On Oct. 29, 1920, in response to Gandhi’s call to boycott educational institutions run by the Regime, at a moment of confluence of the anti-colonial Islamic activism and pro-independence aspirations of the politically radical Indian Muslim intelligentsia, a small group of nationalist teachers and students quit the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in protest against its pro-British leanings.
Born out of a political crisis during the Khilafat Movement, Jamia struggled immensely in its earlier days, particularly in regard to financial resources and infrastructure. Often viewed as a threat to AMU, the ‘Muslim Oxford,’ its expenses were borne by Hakim Ajmal Khan, the first Amir-e-Jamia, from his own pocket. Also, Dr. Ansari and A.M. Khwaja toured India and abroad to collect funds for this enterprise thus preventing an otherwise certain collapse.
Maulana Mohamed Ali Jauhar, a freedom fighter and Khilafat leader was appointed the first Shaikh-ul-Jamia (Vice-Chancellor) in 1920. He took part in the Round Table Conference and was an influential journalist, Jauhar being his pen name. Jamia sent volunteers across the country to motivate people to fight for India’s freedom and participated in the Bardoli resolution. As a consequence, the British soon imprisoned many of its teachers and students. The early years were marked by drive, daring and an audacity to do things for the first time.
Mohamed Ali took care of everyday affairs and to establish normalcy, he introduced the syllabus and lectures, essential to any educational institution. The teaching classes began with a full hour dedicated to rapid exegesis of the Holy Quran. Informal lectures continued until formal classes commenced. The students were instructed in theology, economics and history interspersed with the works of Mir Taqi Mir and Mohammad Iqbal, until a formal curriculum was finalised. A students’ union too sprang up in the first year. By 1922, education rather than party politics absorbed the fraternity. Zakir Hussain joined the teaching staff during his tenure, which ended in 1923. Mohamed Ali was followed by Mir Abdul Majeed Khwaja, who had held high offices in the Khilafat movement and the Congress party, and was associated with Jamait-Ulamae-e-Hind. He was also a close associate of Jawahrlal Nehru and a great advocate of Hindu-Muslim unity. He took keen interest in the Khilafat movement and went to England as a member of the Khilafat delegation (1920), led by Dr. M.A. Ansari.
In 1925, as crisis loomed large, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Dr. M.A.Ansari and A.M. Khwaja, supported by Gandhi, shifted Jamia from Aligarh to Karol Bagh in New Delhi. It followed Gandhi’s constructive programme for self-reliance while he took to Charkha and Takli as favoured vocations. W.C. Smith noted in his book “Modern Islam,” that the move to Delhi “marked the end of spirit of pure opposition to Aligarh and the government. In its new home, it embarked upon a more positive programme.” And truly, Jamia was coming out of Aligarh’s shadow and unfurling its wings and readying itself for newer challenges. However Jamia’s patrons were convinced the institution could only be saved by ‘someone possessing a dynamic personality, by someone imbued with a faith—the more to elevate, the more depressing the circumstances—a creative urge that is not stifled by wants of precedents and patterns, and a patience that thrives on adversity.’
That dynamic personality was Zakir Hussain, who arrived in 1926, armed with a doctoral degree from Berlin along with Dr. Abid Husain, a Ph.D in Education, and Dr. Mohd. Mujeeb, an scholar in History from Oxford.
One of the first steps they took was the introduction of the hugely popular evening classes for adult education. This movement was later to become, in October 1938, an institution called Idara-i-Taleem-o-Taraqqi. It got so popular that separate rooms had to be built to accommodate the students. The physical shift to Delhi had allowed for infrastructure development and academic planning. It presented more possibilities to attract better teachers and students. However, some observers noticed that the heady fervour of the early days had disappeared; others commented on how the fun-filled zesty evenings in the Aligarh kothis had become a thing of the past. Hence in 1927, Jamia moved yet again, but this time it was only a short distance from its original location. A few kothis were rented in a neighbourhood closeby to move the boys to better living quarters.
In 1928, Hakim Ajmal Khan passed away and that was the beginning of the second financial crisis, as it was Hakim Sahib who had been meeting most of Jamia’s financial needs. The leadership of Jamia then moved into the hands of Dr. Zakir Husain, who became its Vice Chancellor in 1928. To resolve Jamia of these frequent crises, a group of young Jamia teachers, led by Dr. Zakir Husain, took a pledge to serve Jamia for the next twenty years on a salary not more than Rs. 150. This group was called the ‘Life Members of Jamia’. As a rule, the lowest paid employee was paid first, with the vice-chancellor to be paid last.
