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When A Non-Aligarian Speaks (Lt. Gen. Syed Ata Hasnain-Retd.)

Travelogues may really not be a part of this e-paper’s scope yet when you make a brief foray into a neighboring town and it excites you with what you observe, you are duty bound to share impressions that you have returned with. Aligarh houses the famous Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) about which there has been more negative than positive publicity; remarks about its falling standards and inability to modernize. When one hears of such things it is not good to accept it at face value. Always better to take a look yourself if it is within the scope of your capability. I am not an Aligarhite (Aligarian), so to say but have many friends who have emerged from the hallowed precincts of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s iconic institution. I have heard and read so much about it and now I have the honor of being appointed the Visitor’s nominee on the University’s Executive Council. The Visitor happens to be the President of India.

This is just a short travelogue of a day spent at AMU. I was there for a day; left at 5 AM and returned at 7 PM. In these 14 hours, including travel time I underwent a profound change in my perception about AMU and it gave me an insight into how institutions can become the vehicle of social change, if you want them to be so. It may be interesting to take note of my ignorance and my observations and provide a critique about what I write. What was the occasion? Nothing so earth shaking; I was invited to speak to a gathering on a supposedly mundane subject, ‘Internal Security Challenges of India and Human Rights Concerns’, a subject not usually touched by educational institutions in India. The reason, simply because this is an issue taken for granted by most without realizing that even more than external security it is your internal environ which gives you the capability to aspire and achieve what you have set out as your goals.

The drive to Aligarh via the Expressway and then the 47 Km segment from Tappal needs to be experienced to get a measure of the difference between evolving, modernizing India and the rusticity and lack of development in rural India at a stone’s throw from the national capital. It took me just over one hour to cover the stretch from Gurgaon to Tappal through the heart of Delhi and the two expressways. However, from Tappal to Aligarh it took over an hour and a half to cover half the previous distance through a road which I would be ashamed to call a road. Aligarh reminds you of any moffusil town of Northern India, unkempt, retarding and frozen in existence. And then I entered the University with salutes by a lot of security men and drove through narrow but clean roads which appear to be receiving much attention of the University Administration.

I was escorted by a security Gypsy from outside the town right up to Guest House Number 3. There appeared to be an air of efficiency all around; well-kept guest rooms (including name of the assistant displayed – a la Army style) and a welcome cup of tea and biscuits, well served. These are material things to which I usually give secondary importance but the soldier in me takes note of the details. Group Captain Shahrukh Shamshad, the Registrar, obviously knows a thing or two about administration. It was the courtesy all around which impressed me, including the courtesy of the faculty which had deputed its senior Professor to meet me and coordinate my talk. Young people and their teachers were going about in a hurry obviously concerned about being punctual in an institution where punctuality is a new watch word.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that I was going to share the morning proceedings with Ramchandar Guha, the famous author of The Makers of Modern India who was going to deliver the annual Sir Syed Ahmad Khan Memorial Lecture. I met Guha Sahib at the VC’s residence over breakfast. The VC, Lt Gen(Retd) Zamiruddin Shah, has been in the news for the efforts he has been making to turn AMU around and modernize it in more ways than one. The academic world hasn’t been too happy with his disciplined ways and crisp style of leadership. He has always been a no- nonsense kind of leader, who can get things done with his head and heart. The talk was to be addressed to a mixed gathering and I would be lying if I did not say that I was disappointed by the initial gathering but within 15 minutes the hall was full to the brim with no standing space available. Word appeared to have spread and in the usual ways of academic institutions gatherings take time to assemble, the new norms of punctuality, notwithstanding. I was introduced by Brigadier (Retd) Ahmad Ali, the Pro-VC (also a friend from the Army and my home town, Allahabad) and then heard with rapt attention as I held forth on the theoretical aspects of why turbulence and antipathy in society leads to violence; how such violence is treated by the State if it is simply ‘law and order’ and how if it transcends the bounds and becomes a ‘public order’ situation.

I pointed out the inability of strategic professionals to identify the stage of conflict and the part of the conflict spectrum in which a violent situation can be classified in order to structure the correct response. More often than not professionals fail to correctly advise and Governments usually ignore all advice which they live to rue. I also used Kashmir as an example to explain how we have failed to appreciate the dynamic nature of the internal conflict leading to use of violence out of proportion with that required in recent years. I also spoke of the need to balance violence with soft options without seeming to be non-professionals, the need for gender sensitivity and education in culture and faith based sensitivities of all security personnel before their employment in operations.

