‘For AMU, It’s A Battle Of Perceptions’

UNEASY LIES the head that wears a crown. This could be even truer of the successive vice-chancellors of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), the historical institution located in Aligarh district in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, who have struggled to eke out consensus on their methods of governance on what is the best approach to serve the interest of the students/university.

For LT GENERAL ZAMEERUDDIN SHAH, whose term as the vice-chancellor ended on May 16, 2017, his five years at the helm were even more momentous. While there were reports of his uneasy ties with the previous Union Minister for Human Resource Development, it was also during his tenure as the V-C that the university had to move court to argue its case for the preservation of its minority status. “This has been the most difficult job I have had to tackle,” Lt Gen Shah told Qatar Tribune’s MEHRE ALAM, in what turned out to be his last interview while in office as the AMU V-C.

The AMU, he pointed out in the interview, is fighting a battle of perceptions, and,”if we can correct the wrong impressions people have about us, we would certainly be the leading university of the country.”

As for the Muslim youth’s educational advancement, the former deputy chief of Army staff, said the key lies in strengthening their educational foundation. Any “ghettoization” on religious grounds is a dangerous trend for students, he noted.

Excerpts of the edited interview:

Qatar Tribune: From the army to the vice-chancellor of a premier Central university, how has the journey been for you? Did you find the transition smooth?

Lt Gen Zameeruddin Shah: The vice-chancellor’s role relates to laying down policy, public relations, garnering funds for the university and ensuring the rule of law prevails. This was a little more difficult than the Army where there is a chain of command and the rules and regulations are well framed.
In AMU, everything is vice-chancellor-centric. This leaves the vice-chancellor with very little time for contemplation or leisure. This has been the most difficult job I have had to tackle. It is unforgiving and thankless. We worked hard because of the responsibility entrusted upon us and to safeguard the interests of this historical institution.

Q: Your term as the vice-chancellor comes to an end on May 16. Are you satisfied with what the university has achieved in these past five years of your stewardship?

A: I am only partially satisfied. Our aim was to make AMU the No. 1 University by 2017. We came very close but the unfortunate incident of arson in April 2016 took a heavy toll on the perceptions about the university. All I can say is, we have laid a strong foundation and my successor should be able to achieve the goal we had set for this great seat of learning.

The AMU has recently received a certificate of the 11th rank among the Indian Universities from the National Institutional Ranking Framework India Rankings (NIRF) associated with the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. Could the university have done better?

AMU was ranked 11th among Central Universities we scored very low marks in ‘Perceptions’. If we can correct the wrong impressions people have about us and score high marks in ‘perceptions’, we would certainly be the leading university of the country.

What are the main challenges facing the university currently?

The main challenge lies in dealing with the criminal elements that enter the campus and attempt to control the students. They sponsor their elections and expect favours in return. Another challenge is the porous nature of the campus. We have had to close a large number of entry and exit gates. This has led to inconvenience but has ensured better curbs on the entry of criminal elements.

AMU has some of the renowned Centres for Advanced Learning, like its History Department, for example. What are the future prospects?

The Centres of Advanced Learning, as in the Department of History, are the pride of AMU. They have done outstanding work in the field of research and academics.

You took over as the V-C when the UPA government was in power at the Centre. Your term saw the change of guard at the Centre with the BJP-led NDA government taking over the reins in 2014. There were reports of you having troubles with the previous Union HRD minister. Has it been smooth with the current Union HRD minister? 

The present HRD Minister has always given me a patient hearing. We have full faith that he will be fair and just to the university, especially with regard to the terms of funding, which we expect to be equitable.

Your term as the V-C will also be remembered for the reason that the university has had to move court to fight for its minority status. Could you share your thoughts on the expected outcome? In case the university loses its minority status, what could the impact be on the institution?

The minority character of the university is dear to the hearts of all Aligs (alumni of the university). It has a sentimental and far-reaching significance. That’s why we deserve the right to remain a minority institution.

In the past few years there has been a debate on the issue of tolerance with several writers, artists etc. having expressed their dismay over what they term as growing intolerance. Now, there are incidents of cow vigilantes attacking people and taking the law into their own hands. Do you think the society has grown more intolerant over the years?

AMU teaches morality and large-hearted tolerance. We are a modern, secular university and we abide by that philosophy. Vigilante action can never be tolerated and we are certain that the government will take action to protect all sections of people.

