28 January 2021 12:54 PM




A general in command?

NEW DELHI: Admiration, albeit grudgingly, seems to be growing within the Aligarh Muslim University campus for its Vice Chancellor retired Lt General Zameeruddin Shah. This is all the more remarkable as the faculty and students of AMU have a history, and indeed many would say even a tradition, of opposing the VC with protests and demonstrations against an incumbent in this post being part of the University’s chequered history.

However Shah, without really trying very hard, seems to have impressed his most ardent critics in the University about his strength of conviction and resolve. And his ability to take on the central government directly, without mincing words on issues. This seems to have disarmed the students in particular who now find themselves following the Vice Chancellor, rather than confronting him as most would have liked to do.

It is not always that students unions come together to support a Vice Chancellor on an issue that has to do with their rights and long standing demands. But they did when AMU came under attack from an aggressive media, following Shah’s “sexist” remarks that the undergraduate women could not use the main Maulana Azad library. Since the remarks were made at a public function, most attending told The Citizen that it was light hearted banter and certainly not against women per se as was being made out to be. General Shah himself---from a highly progressive family---explained the remarks in the light of ‘humour’ maintaining that he had never intended these to be construed as anti-women at all.

Interestingly, the students of both the girls College that was then in the eye of the storm and the AMU students at large took out demonstrations in his support. The VC himself refused to “hide” behind the students, and in fact sent them messages saying that the students unions did not need to protest, and that he could take care of the situation himself. So the charge that he instigated the students was without basis, as several students told this writer themselves.

Instead Shah wrote to Human Resource Development Minister explaining his situation in firm, militarist language. And made it clear to her that her concerns were without basis.

However, when the courts ruled that the undergraduate girls should be allowed to attend the library it was accepted without demur, and presently arrangements are being made to provide them with the required security to travel from the girls College to the library and back.

However, the recent position taken by the VC on the Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh controversy has increased his popularity considerably. A renowned freedom fighter the Raja, seen as a Marxist of his times, and donated land to AMU. Interestingly the BJP, perhaps without a sense of history, decided , to celebrate his birth anniversary in the AMU campus the VC objected when he realised that this could stir political trouble. And as a faculty member said, did not hesitate to write to the HRD minister Smriti Irani saying that the BJP should be prevented from doing this as it could lead to a confrontation on communal lines in the campus. Shah refused to back off despite pressure from the local BJP and stood his ground. The result is that the BJP had to back off, with Shah quite willing to celebrate the freedom fighters birth anniversary in the campus without political presence.

AMU old timers who have been watching the developments are worried that Shah will come under BJP attack, with the central government moving for his replacement. But as they pointed out, this will not be easy, and for the moment at least “the general is in command.” This is seen as a plus, particularly as most within AMU expect the minority institution to come under increasing attack from the BJP. As a old retired professor said, “at least the VC has ensured unity within the campus, and being fearless and straight in his language has stood up for what the university believes in.”

Shah is now in the process of using funds collected for the victims of the violence in Muzaffarnagar in establishing a chain of Sir Syed schools, the first to be located in the western Uttar Pradesh town that faced tremendous violence not so long ago. He has plans of “changing the face” of the university but it remains to be seen whether he will be given the space and the funds he requires for this.

Asked about the practice of appointing a general as a Vice Chancellor in minority institutions Shah told The Citizen that he did not see anything wrong in this, “so long as we are able to improve the academic environment in an university.” Significantly some who had opposed his appointment now feel that perhaps “a general” is “not so bad at this point in time.”

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