Lt Gen(Retired) Zameer Uddin Shah, Vice-Chancellor, Aligarh Muslim University, got into a media maelstrom over not allowing access to undergraduate students from the Abdullah Hall (the women’s college of AMU), to the Maulana Azad Library in the campus. He puts forth his view point to Meha Mathur, saying he is just providing what the parents expect — a sheltered environment for their daughters.
Coming from the army background what has been your impression of AMU?
It is what I expected it to be. It’s a modern, secular university and let me tell you that military officers do imbibe a lot of education and I was constantly in the field of education. I am an artillery man, what they call topkhana, but education was constantly a part of it – we constantly upgrade our knowledge and constantly keep teaching. I have been training soldiers all my life. It’s really man management. It’s how you manage the resources and an educational institution is no different from an army division. And an army division would consist of 20,000 troops. Here I have got 28,000 students. So it’s really no different.
The only difference I found was in passage of orders. In a university you can’t order. You have to convince people. And that was so in the army also. Everybody is under the impression that orders are orders. No. if there are illegal orders the subordinate has the right to question and they do. But this is a much more challenging task than the army because it involves, without exaggeration, 18 hours workday. So I am very proud that I came here. I came here because of a calling. I felt that I had done my work—security of the country. I had devoted 40 years to it. And this was a calling to rectify the problems of education.
Let me tell you that, AMU, despite being secular does have a Muslim culture and ethos. And we jealously guard it. And the non Muslims, who are considerable in number, don’t resent it. In fact the greeting for everybody, whether Muslim or non Muslim is salaam walaikum. Nobody resents wearing a sherwani. Just like I was educated in a Christian school. It was secular, we had people of all communities and religions but the culture was Christian. I never felt any problem because it was not forced down my throat same ways we don’t force it down anybody’s throat.
But do you feel discipline is an issue here, or in other educational institutions, because army background presupposes discipline?
Discipline is vital for any institution. Without discipline how can you run things? I am glad our students and teachers have responded to my request. I did try and set an example of being punctual and being correctly dressed for the occasion. I am very proud to say that our biggest achievement has been unhindered academic activity for two-and-a-half years. The university never had to call in the police even for a single day. Academic activity is continuing. We were behind schedule in examinations and Ph.D nominations but we are slowly closing up the gap. I can say with confidence that in the next academic year we will be the first university to have examinations and the first university to declare the result and the first to enroll Ph.D scholars.
But what has been the big contribution of AMU towards education.
It’s been enormous. We are probably the only university in the world which has produced heads of state of four different countries. Like President Dr Zakir Husain and present vice president Hamid Ansari who was a student, teacher and vice-chancellor. Our alumni are in 98 countries. I have visited many of them and they have all done exceedingly well. We have been in the forefront of politics, fine arts, cinema, poetry and all have been great products. AMU has made a great contribution to education and to Muslim education. If AMU had not been there I am afraid Muslim education would not have been where it is now.
But do you feel that in independent India the predominant role that it played in British India has been diminished?
I accept that the role has been diluted. At that time there were a handful of universities. Now every district has educational institutions. The aim is to make 1,000 universities. We have purposely tried to keep politics out of AMU. And I think we have succeeded. In fact in the recent student union elections there was no politics involved. The political parties did not make inroads into it.
But political parties do try to make interference. For example the recent issue over Raja Mahendra Pratap’s celebrations…
They would love to. But that issue subsided. We took proactive action. We didn’t want that to blow out of proportion or a riot so I took whatever steps necessary. The civil administration supported us. But I do accept the fact that Raja Mahendra Pratap was a famous alumnus of AMU. We intend to hold a seminar on contribution of AMU alumni overseas. Mahatma Gandhi might not have studied at AMU but we count him as one of ours— he was the first person to be granted honorary membership of student union. And we count Raja Mahendra Pratap as ours. And we count so many who served in INA– Subhash Chandra Bose. All these should be given credit and we will hold a seminar on this.