You have been quoted as saying that all governments at the Centre have been biased towards AMU and none of them have treated the institution well. Do you stick to those views? 

I stick to the view that AMU has suffered inequity of funding from all governments. All central universities of equal size need to be funded adequately.

What, according to you, are the key challenges facing the Muslim community of India in terms of education? 

The key challenge facing the Muslim community is lack of education at the school level. Because of financial constraints, Muslim children cannot go to good schools and thus, are ill prepared to face open, competitive examinations for institutions of higher learning. If we can establish a chain of schools where we can strengthen the educational foundation of our children, it would alleviate the educational problems of the Muslim community.
The separation and ghettoization of children on religious grounds in schools is a dangerous trend. Another problem is the decay of old Islamic educational institutions. They have been exploited by some families. Their revival is essential.

Your name is doing the rounds as a possible candidate for the post of the next Vice President of India.

As I am to complete my term as the V-C of AMU on 16th May, the Vice President’s term is also getting over in a few months from now. It’s okay that people might be expecting such a seat for me. But as of now I can assure you that I want to relax, play golf and do something related to establishing quality schools to carry forward the rejuvenated Aligarh movement. I shall never shy away if I am called for any service which is in the interest of the nation. I want to work until the last breath of my life. Every day is a new day. You live with the kind of responsibilities and the challenges of the day.

(This article first appeared in Qatar Tribune on May 15, 2017. Below please find the web link of the article and the PDFs of the page)




To Question Or Not To Question, Is The Question

TO QUESTION or not to question, is the question. That indeed is the question that is haunting me, and dare I say, to very many like me, for quite some time now.

The question assumes an even greater relevance in this ‘age of selfies’.

The profession of pen-pushers has always been associated with the need to question, and question, and question more. But if we are in such complete awe of any person that we jostle for selfies with them, shall we ever be able to put difficult posers to him, or her? Questions, that may unsettle them?

So should journalists be jostling for selfies with others, whosoever, however high or mighty?

I can already guess some of the questions coming my way.

‘What’s wrong about (or with) selfies? I am a huge fan of this person. He is such an inspiration to me/us? It was such a privilege.’

Picture perfect, I say. But there is a problem here. True, scribes too are part and parcel of the social milieu they come from. And their perceptions are very much shaped by the social milieu.

It’s also true that the sciences engaged in mapping human behaviour do not ascribe to the theory of 100 per cent objectivity. If the subject of investigation is human behaviour, subjectivity is bound to creep in.

But would that imply that the scientist then wantonly abandons his primary tools? Can an intelligent observer of human behaviour afford to ignore the larger picture? Should they not at least try to maintain a bare minimum distance from the subject in order to arrive at an objective assessment? After all, one has to observe things from a distance if one wants to present an unbiased picture. Try one must, even if cent per cent detachment from the subject may be an impractical idea.

For journalists, therefore, very much like social scientists, it’s imperative not to look at things from the prism that others have reserved for them.

Selfies are selfies. But what about the questions?

If we are not supposed to ask questions then what is this business of high tea with the collective of scribes? Is this journalism? Or, as we all suspect, are we PR guys masquerading as journalists?

We are no longer asking questions. We are churning out ‘truth’ as others want to get it manufactured through us. That, indeed, is a colossal tragedy.

While there is nothing wrong to stress our social affiliations or groupings or even the primordial loyalties, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell us from the well-oiled propaganda machinery.

And, the way we have been giving our basic journalistic ethos a go-by, whatever we may be left with, we are bound to jostle for those selfies more often now at the cost of professional pride and competence.

It’s the job of a journalist to inform. It’s not just about taking dictations.

Which brings me to what Romila Thapar was quoted as saying in that New Delhi meeting: “There are more academics in existence than ever before but most prefer not to confront authority even if it debars the path of free thinking. Is this because they wish to pursue knowledge undisturbed or because they are ready to discard knowledge, should authority require them to do so.”

The whole debate here is about the path of free thinking. If we have the liberty of thinking, then as a natural corollary to that, we also have to have the liberty to ask questions — difficult questions, questions that make others grope for the exit route.

In the imperfect society that we live in today a plethora of questions are begging our attention. So why are we not asking those difficult questions?

Have we, in our over-zealousness for selfies, forgotten to delve deeper into our inner selves and look at things as they are, and not what we have assumed them to be.

