Five years after returning to India for good, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had acquired quite the following among students who were struck by his message preaching brotherhood between themselves and non-cooperation towards the colonial rulers. Sample this: On October 12, 1920, when Gandhi visited the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College in Aligarh, he asked the students gathered, “How can you remain, even for an hour, in an institution in which you are obliged to put up with the Union Jack and profess your loyalty to a Governor or other high-ranking officials, when, in fact you, are not loyal?”
Moved, a group of students, faculty members and activists including Mohammad Ali Jauhar and Shaukat Ali — also called the Ali brothers — joined the Non-Cooperation Movement within the fortnight. Even before the month was up, the group had established the Independent National University with an aim to have an indigenous education free from British influence. It was renamed Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), and shifted from Aligarh to New Delhi soon after. Jauhar became its first vice-chancellor, and Hakim Ajmal Khan its first chancellor. Prominent educationalist Zakir Husain, who went on to become India’s third President, was associated with the university from the start.
On October 29, 2020, JMI turns 100, and from temporary quarters in an ashram to operating out of a set of tents for four years, the educational institution today has five schools with nine distinct faculties, 39 departments and 30 centres (spread across Nanoscience, Dalit and Minorities Studies, Peace and Conflict Resolution, and even Information Technology) that educate over 21,000 students of various religious, caste, and class affiliations. The first batch that graduated in 1921 comprised 21 students — all male. Last year, nearly 2,000 students graduated from JMI; at least 35% of them women.
Its alumni span across fields from film, politics and science, to journalism and civil services, and include former Chief Election Commissioner SY Qureshi, filmmaker Kiran Rao, and cricketer Virendra Sehwag, among others. Even actor Shah Rukh Khan was enrolled at the university’s well-known AJK Mass Communication Research Centre (AJK-MCRC).
Loveleen Tandon, co-director of Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, called Jamia a “birthplace of self-discovery”. “In our canteen, you would see people sitting discussing politics, films and speaking about people like (Andrei) Tarkovsky and (Ingmar) Bergman. Being in such an institute opened up a new world for me,” said Tandon who studied at AJK-MCRC in 1998.
Former lieutenant governor of Delhi and Jamia vice-chancellor between 2009 and 2013, Najeeb Jung, said: “Jamia is not just a university. It’s a movement started back in 1920 with an aim to provide first-rate modern education. Here modern means secular and nationalist education with the all-round development of students.”
The year 1920 was an eventful one. Gandhi gave a call to boycott government-run schools and colleges and the Congress passed a resolution of Non-cooperation advising “the gradual withdrawal of children from schools or colleges… controlled by government and… the establishment of national schools and colleges in the various provinces”. In response, a number of institutions came up such as the Gujarat Vidyapith, Bihar Vidyapith, Kashi Vidyapith, and Modern School in Delhi, besides JMI.
“Jamia, which means a university in Arabic, was born out of Gandhi-ji’s call,” said Sabiha Zaidi, director of Jamia’s Premchand Archives and Literary Center, which has a collection of photos, private papers and mementos dating back to its start.
The new university aimed to be “nationalist” and “indigenous”, Gandhi’s personal secretary Mahadev Desai recorded in his journal at the time. By 1924, however, it had nearly run out of money. “Mohammad Ali had even suggested closing down Jamia but Gandhi-ji was totally against it. He said, ‘Jamia has to run. If you are worried about its finances, I will go about with a begging bowl’,” Zaidi said.
A year later, the university shifted to Karol Bagh in New Delhi. Prominent industrialists sustained it — GD Birla, contributed Rs 50,000; Jamnalal Bajaj, raised Rs 6,000 for a new building — at Gandhi’s behest.
In 1938, Jamia established the Ustadon ka Madarsa, which came to be called the Teachers’ Training College at Karol Bagh, and the Idara-e-Talim-o-Taraqqi that would provide evening classes for adult education. “Whenever we talk about the education of Independent India, and more specifically teacher’s education in India, Jamia’s contribution in preparing teachers for an education system free from the British influence cannot be stressed enough,” said Aejaz Masih, head of the faculty of education at the university.
“We had no boundaries when it came to learning in Jamia. Though I was an engineering student, I got the opportunity to learn French and read the poetry of Rumi and Tabrez,” said Hanif Quraishi, secretary, Renewable Energy department, Haryana.
Shohini Ghosh, officiating director at AJK-MCRC said this was one of the earliest centres for the production of educational films for the University Grants Commission. “Many of us started our careers as producers of these documentaries whose subject ranged from a portrait of Shahjahanabad to the workings of the Railways. Amar Kanwar, who is now a well-known documentary filmmaker and artist, made an award-winning series on the leather industry. Apart from this, AJK-MCRC encouraged us to make independent documentaries that affirmed social justice and questioned discriminatory practices,” she said.
2019 political protest
On December 15, 2019, policemen entered JMI’s central library in an effort to quell the students and citizens’ protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The Delhi Police used sticks and fired tear gas shells. Civil society activists and opposition parties condemned the violence and demanded a judicial probe. A National Human Rights Commission report released in June stated that the police was “law bound to contain the activities of the unlawful assembly.”
Many Jamia students who were a part of the protest, including Meeran Haider and Safoora Zargar, have been arrested and charged by Delhi Police. Vice-chancellor Najma Akhtar said that the First Information Report based on a complaint made by the institute is yet to be filed.
“Jamia believes in Gandhiji’s principle of non-violence. We have restored the library completely and even changed the colour of the chairs with a hope that it does not remind my students of the violence when they return back to the campus,” said Akhtar.
The student-led protest outside the university was suspended after the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March. The matter is currently before the Delhi high court.