Jamia Millia Islamia — the Beacon of Hope


By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Friday, November 14, 2008

The only Indian university to play host to two Saudi kings is Jamia Millia Islamia. King Saud visited this historic university in Delhi in 1956 and more recently King Abdullah visited it in January 2006. This university played a key role during India’s freedom struggle. It was established with the specific purpose of inculcating in its students a sense of belonging to the nation and to throw off the yoke of British imperialism.

The university has in its 88 years of existence produced some of the best politicians, writers, journalists, theologians, academics and other highly qualified professionals in various fields. A substantial section of Indian professionals working here in the Kingdom is a product of Jamia Millia Islamia. This was evident during a well-attended event organized by the university’s illustrious alumni in Riyadh recently.

Unfortunately, the university has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Some of its students were said to have been involved in anti-national activities. However, so far it has remained just that — an allegation. Nothing has been proven against the students of Jamia. Increasingly, the allegations of the Indian police are being challenged by the country’s robust civil society, which includes prominent lawyers, academics, judges, journalists and human rights activists.

Everybody is coming to the defense of this institution precisely because of the historic role it has played over the years in promoting the secular ethos of the country.

What is so special about Jamia? The best answer came from Shafaatullah Khan, founder of the Jamia Millia Islamia Alumni Association in Riyadh: “Jamia Millia Islamia is a saga of dedication, conviction and vision of a people who worked against all odds and saw it grow step by step. They, as Sarojini Naidu said very aptly, built up the Jamia Millia stone by stone and sacrifice by sacrifice.”

Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature, called Jamia “one of the most progressive educational institutions of India.” In 1947, after independence when riots shook northern India, Jamia’s campus remained calm and free from any violence. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, India’s freedom hero, termed it “an oasis of peace in the Sahara of communal violence.”

Hifzur Rahman, who throughout his years at the Indian missions in Jeddah and now in Riyadh has played a positive role in building the cultural bridges between India and Saudi Arabia, said negative media reports should not dishearten anyone. “These things happen in the life of an institution. Let us reinforce and remember the secular character of Jamia. Its promotion of patriotism, peaceful coexistence, communal harmony and service to humanity has been unimpeachable.”

According to Rahman, Jamia Millia Islamia is the only university in India that has no query of religion in its admission/application form. “The candidate is required to write only his name, and nationality,” he said.

The second point that he highlighted was that Jamia was the brainchild of a galaxy of Muslim theologians of India, with active support from Gandhi who was a religious and practicing Hindu. These Muslim scholars included Shaikh-ul-Hind Maulana Mahmud Hasan, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the first education minister of independent India, who wrote his famous commentary on the Holy Qur’an, and Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar.

Another illustrious Jamia alumnus who spoke on the occasion was Azra Naqvi, a prominent writer and journalist. She said she was proud to be an alumna of Jamia. “I attended Jamia’s Nursery School, which was founded in 1955 by Gerda Philipsborn, a German lady who was a close friend of Dr. Zakir Husain, one of the founders of Jamia. When I wrote a term paper about my early childhood education during a course in Canada, my teacher and classmates were really astonished to hear that such an ideal nursery school existed in India.”

Naqvi said secular and humanitarian educational philosophy of Jamia was the hallmark of this prestigious institution. “Recently I met a very senior alumnus of Jamia, Jatender Kumar in the States who came to India as a young child with his family from Lahore after Partition. For him, Jamia is a symbol of highest human values. In newly independent India, Jamia started education and community centers in different parts of Delhi, such as Balak Mata Center in Bachon Ka Ghar in Old Delhi, adult education centers in the neighboring villages of Okhla where Jamia moved to, after its campus in Karol Bagh, Delhi, was burned and ruined in the riots of 1947. These centers used to cater to the needs of people irrespective of their religion.”

The president of the alumni association, Mohammad Muneeb, who works as a senior executive in Riyadh, recalled the horrors of communal incidents in India. “We at the university have always been taught about the virtues of secularism, and we are fully alive to the historic role that our university played in the country’s independence.” He urged the Indian media to play a constructive role and not to whip communal passions. He asked for an impartial probe into the recent incidents that have caused grief to all those associated with Jamia.

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