The Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), a nearly 100-year-old institution born out of the independence movement and the quest to modernise Muslim education, has often been a victim of minority politics that attracted negative media attention. But what is little known is the kind of path-breaking research the institution is doing in the areas of nanotechnology and solar energy.
The AMU has taken up fresh scientific research projects, including on how to solve the water crisis using nanotechnology and recycle waste water using an eco-friendly and low-cost methods? And its outgoing Vice Chancellor, Lt. Gen. Zameer Uddin Shah, a former deputy chief of the Indian Army, hopes the it will be “among the top 200 universities in the world by 2020” when it celebrates its centenary.
“The AMU has a very bright future,” the retired general, the elder brother of Bollywood veteran Naseeruddin Shah, told IANS in a wide-ranging interview at his office, speaking about the university, how it is striving to be at par with modern educational institutions and, of course, allegations of financial impropriety against him. “We need to encourage good quality research in applied sciences as well as the social science and we are doing that,” Shah said.
He said the university has taken up a project on desalinating sea water or brackish water using nanotechnology that would bring a “sea change in Indian coastal cities” and provide low-cost drinking water. “The project will ensure India has sufficient resources of quality and quantity of potable water,” he said.
He said AMU scientists have achieved “significant success” in recycling waste water by using the novel concept of plant technology, also called “anaerobic digestion” — a process of using micro-organisms to break down biodegradable material substances. The Safeguarding Water resources in India with Green and Sustainable technologies — Swings — project is financed under the joint EU-India research funding to find low-cost and sustainable solutions for waste water treatment.
The university has successfully piloted the project on its campus and has built a plant that treats the wastewater generated on the campus. Shah said the university’s? scientists were also involved in harnessing solar energy for automobiles and the “purpose is to reduce dependence on fossil fuels”.
“They are doing research on solar power for automobiles. Once the project is complete, we will be able to charge your car (a hybrid or electric) battery in 20 minutes which otherwise takes six hours,” said Shah, whose term ends in the middle of this month. While the thrust in its image makeover is on good scientific research, the Vice Chancellor said the management has also been trying to “battle a misconception” that AMU breeds fundamentalism.
“To a large extent, perceptions have changed but we are also proud of our Muslim ethos,” he said about the varsity that has an exclusive Olympic-sized swimming pool for women students, as also a separate horse riding club for them. For those Muslim men and women who pass out from madrassas, the university has introduced a concept of a bridge course to enable their admission in regular university courses and integrate them into the mainstream with modern education.
“Earlier, they were admitted only in theology, Arabic, Persian and Urdu. But we wanted them to get admitted to any course. “We made them do this one-year bridge course. People later qualified for Mass Communications, English Honours and other subjects because of the solid potential these guys gain from memorising the Quran in madrassas,” said Shah, himself a madrassa pass-out.
“I felt madrassas were being demonised all over the world and in our country also you hear a lot of rubbish about them. After all, these are educational institutions.” The university is facing another challenge in a legal battle on its minority character, challenged by the government in the Supreme Court. It is feared this may close the doors of modern liberal education for thousands of poor Muslims.
Shah said AMU, which has “contributed a great deal towards the empowerment of Muslims in India, must stay as a minority institution…till the situation of Muslims is corrected”. “At the moment, Muslims in India are the worst off, worse than the Dalits. We don’t need reservations. We need your affirmative actions in education.
“Because of poor schooling, Muslim children kind of fall behind. They have bread and butter issues, so they don’t qualify for institutions of higher education.” Shah’s tenure ends on May 16 and the battles at the university, which has 1,400 teachers and 2,000 non-teaching staff, has been “tougher” than those he fought as a soldier in the Indian Army.
“Here you have everyone posing as a friend but there are only a few real friends,” he said, lamenting how he was accused of financial, administrative and academic irregularities. “I was alleged to have bungled 120 crore (of rupees),” he said, adding he has replied to all the allegations that were made by a “set of people” who were upset because he wanted to discipline them. “There were some teachers who were never taught and indulged in politics,” he said, alleging that they were behind the campaign against him.