On April 3 Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented a gold-plated replica of the Cheraman mosque at Kodungallur in Kerala to the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz. It was, by any reckoning, far better a gift than the 2,000 kg of precious sandalwood he gifted to the Pashupatinath temple in Nepal's capital Kathmandu. At that time I wrote that it would have been better if he had given 2,000 computers to the children of Nepal, one of the least developed countries.
I liked the gift because it helped to remove the impression among many of Modi's own supporters that Islam came to India as the religion of conquerers and it spread because of the liberal use of sword. The mosque was the first to be built outside of Arabia. It was built during the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammed. I wondered what right Modi had to gift a mosque replica when he was among those who proudly destroyed the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in 1992.
It was even more amusing that the Saudi ruler conferred on him Saudi Arabia's highest civilian award. Some of Modi's supporters went gaga over the award little realising that the Saudi rulers are usurpers and they continue in power only by misinterpreting Islam and by denying the people the democratic right to choose their own rulers.
Whatever may be one's personal opinion about Modi, he is a legitimately elected leader. At least 31 per cent of the electorate voted for him. It is a different matter that Adolf Hitler also came to power through the ballot and on the strength of his oratorical skills. He demonised the Jews as the fountainhead of all evils. Yes, the Saudi rulers also have a farce of a democratic institution. Islam is one religion that does not have a priestly class. Any senior Muslim who can lead the congregation in prayer becomes the priest for the purpose. It does not approve of the concept of dynastic succession.
Like the high priest of Masjid-i Jahān-Numā, commonly known as the Jama Masjid of Delhi, who is there only because of an accident of birth, the Saudi King became a ruler only because of another accident of birth. The Saudi rulers have as much legitimacy to speak on Islam as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has on Hinduism. In the Arab street, they are hated figures. An uprising like the Jasmine Revolution can finish the Saudi dynasty in no time.
Yes, they remain the custodians of the Great Mosque at Mecca to which all the Muslims the world over turn when they offer prayers. Not many know how they had cleverly named the country after their family's name -- Saud. Imagine how we would have reacted if the Nehru family had re-named India - Nehru India that is Bharat!
Also, I do not know on what basis Modi was chosen for the award. I won't speculate because I would, otherwise, have to explain why Muhammad bin Tughluq ordered the shifting of his Capital from Delhi to Daulatabad in present-day Maharashtra.
Be that as it may, the Kodungallur mosque is not a figment of the imagination. The mosque lost much of its old-world charm when its facade was altered. Now it looks like any other mosque. It is only when one enters it does one realise its antiquity. There is a museum attached to the mosque, set up by the Department of Culture of the Kerala Government. It was inaugurated by President Abdul Kalam.
Curiously, one of the attractions of the museum is a photograph of a North Indian Muslim. He never ruled the country like Akbar or Aurangazeb. Yet, every educated Muslim in the subcontinent knows his name and his contributions to Indian society. He is Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who set up the Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh.
The Muslims were not enamoured of the English language. They considered it inferior to Arabic, their language for prayer, and Persian, their language for administration. It was certainly not a great language. Its vocabulary was limited. Shakespeare had to coin a little over 1,000 words to convey what he had in his mind. The early Indian Christians were also not very fond of this language. For them Syriac was their language for prayer. The early Catholics also disliked English. They thought Latin was a greater language than English. Greek and Latin were certainly greater languages.
There was another language which was as great or was greater than the ancient languages of the West and it was Sanskrit. When Fr Chavara, the first Indian to become a Saint, wanted to set up a school, he chose to set up a Sanskrit school, rather than an English school. Why? The Catholics did not encourage English at that time. In fact, they positively discriminated against the language whose father of literature is Geoffrey Chaucer, born in 1343.
Sir Syed was among the first Muslims to visit Britain. He was especially fascinated by his visit to Oxford, considered the mother of universities, although that distinction should have gone to Nalanda in today's Bihar. He dreamed of setting up a similar institution in India. He was in many respects like Dyal Singh Majithia who nearly converted to Christianity. He prepared his will bequeathing all his property to a Trust which could use the money only to set up and run educational institutions and libraries.
Majithia is today remembered as the founder of The Tribune group of newspapers and the Punjab National Bank (PNB). He was at that time richer than Jamshedji Tata who built the Tata business empire. He is also remembered as a great votary of Brahmo Samaj which tried to synthesise the best in Hinduism and Christianity.
Sir Syed had the foresight to know that English was here to stay. He also realised that it was not in the Muslims own interest to ignore the language. It was pointless to study Persian when job opportunities were minimal.
The failure of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, also called the First War of Independence, and the deportation of the last Moghul chief to rule India -- Bahadur Shah Zafar -- to Burma, now called Myanmar, were clear signs that the British were here to stay. By the way, he was honoured by the exiled ruler.
He also learnt that the Bengalis were the first to learn the English language. They could easily get jobs in the British government as clerks. The Kali temple at Shimla is a lasting symbol of the Bengali presence in the British government. Incidentally, the British ruled India more from Shimla than from Delhi.
