The university and urbanity


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IN the literature on South Asian Muslims, studies focusing on the impact of the Aligarh Movement are justifiably numerous but one would not be entirely amiss in asserting that the birth of Jamia Millia Islamia (hereafter JMI or the Jamia) and its impact has received considerably lesser scholarly attention. This article is written in the spirit of a reflective note in which my primary objective is to place JMI within the literature on education and urbanization and politics of education in India where it remains woefully under-represented. It attempts to move beyond the usual tropes of ‘backwardness’, ‘neglect’ and employ a cultural political economic framing to draw a few salient points about Jamia’s history, often neglected in public discourse, combining this with my personal insights as a resident of Jamia Nagar and an alumna1 of Jamia.

Jamia Millia Islamia was born a century ago as an anti-colonial protest tactic in Mohammadan Anglo Oriental (MAO) College in the town of Aligarh. The call of the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movement for boycott of British run educational institutions was also meant to be – and read by the founders of JMI as – a call to reject British colonizing sensibilities. A university was instituted against British imperialism in an act of intellectual dissent.

If one were to scan the history of important social movements and protests led by students and intellectuals across the world, we would probably not find many examples similar to the Jamia – of protest movements leading to prominent and sustained educational institutions. As such it would be an important task for the scholars of urban social protests or students’ politics in India to accord the founding moment of JMI a place of prominence in the national consciousness and popular memory.


Further, setting up an educational institution as an act of dissent, and as a project of modernity and nation building, needs to be put into the context of how Muslims viewed British colonization itself. In what follows, I explore a frame of analysis beyond the usual one of pan-Islamic Khilafat or even Gandhian non-cooperation that is usually employed around the issue at hand. The circumstances of Jamia’s birth allows me to attempt framing this moment within the context of colonial urbanisms and posing the question of university education as one of autonomous Muslim intellectualism.

Balak Mata Centre and Shafiq ur Rahman Kidwai. Courtesy: Jamia’s Premchand Archives and Literary Centre.

The postcolonial political discourse contained exaggerated signalling about India living in its villages. As a result, historiography of colonial urban India has been extremely focused on a handful of big cities like Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, and Madras. Even the historiography pertaining to Islamic and Muslim urbanity in South Asia focused on power centres like Lucknow, Bhopal, Hyderabad and Delhi.2 These studies have fixed vast tracts of India outside the big cities as being rural and of non-modern antiquity, although extremely interesting research on qasbah towns shows that they were far from being isolated, rural hinterlands where ignorant masses languished.


In the opinion of Christopher Bayly,3 it was the qasbahs rather than the large cities from where the Muslim leadership emerged. The Islamic cosmopolitanism of the gentry elites who had gained revenue rights in these areas, gave rise to a local qasbti Muslim intellectualism. Bilgram, Amroha, Rudauli, Kakori, Badaun and numerous other qasbah towns showed a ‘pattern of urban historical and religious scholarship that developed in regard to Baghdad or Isfahan by late eighteenth century.’4 They supplied the princely courts and numerous dynasties, their wazirs, poets, ulama, and educated men who provided different services. The cultural vitality of these urban spaces produced shakhsiyat5 or personalities.

M. Raisur Rehman, asserts that the colonial encounter and modernity was not a radical event for Qasbati Muslims. For these cultural elites the colonial experience was ‘an everyday negotiation of assertions and claims among intellectual and cultural equals’ because of their multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan exposure.6

Dr Zakir Husain’s mausoleum. (Photograph from the author’s family collection.)

Without going into too many details that take us away from the express purpose of this article, let me suffice by saying that despite the crushing repression in the aftermath of the 1857 mutiny, Muslims’ interaction with the colonizers continued. These were not only what Mushirul Hasan calls ‘constructive dialogue and interaction with the West’,7 but also conversations that appear fairly strategic and calculated, and thus autonomous.


Scholars of the Aligarh Movement have pointed out the existence of nuanced and differing approaches to colonialism and modernity among Muslims. Of particular interest to me here is what Rehman points out as the difference between Aligarhi8 and Qasbati perspectives.9 ‘Understanding modernity entails, from an Aligarhi perspective, studying whether and how the Muslims had a say in the debates, but from a qasbati perspective, exploring the social values and choices made in different contexts. For the qasbatis, modernity was how they availed themselves of new trends and ideas while retaining their autonomy.’10


Instituting JMI on the call of the Khilafat Movement and Non-Cooperation Movement must therefore be seen as not simply a display of nationalism but a nuanced expression of anti-colonial intellectual autonomy by Muslims.

