An Unending Mission
Tanvir Ahmad sahib,
Members of the Committee
Aligarians of different vintages in the United States,
Ladies and gentlemen.
Jahan jaeen wahan tera fasana chair dete hain
Koi mehfil ho tera rang-e-mehfil yaad aata hai
I begin with an apology. This invitation was extended earlier by Nausha Asrar sahib and I deferred it for subjective rather than objective reasons. The lesson I draw is that postponement is not necessarily beneficial.
Today is an occasion for recollections. Of all the human sentiments, nostalgia about youth is perhaps the most natural because it is a mix of
pleasant happenings of the past. Memory is selective and recall voluntary; achievements become larger than life and moments of truth glossed over. Old albums are searched for a cherished group photograph and its discovery brings forth joyful recollections.
Needless to say, each of us recalls our AMU period in a manner that is unique. I have done likewise for the period I spent there as a student and many decades later as Vice Chancellor. In the latter responsibility, I discovered that much had changed. I shared my agony with a very senior, long retired, Aligarian. He answered me in a couplet:
Waa-e-nakami mata-e-karwaan jata raha
Kaarwan ke dil se ehsas-e-ziyan jata raha.
He was right and not right. Times had changed and so had some of the purposes of existence. What had not changed was an ingrained human
desire for seeking success.
The audience before me today, of different generations, represents good examples of success. What motivated you? At what stage of your AMU
period did the process began or took shape? Did the urge dawn post-AMU?
Where and when did this journey begin?
Your Federation’s statement of objectives states that it has an ‘over arching mission to promote modern education and support students in advancing their professional goals’.
Some home truths have to be faced. Muslims in India, over 14 % of our population and numbering around 200 million, are not homogenous in terms of class and caste. Data on the marginalization of Muslims in urban India, where a substantial majority of them reside, sheds much light on this. An eminent sociologist studied a few years back the specifics of Muslim presence in ten of the biggest urban Muslim conglomerations; this included Aligarh and two of its localities: Shah Jamal and Sir Syed Nagar. This audience is familiar with the contrasting social characteristics of both.
In October 2008 I was invited to address the World Summit of AMU Alumni. I opined on that occasion that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s mission in 1875
succeeded in highlighting the centrality of modern education that to him meant the spirit of rational thinking and scientific enquiry. He succeeded to a point but in the context of his times failed to go beyond it. I discerned four reasons for it:
- a failure to appreciate the need for universal education particularly at the primary stage;
- a failure to appreciate the need for women’’s education and its relevance for educating new generations;
- a failure to adopt creative ventures in education independent of government agencies as was done by other communities in India; and
- a failure to appreciate the need for organized philanthropy.
I suggested to the gathering that it should become the catalyst for a corrective, beginning at the grass root level. I am aware that this will come across a mental block since the famed Muslim egalitarianism on display in the mosque tends to be forgotten beyond its confines.
A good contemporary example proving the contrary is before us is the Sikh community and its educational and philanthropic institutions all over India. Equally relevant right before you in New York and elsewhere in the United States is the Jewish community.
Why have we failed to do likewise, apart from eloquent expression of grievances? Lack of resources is not the answer; perhaps it lies in the
absence of a sense of commitment.
The Aligarh fraternity should therefore seek to locate in their own way micro project for primary education, facilitate to the extent possible their viability and propagate in them the need to inculcate a spirit of competiveness so that it can draw maximum benefits from government
scholarship schemes, seek equity (not concessions) from the government and mobilize opinion from religious endowments (Awqaf) for educational
and professional institutions whose focus at all times should be on quality and relevance.
I am aware that things are changing, that much good work is being done now, particularly in southern Indian states and in Maharashtra. Commendable initiatives have been taken to establish medical and engineering colleges. Yet, this does not fill the gap of over half a century;
nor does it focus on the inadequacy of the feed stock of competent school leaving graduates who can avail of these facilities without seeking
reservations that are becoming increasingly difficult legally.
Official and NGO data shows Muslims to be almost at the bottom of the social and educational pyramid. A resultant handicap is the low though
improving number of Muslims succeeding in competitive examinations for middle and senior level government jobs. This is all the more necessary
because subtle display of prejudice or discrimination is evident in some key areas of governance and has to be overcome by proven competence.
Allow me to take the liberty of suggesting that members of this audience, in small groups and in their own chosen areas, take the initiative of opening or supporting the opening of primary and secondary schools for the children of the least privileged segments of Muslim community, daily wage earners, who otherwise are too busy with the problems of existence to worry about educating their children and who would be happy enough if a child at the age of 10 or 12 himself or herself becomes a wage earner and thereby lessen the burden on parents by contributing to the daily wage packet.
