) after returning from England in 1875. Modelled on the Cambridge, it was to serve as India’s first western-style university for Muslims.

The university has been the alma mater of many Muslim elites and a political nerve centre. India’s vice-president Hamid Ansari pursued an MA degree in political science at the university and later earned his doctorate there.

The key question remains how forcefully Gandhi would intervene to bestow the minority status.

Aligarh’s minority status – in the eyes of Muslims — constitutes a bedrock freedom, given to them by the Constitution’s hallowed Articles 30 and 29, which govern fundamental rights. One of these allows minorities to set up and run their own institutions. Fundamental rights can never die, cannot be forfeited or surrendered.

Aligarh’s minority status was struck down on a technical, not substantive point. Although the original institution was set up by the community, led by Sir Sayyid, the university was later set up by an Act of the then colonial British government.

In 1968, the university’s minority character was overturned in the landmark Azis Pasha case, which said that, although initiated by Muslims, the university itself was set up by an Act of British Parliament. This may be a technically valid point, but that does not materially alter the institution’s character.

The former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, has similarly promised to do all it takes to restore the minority character of the university. However, action speaks louder than words.

The government should now intervene to change its stance in the courts. Otherwise, Gandhi’s promise of support and her endorsement of the university’s historical character will be seen as mere tokenism, which doesn’t cut ice with Muslims now the way it did in a bygone era.

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