Aligarh Muslim University Vice Chancellor Visits the San Francisco Bay Area
By Ras H. Siddiqui
The Aligarh Muslim University Alumni Association of Northern California (AMUAA) had the distinct pleasure of hosting a luncheon for Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Zameer Uddin Shah, the current Vice Chancellor of their Alma Mater on Saturday, June 22 nd at the Chandni Restaurant in Newark, California. The Vice Chancellor was accompanied by his wife Mrs. Sabiha Shah at this occasion. Besides being the VC of one of the most famous universities in South Asia, some of Shah Sahib’s other famous attributes are that he has been one of the most senior-level Muslim soldiers ever in the Indian Army (he reached the position of Deputy Chief of Army Staff) and that he is also the older brother of famous Bollywood actor Naseeruddin Shah.
For an introduction of the hosts in their own words, the “AMU Alumni Association of Northern California consisting of the alumni of Aligarh Muslim University and its friends and supporters of the Aligarh movement was founded in 1996 as a secular, non-partisan, non-political organization serving the educational, social, literacy and cultural needs of the community. It aims to keep alive Sir Syed Ahmad Khan's dream of ensuring equality for all and particularly the underprivileged through education, by supporting AMU and its students in their academic efforts, and by organizing events to highlight AMU's role in creating a modern India.”
In their promotion of the event it was stated that “Vice Chancellor Zameer Uddin Shah has affirmed his core mission of making AMU one of the top universities in India through pursuit of excellence in teaching and research.” This goal also happens to be close to the hearts of many AMU alumni in the US particularly those in the San Francisco area who have excelled in many fields and would like to see their old university present even better opportunities for future generations of AMU students.
The proceedings began with some networking and a fine brunch buffet in the Mughlai tradition. Before the formalities I had a chance to interact with the VC. We discussed the contributions of Aligarh alumni as leaders in other countries in the region, his brother’s efforts to boost the arts irrespective of borders and when I mentioned that I had visited my late father’s former place of residence at AMU named Mumtaz House, he lamented that the current conditions of all the dormitories was not good and that he was seeking assistance in funding for their repair and upgrading. He also mentioned that he had invited the Aga Khan and Prince Charles to pay a visit to the campus.
The formal event stated in the Aligarh tradition with the recitation from the Holy Qur’an by Afzal Khan. Emcee for the afternoon and local AMU luminary Shaheer Khan next said that this was the first time that the organization had hosted an AMU Vice Chancellor and welcomed the community present, some of whom had come from as far away as Sacramento and Davis. He also reminded everyone present of the coming Eid Milan Party and Sir Syed Day on September 27 th this year. He also thanked the donors who have supported the efforts of the Alumni Association and the Aligarh Education Endowment Fund. He then introduced the Vice Chancellor who came to the stage and received a plaque on behalf of the Association, presented by Nihal Khan. Mrs Shahla Khan also presented a bouquet of flowers to Mrs Sabiha Shah. That set the stage for the VC’s speech.
Vice Chancellor Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Zameer Uddin Shah spoke for about 50 minutes and used a PowerPoint presentation. It is just not possible to incorporate all that he said in this single report so a few chosen highlights will have to suffice here. He was commanding in his delivery and exuded confidence from the beginning of his speech to the very end.
He started off by thanking everyone for the honor and the wonderful gift. He said that the job of being a Vice Chancellor was a thankless one. “It is the toughest I have held,” he commented generating quite a few smiles in the audience, especially since he is a former military man. “I accepted the job as a mission,” he added. “My mission was to pull AMU out of the trough in which it has descended,” he said. He added that his mission (with Allah’s help) was to make AMU a top university in India within two years. He said that he was going to Insha’Allah turn the University around so that its graduates can meet the new demands of both the market and the nation.
Shah Sahib said that he faced three immediate issues: Student indiscipline, intra-religious (not communal) and regional friction on campus, and lastly faculty infighting. He added that these problems were difficult but were not insurmountable. He said that he is looking to add more new and qualified faculty at AMU.
He said that he was a liberal Muslim and he wanted AMU to be a liberal-secular institution but primarily for the Muslims. “It is a secular institution, primarily for the Millat as Sir Syed wanted it, and we are going to keep it that way,” he said. He added that the focus should remain on “modern-scientific education," something that unfortunately was not being provided. He said that AMU needs to move beyond the blackboard and chalk era into the computer age. He added that the year 2020 will bring on the university centenary and the plan should be to make it a memorable one remembered all over the country since it is an institution of national importance. He also said that unfortunately the university had a setback on its minority character status and that he would focus on getting it restored.
The Vice Chancellor said that foreign dignitary visits to the campus have dried up mainly due to our own fault. “It was the fault of the students misbehaving and rebelling against visitor s but they do not know what colossal damage they did to our reputation.” He said that will have to change and that some important foreign dignitaries have already accepted his invitation to visit AMU when they visit India next.
Shah Sahib dwelled a great deal on the need to improve the facilities at AMU, especially the housing which is beginning to resemble a slum. He added that this was one of the main reasons why foreign students’ numbers have declined dramatically. He stressed the modernizing of the existing facilities and the building of new ones on the campus, especially for female students. The restoration of the horse riding club and adding a golf course (the VC is an avid golfer) at AMU were already on the cards. He said that AMU should produce well-rounded graduates.
On entrance standards for AMU he said that all aspiring students should pass an entrance exam (not just for engineering and medical students). He also added that foreign languages, including Chinese and Hebrew, need to be taught on campus.
To conclude, Lt. Gen.(Retd.) Zameer Uddin Shah expressed pride in the Aligarh Muslim University alumni all over the world and hoped that they could assist him in his mission to build the campus infrastructure in whatever way they could. He added that he was also seeking the assistance from the Aga Khan Foundation for this effort. The VC took questions after his speech and was presented a book on the Taj Mahal by author-photographer Maqsood Ul Haque. The event concluded with a presentation of Aligarh-focused poetry by Khalid Siddiqui titled “Green Day”.
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