Jamia’s department of Printing and Publications was trifurcated in 1928 with the newly established Jamia Press at Darya Ganj, Urdu Academy, and Maktaba Jamia under the charge of Prof. Mujeeb, Dr. A. Husain and Mr. Hamid Ali respectively. Dr. Zakir Hussain was one to surmount his troubles and rise to greatness—great as a noble character and greater still as the man who raised high the flag of freedom and unity. His rationalist enthusiasm left no secrets undisclosed, it allowed for no ambivalences or hesitation. He left a mark not only as a teacher, but also as a friend, colleague, guide and philosopher to many. His tenure saw many visitors to Jamia, which included Husein Raouf Bey, captain of the destroyer Hamidite during World War I, Behdjet Wahbi of Cairo and Akbar Hydari who gave a grant for construction of the Secondary School. The major step of shifting the campus to Okhla was taken and the foundation stone was laid on March 1, 1936 and Jamia was registered as a society in 1939. The basic emphasis of Jamia was on evolving innovative education methods. This led to the establishment of a teachers’ college (Ustadon ka Madrasa) in 1938. Gandhi visited the campus and presided over a lecture by Halide Edib, declaring, ‘When I come to Jamia, I feel I have come home’. In 1939, Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi, a theologian and a freedom fighter, came to stay in Jamia on the invitation of Dr. Zakir Husain. He started a school of Islamic Studies in Jamia, called Baitul Hikmal, propagating the ideology of Shah Waliullah. After guiding Jamia through a financial and ideological crisis, Dr. Hussain went on to assume many posts and finally became the President of India.
He was succeeded by Dr. Mohd. Mujeeb, a passionate and conformed reformist, in 1948. Two years later, Jamia was visited by the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Rajendra Prasad and Prince Mukarram Jah. Also, in 1956 by Crown Prince Amir Faisal of Saudi Arabia.
Son of a rich Lucknow barrister, Dr. Mujeeb was passionately involved with Jamia and was one of its longest serving vice-chancellors. He lobbied hard for University Grants Commission (UGC) recognition but was rejected in two lines after a wait for two years. However, eventually in 1962, Jamia was declared a Deemed University under the UGC Act. His tenure also saw a visit by the then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi and President V.V. Giri during 1970, the Golden Jubilee year. The same year saw the beginning of construction of Jamia’s mosque through the efforts of Saeed Ansari. Completed with the help of university employees, it opened to the faithful in 1975. Prof. Mujeeb oversaw the establishment of major units, notable among which are the School of Social Work in 1967 and the Zakir Hussain Institute of Islamic Studies in 1971. Prof. Mujeeb was known to take pride in Jamia being co-educational and under him, Jamia commenced its Ph.D course.
He was succeeded by Masud Husain Khan in 1973 who served until 1978. During his time, Jamia was visited by President F.A. Ahmad (1975) and a year later by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi once again. Two years later, Prime Minister Moraji Desai too paid a visit to the university. During the term of the next Shaikh-ul-Jamia, Anwar Jamal Kidwai, who took over in 1978, a number of departments and centers were established. These included the Faculty of Humanities and Languages, Natural Sciences, Social Science and the State Resource Centre in 1981. During his time, the president of Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat, paid a visit to the university in 1982 at the height of Israel’s invasion into Lebanon. A year later, the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre and the Centre for Coaching and Career Planning were founded. He retired from the post in 1983, and was then succeeded by Dr. Ali Ashraf.
From studying in the Patna University, Dr. Ashraf went on to complete his Ph.D from Cornell University after being awarded the Fulbright and Smith-Mundt Scholarship. At Jamia, he was with the Political Science Department and his professional career included associations with IIT Kanpur, IT-BHU, Planning Commission etc., besides authoring numerous books and papers. He pioneered the establishment of the Faculty of Engineering and Technology and the University Computer Centre.
In 1987, the Academic Staff College was founded and the same year saw President Zail Singh deliver the convocation address. The next year witnessed Jamia Millia Islamia being made a Central University by an act of Parliament and also the establishment of the Academy of Third World Studies. In the year 1989, the Faculty of Law was established as Syed Zahoor Qasim was appointed the next vice-chancellor. The same year HRD Minister Shri P. Shiv Shankar delivered the convocation address. During his tenure, in 1990, two Special Convocations took place; a degree was conferred on president of Maldives, Mammon Abdul Gayyum, and another one upon Yasser Arafat.
Bashiruddin Ahmed assumed the office next in 1992 and served Jamia for the next four years. A delegation of Chinese vice-chancellors visited the university during his term in the year 1993.
The next years for Jamia were going to be significant; both in terms of infrastructural development and academic progression. Years ago, it was A.J. Kidwai who laid down the template along on which the university was to develop, even after his retirement. Today, Jamia holds a distinguished position as it offers courses in education ranging from nursery schools to post-graduate courses.
