Whether AMU should have a portrait of Jinnah can be debated without unnecessarily glorifying the founder of Pakistan.
There are two entirely separate issues for consideration in the ongoing unrest at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) regarding the portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah hanging since 1938 in the student union’s office. First, should a portrait of a man who actively worked for the Partition of India, created Pakistan, and stoked hatred between Hindus and Muslims, be hung in the university? And, second, if not, what is the best way to have an earlier wrong rectified?
I say these are separate issues because if you don’t make the distinction you are likely to fall like a ripe apple in the lap of the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) goons who protested against Jinnah’s portrait. In fact, Samajwadi Party MP Praveen Nishad, who just won the Gorakhpur byelections, did exactly that. Protesting the behaviour of HYV members, he began, on TV, to praise Jinnah, comparing him to Gandhi and Nehru. This was music to the musclemen of the HYV. It was precisely the reaction they wanted. It fulfilled their principal agenda to establish that they were “nationalists”, and those opposing them were anti-nationalistic followers of Jinnah, and quite deserving to be banished — as they often say to all those who oppose them — to Pakistan.
Whether AMU should have a portrait of Jinnah can be debated without unnecessarily glorifying the founder of Pakistan. Some people can argue that this portrait was installed in 1938, when Jinnah was given a life membership of the university’s student’s union. This was prior to his becoming such a prominent pawn in the British game of divide and rule, and the proponent of Pakistan. It is also true that until the communal fires were ignited by Jinnah and his ilk, the gentleman was a prominent name among those fighting for India’s independence — a fact acknowledged then by no less a person than Mahatma Gandhi. In fact, even in the midst of the current turmoil in AMU, Swami Prasad Maurya, a BJP minister in UP, lauded Jinnah saying that his contribution to the freedom struggle cannot be ignored. History, even when it deals with people whom we now denigrate, cannot be entirely erased. There is, for instance, a prominent building in Mumbai still called Jinnah House, and a portrait of the Quaid-e-Azam hangs even now in the hallowed precincts of the Mumbai high court, in recognition of his being one of the leading lawyers of his times. If this is the case, why remove a portrait metaphorically gathering dust since 1938 in AMU?
Equally, however, there can be good reasons for AMU to consider whether the portrait needs to be removed. Whatever Jinnah’s earlier contributions may have been, he is, for most Indians — even if not for all historians — the main villain in the movement for the Partition of India. In achieving this goal, he spewed communal venom, and happily colluded with the British. He is not by any stretch of imagination someone who deserves a place of respect for Indians. As distinguished poet Javed Akhtar tweeted, it is a matter of shame that AMU still honours him with a portrait.
There can thus be two ways to look at what the HYV protestors were demanding. But there are no two ways in strongly condemning the manner in which they acted. Consider the facts. On May first, BJP MP Satish Gautam wrote to the vice-chairman of the AMU asking why a portrait of Jinnah was adorning the walls of AMU. The letter itself cannot be faulted, but what followed certainly can. The very next day hoodlums of the HYV — an organisation founded by Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of UP — barged into the AMU campus, and clashed with university students, leading to 41 people being injured — some seriously — of which 28 were students and 13 policemen. By most accounts, these goons were armed, including with lethal weapons. Most shockingly, eyewitnesses say that the police stood as mute spectators as these thugs ran amuck. After all, how could they act to reign in members of an organisation set up by the chief minister himself?
Whatever the merits of the case with regard to the Jinnah portrait, who has given the license to the HYV to take the law into its own hands? Why have its members suddenly made an issue of a portrait installed since 1938? Is the timing entirely coincidental, or is it part of a larger agenda to stoke communal hatred and division? And, even if their cause has legitimacy, why could they not wait until the university provided a reply to the letter sent by Mr Gautam? Why has not a single FIR been registered by the police against those who perpetrated this violence? Why has Yogi Adityanath not strongly condemned this hooliganism by members of his own organisation? Has he forgotten that he is now the chief minister of a state, not an activist of an ultra-right wing organisation of self-anointed protectors of Hinduism? And, was it a coincidence that the violence was unleashed inside the campus just moments before former vice-president Hamid Ansari was to visit the university?
These are exceptionally important questions. Jinnah may have been “an enemy of the nation”, as UP’s deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya indignantly proclaimed. But, so are members of organisations like the HYV, if they believe that they have the ordained right to usurp the law and resort to violence against anybody who disagrees with them. There are reports that HYV worthies have stormed into churches in Gorakhpur and elsewhere and disrupted services. In Gurgaon, Haryana Muslims offering namaz on Friday were stopped by Hindutva outfits that went around the city shouting slogans like “Jai Shri Ram” and “Bangladesh wapas jao”. Jinnah died long ago. But are we seeing the spirit of communal divisiveness that he represented being reincarnated in the behaviour of right-wing goons in the name of Hinduism, even as authorities mandated to uphold law and order remain mute spectators? What kind of anarchy is this, and where will it lead to? That is the central issue in what is unfolding now at AMU.