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How A Strong Alternative Changed The Face Of Regional Politics At Aligarh Muslim University

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By Riad Azam:

Student politics at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) has been plagued by regionalism over the past two decades. The independent spaces for student politics has been captured by those who promote regionalism in the university, which had turned student politics into a farce on campus.

Image source: Riad Azam
Image source: Riad Azam

Regionalism to establish Dominance:
The AMU draws students from nearly all parts of India with a majority from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It is this multitude of students in the campus which is converted into the breeding ground for regionalism. There are various collectives from different regions which are called ‘lobbies’ in Aligarh’s parlance. These lobbies are run by ‘seniors’- students and non-students who have given time in developing the lobby and have good contacts in the University, especially the administration. The loyalty of the freshers is usually ensured by these seniors who help the newly admitted students of their region to get accommodation in the hostels, organise iftar parties for them and in turn get them to vote for their candidate during the students’ union elections.

It is therefore needless to state that such collectives thrive solely upon opportunism and its only motive is to establish the dominance of one collective in the University which is at times achieved through violence, intimidation and also through the support of a section of the University administration. Therefore, to expect any meaningful, constructive politics from such bodies would be in vain. During the past few years the standard of the successive students’ unions at the AMU had been deteriorating leading to large scale alienation and disinterest of the common students from the politics in the campus. The level of deterioration was such that there had been allegations against some union leaders of extracting money from the shops located in the vicinity of the University; something that was unprecedented in the University.

The Rise of an Alternative:
It was under these tumultuous circumstances that a number of independent students’ organisations came together on a common platform to form a coalition called AMU Students for Justice. What was incredible about this coalition was that it contained organisations of diverse ideological postulations, ranging from the Islamist to the liberal, who all found common ground on the fact that it is regionalism which is wrecking havoc upon the university; if the University has to make any meaningful contribution it must overcome the challenges posed by the presence of these regional lobbies.

Slowly but steadily this coalition did manage to capture the imagination of the students, especially those who had been filled with the disgust at the directionless students’ politics. A crucial moment for this coalition came in the year 2013, when a law faculty student was subjected to sexual harassment by her professor. The incident was widely reported in the local media and there was a need to act urgently on the issue. However, raising an issue pertaining to sexual harassment and gender sensitisation has never been an easy task at the AMU, primarily because this issue has been traditionally raised by professors and students who owe allegiance to the Left, and their political language in this regard fails to connect to the largely prevalent religious discourse of the University. Therefore there has been a misplaced notion that raising issues of gender justice is the handiwork of on-campus leftists, of which the other students should not be a part.

In such circumstances it was decided that the protest would address Islam in a progressive manner putting forward the idea that sexual harassment was something that is not permissible according to the teachings of Islam and most importantly, it brought bad name to the University. It was indeed a turning point in the history of students’ movement at AMU when students rallied in large numbers protesting against sexual harassment and most importantly against victim blaming. This was possible because this multitude of students could connect with the Islamic discourse of the protest.

The epoch making moment for this coalition arrived next year when it fielded a candidate Abdullah Azzam for the post of president in the students’ union elections who had emerged victorious. Placed against the money and muscle power, the strong organisation of the lobbies and most importantly their electoral experience, this was no ordinary feat for an ordinary bunch of students who had limited resources.

The Road Ahead:
Whether the students’ union led by Abdullah Azzam has been able in fulfilling the expectations of the common students of the University will be debated in the years to come. But his victory does give some important lessons for the right thinking students of the University which must be taken into account.

The thing about AMU is that it is a politically active campus where a large number of students do take interest in the students’ union elections, provided the elections are contested over issues. Secondly, students would vote for candidates cutting across their regional allegiances, provided they have an alternative. But most importantly, regionalism in AMU has become weaker over time. While it would be politically naive to believe that regional lobbies do not exist anymore, their strength has certainly diminished, especially in the context of students’ union elections. One primary reason behind this is that the junior students in the University today prefer to exercise their voting rights independently and will not meekly take down voting orders from the seniors of their region.

At a time in India when aggressive right wing politics is on a rise and dissent is being crushed, it is important for minority institutions like AMU to contribute in the task of fostering resistance. Given the huge number of students studying in the University and its influence, the students at the campus can actually play a pivotal role in developing a solidarity of victims of oppression of various kinds; victims of fake terror cases, caste oppressions, state excesses and their ilk. For that the students at the University have to ensure they continue to nurture the spaces for constructive politics in the campus or they shall be taken over by the regional lobbies once again. The winds of change are blowing for sure at the AMU. They need to be seized and blown into a storm.

Also Read: Who Is Afraid Of Women’s Political Participation In Aligarh Muslim University?

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