Jamia Millia: living a nightmare with remarkable restraint (Comment)

October 5th, 2008 - 2:21 pm ICT by IANS  

For the past two weeks, Jamia Millia Islamia has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Even in my worst nightmare I did not imagine that I would walk up to my political science department one day to face mediapersons waiting to establish the identity of an alleged terrorist killed in the Jamia Nagar police encounter. When we did check the records, it emerged that Atif Amin, the student in question, had taken admission in the human rights course this year as a day scholar, though he was yet to get an identity card made, having barely attended classes for a month.The M.A. degree course in human rights like the M.A. course in public administration are unique courses - they are not offered anywhere in the capital except in our department. While our new student was dead, killed in the police encounter, our department’s name was being flashed in the media, as if its only claim to fame was our association with this unknown ‘terrorist’. Incidentally, in the Social Science School in Jamia, the political science department is the largest in terms of courses offered, student strength and number of faculty. Our department is an interesting experiment in multiculturalism - our students truly represent a microcosm of the ‘idea’ of India - coming as they do from almost two-thirds of Indian states and an equal divide in terms of Hindu/Muslim students.

The nightmare, I did realise, had just begun. Unfortunately, we had very little information on the alleged ‘mastermind’ whom some of my colleagues had barely seen for a month before he was declared dead. In the next few days, two students were arrested for their alleged involvement in the Sep 13 Delhi bomb blasts. They were students staying outside the campus, not even one was picked up from the student hostel in Jamia, a central university.

Most of my students from the human rights course looked terrified and completely lost in apprehension. More and more reports came in of students being ‘picked up’ by the police for questioning, leaving behind a trail of fear, mistrust, shock and disbelief on the campus. Many students who lived on rented accommodation in nearby areas of Jamia Nagar were simply asked to vacate rooms by their landlords for fear of police reprisals.

These ‘homeless’ students (about 2,500) had no option but to go home with no clue about their future options when they came back. Suddenly their futures seemed uncertain, their careers were at stake for reasons completely beyond their control or comprehension. An 80-year-old institution’s secular and nationalist credentials were being virtually dragged in the mud and the future of its 14,000 students being held to ransom by the alleged terror links of a couple of students. Could anything be more unfair?

More than anybody, I am aware of the personal sagas of some of our poor and middle class students - their struggle to reach a Central University in Delhi from vernacular medium schools in villages and districts of far-flung states in India, had never been easy. They were students from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and the northeastern states, for whom Jamia seemed a truly ‘happening’, and therefore a preferred, academic destination in the last few years.

Jamia had seen unprecedented expansion in the past four years with the present vice chancellor’s untiring efforts for mainstreaming the university and students were being offered core and optional courses in human rights, public administration, social work, education, management and journalism not offered anywhere in Delhi. ‘Modernization’ was the buzzword and the mood of the students upbeat. Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University were obvious role models to follow and one could sense that our students were now ready for competition and exposure. Debate, dialogue and discuss - this is what universities need to do to change and transform mindsets since all ideas have to be ultimately introduced/defended/fought in the public sphere in all democracies.

It was at this point that terror struck. Terror can never be justified since no cause can be greater than the right to life - which is the only inviolable and non-negotiable natural human right. You cannot have any dialogue with terror: it strikes blindly and irrationally with fixed targets at times, at others with random. The Delhi blasts which hit the public at large indiscriminately have perhaps impacted civil society in exactly the same way as the ‘post encounter aftermath’ in Jamia - break spirits, polarise communities and suffocate chances of dialogue and peace. However, none of this did actually happen in Jamia itself, where the atmosphere on campus remained hurt but peaceful.

‘Terrorism’ was being debated, so were ‘police encounters’ and I was amazed by the maturity and objectivity of my students on arguments such as these. What emerged most strongly was that we must not communalise or valorise ‘terrorism’ in any way. There was a complete consensus also to protect the secular image of the institution and the fledging careers of our students - since both were equally at stake. There was continuous resentment however at the fact that the private behaviour of students outside the campus had to be justified/condemned/defended by Jamia Millia Islamia (a public institution) - the public-private divide somehow got obliterated in all that was happening on the Jamia campus.

We, as teachers of Jamia Millia Islamia, can only hope that this will pass and that the darkest hour is indeed before dawn. The fact that our students in the past two weeks have shown remarkable restraint and courage is our only ray of light at the end of this long tunnel - a result perhaps of the legacy of hope, faith and trust in the long standing secular traditions of Jamia - bequeathed to them over the years.

(Rumki Basu is head of the department of Jamia Millia’s political science department. She can be reached at basurumki56@rediffmail.com)

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