Jamia Millia Islamia began and remained, as the personalities of its founders and supporters such as Zakir Husain, M.A. Jauhar, M.K. Gandhi, M.A. Ansari, Abid Hussain, Shafiqur Rahman Kidwai, Ajmal Khan, M. Mujeeb, a showcase of qasbati culture, namely Islamic cosmopolitanism rooted uniquely in local urbanity. I propose that it is this aspect of the Jamia which helped it guard against fizzling out eventually – as one would expect a protest tactic to – and endure. Thus, JMI may be seen as an anti-colonial mission which opposed British imperialism by fostering autonomous intellect and go on in post-colonial India to prepare a model citizen who would help build a forward looking and composite national community.


The Jamia was forced to displace from Aligarh to Delhi in 1925, five years after its institution, because when the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movements ended, Jamia’s grant, which came from the movement, also evaporated. M. Mujeeb discusses the dilemma that faced the Jamia community in Aligarh – whether to end the protest and attempt to go back to old normal. A few founders like M.A. Jauhar thought that the experiment was not as important and wanted to make a renewed attempt to hijack MAO College from British influence and ‘restore’ it to the ‘true’ vision of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. But a large majority of Jamais11 were resolute about not retracting from what they saw as their intellectual commitment.

The details of these heated debates have been discussed by various raconteurs12 but once the decision was made, the Jamia was in a new phase of rebelling. This time it rebelled against the limited vision of some of its founders and decided to shift to Delhi where it was assured of support by Hakim Ajmal Khan and Gandhi ji. Migration or exiling of academics and intellectuals in the face of repressive forces and danger to life is all too well known, but migration of an institution to protect its intellectual autonomy and to follow through a moral commitment made to self and a collective is rare.


The example of the Institute for Social Research or the Frankfurt School moving from Nazi Germany in the early 1930s comes to mind. The Frankfurt School’s influential contribution to political philosophy and cultural studies is enduring, but eventually, upon joining Columbia University in the US, ceased to exist as an autonomous institution.

The Jamia Mosque. (Photograph from the author’s family collection.)

Jamia Millia Islamia arrived in the city of Delhi as an immigrant university. The financial hardships made this fledgling university, its teachers, and students struggle against real destitution and precarity. A baptism by fire awaited them. What really made the difference was that the original founders such as Zakir Husain, Abid Hussain, and Mohd Mujeeb, who had been away for higher studies in Germany, made a decision to head back and plunge themselves into the task of sustaining and developing the institution.13

It is important here to highlight that the assertion of the Jamia community that it was not just a flash-in-the-pan protest tactic or a protest performance, but a dogged pursuit of intellectual autonomy and an act of hard labour in institution building, was to become its leitmotif. When confronted with momentous dilemmas – such as on the question of participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement14 – it is this mantra that enabled the Jamia to sustain itself as an enduring institution and stand its ground as an anchor and beacon to Muslims in the national community.


The experiences of the immigrant university mirrored the experiences of distressed immigrants anywhere in the world. This experience of the Jamia was of special relevance in the harrowing days immediately following the Partition of India. Jamia was attacked, so were the personalities attached to it who remained steadfast in their commitment to their composite idea of India in face of unimaginable violence and hatred. The Jamia community worked to provide succour to the refugees from the newly created Pakistan as also to Muslim refugees in the city who came from qasbah towns because of fear, threat of violence or actual communal hostilities.


The Jamia’s struggle for survival was matched step for step by its constructive spirit. Over ten years after its move to the city, JMI moved to the present campus in Okhla. The villages of Joga Bai, Batla House, among others around the Jamia slowly began to attract settlers who urbanized these villages. If we read the memoirs or records of any personality who came in contact with a Jamai of the time ever so briefly, it becomes obvious that the Jamais approached institution building as an experiment in nation building under the watchful eyes and untiring stewardship of Zakir Husain.

Special mention in this regard is due to Shafiqur Rahman Kidwai for not just his work on the campus but education outreach in the entire city. He pioneered the adult and continuing education programmes, as well as education extension. Several schools and adult education programmes were instituted here. Although adult education has now been confined to cold storage, if not the dustbin of old policies, one of the earliest initiatives of JMI, Balak Mata Centres – for providing basic literacy, early childhood care awareness, and bridge courses for school dropout young mothers along with crèche facilities – still survive and are functioning in parts of the old and walled city of Delhi. The Jamia also played a role in establishing schools in the city, of which Shafiq Memorial School in Bara Hindu Rao, re-named later after its founder Shafiqur Rahman Kidwai, is one.15


A decidedly urbane and modern retinue of programmes and initiatives included the Maktaba Jamia (University Press) which published important educational magazines for different segments of the society, translations, important memoirs, children’s literature, essay collections and seminar proceedings. There was the Talimi Mela (Educational Fair) which organized cultural competitions, debate competitions, and Science Aur Kainat (science and nature) Club for children from schools around the city. Jamia’s cultural and educational outreach for the city school children and general citizenry is a legacy of its vision for education as a civic duty.

