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December 19, 2016

Jamia Millia Islamia versus the Raj


December 19, 2016

Nationalism was on the rise in India in the middle of the 19th century.  The despotic policies of the British Raj forced the Indians to come together and embrace their roots. 

It was important for the process of decolonisation that people should realise the importance of their own culture, language, and system of education. A national education movement was initiated that would revolve around the kind of education that is linked with the social, political, and cultural fabric of India. For that, it was important for educational institutions to not be dependent on the British government for funds. The experiment was already set in motion in 1866 when the Darul Uloom Deoband was established, making it clear that no funds would be accepted from the British government.

In 1875, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan initiated his Aligarh educational movement by establishing a school that was soon turned into the Mohmeddan Anglo-Oriental College. This initiative was different from the Darul Uloom Deoband as the Aligarh initiative focused on empowering Muslims by providing them modern education in science and technology. 

A number of faculty members at Aligarh, including the principal, were British. The Aligarh college was a recipient of funds from the British government. The Aligarh approach was cautious and calculated towards the British government and focused on the empowerment of Muslims. 

In 1920, two important events – the Khilafat Movement and the Non-cooperation Movement – brought the idea of national education to the forefront. The Khilafat Movement was started by Muslims to save the symbolic caliphate of the Ottoman Empire.  This movement was led by Muhammad Ali Johar, Shaukat Ali Johar, Hakeem Ajmal, and Mukhtar Ansari. The second important movement, which advocated non-cooperation towards the British rule, was launched by Gandhi. Muslims and Hindus decided to work together and support both movements.  Gandhi showed his support for the Khilafat Movement and Khilafat leaders swore allegiance to the Non-cooperation Movement.

Gandhi’s movement urged the Indians to quit government jobs, leave government educational institutions, return the titles given to them by the government, and boycott imported goods.  The direct implication of this appeal was to establish educational institutions that would focus on national education. Responding to the appeal, nationalists got together and focused on establishing educational institutions. The hallmark of such national institutions was that they would not receive any funding from the government.

After the announcement of the Non-cooperation Movement, there was unrest at the Aligarh college campus where a group of nationalist students, led by Muhammad Ali Johar, wanted Aligarh to adopt a radical and anti-colonial role. They appealed to the trustees of Aligarh to stop accepting funds from the British government. The proposal was not accepted by a large majority of the trustees who believed that government funding was crucial to run the institution.  

This prompted the nationalists to part ways with their alma mater and announce the establishment of the Muslim National University (Jamia Millia Islamia or JMI) on October 29, 1920. The pioneers of the JMI were Muhammad Ali Jaohar, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Dr Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari, and Abdul Majid Khwaja. It is interesting to note how competing forces converged on the slogan of nationalism. Shaikulhind Maulana Mehmoodul Hassan, a renowned Deoband scholar, issued a fatwa in favour of the Non-cooperation Movement. Though he had just been released from Malta and was not keeping well, he still came to lay the foundation stone of the JMI on October 29, 1920. Due to his ill health, the scholar’s inspiring speech was read out by Maulana Shabbir Ahmed Usmani.

Gandhi also supported the JMI and also provided funding for its establishment. The institution became the dreamland for the nationalists of India, irrespective of their religious beliefs and ethnic affiliations. The initial campus of the JMI was housed in two dozen tents, not far away from the Aligarh college. It was after five years that the institution moved to Delhi. Ajmal Khan was appointed as the first chancellor whereas Mohamed Ali Jauhar was the first vice-chancellor. 

The curriculum taught at the JMI was closely linked with real-life skills. Apart from being taught modern subjects, the students were exposed to religious thought. An important component of the curriculum at the institution was vocational training and practical teaching of different trades. Besides being taught in the classroom, special seminars and lectures were also organised to expose the students to the contemporary thought on various topics. Eminent national and international speakers were invited to interact with the students. As part of the lecture series, Gandhi and Allama Iqbal also visited the JMI to preside over lectures. The atmosphere at the JMI was vibrant and radical in nature. The revolutionary leader Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi gave lectures at the institution for a number of years. As a result, the JMI became the central place of resistance to the Raj where nationalist forces belonging to secular as well as religious groups converged.

The journey of the JMI, however, was not smooth. The first setback came when Gandhi called off the Non-cooperation Movement in 1922.  Since the very rationale of the institution was based on the spirit of non-cooperation, there was natural despair and disillusionment among the students and teachers who parted ways from Aligarh to join the JMI.

The other serious challenge was the lack of financial resources as the institution refused to get any funding from the government. Though various individuals contributed funds, they were not sufficient for the expenses required to run a university. During these hard times, Zakir Hussain, Abid Hussain, and Muhammad Mujeeb, who had completed their PhDs from foreign universities, came to rescue the JMI. They entered into a pact whereby they would not leave the institution for the next 20 years and would not demand more than Rs150 per month as their salary. It was due to the hard work and commitment shown by Zakir Hussain and his team that the university was brought back to the track of progress. 

In the history of resistance to the British Raj, the JMI’s role will always be remembered. It was a place that challenged colonial rule upfront and motivated Muslims and Hindus – whether they were from urban or rural areas, rich or poor, secular or fundamentalists – to unite and put up educational resistance to the Raj to reclaim their freedom.


The writer is an educationist.

Email: [email protected]


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