Mohammad Ahmed Zaki, belonging to a family with eleven generations of military heritage, assumed office in 1997. Educated in the Prince of Wales Royal Indian Military College, he was selected for the Joint Services Wing and went on to be awarded the ‘Vir Chakra’ and the ‘Ati Vishisht Seva Medal’ and later a ‘Padma Shri’ for his commendable services. His tenure too oversaw two Special Convocations; a degree was conferred on Professor Edward W. Said in 1997, and another one on the renowned Turkish scholar, Prof. Ihsan Dogramaci in 1999. President Shankar Dayal Sharma visited the university to deliver the Address during the Annual Convocation in 1998. Lt. Gen. Zaki retired from the post in Jan, 2000 and was followed by Mr. Syed Shahid Mahdi.
A postgraduate, majoring in History and Political Science, Mahdi began his career as a bureaucrat after teaching at AMU for four years. He stood second in the UPSC exam and was absorbed in the administrative services. He also served as India’s Alternate permanent Representative to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome. He visited various countries as part of governmental delegations, even after becoming the vice-chancellor of Jamia. A degree was conferred on Cassam Uteem, the president of Republic of Mauritius in 2002 under his administration.
Prof. Mushirul Hasan, a Ph.D from Cambridge, occupied the office after him in June, 2004. The same year saw a number of notable events among which were the deliverance of the Convocation Address by President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Inauguration of the Centre for Jawarharlal Nehru Studies by Mrs. Sonia Gandhi and a degree, which was conferred on the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dato’ Seri Abdullah Hj Ahmad Badawi. The next year, Dr. Manmohan Singh inaugurated the Centre for West Asian Studies and in 2006, Jamia conferred a Degree on King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia. During his tenure a number of Centres were established in Jamia which included the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in 2004, Dr. K.R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies in 2005, Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Basic Sciences in 2006. In fact the university underwent massive changes during his tenure especially in the expansion of its infrastructure. Dr. Hasan was awarded various awards and honours in his career and they included the ‘Padma Shri’ and the highest French Civilian Award, ‘Officer dans I’Ordre des Palmes Academiques.’ He authored numerous books and papers and wrote extensively upon Islam in India, Partition and post-independence India.
He was succeeded by Mr. Najeeb Jung in August of 2009, who has previously served as a district magistrate and a Joint Secretary in the Indian government. He is presently a member on the board of directors of the RBI, member of Council of NCERT and serves as the chairman of the core committee constituted by the MHRD to look into different aspects of higher education. He also served as an advisor to the Asian Development Bank and is a regular columnist in various national dailies. His tenure at Jamia too has seen infrastructural development which includes hostel expansion, a Centre for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, the sports complex which was used for the Common Wealth Games of 2010. Degrees, during his present term, have been conferred upon the Dalai Lama and UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki-Moon.
Such was the commitment of these illustrious men, who served and vice-chancellors of Jamia, and guided it by their leadership in times of difficulty and indestructible optimism in the face of depravity. The loyalty exhibited by the university’s alumni is fierce and their devotion to its betterment ever-steady.
From a humble beginning with barely 80 students, Jamia has grown into an exemplary institution wherein one may complete his education from nursery to doctoral research in any field of study. The story of Jamia is one of valour, will-power and firmness of purpose, led by men who dedicated their lives to its advancement. The office of Shaikh-ul-Jamia, in particular has more stories of sacrifice and perseverance to tell than, perhaps, any other. An incident which best bears witnesses to it occurred one day in early 1925. Dr. Zakir Hussain and Dr. Abid Hussain had just decided to work in Jamia come-what-may when Prof. Mujeeb too voiced his willingness for the same. Dr. Hussain looked at him doubtfully and suggested he should not. But when Prof. Mujeeb persisted for the reason, Dr. Husain said that Jamia was not a proper place for him, his case was different. When Prof. Mujeeb remained firm, Dr. Hussain replied in a sharp tone, “If I put you in a carriage at Delhi station and take you to an open space, and tell you ‘this is Jamia Millia Islamia’, what would you do?” to which he replied, “If you called this open space Jamia Millia Islamia, I would also say that it was the Jamia Millia.” On listening to his reply, Dr. Hussain hugged him affectionately and agreed to let him join them. It was to be the beginning of a glorious legacy, a story worthy of acclaim. It was to be the story of Jamia.
[This article by Muhammed Aarif Khan was first published in ‘Fiction’ (2013) — an annual student magazine published by the Computer Society of India – Jamia Millia Islamia (CSI-JMI).]