And, if we have wilfully chosen to be silent, can we do justice to our profession?

It’s even worse if our silence turns out to be a selective one.

I believe there’s no pressing need yet to write an obit piece on the journalism of courage. But one must confess that the trend in the Indian media these days is forcing us to revisit the moot point time and again: to question or not to question?

That, I reiterate, is the question.

(This article first appeared in the Times of Oman on October 30, 2014. Below please find the page)

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An Ode To A ‘Pucca’ Indian

MF HusainTHERE WAS was something about Maqbool Fida Husain that almost every journalist who met him in his forced exile days noticed, unfailingly. What’s more, most of these scribes ended up creating the edifice of their stories on this particular facet. But then, there was an irony here.

These words were in almost cent per cent cases, ac- cording to my guess — hardly spoken at all! And yet, one ended up ‘reading’ it almost every moment one spent with him. His eyes would say it. His body language would churn out ample indications. Those bursts of sudden, almost unannounced, silence would say it all.

Having had the fortune of spending some precious time with him and among the few ones to interview him in detail in his ‘exile’ years, I almost found the decibels of those unspoken words deafening.

Now, let me put to rest this puzzle straightaway. One is talking about the man’s yearning for his native country. That’s the reason I was least amused to read what Bol- lywood’s dhak dhak girl Madhuri Dixit, one of Husain’s favourite muses, had to say about him: “He was a pucca Indian at heart”.

Madhuri described in a few words what most of our fraternity of scribes have always known: Husain’s uncon- ditional love for his country. One almost feels like saluting her for putting our words into her mouth.

Yesterday, as Husain Sahab was laid to rest at Brookwood cemetery at Woking in Surrey, south of London, I couldn’t help feel that tinge of a piercing, and strange, melancholy. And it was time for nostalgia as well.

I still remember how confidently Husain had told me, much to my amazement, that he would be visiting India soon, during that interview in a villa in Jumeirah in Dubai, in February 2007.

When? I had promptly asked. Silence… I repeated my question. Silence again. Waiting to lap up a scoop of Himalayan heights, I had persisted with my ‘when’.

This time, there was some bodily movement, some awkward stances, some uneasiness, a deep breath. I got the message. So I changed the topic almost instantly, mindful of the fact that this was going to be a detailed in- terview, and not a quickie.

On the hindsight, it all seems more unreal than real now. A 95-year-old man, globetrotting, mainly Dubai and London, and later Qatar, but unable to visit a land that he had so loved, even breathed!

An artist whose brush so finely captured the nuances of a great eclectic culture, but those very creations not getting an iota of physical space in distinguished art galleries in that very land!

One could agree, or disagree with the charges his critics levelled against him, depending on one’s definition of rationality. Those in the former category had been most vocal over the past few years so one could hear them from a long, long distance, loud and clear, bang on target.

Those in the latter grouping had been barely audible. If they were able to mumble a word or two, they would almost always get blown away in the hustle and bustle of the din.

Without delving into the polemics of this particular facet, one would rather ask a few questions to oneself, now that Husain is no more. Did Husain love India?

Was Husain a less patriot than those who had been baying for his blood all along?

Did he hurt the feelings intentionally, or whether he just went ahead about doing — what all he painted — at the call of the artist within him? And, if he had indeed hurt the feelings intentionally, did he ever say he was not ready to disown some of his own works, or that he was unwilling to tender an apology? Also, did he not face the ire of the members of his own community on account of his creations, albeit a film called Meenaxi:

A Tale of Three Cities, and not a few pieces of painting that had earned him the ire of a section of the majority community? And now a question for those who loved him: did they do enough to convince the 90-plus man to catch the next flight back home, or, not to surrender his passport permanently? Didn’t the political class fail him?

And last, but not the least: did he breathe his last long- ing to at least once touch the land that had given him the wherewithal to shine on the world stage like an international jewel? By now, we all know of his last wish to be buried in the land where he breathed his last. So, a supplementary question: was that fair enough?

What his youngest son Owais said, when asked for a comment on behalf of the family after his death, per- haps best summed up the momentous occasion and the momentous man they called the Picasso of India: “There were many absences, but even in his absences, there was a lot of his presence….”

It is this presence that I was talking about.

(This article first appeared on the Edit page in the Times of Oman newspaper on June 12, 2011. Below please find the page)

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