Only few years back, Jamia Millia Islamia got the status of a minority institution with 50% reservation for Muslims – a religious minority in the country. One can possibly see innumerable discussions, formal as well as informal, that encircle religion and its understanding in and about this university.
Jamia is perceived to be an Islamic institution broadly at the outset because of its name, culture and the comparatively higher number of Muslims. It is interesting to learn the secular understanding and its existence in Jamia from the people that belong to this place and experience a regular routine – students and faculty.
How to define Secularism became one of the interesting parts of this story where most of the opinions by the students were based on their own perceptions. As Dr. S.R.T.P. Raju, Assisitant Professor at the Department of Political Science, explains, “There is a difference in the Indian and Western understanding of Secularism. The western secularism prohibits any religious symbol in public and tags religion as a private affair. The Indian experience of Secularism, however, is based on Gandhian thought of ‘Sarv Dharma Sambhava’.” Thus, Indian Secularism allows practices of every religion with equal freedom in the public domain.
Dr. Raju is quite clear that with an understanding along the Indian concept of Secularism, Jamia is a fairly secular place. Sania Jamal, a student in Jamia Millia Islamia for the last five years, however, feels patches of secular and non-secular emotions in Jamia. She explains it by picking examples of differences in attitude and approach of students. The ease with which people can practice their own religion depends on the Department and the group that one particularly stays around. According to her, some ‘conservative’ group of people may not intervene in your right to dress or other similar routine choices but shall speak high of their Islamic dressing, which might alter the comfort zones of the non-Muslims of their choices and actions. She points out her close friendship with a non-Muslim girl and the fact that they have never faced any questions or repercussions, “because it [Jamia] has a symbolic secularism.”
On the other hand, Rohit Raj, a student of Department of Political Science, believes that the contentions of minority institutions was a consequence of state failure as the state was unable to provide inclusive growth to the minorities. Afreen Faridi, a student of Public Administration, elaborates how minority institutions were formed to give preference to one section but this favor should not be seen as subjugation of the others.
Holding the same view, Rohit personally finds a deviance of this vision in the popular student culture of Jamia where most of the discussions amongst students are in defense or offense of a particular religion. He believes that religion, because of its popular misuse, should be kept as a personal affair and its discussions and deliberations should not be allowed in public. With that said, he asserts Jamia to be as non-secular as India.
Noufal C k Para, a hostel resident and another student in the department of Political Science feels the varsity campus to be a secular place. He narrates incidents of hostel where non-Muslims had comfortably carried out their religious rituals or proceedings without much conflict in their hostel premises. Abdul Hadi Barak, an Afghan student in the Political Science Department, holds up a similar view of secularism where he believes that the environment is ‘absolutely’ free for individuals to carry out their religious choices.
In contrary to the views of Naufal and Hadi, Kelvin Olisamuni, an African student, identifies Jamia and its surroundings with beliefs more centric to Islam which is reflected in their routine choices. This university, however, is fairly accommodative with any other religion and hence secular, believes Kelvin. The views are so diverse that Umer Wani, another student feels that the secular nature of Jamia is justified by the absence of Shariah law.
Afreen Faridi further believes that there is evident secularism in Jamia, otherwise an Islamic institute has chances to impose Shariah law which is not the case. The vision of this institution is not to reinforce bias, the result of which can be seen in the good number of non-Muslim faculty and students in Jamia. Afreen points out that discussing religion is a good thing but these discourses should not be taken in such a public set up where beliefs of any individual may get offended.
Dr. Sucharita Sengupta, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, however, questions the very reason of having such a discussion. “Why is this asked only to Jamia? A pertinent issue is, are other universities also faced with the burden of proving their secular credentials?” she questions. She further says that we must, therefore, acknowledge that the prevalence of such a debate can perhaps be another stage where the marginalized have to prove their sincerity to the mainstream.
With that said, it is difficult to conclude an answer to “Is Jamia secular?” in black and white because of the grey shades of responses. But what one needs to understand is that Jamia is a reverse example of the majority-minority debates with respect to India. Hindus derive certain privileges being a majority in this country based on democratic lines that theoretically does not harm secular definitions but surely alters certain practical individual experiences.
It may be in terms of selection and elimination of one’s society and interaction that results in various exchanges, economic and social, that are derivatives of one’s popular identity, which in many cases is one’s religion. Muslims form popular culture in Jamia Millia Islamia which should not be seen as a threat to secularism but surely creates an influence because of the regular rules in the majority-minority games.
[Note: This article was first published in Episteme (2013-14), the Subject Association, Department of Political Science annual student magazine. It has been reproduced here with their permission.]
[Editor’s Note: If you wish to express an opinion about Jamia, then send in your opinion article (800-1000 words) to edi[email protected] com for consideration. Article submissions about Jamia are open to all readers, in and out of Jamia.]