Should AMU keep Jinnah’s portrait? There is a need to debate this but surely not by fringe element goons.
There is a debate raging on in the US on whether to remove Confederate monuments and statues or allow them to exist. Three years ago, when a white supremacist killed nine African-American parishioners, a monument of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis was defaced with spray paint; the words 'Black Lives Matter' stood out prominently on Monument Avenue in Richmond. This was followed by a nationwide demand to dismantle Confederate monuments that provided an insight into one of the darkest chapters of American history. The call for the abolition of slavery eventually led to the American Civil War, fought between the north and the slaveholders of the south. Years later, America debates whether remnants and memorabilia belonging to the Confederates, some of them well-known leaders in their own right, should continue or not.
While some Americans espousing the 'Black Lives Matter' campaign called for the immediate removal of memorials and road names that honour leaders who fought to retain slavery, others reason that their removal tampers history and dilutes the victory of those who fought to abolish slavery. Historians, politicians, and, indeed, the common man in the US find themselves in quite the conundrum. This debate though is being led by the administration, academics, and rights activists. In Germany, even though most Nazi relics have been removed and no statue of Adolph Hitler can be found, some remnants like a church bell bearing a swastika emerge now and then. The rest of Europe, too, from time to time, grapples with its demonic past with officials discussing the way forward.
In India though, goons masquerade as protectors of history. A portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, considered the founder of Pakistan, adorning the walls of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) has evoked demands of its withdrawal. Jinnah was no Nazi, neither did he justify the slavery of thousands of people based on the colour of their skin; he did, however, want a separate nation that led to the formation of Pakistan. His call for 'Direct Action Day' on August 16, 1946, is better known as the 'Great Calcutta Killings' where over 4,000 people lost their lives in the ensuing Hindu-Muslim riots and over 100,000 were left homeless. More political than racist, his photograph at AMU has stirred yet another pot of controversy.
The disagreement that descended into violence was perpetrated by the Hindu Yuva Vahini activists who forcibly entered the campus. AMU stood its ground for retaining the portrait that has been hanging on its walls since 1938, as a symbol of undivided India. But the debate remains: are we denying history with such demands or is the removal justified? First and foremost, this is not a popular public demand. It is not that a massive protest or signature campaign from the 'aam admi' has resulted in this demand. There was not even an official demand; just a bunch of assailants causing ruckus ahead of former Vice-President Hamid Ansari's scheduled programme at AMU. It has also come from a fringe Hindu group, infamous for brewing trouble and causing mischief. Unlike in the US, academics and historians are not breaking their heads over it, though now pointless television debates will surely discuss it in high-pitched tones.
The history of a country and its people are not always glorious. Neither are all its heroes and legends white-washed. So where do all these demands really end? And who decides which elements of our history adorn public spaces and museums? Surely, thugs with little knowledge of the nuances of India's historic past cannot be our conscience-keepers. Our people and future generations have the right to all aspects of our historic past and the people who played important roles in it. There is a necessity to discuss this but definitely through saner and well-informed persons. Can we not retain vestiges of our past simply to remember the lessons that it taught? And if not for anything, just for its historic value? There can be no rewriting of history and the forces, even if governmental, should never try to expunge the history books of Mughals, Jinnahs, and whatever else that seems to be a reminder of an unsavoury past. Let us make history, not erase it.
(The writer is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views expressed are strictly personal)