The theme of today’s Convention is not pleasant to hear or recall: ‘Coronavirus: Lessons, Challenges, and Role of Aligs.’ I understand that a
very large number of Aligs: 46 on one count – former teachers, members of faculty and students – became victims of this pandemic in and around AMU itself. I do not know the numbers elsewhere in the country or here. I offer my condolences. May Allah bless the departed and give fortitude to their near and dear ones to bear this irreparable loss. I believe that Aligs, individually and collectively, rendered service wherever they could. Lessons to learn there are many; more will be learnt as we survey the full impact of the calamity.
Allow me to touch upon another aspect of AMU’s mission. Its purpose was, and should remain, modern education and rational thinking. How do we
interpret it in the second decade of the 21 st century and in a fast changing world?
What characterizes it individually and collectively, more so for those who travelled beyond the shores of India and are now gainfully employed and settled here? A visitor from the land of their origin is expected to say some things about it.
India is a status quo power and does not seek territories of others. It is committed to working for a peaceful world and a peaceful South Asia.
Doubts about these commitments are raised at times and are responded appropriately. We participate regularly in all the activities of the global community including UN Peace Keeping. We hold that new technologies for the benefit of humankind are shared globally and must not be monopolized.
Today the global scene stands transformed. Two decades of the 21st century have witnessed changes in power structures. As with earlier bipolarity, uni- polarity too has collapsed. The United States, despite the size of its economy and technological superiority, is a chastened power. Europe has discovered its strength in a non-homogenous European Union. The Soviet Union has been replaced by Russia and a number of its erstwhile units are seeking their own place in the sun, unsure of their affinity to the former arrangement. The Arab world, linguistic affinity apart, hardly agrees on any core unifying agenda. Israel has succeeded in securing its place in the sub-region.
For us, the priority has to be the immediate neighbourhood in South Asia where the progress of regional cooperation has been tardy. Relations with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Maldives are in good shape but problems persist in two areas.
China is a neighbour with whom we have a long border with disputed segments as also environmental issues of a complex nature. It is militarily
and economically stronger. There have been periods of military confrontation followed by commitments to maintain the status quo. There exists a vibrant trading relationship, adverse yet beneficial to segments of our economy. China’s economic progress is impressive but is slowing down.
Its political structure and social cohesion is impressive. Its plans to expand influence on land and sea are at times unnerving. On the other hand, the outside world is barely aware of its diversities and its domestic tensions and problems.
Pakistan is a neighbour with some affinities. Here the subjective is as relevant as the objective. The legacy of 1947 and perceptions emanating
from it remain relevant in varying degrees with actors and spectators. It is a nuclear power and uses this status to its benefit. Despite this, wisdom and prudence makes a normal relationship unavoidable despite political and other predilections.
Our relations with the United States in all fields have made good progress in recent decades. It is also reflected in the presence of the second largest expatriate community here. Its members are happy and gainfully employed to the benefit of both our societies.
The United States is a vibrant democracy. The American social scene is open and diverse. This diversity at times gives vent to unsocial and
intolerant sentiments. Two Indian newspapers – the Economic Times and Indian Express – carried reports a few days back of a survey of hate crimes against Asian Americans and of ‘Indian Americans regularly encountering discrimination.’ The Indian Express also cited a New York Times report. The survey was undertaken by credible scholars and can be read in full on the website of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace under the caption ‘Social Realities of American Indians.’
These attitudes regretfully can also be found in other countries against minority segments of population on grounds of colour, race, religion, food habits, and even a mixture of these under the general category of being the “other”. Above all, they exist in our own land in discriminatory attitudes and even hatred against religious or regional minorities. So the experience is not unique; it is nevertheless unwelcome and despicable whenever and wherever it surfaces.
How do we react to them? Do we reply in kind? Is it likely to be productive in the face of various odds that may surface?
The alternative is to resort to law and to legal remedies, to reasonable contestation, and to support of saner opinion in societies. These exist in American and Indian societies and have been in evidence here in recent months. The process may be time consuming but is unavoidable.
Let me recall a lesson learnt in AMU by all of us:
- An Aligarian does not forget the lessons of civility.
- A good citizen too resorts to it in times good and difficult.
- A good Muslim will at all times recall what is said in the Book:
“Ya aiyuhal lazi-na aaminu istaeenu bis-sabr was-salaat inn al- Allah-ha min al sabireen”
O ye who believe! Seek help with patient Perseverance and Prayer: for God with those who patiently persevere” (II.153)
This patience and perseverance is also required of a good citizen.
Thank you for inviting me today. I wish you good health, happiness andsuccess.
Was-salam o alaikum wa rahmat ul Allah