Disruption and Belonging: Aligarh, Its University, and the Changing Meaning of Place since Partition
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Disruption and Belonging:
Aligarh, Its University, and the Changing Meaning of Place since Partition
Abstract

The 1947 partition of India and creation of Pakistan created lasting disturbance in the lives of Muslim students at the Aligarh Muslim University in North India. Students lost faith in the protective capacity of the university and re-placed their confidence in protection from the state. The oral archive exposes a history of social and spatial disruption in Aligarh, even though students did not experience physical violence. Oral histories collected from former students who remained in India reveal how the threats of violence against Muslims during and after partition fomented a persistent "fear of not belonging" in spite of India's official commitment to secularism.

Keywords

Aligarh Muslim University, belonging, fear, Muslims, partition, place

In December 2014, news emerged in India that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—the ethnocentric Hindu nationalist organization from which the recently elected Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) draws its ideological roots—planned to convert at least 1,000 Muslim and 4,000 Christian families to Hinduism under what it called the ghar wapsi, or "returning home" program, in the city of Aligarh in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh (UP).1 Rajeshwar Singh, an RSS worker, said, "Aligarh was chosen because it's time we wrest the [End Page 301] Hindu city from Muslims. It is a city of brave Rajputs and their temples on whose remains Muslim institutions have been established."2 Opposition lawmakers in the Indian parliament protested the reports of mass conversions already taking place in Agra, arguing that such efforts were divisive and politically motivated.3 As a result, the plan for Aligarh was cancelled, or at least postponed.4 The head of another Hindu nationalist group, the Shiv Sena in UP, meanwhile, dismissed the entire conversion effort, noting that "the Hindu and Muslim cultures do not match at all and those who consider this a homecoming, they should take lessons from the history. We welcome 'ghar wapsi' only if it means that [Muslims] are sent to Pakistan, because [Mohammad Ali] Jinnah has already created a home for them."5

This episode illuminated the persistent tensions in the subcontinent between Hindus and Muslims almost seventy years after Indian and Pakistani independence and the partition of the subcontinent into two states. Hindu-Muslim communal tensions are tightly linked to perceptions about who "belongs" in India and who can be a loyal citizen after a separate "homeland" was created for Indian Muslims in Pakistan. Although India is an officially secular republic and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, anti-Muslim rhetoric has been a feature of public life since independence. Narendra Modi's election as prime minister in 2014 has centralized the power of Hindu nationalists.6 The city of Aligarh has been a particularly contentious site of Hindu-Muslim identity politics since independence because, according to Hindu nationalist activists, it must be recovered from the Muslims, who usurped Hindu spaces by building their institutions on top of destroyed Hindu ones. This Hindu nationalist rhetoric draws attention to the place of Muslims on the Indian landscape by focusing on the physical presence of Muslims and Muslim institutions. [End Page 302]

The primary Muslim institution in Aligarh is the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), established in 1875 on a plot of desolate land (and not on top of any destroyed Hindu institution) northeast of the Hindu-majority city. From 2005 to 2010, I interviewed about seventy former students of the university, men and women, in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, about their memories of partition in Aligarh.7 All of the narrators whose stories are included here were students in AMU during the period between 1940 and 1955, and most lived in the residence halls.8 Among those I interviewed, approximately thirty chose to move to West Pakistan after partition, six chose East Pakistan—and were later active in the liberation movement that culminated with the creation of Bangladesh in 1971—and approximately thirty remained in India. I located these narrators first through personal connections in Pakistan and later through alumni associations in all three countries, the academic departments at AMU, and the narrators' own recommendations.9...


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