The intellectual contribution made by the founders of the Jamia and later intellectuals trained in Jamia perspective on Indian civic nationalism, and Islamic cosmopolitanism, although substantial, was sidelined and later almost erased from national consciousness. It is difficult to ascertain in this piece exactly what efforts are needed to recover and restore this contribution to its rightful position. However, I would assert that this is a question connected to the ubiquity of Hindu majoritarianism which has heaped humiliation on Muslim intellectualism and reduced it to a shamed, apologetic shadow of itself. A clear example of this humiliation and its internalization by Muslims is the common dropping of the word ‘Islamia’ – referring to it only as Jamia Millia, and a frequent pejorative reference to Jamia and other Muslim minority educational institutions as ‘ghettos’.

JMI’s post-independence experience reflects the contribution of Muslim intellectuals’ civic nationalism to nation-building efforts, and the subsequent apathetic reception of the same by the ruling class in particular and the larger national community in general.


In what follows, I fast-forward several decades without going into the details of its official institutional history signposted by it becoming a deemed university in 1962. The leap has to be made because the Jamia probably lay low in the 1970s having lost almost all its tallest patrons, benefactors and well-wishers in the past decade or so. With such colossal loss of the shakhsiyat, probably all that was left was melancholy and nostalgia. We can speculate that there were developments, events and even personalities worth reminiscing about and recording but not only had the national culture undergone a tectonic shift but the literary and cultural landscape among North Indian Muslims had also witnessed a change.

Education could not remain just an intellectual engagement of the qasbati Muslim landed elite – who, in any case, had already lost much of their holdings after zamindari abolition – it was also a means of livelihood which became more precarious by the day. Moreover, the waning fortunes of the zamindars also had a devastating impact on the qasbati Muslim artisans who lost patronage for their craft and other sundry services. Throughout the decades of the 1970s and 1980s this decline continued unabated owing to larger structural factors of artisan skills no longer being considered as valuable in the market and factory or other organized sector job markets also continuing to shrink.


This material impoverishment of the elite patrons and near penury of their clientele meant that Muslim intellectual culture could not have remained untouched. With the qasbati intellectual and cultural vitality dimmed, the Jamia was impacted not only institutionally but its campus culture also underwent a change. If we set the nostalgia aside, not all the changes that the Jamia saw can be bracketed neatly as being bad. Many would argue that the proliferation of new professional courses was an appropriate response to the educational and material needs of the Muslim community in the context of the economic changes being ushered into India.

One example is that of degree programmes in social work. The Jamia is famous among all the social work institutions in India for its rigorous fieldwork training. As an alumna of this department I can vouch for the fact that residents of the poorest and most marginalized neighbourhoods of Delhi know about the Jamia because of its trainee social workers, and that many children from the slums and poor bastis have set foot in a university for the first time ever in the annual sports and cultural event hosted by this department – which was later emulated by many other schools of social work. The foundation of this training is on the legacy of the Jamai perspective of civic duty to fellow citizens and national progress, but the attraction of a social work degree can also be attributed to the impetus received by the voluntary sector in the backdrop of the receding welfare state. A degree in social work from JMI was a sure pathway to a job.


Meanwhile, Okhla continued to expand. The neighbourhood and the university began attracting qasbati Muslims from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Muslims from other parts of the country also came to Delhi, wishing to settle down in the vicinity of the Jamia. The Emergency saw a large-scale eviction of Muslims from Old Delhi and the walled city. Many were displaced and resettled in other parts of the outskirts of Delhi, but some teachers, scholars, poets, writers and other educated professionals chose to make Okhla their home. While the most common convention for university nomenclature is to name them after the cities that house them, these peri-urban neighbourhoods around the Jamia took on the name of the university and began seeing themselves as being part of Jamia Nagar.

