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AMU, Mahendra Pratap and Politics of Polarization – Ram Puniyani

Aligarh Muslim Universtiy was founded by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Image credit: RV Murthy/The Hindu

The BJP dug up this icon from pages of history gauging prevalent respect for him decades after his death. The answer to why now at this particular juncture is very revealing


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hose resorting to communal politics have not only perfected their techniques of polarizing various communities along religious lines, but have been constantly resorting to new methods for dividing the society. Against the backdrop of Muzzafarnagar, where ‘Love Jihad’ propaganda was used to enhance the divisive agenda, now in Aligarh an icon of matchless virtues, Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh is being employed for the similar purposes (Nov 2014).

The attempt by BJP and associates to hold the memorial function in his honor on the campus was successfully deflected by the Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) with the plan for a seminar befitting his contribution to the freedom movement of this AMU alumnus. The BJP dug up this icon from pages of history gauging prevalent respect for him decades after his death. The answer to why now at this particular juncture is very revealing.

Mahendra Pratap died on 29 April 1979, and now out of the blue BJP seems to have felt that his Jat, Hindu identity can be pitched as a flag of their politics. Pratap was a freedom fighter extraordinary, a journalist and a writer. He was a humanist, believing in International Federation of Nations transcending the national and religious boundaries. He was a Marxist who called for social reforms and empowerment of Panchayats. He was president of Indian Freedom Fighters’ Association and also the first one to form the provisional Indian Government in exile by establishing it in Kabul in 1915.

Just to recall, the Indian National Congress adopted the goal of complete freedom for India much later in its 1929 session. This Provisional Government was called Hakumat-i-Moktar-i-Hind, and was constituted with Pratap as the President, Maulvi Barkatullah as prime minister and Maulana Obaidullah Sindhi as interior minister.

After independence he also participated in the electoral arena where he defeated Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Mathura in the 1957 Lok Sabha election. His commitment to being opposed to communal forces could not be more evident than this opposition of his to the then leader of Bhartiya Jana Sangh, Vajpayee. Ironically, the same person who opposed their politics is now being portrayed as the saffron icon. BJP leaders like Yogi Adityanath are claiming that had Mahendra Pratap not donated the land the AMU would not have come up.

This is contrary to the facts. The predecessor of AMU, Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College was formed in 1886, with land bought from British cantonment (Nearly 74 Acres) and much later Pratap had leased 3.04 acres of land. This is called Tikonia ground and is used as a playground by the City High School of AMU in 1929. He joined the Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College in 1895, but could not complete his graduation. He left MAO College in 1905. MAO became Aligarh Muslim University in 1920, which regards Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh as its alumnus. In 1977, AMU, under V-C Prof A M Khusro, felicitated Mahendra Pratap at the centenary celebrations of MAO.

Mahendra Pratap wasn’t even born when the MAO was established, and there is no record of any donation of land from him. Mahendra Pratap’s father Raja Ghanshiam Singh of Mursan had got a hostel room constructed, which continues to stand as Room Number 31 in Sir Syed Hall (South).

The BJP demanded that Mahenra Pratap’s birthday be celebrated just as the AMU celebrates the birthday of Sir Syed, the founder of the University. RSS functionaries and BJP leaders put pressure on Vice Chancellor Lt General Zameer Uddin.

The VC pointed out that the AMU cannot celebrate the birth day of every donor or alumnus while recognizing their contribution to the  University. As such already AMU in recognition of Pratap’s contribution to the University has put up his photo in University along with that of Sir Syed.

On November 17 (2014), Uttar Pradesh BJP chief Laxmikant Bajpai and general secretary Swatantra Dev Singh visited Aligarh and directed their district unit to celebrate the birthday of Mahendra Pratap within the MU campus. The Raja is a also Jat icon. In popular perception the AMU is seen as a Muslim institution.

The Jat-Muslim conflict instigated by communal forces, which erupted in the form of violence in Muzaffarnagar continues to affect parts of Uttar Pradesh. The BJP through its machinations allegedly wants to restore the glory of a Jat ‘king’. As such the idea is to appropriate one more icon and in the process if the state government puts curbs on the celebration, the BJP can benefit by accusing it of “Muslim appeasement”.

As the matters stand, the vice chancellor’s suggestion of celebrating the birth anniversary of Raja Mahendra Pratap by organizing a seminar on his contribution to freedom movement of India is a welcome initiative. The situation seems to have been defused for the time being. BJP had planned a rally outside the gate of AMU, which would have precipitated an unwarranted crisis.

This whole episode offers crucial lessons for the society. To begin with, the national icons are being modulated to suit the interests of communal politics. Be it Sardar Patel, Swami Vivekanand, Mahatma Gandhi or in this case Raja Mahendra Pratap, they are being presented in a particular light.  Mahendra Pratap, who was a Marxist internationalist, is being presented as a mere Jat leader. He was a person who opposed the politics in the name of religion, as is evident by his electoral fight against BJP’s previous avatar, Bhartiya Jan Sangh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Secondly, BJP associates are manipulating people’s identity as primarily being religious. In case of Muzzafarnagar, the Jats who were instigated in the name of ‘love jihad’ came to stand for Hindu identity. This identity is then made to stand vis-a-vis the ‘other’ religious identity in particular, the Muslim identity and sometimes Christian identity. The same game is also being played in parts of Delhi, where Dalits are being made to pitch against Muslims, in a way two deprived communities being made to fight for their ‘religion’ under the pretext of cosmetic issues related to faith.

The communal politics not only manipulates the identity of the people but also that of the icons, as is clear in the case of Raja Mahendra Pratap. The third major lesson for society to learn is that the search is on to find more and more issues to pitch one religious community against another to strengthen the politics of a particular type. While the top leadership will talk of moratorium on violence, its associates will stoke the processes which will lead to the process of violence in due course.

A great amount of restraint is needed to ensure that we learn the values of icons like Mahendra Pratap who teach us the basic lessons of love and amity, peace and universal humanism. To use the techniques of conflicting religious identities is a gross violation of human morality, irrespective of the religion in whose name it is done.

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