Two very pertinent issues need to be mentioned at this stage. Firstly, I realized during question hour that there was a large group of young Kashmiris in the audience and they had sat through listening with rapt attention; not a murmur and not a question although I was besieged outside by them with smiles and love which was a mile long (I did get some hate mail at night because I always share my email at the end of a talk). The VC later told me that he was worried that my talk may create some awkwardness. Yet, the Kashmiris displayed their maturity and although I spoke many things they may not have liked they had the courage to take it all. Obviously AMU’s environment had led to some notion of acceptance of alternative points of view. I found within me a new born respect for Kashmiri youth. I have always believed in them and I know how this generation has grown with violence around it. This aspect needs to be borne in mind whenever we interact or deal with them.

Secondly, the quality of questions pleasantly shocked me. Never have I received more mature, sensible and well-articulated questions in any educational institution or conclave. AMU’s famed articulation skills came to the fore yet again today. It was a pleasure to be with such a well-informed, mature and well-mannered audience in an institution famed for both ‘tehzeeb’ and ‘taqrir’. My presentation had ended with a Power Point slide displaying India Gate all lit up at night, with Jai Hind emblazoned across; my suggestion that presentations everywhere in the country must end with such a salutation drew applause and I could perceive that it was straight from the heart.

The interactive session could have gone on and on but for the need to bring in the next speaker for the Sir Syed Ahmad Khan Memorial Lecture. Ramchandar Guha’s introduction revealed to me that we shared the common bond of being from St Stephen’s College about six years apart. His talk was titled ‘Liberalism in the Age of Extremes’, a subject right after my heart and I think extremely relevant to the international and national environment of today. Guha identified Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Raja Ram Mohan Roy as the two earliest liberals of Modern India. The run of the talk was focused on the rapidly rising radical ideologies all around us, the lack of tolerance and the need to stand by India’s well recognized ideology of liberalism which could survive in spite of all the pressures of radical thinking. One felt good to be an Indian listening to Guha’s perceptive vision about the future of India, something I share very passionately.

The icing on the cake was the rendering of the famous AMU Tarana. I had heard of it but never witnessed its organized singing. It moved me immensely hearing Majaz Lucknawi’s words superbly sung and conducted. I would recommend that you hear it if you haven’t and repeat it if you have. It is on Youtube and you should also Google the lyrics so that you can understand the words a little better. It is an amazing composition in the finest Urdu. As soon as the Tarana was over the ‘choir’ stood ramrod straight, as did the audience while the National Anthem was sung. It made me proud once again.

Many perceive that Muslims of India do not possess that level of patriotic fervor. To them I recommend that they witness the singing of the National Anthem at the University. It will leave you moved because here was on display an utter respect to a symbol of National pride. The students and faculty alike projected just why AMU has always been known for its refined culture. More than just this symbolism I found positive body language and self-esteem placed on a pedestal. The VC obviously never wastes time or loses an opportunity to reach out with messages to his wards and the faculty on his expectations. His commentaries on both talks were good plain speaking and he linked these with the changes under way at AMU.

I returned to Delhi by 7 PM and sat for an hour researching the AMU Tarana; it continued to fascinate me and the words and music are still haunting me while I write. But to end this without the most pertinent observation would be a travesty of justice. There is something happening in Aligarh Muslim University, a serious social transformation appears on the way. The straws in the wind are just enough as yet to give an indicator. Whatever is going on it is a great thing because it is from universities that changes in society occur. It could not be happening at a more opportune time.

Even if I have to label AMU as a Muslim institution I would be found wanting if it is not mentioned that that there is a yearning for change within India’s largest minority segment. This change has to come about; that the moorings for it are within the four walls of an iconic institution, which appeared to have lost respect some years ago, is itself a great awakening. And the last observation is this all happening because there is a certain type of leadership at the helm; I can’t be absolutely sure because I come from the same ilk and it would be grossly unfair on my part to pass judgment as yet.

If I were you, I would definitely want to see for myself how change can be brought about. Perhaps, some leadership and management related institutions need to take stock. It is not easy to change something, least of all an iconic university.

Lastly, the emotive message within the AMU Tarana – “Ye abr hamesha barsa hai, ye abr hamesha barsega” is a sublime and most pertinent message to the Nation on what an institution such as this can do to transform India’s society.

*Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain [PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM (BAR), VSM (BAR)] is a retired Indian Army General Officer. He completed his school education at Sherwood College, Nainital and thereafter attended St. Stephen's College, Delhi, India, where he received a B.A. (Honours) degree in History, in 1972. General Hasnain is an alumnus of the Royal College of Defence Studies, London, and has also completed a postgraduate degree in International Studies from King's College, University of London. General Hasnain is famous in Kashmir valley as “People’s General”. We are thankful to TheCitizen where this article appeared on February 16, 2014.
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