Jamia Millia’s role in India’s freedom struggle

Established in 1920, the Jamia Millia Islamia University was conceived as a national institution that would offer progressive education and nationalist ideals to students from all communities, particularly the Muslims.

Abdul Rashid Agwan
JAMIA Millia Islamia is one of the few educational institutions which came into being in response to the nationalist call of freedom struggle to boycott educational institutions supported or run by the British colonial rule. It became a dream project of such stalwart national leaders as Mehmud-ul-Hasan, Mohammad Ali Jauhar, Mahatma Gandhi, Hakim Ajmal Khan and the like; and its mentors, teachers and students played a vital role during the Indian struggle for independence.
The British interference in the Muslim world in the first decade of the twentieth century, particularly in Turkey the seat of Ottoman Empire, triggered agitations the world over including India and brought the concept of caliphate into manistream debates of the time. An alumnus and teacher of Darul Uloom Deoband, Maulana Mehmud-ul-Hasan attempted during 1904-14 to organize a national war of independence against Britain with help from the Ottoman Empire. However, he was arrested in Makkah during his support campaign and exiled to Malta for a while.
Ali Jauhar became Indian National Congress President
In the wake of the Turkish War of Independence, a large number of Muslim religious leaders in India began working together around 1919 to campaign for Caliphate. Khilafat Movement was launched in 1919 by an alumnus of Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College Aligarh University, Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar, who studied modern history at Lincoln College, Oxford in 1898. Ali Jauhar was elected to become the President of Indian National Congress party in 1923.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who returned to his homeland from South Africa in 1915, became active with both the Congress and Khilafat Movement around that time. He participated in discussions on the importance of ‘non-cooperation’ with the British government in the meetings of Khilafat Committee which thought to be essential in the wake of Jallianwala Bagh massacre and imposition of Rowlatt Act. Gandhi supported it while persuading its leaders to keep it non-violent.
The Committee’s June 1920 meeting, also attended by several non-Muslim leaders including Gandhi, finally approved the launch of non-cooperation movement programme of surrender of titles, the boycott of schools, courts and councils, the boycott of foreign goods, the promotion of Hindu-Muslim unity and strict non-violence struggle was taken up.
Khilafat Movement
The two leading national political platforms of the country, Khilafat Movement and the Congress, jointly spearheaded the non-cooperation movement, which was called ‘Tark-e-Mawalat’ in Urdu and Asahyog Andolan in Hindi and gave a decisive twist to the struggle for independence.
Historian S.N. Sen mentioned in his book, ‘History of the Freedom Movement in India’ (1857-1947), about the August 1, 1920 letter of Gandhi to the Viceroy, “Gandhi pointed out that the scheme of non-cooperation inaugurated today was essentially in connection with the Khilafat movement and that the Punjab question had merely given and ‘additional’ cause.”
Born in 1929, Dr. S. N. Sen was educated at Vidyasagar College and University of Calcutta. He took his Ph.D. in 1958 and D. Litt in 1970 from the University of Calcutta. He held a Lectureship in University of Calcutta in 1963, became a Reader in 1978 and Professor in 1986.
Jamia Millia was the first national institution
As a consequence of the call, many Indians left the British supported educational institutions and established nationalist institutions to provide education in a native perspective. Jamia Millia Islamia was the first nationalist institution that came into existence as a product of non-cooperation movement. Some other similar institutions that followed its establishment comprise Gujarat Vidyapith, Bihar Vidyapith, Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapith, Kasi Vidyapith and the Bengal National University. They all depended on public donations and played a great role in strengthening the struggle. Nationalist schools and colleges had reportedly enrolled 100,000 students by 1922.
When the British government conferred Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College Aligarh the status of a university, i.e. Aligarh Muslim University, in September 1920 many of its teachers, alumni and students left it seeing an unchallengeable control on its affairs by the colonial powers. They subsequently founded Jamia Millia Islamia at Aligarh itself within the next two months.
Jamia Millia Islamia was founded by 18 members of a dedicated group of Muslim intellectuals and religious elite called the Founding Committee. All eminent leaders of the non-cooperation movement were in the committee or they supported it even otherwise. Its proposal was agreed upon on 29 October and it was formally inaugurated on 22 November 1920 by Shaikhul Hind Maulana Mahmud Hasan who had just returned on release from Malta. Hakim Ajmal Khan was elected as the first chancellor of the Jamia and Mohammad Ali Jauhar the first vice-chancellor. Dr. Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari and A.M. Khwaja were other important national leaders in the Founding Committee who tirelessly worked for its progress.
