By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
12 June 2018
Aligarh Muslim University is in the news again. This time for punishing three of its students for consuming beer! The facts of the case seem to like this: three AMU students along with a common friend decide to have a good time by having beer. During the month of Ramzan, when members of Muslim community abstain from food and drink, this group not just decided to break this taboo but also ‘dared’ to advertise this through the social network site Facebook.
The pictures drew wide condemnation, particularly within the AMU fraternity. Some students, particularly those who thought that there was a political career to be made out of this, filed an FIR against these three students. The AMU establishment has so far been silent but the students have been suspended from various cultural clubs of the university to which they belonged. The FIR became news and there was backlash against these students on the social media, particularly from the Muslim community. Some of the posts actually suggested that they should be treated as apostates and hence were liable to be killed. Understandably so, the all three students are in hiding, have switched off their phones and have de-activated their social media accounts. Under tremendous pressure, they find themselves without any support from the wider liberal establishment. Friends suddenly have turned into foes and what is worse, they have had a loss of face within the local community to which they belonged.
Few weeks back, the AMU community passionately defended Jinnah’s portrait on the walls of its student union. However, instead of taking the issue of Jinnah’s culpability within partition frontally, they prevaricated and instead concentrated their energy on the police violence which followed the protest by right wing Hindu groups. The point that one is trying to make is that they should have categorically stated the obvious: that Jinnah cannot be held solely responsible for India’s partition. In power at that time were three players: Congress, the Muslim League and the British. All three therefore must be held responsible for partition for if they had wanted to prevent it, it could have been done.
Instead the AMU community went off on a tangent: digging into history to prove that Hindu right wing also held similar views and therefore should be blamed for partition. The point remains that as compared to the dominant powers, the Hindu right wing groups were a minor force at that time and therefore cannot be held responsible for partition.
Every crisis presents an opportunity. The AMU community lost an opportunity to dispassionately debate Jinnah’s place in modern Indian history. But then, we all know that Jinnah’s obstinacy was legendary. Not satisfied with the way AMU treated him, his ghost has now come back in the form of the present crisis. Jinnah loved his wine and must be eager to see whether AMU turns its present beer crisis into a dialogic opportunity of new engagements.
The response of AMU authorities so far has been downright farcical. In punishing these students by removing them from various cultural clubs they have turned the idea of culture upside down. More importantly, it refuses to learn any lessons from its past mistakes.
Many years ago, there was Professor Siras who died in mysterious circumstances after AMU initiated disciplinary action against him for the simple reason that he was gay. Instead of throwing out students who had deliberately and criminally intimidated Professor Siras, AMU authorities started preaching morality lessons to a teacher who was marginalised in more than one ways.
Something similar seems to be happening now. The very failure of the AMU authorities to condemn the fanatic behaviour of a section of students will be taken as an affirmation. In keeping silent, AMU establishment today is complicit in threatening and silencing three of its own students. If under tremendous pressure they contemplate suicide or are nearly lynched after coming back to campus, AMU authorities will be solely responsible to allow such a thing to happen.
That a fair share of Muslims enjoy their drink is no secret. There are many within AMU who do so. There are those who give up drinking during Ramzan. There are those who don’t. And then there are those who fast during the day but enjoy their drinks in the evening! I am sure that those who are protesting against the irreligious and ‘indecent’ behaviour of these young adults know this very well. Then what single out these three students? It seems that the greater part of the problem is not drinking but being open about it. In other words, these students are being punished not so much for drinking but for not being discreet about it. AMU needs to decide whether it wants to create a culture where hypocrisy is rewarded and honesty punished.
The larger issue of course is about space for dissent and difference which should be provided by all communities, more so by a university like AMU. As an important institution within the Muslim society, AMU should be at the forefront for the struggle in favour of free speech and freedom of being. For after all, it is the minority communities and those at the margins who are at the receiving end when freedom of speech is curtailed. History has taught us that it is in the interest of minorities themselves that they should be the champions of personal liberty and choice. Instead what we see is quite the obverse.
Muslim society is increasingly convinced that it needs to police the behaviour of its members. Certainly one cannot hope for freedom and democracy within the wider society without championing these values within one’s own community. What is more worrisome is the Muslim anxiety to define itself solely as a theological community. If theology starts marking the boundaries of behaviour, the language of rights becomes the first casualty and the communities only stultify further.
There are enough problems which AMU should worry about. A few students drinking beer and showing it off during Ramzan should be the least of its worries.
Arshad Alam is a NewAgeIslam.com columnist