The events on JMI campus and in Jamia Nagar in the 1990s and early 2000s, may be read as being indicative of another phase in the fortunes of North Indian Muslims. Drawing from my own experience of being a student enrolled in the second half of the 1990s, I forward that the extent of the decline in qasbati intellectual culture was quite visible on the Jamia campus. Pockets of parochialism thrived on the campus following decades of civic neglect, political alienation, and economic communal targeting. The controversy related to Mushirul Hasan’s remarks on the banning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses is quite well known, as is the violence owing to student politics on the campus which led to the suspension of JMI student union elections, which have not been resumed to this day.


What is often not remarked upon and recorded is how student politics and some Jamia functionaries got ensconced in grabbing the Jamia land and expanding their operations as a land mafia in a fast developing Jamia Nagar. The rise in real estate prices and development of multi-storeyed buildings were fuelled by a combination of communal threats and violence elsewhere; a desire to live near the university in the gentrified Jamia Nagar; and speculative investment facilitated by builders and brokers. Something of a ‘cottage industry’ developed, organized around identities that were of a different quality than the erstwhile qasbati shakhsiyat, nevertheless these were still to do with qasbah towns and cities in UP and Bihar where people hailed from, such as Bulandshaher, Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar, or Darbhanga and Katihar.

While the successive appointment of non-academic vice chancellors and other administrators to the university helped tackle the problem of land grabbing, the Jamia campus became increasingly more securitized and inaccessible to the common residents. The academic and cultural out-reach of the Jamia was also undermined during this time. As the children of second and third generation Jamais came of age, they began indulging in nepotism, and the student community were deprived of an atmosphere where they could exercise their intellectual faculties and get trained in the art of autonomous thought. However, those who were motivated enough could make their own lonely efforts in the library, which was fortunately well stocked and maintained even at that time.16

In a city that was intensely getting more segregated, Jamia became a university on the margins. In the 2000s when the wave of neo-liberalism finally hit the marginalized Muslim community in a fatal blow and made available an opening for their re-entry into the labour force even on adverse terms, the Jamia also made way for neo-liberal modes of education. Many professional courses had already been started; these became more attuned to the demands of the market and pressures of campus recruitment.17 Many more new courses, departments and faculties were instituted and in the tenure of Mushirul Hasan as the Vice Chancellor, the university was also able to reclaim some of its academic autonomy and intellectual vigour, leveraging his reputation as a scholar. However, Hasan’s tenure will also be remembered for his steadfast and principled response to the killing and arrests of Jamia students in the infamous Batla House ‘encounter’, which nevertheless succeeded in tainting the Jamia.


It would be completely amiss if I did not record that throughout this time numerous brilliant teachers continued to write, teach and engage students in the Jamia, keenly conscious of the fact that they were doing so from the margins.

Has the time arrived to begin using the term ‘neo-liberal knowledge industry’ instead of ‘education’ to denote the commodification of education as a ‘service’ in a globalized trade regime? Perhaps not yet. Still, the everyday experience of university administration driving the processes of a globally networked higher education sector on university campuses are increasingly cramming the space for scholars to exercise intellectual autonomy. For a Muslim minority institution it is doubly difficult to grapple with the competing notions of ‘education as public good’ for knowledge creation and civic learning, and ‘education as commodity’ for aspirational consumption. However, it is undeniable that both coexist and interact even in universities such as the Jamia Millia Islamia on the peripheries of the globally networked university systems.

I cannot end this article without invoking the recent anti-CAA protests by JMI students that sparked off nationwide protests. With this the Jamia seems to have come full circle, exactly one century after its institution, and has, arguably, woken up to its own historical legacy. In the face of brutal repression, the brave expression of dissent by students of the Jamia against attempts to accord Muslims a second class status in the Indian polity and society has once again ordained the Jamia Millia Islamia as inalienable to the cultural identity of Muslims, their intellectualism and political expression.

An ‘immigrant’ university has claimed the city and equal citizenship.



1. As also the experiences of my two siblings, my partner, sister-in-law, and a niece, apart from innumerable cousins, friends, neighbours and now students at JNU who have been JMI alumni. My late father, who migrated from Faizabad to Delhi and was the first person in his family to gain a university degree, enrolled in JMI twice but both times could not finish due to personal economic struggles. Nevertheless, he moved to Jamia Nagar from Old Delhi so that his children could study at JMI and generally benefit from being in the vicinity of a university. My mother who had dropped out of school without finishing even primary education, gained proficiency in Urdu and Hindi, and a smattering of English, being coached by my father and at JMI’s Balak Mata Centre while I was an infant. Though not technically, but in their perspectives, both were Jamais.