Sir Syed wanted to set up a university for Muslims. Today it is not difficult to set up a university if you have money. On April 8 I went to Savitribai Phule Kanya Inter College at Greater Noida to attend a function. On the way, I saw the sprawling campus of Galgotia University, whose owner is neck-deep in trouble. When my son got married, I bought sweets for distribution from Lovely Sweets at Jalandhar, reputed to be the best. Today they also own a University, named after their sweet shop.
Sir Syed was employed by the East India Company as a jurist. He critiqued the 1857 revolt and explained why the common people turned against the British. He was a great supporter of the British. He wanted the Muslims to study not only English but also modern science. He was at that point of time a nationalist who saw India as a beautiful bride, "whose one eye was Hindu and, the other, Muslim".
When he wanted to set up a university, he was told to set up a college first and then upgrade it to a university. That is how he set up the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh in 1875. He got it affiliated, first, to Calcutta University and, then, to Allahabad University. He collected money for setting up the college from wealthy Muslims. True, the British rulers also opened the state purse to fulfil his dream. "The then Viceroy and Governor General of India Sir Lord North Brook gave a donation of Rs 10,000 and the Lt. Governor of the North Western Provinces contributed Rs 1000 and by March 1874 the fund for the college stood at Rs 153492 and 8 ana".
Sir Syed and his successors at MAO college were also good at collecting funds. They are believed to have collected Rs 30 lakh, a princely sum those days. He died without fulfilling his desire to set up a university. At that time a university could be set up only by an Act of Parliament. Finally, Aligarh Muslim University was set up as a Central University in 1920, long after Sir Syed had been buried. In between, he had also become a controversial figure because of his alleged support for the Partition.
When the Constitution of India was drafted by the Constituent Assembly, one of the promises made to the minorities was that they would be allowed to set up and run educational institutions in the manner they liked.
Though these rights have been whittled down over the years through clever interpretations of the law -- today the national minority commission has a Hindu member, allegedly to protect the interests of Hindus in states where they are a minority -- the minorities still clutch at the promise, perhaps, like a drowning person clutching at a straw.
Last week, the Attorney General told the Supreme Court that since AMU was set up by an Act of Parliament (Legislative Council at that time) it could not be treated as a minority institution. It marked a U-turn in the Centre's approach. Taken to its logical culmination, the university will become just another university losing all its Muslim character.
The AG told the court that since it was set up by an Act of Parliament, it could not be considered a minority institution. Pray, what was the other way in which a university could be set up in 1920? By any community -- Hindu or Muslim?
Does the AG know that Sir Syed was not popular with a section of the Muslims for supporting women's education, popularising English and for aligning with the British? As the story goes, someone hurled a shoe at him and he grabbed it. Not only that, he auctioned it to raise some money for the MAO college, the forerunner of AMU.
Money was needed because the Legislative Council had asked the promoters of AMU to raise Rs 30 lakh if they wanted the college to be converted into a university. The money came, by and large, from the Muslim community. It was to promote the educational interests of the Muslims. These two considerations alone justify the minority status of the university. There are many schools and colleges in Delhi run by Malayalees, Tamils, Marathis and Telugus and they enjoy minority status because they form linguistic minorities in the national Capital. My son was a student of Kerala School, Vikaspuri, New Delhi.
Indian secularism is unique as can be inferred from this quotation: "An annual provision of 45.5 lakhs and 13.5 lakhs out of consolidated funds of India for the maintenance of Hindu temples under Article 290A of the constitution, the special status of the cow and permission to keep kirpan in no way impinge on our secularism".
The AG's submission in the apex court is representative of the attitude of the Modi government towards AMU. It had an ambitious plan to set up a campus in Kerala for which the state had liberally allotted land. However, HRD Minister Smriti Irani has been doing everything possible to stifle its growth.
True, the AG's statement in the Supreme Court is unlikely to affect the case the court is hearing., at least for the time being. There are in all seven parties involved in the case. The Supreme Court has to adjudicate whether the minority character of AMU and Jamia Millia contravenes the secular character of the Indian state.
The status of Muslims in India is no better than that of Scheduled Castes, who at least enjoy the benefits of reservation. Those who doubt my statement can read the Sachar Committee report. There are at present 46 Central Universities, 345 state universities, 123 deemed universities and 235 private universities in India. Only a few of them are run by the Muslims.
It will be a tragedy if AMU and Jamia are deprived of their minority status on specious grounds. That would be as tragic as the demolition of the Babri Masjid. By the way, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh had once battled for retaining the minority character of AMU. Smriti Irani would do well to read the Janata Party's election manifesto and Subramaniam Swamy's argument in Parliament on the subject to know that AMU without Muslim in its name will be like salt that has lost its saltiness.
Photo (Top) : Indian PM Narendra Modi holding talks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (on left) and a replica of the mosque that Modi gifted the King on the right.
The writer, a senior journalist, can be reached at email@example.com
Courtesy: Indian Currents