At Aligarh Muslim University, the Congress is caught in a bind of its own making.
It was not supposed to be like this. For the last several years, the Congress leadership has been trying to woo Muslims in the electorally important state of Uttar Pradesh, and just when its efforts seemed to be getting somewhere, the party finds itself in a fix. Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are unable to decide whether to accept a felicitation offer by Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) at this year’s annual convocation.
The acceptance of AMU’s invitation could drag them into a controversy because the university has also chosen controversial painter MF Husain, who recently kicked up a fuss by exchanging Indian for Qatari citizenship, for a similar honorary DLit to be conferred upon him at the same convocation.
Not only are the two Congress leaders exercising caution, even Husain hasn’t responded to the offer so far. As a result, the varsity’s annual convocation, normally held in March, is in a state of limbo. “We have sent letters to Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, famous painter MF Husain and former Chief Justice of India AM Ahmadi for their consent,” says Professor VK Abdul Jaleel, registrar, AMU, “They have not replied yet. We will fix the convocation date as soon as we receive replies from them.”
AYE AYE AWAITED
The wait may prove longer than Professor Jaleel expects. Points out a senior Congress leader in the loop: “Neither the Congress President nor the Prime Minister wants to step into an embarrassing situation by getting bracketed with MF Husain who only recently relinquished Indian citizenship to become a national of Qatar.”
The decision to confer honorary degrees on Sonia, Singh, Husain and Ahmadi was taken at a special meeting of AMU’s Executive Council on 22 December last year, much before the revelation of Husain’s nationality switch. Interestingly, the university’s decision came just a fortnight after Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi was given a rousing campus reception on 7 December, the day he exhorted Muslim youngsters to participate in national politics in a big way.
That event itself appeared to signal another grand warming of vibes traded by the Congress and this Muslim institution of higher learning. Set up in 1875 by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, a 19th century modernist keen to reconcile Islam with the West’s Age of Reason, its campus stayed so aloof from the party’s nationalist agenda in its early decades that it eventually took Jawaharlal Nehru to melt the ice. Nehru visited the varsity five times—the first in 1933 at the invitation of the then Vice-Chancellor Sir Ross Masood, and his last in 1962—with many a frosty phase inbetween, particularly the pre-Partition years.
The mutual ambivalence endured. Indira and Rajiv Gandhi never visited the campus, nor were they ever invited. The onset of spring, this time round, was signalled by Sonia Gandhi’s campus visit in December 2003, during the NDA regime’s last days, for the inauguration of AMU’s Nehru Study Centre. By then, the Congress was in revival mode, and winning over Muslims was one of its key goals.
Rahul Gandhi’s visit six years later was a carefully orchestrated move. After all, though comfortably back in power, party strategists know only too well that no slip-up could be afforded, be it his statements, sense of symbolism or headgear (an Aligarh fez, the kind that bothers Nehru in Discovery of India). Before his interaction with students, Rahul had visited Sir Syed’s grave as a mark of respect. The campus was impressed enough with his gestures and frankness for ripples to reach Muslims far and wide. The Aligarh Muslim University Teachers’ Association even hailed his visit as ‘historic’, calling him ‘the modern face’ of the Congress.
NERVE TO FACE THE MUSIC
Congress insiders say the party is pleased by the way things have been going, but the moment MF Husain quit India, it has had to re-assess the political risk of sharing an honour ceremony with him. On the face of it, these are qualms hardly worth having. But then, even minor misjudgments on matters of nationalism could play into the hands of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is desperate for a tool to wield against the Congress. A saffron revival in UP is the last thing the ruling party wants, given the tricky thickets of UP politics.
What seems to have unnerved the Congress even more is the fact that a section of AMU’s Executive Council, comprising people who led a campaign against Vice-Chancellor PK Abdul Aziz’s alleged financial irregularities, has started questioning the honorary degree for Husain. “As an educational institution, AMU should avoid any controversy,” says Khursheed Ahmad, a council member, “MF Husain is a great painter, but he has preferred to leave India… He is embroiled in other controversies as well. The university should avoid people like him.” Eight council members, including him, were not present at the selection meeting. “We have been boycotting Executive Council meetings since February 2009,” Ahmad adds, “when the Vice-Chancellor tried to conduct these meetings without the quorum of 15.”
The eight rebels are also at the forefront of agitations against Vice-Chancellor Abdul Aziz, against whom they first submitted a report alleging financial misconduct to Arjun Singh (then education minister, who initiated an enquiry into the matter), and later complained to President Pratibha Patil (who, in her official capacity as AMU Visitor, set up a two-member fact-finding committee this February to probe the allegations as well as counter-allegations against the complainants made subsequently).
Khursheed alleges that the honorary degrees are part of the Vice-Chancellor’s tactics to “placate the Central Government” as a way to have himself exonerated of all charges of wrongdoing. “There should be no convocation under this tainted Vice-Chancellor, whose only interest is to take political advantage of the function,” he charges.
The rebels also intend to write to the Congress President and Prime Minister, requesting them to turn down AMU’s offer. “Both are very learned and competent people. We want to honour them, but not under the tainted Vice-Chancellor,” says Khursheed.
Professor Jaleel, however, rubbishes all the allegations against the Vice-Chancellor and talk against MF Husain. “There is no move to drop the name of Mr MF Husain,” he says, “It was a unanimous decision of the Executive Council to honour him along with three others, and we are duty bound to carry it forward. Some EC members are levelling baseless charges against the university authorities. It hardly matters if MF Husain is not an Indian citizen now. Earlier he was a citizen of India, and he still remains a great painter.”
So there it is, a dilemma the Congress’ top leaders didn’t think they would have to face in the party’s effort to reach Muslims at large with goodwill gestures from Aligarh—where a calendar date is waiting to be outlined.