2. E.L. Beverley, ‘Colonial Urbanism and South Asian Cities’, Social History 36(4), 2011, pp. 482-497.

3. C.A. Bayly, ‘Delhi and Other Cities of North India During the Twilight’, in R. Frykenberg (ed.), Delhi Through the Ages: Essays in Urban History, Culture and Society. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1986, pp. 221-36.

4. Ibid., p. 123.

5. Shakhsiyat, or personality, is a concept upon which a lot of emphasis is placed in Urdu literary studies or South Asian History. Shakhsiyat was often intrinsically related to the place where the person came from. A person built their personality on the foundation of those who already came from the same town and through the development of their own shakhsiyat they further strengthened the reputation of the place they hailed from. This can be seen clearly in the names assumed by famous personalities which were neither caste nor family names to begin with. Amrohi, Bilgrami, Badaunvi, Azmi signal place names. Just as this was true for qasbah towns, it was also true for institutions for higher learning. Nadvi, Alig, Jamai etc are names related to educational institution a person may have attended. For a detailed discussion on Indo-Muslim self-hood see A. Jalal, Self and Sovereignty: Individual and Community in South Asian Islam Since 1850, Routledge, London/New York, 2000, and M.R. Rahman, Locale, Everyday Islam, and Modernity: Qasbah Towns and Muslim Life in Colonial India, Oxford University Press, 2015, for an exposition on Qasbati shakhsiyat.

6. M.R. Rahman, ibid., 2015, p. 210.

7. Mushirul Hasan, ‘Muslim Intellectuals, Institutions and the Post-Colonial Predicament’, IIC Quarterly 22(1), 1995, p. 105. (pp. 100-122).

8. The founder of Aligarh and Aligarhi perspective, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan originally hailed from Delhi. He left Delhi following the trauma of deprivations suffered during the siege of the city and instituted MAO college there. Gail Minault calls the period preceding 1857, ‘Delhi Renaissance’ owing to the intellectual vitality of the city and Syyid Ahmed Dehlavi (later to become Sir Syed) was ‘an outstanding example of a Delhi Renaissance man.’ G. Minault, ‘Sayyid Ahmad Dehlavi and the Delhi Renaissance’, in R. Frykenberg (ed.), Delhi Through the Ages: Essays in Urban History, Culture and Society. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1986, pp. 287-98.

9. Naziriyat, or perspective, was often a concept concomitant to shakhsiyat. Personalities were known mainly for their perspective and would become the nucleus of intellectual communities gathering around the ideas identified with their nazariya. Naziriyat, just like shaksiyat often had spatial (urban) and institutional affiliations.

10. Ibid., p. 210.

11. Jamai: From Jamia, or members of the Jamia biradari or community, fraternity (lit).

12. A.G. Noorani, President Zakir Husain: A Quest for Excellence. Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1967; M. Mujeeb, Dr. Zakir Husain: A Biography. National Book Trust, India, 1972; M. Hasan, op. cit., 1995.

13. M. Mujeeb, ibid., 1972.

14. Dr Zakir Husain as the Vice Chancellor was supportive of the wishes of students and faculty members of the Jamia such as Shafiqur Rahman Kidwai, Faiyaz Ahmed and Devdas Gandhi to actively participate in the civil disobedience but he declined their proposal to close the university for this purpose. These teachers took leave from the institution to participate in the movement. (M. Mujeeb, op. cit., 1972)

15. Z.A. Nizami, Meemaran-e-Jamia. (Urdu: The Makers of the Jamia). Maktaba Jamia, Delhi, 2011.

16. Although a student of mathematics, I had access to the latest award winning literary works, works on the Civil Rights movement and Harlem Renaissance, American pacifist philosophers, biographies of virtually anyone I could think of, feminist Urdu poetry. The periodical section was especially delectable where I would spend hours reading fine essays in the London Review of Books and other magazines from across the world.

17. For example, Mass Communication Research Centre (MCRC) started a slew of market oriented courses such as visual effects and animation. When MCRC began in 1989, its founder Anwar Jamal Kidwai was able to shore up impressive intellectual and funding collaborations for the centre. It has been recognized for its contribution to independent documentary film making in India, in contrast to other film institutes which have focused on commercial and feature film making, emphasizing technical skills. See K.P. Jayasankar and A. Monteiro, A Fly in the Curry: Independent Documentary Film in India, Sage India, 2016. Similarly, the Department of Social Work shut down its MA Social Work specialization in Labour Welfare, and started a new MA in Human Resources Management reflecting the neo-liberal shift in the labour rights regimes. Exercising their academic autonomy, some faculty members dissented against this shift and refused to teach in the new programme.