AMU and trends of religion and politics


1977 was a watershed year in the history of post-colonial India. The then-darkest spot in independent India’s history, the national emergency, was lifted. A consortium of opposition parties and groups joined hands together and formed the first non-Congress government at the Centre under the aegis of Janata Party. Ironically, though the 1977 elections were a victory of democracy over totalitarianism, it was also the rise of, and a key step in the legitimisation of Hindu Nationalism – an ideology that is making India an increasingly totalitarian country since 2014. Bhariatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the precursor of Bharatiya Janata Party, had merged with the Janata Party before elections. Two of its tallest leaders, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani found themselves at the important ranks of Minister of External Affairs and Minister of Information and Broadcasting respectively in the Moraji Desai cabinet formed after 1977 general elections.

However, this didn’t happen all of a sudden. Since the death of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964, the Hindu nationalist elements, eternally present in the Congress, were on a steady rise. This was true especially under Indira Gandhi’s premiership. From the 1970s, even the BJS and its ideological mentor Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) went on a spree of mass mobilisation. In 1972, RSS’s student wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarti Parishad (ABVP) won the Student Union elections in a number of university campuses in the populous state of Bihar. [1] In its Kanpur session in 1973, the BJS resolved to “organise mass unrest and to lead the struggle on the economic and social fronts for all aggrieved sections of the society”. [2]

When the J.P movement against Congress governments at the Centre and the states (especially Gujarat and Bihar) began in 1974, Hindu Nationalists found a golden opportunity. The face of this movement, Jayaprakash Narayan, though a hybrid of Gandhian and Socialist, had prior association with several key leaders of the Sangh. Renowned political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot in his book The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India has dedicated an entire chapter to the The Hindu Nationalists in the J.P Movement. Detailing the important role RSS, BJS and ABVP played in the movement, Jaffrelot notes that “the collaboration between ‘JP’ [Jayprakash Narayan] and the RSS and its affiliates in the Bihar movement was primarily due to the Hindu nationalists’ search for a leader capable of integrating them in legitimate politics.” [3]

The role of the Sangh in JP movement explains the appointment of Vajpayee and Advani at key posts in the Desai cabinet despite reservations of the socialists within the Janata Party. Now in power, the Hindu Nationalist tried to use their influence in government to further their agenda.

Perhaps the most visible impact of Hindu nationalists in power came in July 1978 when the government banned the textbook Ancient India by R.S.Sharma, a ‘communist’ historian. Ever since 1977, the Hindu Nationalists, through various platforms like the RSS mouthpiece Organiser had intensified their attacks against several history textbooks such as Ancient India by Romila Thapar, Modern India by Bipan Chandra, and Freedom Struggle by A. Tripathi, Barun De and Bipan Chandra. [4]

The systematic nature of the Sangh’s plan to focus on corrupting young minds became crystal clear when in 1977 itself, the RSS formed Vidya Bharti, an umbrella organisation of the schools it had been running across India. [5] 

These activities of the Sangh naturally made Indian Muslims concerned. Muslims, Christians and Communists were three ‘internal enemies’ the RSS leader MS Golwalkar had named in his book Bunch of Thoughts. Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), considered as the centre of Muslim education in India, was naturally effected. The concern of AMU was bound to be higher for at least two reasons. One, being a hub of Muslim intellectuals in India, it had a key responsibility to devise a proper response to the increasing influence of Hindu Nationalism. And two, AMU had been stripped off its minority status by the Indira Gandhi government in and thus had just recently experienced how apathetic government can influence education and educational institutions.

It was under this backdrop that Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) was founded at AMU. Islamism, the ideology which SIMI thought to be the panacea for Indian Muslims, can be debated for its correctness, merits and demerits. I personally hold Islamism to be a xenophobic ideology based on a fundamentally incorrect understanding of Islam. However, the point to be noted here is that it was in ‘response’ to an increasing Hindu Nationalism that a group of Muslims at AMU looked towards it.

Academic literature in Terrorism Studies identify ‘grievance’ as a key factor that combines with ‘ideology’ leading to radicalisation. The presence of grievance is essential for any ideology to radicalise individuals. In the case of SIMI, the Hindu Nationalists had provided very genuine grievances for Islamism to prosper.  Had Islamism not existed, the very same Muslims who joined SIMI would have clung to some other ideology they would have found appealing.

