Open letter to Shehla Rashid, from former AMU Students Union leader
Let me express my deep sense of shock and disgust over an FIR filed against you in Aligarh.
I insist on addressing you like that - not only because you and many amazing young minds before you in JNU have been my comrades for more than two decades now - but also because the word comes from the root "camaraderie", the idea that defines student politics in general, and the strong bonds that JNU and AMU students have built for a progressive polity in particular.
Despite what has happened, those bonds must endure.
Let me, therefore, at the outset, express my deep sense of shock and disgust over a first information report (FIR) filed against you in Aligarh by the AMU Students Union, which claims you insulted Prophet Mohammad in a Facebook post - a 1000-word statement that those students, in the age of 140-word tweets and emoticonned Whatsapp conversations, were too ignorant to understand. The other possibility is they are deliberately misreading the post and claiming being hurt to "fix" you for speaking your mind.
The men in Aligarh are not used to women speaking their minds, let alone having one. With you, it becomes worse. It's not only your gender that they despise, it's your left-liberal political persuasion too. Aligarh in general has never been comfortable with liberal and progressive forces, despite being one of the major centres of progressive writers and academics in the country.
That the police complaint against you came only two days after you and other comrades from JNU, Delhi University, and Allahabad University were invited by the same AMU Students Union for a symposium on the role of student leaders in "building contemporary society" is one of the many unfortunate ironies that AMU has long been used to revel in.
In the horribly misinterpreted January 9 post on Facebook, you had attempted a more nuanced understanding of hate speech by asserting a rational mind’s democratic right to ask questions and raise doubts, even if they involve religious figures like Ram or Mohammad. There is difference between inquiry and incitement, you argued in that post, with considerable sensibility and success.
Zia Nomani in youthkiawaaz.com was right. “The post quoted some controversial phrases like "Ram was an asshole" and "Mohammad was a paedophile" to distinguish between hate speech and "hateful" speech. It’s a paradox that the ex-JNUSU vice-president Shehla was accused of hate speech in her Facebook post, which was meant to condemn it in the first place,” he wrote.Shehla Rashid with Kanhaiya Kumar. (Photo: India Today)
However, allow me to put this controversy in some context. Far from being an isolated hounding of a Muslim woman studying in another university, it actually fits into a long trope of myopia, misogyny and mindset that defines not only AMU, but even the average Muslim man.
Student politics in Aligarh, unlike your university or most others, is ad-hoc and devoid of affiliations from the mainstream political parties. That emptying of politics from politics per se ends up creating student leaders, whose only claim to electoral positions is the most banal slogan you can ever hear in a university: "tempo high hai".
Please don't ask me what it means. I don't know either and have remained intrigued for long. But it is this singular slogan that has set the agenda and decided student elections in Aligarh for nearly a century now. It is "tempo high hai" that has created leaders from Aligarh, whatever little it has produced.
It is this political and intellectual bankruptcy that has marked student politics in AMU. In the absence of political education and atmosphere that an institution of higher education is supposed to provide, more so in a campus like Aligarh, student leaders are left to fend for themselves. Teachers either don't mentor or are too scared to do it. The administration run by former Army generals or senior bureaucrats does all it can to ensure the campus remains depoliticised.
I don't know if you have noticed, but AMU and Jamia Millia Islamia are the only two central universities in India often run by non-academics. While that trend is set to hopefully stop soon, it's appalling why nobody within the community or outside questioned and resisted it for decades.
Such administrators despise progressive politics, victimise teachers or students who dare to do it, and end up undermining the legitimate and democratic right of students to call elections or form political alliances.
What happens in such a depoliticised campus is that student leaders end up pandering to populist notions of religion, tradition or victimhood. Easy and regressive slogans take over more pressing issues like the recent University Grants Commission gazette notification you also questioned AMU about. Politics of emotion takes over politics of consequence. The FIR against you over alleged disrespect to the Prophet explains that.
"I doubt if AMUSU has any sentiments left, let alone religious!" you said in another angry Facebook post after the police case was filed. I have to agree with you on that. Moreover, religious sentiments have no place in an academic insitution.
If AMU or its student leaders claim a religious right over their campus and dictate who gets to enter it, they are failing the very idea of Aligarh and its long history of liberal and alternate politics.
As you so aptly put it in the same Facebook post: "Pehle insaan baniye, phir musalman banne ka dawa kariye." For me, as long as you are a student, insaaniyat (humanism) is all that matters.
(The author is a former president of AMU Students Union.)