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A VISION FOR KEEPS - Jamia's new library may help reassert its founding principles

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Postscript Githa Hariharan   |   Published 28.12.08, 12:00 AM

It’s that time of the year again, when conditioned by custom, we conjure up images of the year that was. The point of such an exercise is to be enriched in some way. I for one like looking back on the year and its events so that I can choose something — a few words, maybe an image or two — to take with me across the border to the new year.

This year the exercise seemed a difficult one to begin with. What happened in Mumbai appeared to have diminished the rest of the year and made it irrelevant. I knew this was neither true nor rational, but that’s how it felt for a while. The shock of the Mumbai attacks settled into sadness, deepened by the war-speaking cacophony pushing its way centre stage in the place of mature reaction.

Then luckily I was invited to see a building in Delhi that was almost done. This modern building with its clean lines and elegant façade is going to be home to a large number of books and, hopefully, a large number of readers — generations of them. I walked around the spacious and empty halls of what will be the new library in Jamia Millia Islamia. There is one hall that especially invited me to linger there. This is a spacious hall, bordered on one side by a marvellous arc-shaped corridor. On the other side, it has large windows that frame the sunlit sky and trees outside. I found myself liking the hall even better when I was told that this is the general reading room. Not only will it be open to the undergraduates, but also, on certain days, to the community. The people in the locality are going to have some share in this library.

On this site still in the process of becoming, the evidence of construction all around me, I may have found the image of hope I was looking for. The fact that this new library is at the Jamia, and that it’s called the Dr Zakir Husain Library is part of the message of hope.

To me the library is a fresh reminder of Jamia’s rich inheritance. And this is an inheritance worth recalling because it suits some to invent their own communalized version of Jamia in the wake of events such as the Batla House encounter.

What is this “rich inheritance”? I have spent some time on the campus as writer-in-residence, and I have learnt a little about the vision that led its founders to set up Jamia. I have also learnt something of the complicated ways in which national events and processes influenced the evolution of the Jamia idea and institution.

The story of Jamia and its inheritance began in Aligarh. The Jamia idea was born in the throes of anti-colonial activism. The Khilafat movement fed into this activism; so did the larger aspiration for independence, which was articulated through the non-cooperation movement. The Jamia was set up in 1921 and its basic objective was to balance religious and national identities. An article in Hamdard in 1926 stated that “Jamia’s objective is that Muslims should neither follow blindly the previous ‘fixed’ path, nor should they believe that the essence of religion lies in a few problems of jurisprudence... the Jamia has instilled hatred in the heart of every student — be he a Muslim or a Hindu — against subjugation by foreign powers. It has kept its air free of transgression and prejudice. For these reasons, the Jamia is both Jamia Islamia and a national university.”

Jamia means university, and Millia refers to its national character. The founders were supported by Gandhi, who insisted the name should remain Jamia Millia Islamia and not be changed to National Muslim University. Together they built up Jamia “stone by stone”, said Sarojini Naidu, and “sacrifice by sacrifice”. Men such as Hakim Ajmal Khan hoped to make Hindu children learn something of Islam and Muslim children learn something of Hinduism. They hoped a “united Indian nationalism” would emerge from this knowledge each community would gain of the other, a nationalism that was meant to be both pragmatic and non-sectarian.

Perhaps a description of a Qaumi Hafta (community week) organized in 1927 to commemorate the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh explains what some of these ideas meant in practice. For a week, the housekeeping staff were given leave and the boys and faculty did all the work. Such Gandhian projects sometimes called for sweeping the streets in Karol Bagh — where the university then had its modest temporary “campus”. Or the boys went door-to-door, distributing spinning wheels and cotton, taking back the spun cotton and weaving it into khadi, or arranging public awareness programmes on health and hygiene among the poor in the neighbourhood. The mayhem that followed Partition did affect Jamia — how could it not? But its campus remained peaceful; Gandhi described it, at that point, as “an oasis of peace in the Sahara”.

To get back to the present, and to the new library. For a university traditionally starved of funds — to the extent that the faculty had to accept cuts in their salaries for many years — it is poetic justice that it finally has a big new library. The library is also named exactly as it should be. It is named for Zakir Husain, who devoted so many years of his life to building Jamia, to keeping it alive, and to nurturing it with his democratic style of functioning. For Zakir Husain, Jamia had a distinct task and vision. The task was to prepare “a roadmap for the future lives of Indian Muslims with the religion of Islam at its core”, but this map was to be filled with the multifarious colours of “the civilization of India”, and, in particular, “the life of the common man”. The basis of the vision was the belief that true education of their religion would imbibe in Indian Muslims “a love for their country and a passion for national integration… and prepare them to take active part in seeking independence and progress for India…”

In the long history of any institution there are, of course, ups and downs, periods when the founders’ vision shines with meaning, and other more stagnant times. But it is important — for all those associated with Jamia, for those who are afraid of what they think it stands for, and for those who vilify it, to remember its origins. Jamia was conceived as an entity with a liberal orientation, and this orientation continues to be part of its world view. Hopefully the new library and its contents will help reassert the secular vision which is an intrinsic part of Jamia’s identity, the belief that the “brotherhood of man” was the only “real tie”. An image of hope for the near future: in the place of fear and suspicion, may there be, in the rooms of this new library, in the words of the educationist, K.G. Saiyidain, “the joy of intellectual quest, a sense of championship with many kindred minds and spirits which transcended differences of language, caste and creed, a love of books and a passport into the world of ideas....”

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