Hakim Ajmal Khan
With the decline of Khilafat Movement after 1924 due to abolition of Khilafat in Turkey itself, Jamia Millia’s public appeal also suffered to some extent, as many of its sponsors were ardent champions of the cause, and the institution faced an acute financial crisis. Hakim Ajmal Khan, who was also a major donor to the Congress, increased his contributions towards the institution. The situation of Jamia Millia Islamia was challenging as compared to many of its contemporaries like Aligarh Muslim University or Banaras Hindu University, which received financial support from the government or the princely states. It was entirely depended on anti-government public donors. In order to overcome the adverse time, Abdul Majeed Khwaja and Dr Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari traveled to various parts of India especially to use contacts of Mahatma Gandhi. They also embarked on a few foreign tours to mobilize funds. Gradually, the situation improved which also led to shifting of the institution to Karol Bagh in Delhi in 1925.
British govt. imprisoned Jamia’s founders
After some time, many founders of the Jamia got imprisoned by the British government in the wake of Simon Commission’s boycott by the Congress in 1927, which again affected its function to some extent. The death of Hakim Ajmal Khan in 1928 gave another major jolt to its survival and a new leadership of Dr Zakir Husain, Dr Abid Husain and Dr Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari emerged to carry on its nationalist mission.
One major event of the time was the peasants’ revolt in Surat district of Gujarat in 1928. In the entire region, farmers were facing a lot of hardships due to flood and unbearable increase of revenue tax. Gandhiji used his South African contacts with the people of Bardoli Taluk of the area and encouraged farmers to protest. His veteran friends Abbas Tayebji and Imam Abdul Qadir Bavazir of the Satyagrah Ashram of South Africa fame helped him much, apart from many others of his followers from Gujarat and Bombay. The Congress activist Vallabhbhai Patel from Ahmadabad spearheaded the stir which went in history as the Bardoli Satyagrah, an anti-tax movement in Gujarat led by Vallabhbhai Patel. The success of the agitation led to the conferring of the title of ‘Sardar’ to him by a common woman.
Bardoli Satyagrah
In spite of the fact that several leaders associated with Jamia Millia Islamia were in jail at that time, many students of the institution volunteered themselves for the Bardoli Satyagrah and assured support of Muslim farmers of the area towards its success. At that time, public meetings and protests generally began with the recitation of the Quran and Hindu mantras and some of these students played their part in the former act.
The campus of Jamia Millia Islamia was shifted again from Karol Bagh to its present site in Okhla in March 1935. Dr Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari, who succeeded as the chancellor of Jamia Millia, looked over transfer of the institution. Many local and international donors helped in the gradual development of its infrastructure in the new place. Many international scholars also served the university from 1933 to 1943 on the appeal of its erstwhile vice-chancellor Dr Zakir Husain. One such respectable name of the time remains of Ms Gerda Philipsborn of Germany, popularly called as Aapa Jaan, who died while serving the institution and buried on the campus.
Universal human civilization
Dr Zakir Husain defined the objectives of the Jamia in 1938 thus, “The main objective of the Jamia is to develop such a roadmap for the future life of Indian Muslims that could revolve around Islam and become painted with such colours of Indian culture which could match with the universal human civilization.”
When the Jamia Millia Society was registered in 1939, its Memorandum of Association, summarized the aims and objects of the Jamia as fellows; “To promote and provide for the religious and secular education of Indians, particularly Muslims, in conformity with sound principles of education and in consonance with the needs of national life and to that end, to establish and maintain suitable educational institutions within the Jamia campus and to set up and organize educational extension centers in Delhi from time to time.”
Quit India movement: Aruna Asaf Ali
Jamia’s financial woes again became acute when the Quit India movement was launched by the Congress in 1942. It was the time when Britain jumped into the World War II. Quit India movement was a nationwide civil disobedience movement declared on 9 August 1942 in Bombay. Instantly, a large number of Congress leaders of all statures were put behind the bar. The campaign was effectively crushed by the colonial rulers. Due to the arrest of major leaders, a young and till then relatively unknown Aruna Asaf Ali presided over the All India Congress Committee session on 9 August and hoisted the flag. The Congress party was banned thereafter.
A lot of students of Jamia Millia and many nationwide Vidyapiths also worked openly or covertly for the movement. The students at Lucknow and Banaras Hindu University also became active and suffered persecutions of the British vendetta as their counterparts elsewhere. Many associates of Jamia Millia Islamia were arrested including its vice-chancellor Dr Zakir Husain.
The founder of Progressive Writers Association and relentless fighter against the imperialist rule in India, Sajjad Zaheer, was also associated with Jamia Millia Islamia formally for a brief period during the non-cooperation movement and informally for a long time till his death in 1973. He influenced many young minds of the time at the Jamia during the critical phase of freedom struggle.
The Silver Jubilee year of the Jamia came in 1946 amid the pre-Partition disturbances. Its celebration gave an opportunity to bring together many leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League on the same dias. Dr. Zakir Hussain made a moving speech on the occasion in which he appealed to the leaders present there to strive for peace and harmony.