About the girls education what is the role university is playing in their education and what needs to be done further for girls education?
We are totally for the education of women. But people have to understand that these girls are first-time university students. They come from conservative Muslim households. And there is a certain decorum that (these) households observe. And that’s why the women’s college is located 3 km outside the campus to keep it a little away. We do accept that modernity has to come. But we cannot be ultra modern. We cannot adopt the same yardstick followed in the metros. People have entrusted their daughters to me to be taken care of and I will protect them. And there has never been a case of molestation or teasing in AMU. Boys know how to behave. And girls know how to behave. We have given girls equal opportunities. And I am proud to say that most of medal winners are girls.
A lot of professional courses, in those girls are part of main campus. But it’s the girls of Abdullah hall…
It’s the undergraduates. When they are 16 years old and they need extra care and protection.
But at the same time medical students are part of the main campus. So is that not a case of one group of students being denied access to the main campus?
The medical and engineering students are from more progressive families. The ones in arts and sciences at undergrad level are from families where they want their girls a little more sheltered. So I am just providing what the parents expect—a sheltered environment for their daughters. I replace the parents and it’s my first duty.
Is there any sensitization programme for boys because they are also coming from very small Kasbahs and villages?
Aligarh tehzib and culture does inculcate a sense of respect for the opposite sex. Girls have respect for boys and boys have respect for girls. It’s imbibed in culture and we are making sure. There has never been a case of any incident in AMU where a boy has misbehaved with any of the girls.
Your remark that media picked up—where did that come from and what was the actual issue?
It was a simile. It was like saying it rained cats and dogs but does it rain cats and dogs? No it doesn’t. It was a remark made in lighter vein and the girls laughed, mind you, they laughed it off. And forgot about it. The media picked it up to bully me into submission. A lot of other people used it as a handle to criticize AMU. What they did not say was that the same things are followed in Delhi. Girls from Miranda House don’t have access to the DU library as they have their own library. The girls in Bombay are not allowed admission into the Ratan Tata library.
It’s not because of discrimination. It is because of distance, the physical separation and the fact that women’s colleges have their own library. So we were following the same thing as every other university is following but only AMU was questioned. And some people took offense to that and I apologized that if you have misunderstood my intention it was not to be sexist. It was meant as a little joke and a simile. I apologized and the matter subsided because people could not make more capital out of it. They probably wanted me to run away from here but I will hold on. I have a mission to do. And nothing is going to deter me from it.
In case of shortage of books in womens’ college how can that be overcome?
All books in the central library are available online. The whole catalog is there. A girl can demand any book she likes and is delivered in a day or two. We can’t have an equivalent of Maulana Azad library in the college but all the books are available on catalog and the girls can demand.
AMU caters to mass education. But how can excellence be established? How is AMU trying to balance these two needs?
AMU is the leader in research. We are leaders in nanotechnology, biochemistry, physics, history, law… I think the difference between a good university and others is the quantity of research we are putting in. We are concentrating on nanotech. We intend to herald the 2nd green revolution of the country through nanotech in the preservation and recycling of water. We are in collaborating with EU in all projects. We are already much ahead and 100s of P.hDs are being produced every year. And that is why we are at number 3 position in universities of India. That is not known. Times Higher Education, London, rated us as 3rd best university of the country. And let me also tell you that we are not going to be at number 3 position for very long we are going to be going up and up and aim to be number one university in the country by 2017 when we complete 100 years.
Do you feel that in terms of placements the location of the university acts as a deterrent?
It certainly does. The placement teams are hesitant to come here preferring to go to the metros. The communication between Delhi and Aligarh was terrible till the road improved. Earlier it used to take me five hours from Delhi. We are concentrating relentlessly on placements. We have a training and placement central office and I am glad to say that every dept – more than 100 of them – has a training and placement office. We have achieved success to a very large degree.
What are the career aspirations? Are students charged up about great careers?
Well I am certain they have ambitions as all young people of the country. The bulk of them are looking at West Asia – a job in the Gulf or teaching job.