Perhaps recalling the 1920s and 1930s will help to illustrate my claim. Though several scholars like Prof. G Aloysius have argued that the Indian National Congress was a subtly Hindu Nationalist party from its very inception, it increasingly became overtly Hindu Nationalist in the 1920s. [6] Cow protection was a key issue in Mohandas Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement of the early 1920s. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Congress increasingly became soft to the Hindu nationalist elements within it. This was despite 1923 to 1926 witnessing first of the three peaks of Hindu-Muslim violence.

This attitude of the Congress pushed an ex-senior Congress leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah to demand special safeguards for Muslims from the platform of Muslim League. It was feared that a rise of Hindu Nationalism would put the minorities, especially Muslims, at risk of losing their genuine rights. Jinnah tried hard to negotiate and come at some settlement, but was only humiliated. [7] After the fabulous victory of Congress in the 1937 elections, the Muslim League once again tried to work with the Congress, but the Congress proved uninterested and essentially drove the Muslim League away. [8] The point of no-return was thus reached between the Congress and the League. The League under Jinnah then propagated the ideology of Indian Muslim Nationalism to safeguards the genuine rights of Indian Muslims.

The (real or perceived) anti-Muslim attitude of the Congress Ministries formed after the 1937 elections costed the Congress another key Muslim figure – Abul A’la Maududi. Maududi was a former supporter of Congress and had been associated with the pro-Congress Jamiat e Ulema e Hind. He had even published biographies of Gandhi and Hindu Nationalist leader Madan Mohan Malviya. However, seeing the anti-Muslim bias in the actions of Congress ministers, he too reached a point of no-return with the Congress. [9] It was Maududi who then synthesised the ideology of Islamism and subsequently formed Jamaat e Islami in 1941.

Muslim Nationalism and Islamism were two competing ideologies in the 1940s that tried to win over the aggrieved Indian Muslims. For a host of reasons specific to that time, the former was much more successful than the latter. When the grievances of Muslims aggravated again in the 1970s, for yet another set of reasons specific to this time, Islamism exercised a significant impact on Muslims. The point to be noted is that in the case of Indian Muslims, ideologies have just served as a hook to cling to as prospective solutions. It is primarily the grievances they face that have shaped their responses. This is true for almost all socio-political movements throughout history.

The formation of SIMI in AMU in 1977 was primarily as a result of the grievances of Indian Muslims, and not Islamism per se. The anxieties of Muslim students at AMU were more than the general Indian Muslims because they too were a part of J.P Movement and several student leaders had been jailed during emergency. The ascendency of the Hindu right after the success of a movement in which they too contributed would be a natural cause of annoyance.

In 1979, the Janata Party government collapsed and the direct influence of the Sangh in the government waned. But in the same year, three events of international importance served as impetus for the global upsurge of Islamism – and thus for SIMI as well. The success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in February 1979, the seizure of Islam’s holiest shrine in Saudi Arabai’s Makkah in November 1979, and the war between Soviet Union and ‘mujahideen’ in Afghanistan in December 1979. These three events, occurring in quick succession, were landmark events in the Muslim world. Coupled with the global export of Salafism by Saudi Arabia under the auspices of United States of America, and Gen. Zia ul Haq’s Islamisation programme in Pakistan, the 1980s proved to be the golden years of a global spread of Islamism.

The impact of international events on SIMI since 1979 was clearly visible in its activities. SIMI organised rallies against Soviet Union in 1979 and celebrated ‘Afghan Day’ on 11 January 1980. [10] They also demonstrated against Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat for his stand on the Afghanistan conflict.

Nonetheless, the issues of Indian Muslims did not lose steam and continued to be a key concern of SIMI. Renowned scholar Yoginder Sikand notes that “It [SIMI] sought to intervene in and generate public support for its stand on other issues of major concern to the Indian Muslims, such as efforts to do away with the separate Muslim Personal Law, moves to dilute the Muslim character of the Aligarh Muslim University, and the Hinduization of textbooks in government-run schools.” [11] In protest against the Nellie massacre, it observed 18 March 1983 as ‘Assam Day’.[10] The illegal demolition of Babri Masjid by a Hindu Nationalist mob in 1992 and the massacres of Muslims in the violence that followed was perhaps a watershed event in the list of grievances of Indian Muslims. SIMI’s concern of the interests of Indian Muslims can be assessed by a statement issued it issued in 1996 where it called for establishment of a Caliphate because democracy and secularism had failed to protect the rights of the Muslims.