Unthought-of bloodshed
When India finally got freedom on 15 August 1947, Delhi’s atmosphere was highly charged with communal sentiments which resulted in unthought-of bloodshed in the national capital all through September and after. Jamia Millia Islamia remained an icon of nationalist struggle for freedom but its school in Karol Bagh was attacked and ransacked soon after India got freedom.
Anis Kidwai narrated in her book, ‘In Freedom’s Shade’, how Dr Zakir Husain was upset on it. She wrote, “One day I heard him (Gandhiji) telling Dr Zakir Husain: “Doctor sahab, some people came to say that they have managed to save some of the things that belonged to your school in Karol Bagh. Please go and collect them.” Dr Husain did not say anything in response and went away with his gloomy face. She remarked that the riots had caused losses of several lakhs to Jamia School, Publication House and library. Dr Zakir Husain was also assaulted at Jalandhar while traveling to Kashmir but was miraculously saved.
Member Parliament Dr Ram Subhag Singh asked in the Parliament in 1951, the then education minister Maulana Abul Kalam Azad as regards damage to the Jamia during 1947 disturbances. He replied, “Books and furniture lying in the building of Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, were damaged and looted during the disturbances in 1947… According to the Jamia Millia authorities, the damage amounted to nearly Rs 5 lakhs.” The minister also informed the house that the government had not compensated for the damages, as its authorities had not applied for it.
Not only the Jamia School, the Tibbia College in Karol Bagh, established by another freedom fighter Hakim Ajmal Khan in 1916, was also severely devastated by miscreants; and, disgusted with the situation, his survivors left India in December the same year to the country against the idea of which their elder had relentlessly fought all through his life.
Millia Islamia in freedom movement
In his 2014 lecture, “Partners in Freedom: The Story of Jamia Millia Islamia”, the former vice-chancellor of the Jamia, Professor Mushirul Hasan, said, “The founders of Jamia were simultaneously engaged in the freedom movement and in shaping up of Jamia with the same nationalist spirit to serve the cause of the nation.” He further said that the idea of ‘composite culture’ was the core of the non-cooperation movement and the Jamia became the laboratory to experiment it.
There is no doubt that Jamia Millia Islamia was the product and vehicle of freedom struggle and suffered a lot due to its unique philosophy. It was established in response to popular sentiments against the British oppression and it itself suffered many atrocities due to this. Its idea of ‘composite culture’ did not appeal to many Muslim leaders and the community failed to appreciate its struggle for a long time. Its ‘Islamic’ colour remained reprehensive for Hindu leadership all through its existence and perhaps yet.
Its associates joined Vallabhbhai Patel’s Bardoli Satyagrah in 1928 in spite of adverse times but when the Jamia Millia was looted and ransacked in September 1947 during communal bloodshed in Delhi, Patel did not come to its rescue from being damaged by communal elements although he was home minister of the country at that time. It is really strange that the institution which did not expect any formal recognition from the British Raj due to obvious reasons was not granted university status by the UGC of India for a long time in the independent India as well, and only after 15 years of freedom it formally became a deemed university. Its minority status was acquired after many efforts in 2011 but it had been challenged in the court by radical Hindus. It is in spite of the fact that more than half of its students are generally not Muslims. The matter is presently sub judice. The National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions, which sanctioned its ‘minority status’, was punished by the erstwhile union minister of HRD Kapil Sibbal by blocking statutory payment to its recurring expenses including staff salaries for about six months.
There were some affirmative moments too. Dr Zakir Husain, the longest serving vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, was made Vice-President of India for a five-year term of 1962-67 and later the country’s President in 1967, but he died while in office for almost two years. He was conferred Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award of India, in 1963. The Government of India issued a stamp on 29 October 1970 in commemoration of Jamia’s golden jubilee. The university was turned into a central public university in 1988.
Nevertheless, Jamia’s vision, efforts of its founders and teachers to stand against all adversities and the due government patronage for quite some time made the university to proudly emerge on the firmament of higher education of the country. Now, it is the 7th best university in India.
The series of sacrifices and sufferings of Jamia Millia Islamia through the freedom struggle can be concluded in these historic words of the national leader of freedom movement and poetess Sarojini Naidu, who said about it, “Jamia Millia Islamia was built stone by stone and sacrifice by sacrifice.” However, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of the country and the national leader, said that Jamia is a “lusty child of the non-cooperation days.”
“Jamia had a glorious past. As a national heritage, it deserves a glorious future. It must become a unique university like the unique school it began. Jamia has to reinvent itself in order to achieve its manifest destiny, as a vital contribution of the Muslim community to the making of future India” an eminent Muslim leader Sayed Shahabuddin concluded in his article: “How to revive the spirit of Jamia Millia?”
[The contributor is a social activist, political analyst and author of many books including his recent one: ‘Islam in 21st Century: The Dynamics of Change and Future-making’ –, 19 August, 2015.]

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