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Caution before judgment

Years ago, much before her suspicious death became part of the visceral circus that is the Indian news media, Asma Javed was in the news for all the right reasons. She made headlines when, defying convention, became the first Muslim woman to run for student body president at the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). The 28-year-old was found dead in her apartment on Wednesday. Asma is suspected to have died four or five days ago, according to recent news reports. 

The police broke into her home in Aligarh’s Civil Lines area after neighbours complained of a foul stench. Asma, known to be extremely vocal about women’s rights, completed her doctorate from the university two years ago. Her family says she wanted to join a teacher’s course. News of Asma’s death comes only a few months after the controversial comment by the Vice-Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU): who in November last year thoughtlessly said that if AMU were to allow girls into the library, then there would be four times more boys. This was admittedly unbecoming on the part of a high-ranking official. The Vice-Chancellor, who is the latest in a list of bureaucrats, army generals and other government functionaries, was a controversial political appointee to say the least.

Despite stringent criticism, there are solid counterfactuals to the allegation that AMU as a university is misogynistic. For one, AMU has one of the lowest reported cases of eve teasing across Indian universities. To single out AMU is to ignore the empirical evidence on record. Secondly, AMU follows a segregated system of all boys’ and all girls’ education policy up to graduation level, except for professional courses such as law, engineering, medical, etc. Undergraduate students of the Abdullah Women’s College have their own system including a library and a book bank and they generally don’t require to go to the Maulana Azad Library (the library which was the venue of media-generated controversy) of the AMU. 

The University is well within its rights to exercise a segregated education policy based on gender. Considering that many schools and colleges do so, this is the norm rather than the exception. What was perhaps more disconcerting in the whole saga was the way the mainstream news media especially television channels examined the comment. It was perhaps a stereotypical case of cynical and selective distortion by the media. One fears that in Asma Javed’s case, the herd mentality prevalent in some sections of the media would prevail. Of course, in an attempt to catch eyeballs or grab more TRPs and hits online, the rat race of talking heads would begin. It is perhaps imperative at this point to signal a note of caution. The facts of Asma’s death remain unclear as of now. It’s perhaps best that the media fraternity let the facts of the investigation come out before alleging misogyny and foul play. 

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