Perhaps a better idea of the relative role of grievance and ideology can be obtained by focussing our attention on AMU, the institute where SIMI was formed. From its very inception, AMU has been a place where ideologies compete for dominance. Founded in 1875 as a school, the seeds of Muslim nationalism was sown here by its founder Sir Syed Ahmad Khan himself. Leaders of the Khilafat movement arose from here in the 1910s and early 1920s. In the late 1920s and 1930s, as Communism began to establish itself as a global movement, AMU became a hub of communists producing figures like Ali Safdar Jafri and Ismat Chughtai. After the 1937 elections, Muslim nationalism under Muslim League again reigned supreme. Post-partition, as many of the Muslim nationalist elements left for Pakistan, AMU became a contested territory between the Communists and Traditionalists, with both sharing an uneasy co-existence.

After the blow faced by the Arab states in the 1967 Arab-Israel war, Islamism began to reassert itself in the Arab world, sending ripples of its influence throughout the world. In this environment of international rise of Islamism and national rise of Hindu nationalism, Islamism manifested itself in AMU in the form of SIMI. However, as it happens in any vibrant intellectual atmosphere, other ideologies too had their share in AMU. Perhaps the stiffest challenge to SIMI came from Muslim Students Organisation (MSO), another student organisation formed in 1977 itself in AMU to counter the influence of SIMI. MSO believes in the Sufi interpretation of Islam which stands in some ways as an opposite pole to Islamism in the Islamic Religious thought. At the same time Communist organisations like All India Students Federation (AISF) continued to exercise considerable influence in AMU.

Bearing in mind that SIMI was banned by the government only in 2001, and that it was an entirely peaceful organisation in its initial period, SIMI needs to be seen as an intellectual responses to the persecution of Muslims that arose in AMU under the influence of national and international conditions. Its radicalisation to violence and alleged transformation into Indian Mujahideen is a different story altogether. Its inception as a student organisation in AMU, however, was just a manifestation of a vibrant intellectual atmosphere that exists in AMU, and must exist in all university campuses too.     

As young minds get into universities, they get to explore the marketplace of ideas. With the vast intellectual legacy they have inherited, they try understanding different worldviews, are attracted by some, repelled by others, and toy with expanding the horizons of their valuable inheritance. As Prof. Mohammad Sajjad of AMU’s History Department beautifully puts it, “University students keep experimenting with adventures and misadventures, with ideas … These (mis)adventures of ideas are hardly taken as errant behaviour or as deviance. These are taken as journeys in the realm of ideas.” [12]

The only healthy way to deal with these ideas is to let them flourish and to allow perfect competition in the marketplace of ideas. When an external force tries to influence this market by means of prohibitions, restrictions, or even vilification, it only serves to negatively affect the market outcomes. . As both India and the world are at critical junctures in history with the rise of right-wing populism and the collapse of the International Economic Order, there is a vigorous churning in the thinking minds. But with a government crackdown on dissent and the opposition exchanging abuses among themselves (‘Liberals’ and ‘Communists’ vs. ‘Muslim Unapologetics’ and ‘Islamists’) in the arena of politics instead of ideas, we, unfortunately, don’t seem to have learnt dealing with ideas.

Iqbal Salahkar writes on politics and identities. Views expressed are personal.


[1] Jaffrelot, C. (1996). The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India. Columbia University Press. p.258

[2] Jaffrelot, C. (1996). The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India. Columbia University Press. p.256

[3] Jaffrelot, C. (1996). The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India. Columbia University Press. p.257

[4] Jaffrelot, C. (2007). Hindu Nationalism: A Reader. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p.284

[5] Jaffrelot, C. (2007). Hindu Nationalism: A Reader. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p.283

[6] Aloysius, G. (1997). Nationalism Without a Nation in India. Oxford University Press.

[7] Wolpert, S. (2005). Jinnah of Pakistan. Oxford University Press.

[8] Azad, M. A. K. (1989). India Wins Freedom. Orient BlackSwan.

[9] Nasr, S. V. R. (1996). Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism (1st ed.). Oxford University Press.


[11] Sikand, Y. (2003). Islamist assertion in contemporary India: The case of the Students Islamic Movement of India. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 23(2), 335–345.


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