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Newsmaker: Lt gen Zameer Uddin Shah

When lt-general (retd) Zameer Uddin Shah took over as the vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University in May 2012, there certainly must have been many wagers on how long he would last in the post. After all, the 93-year-old institution has seen more than its share of violence and closures, with several vice-chancellors having chaotic, often truncated terms. The punters must be disappointed that the white-whiskered soldier is still at the helm two and half years later despite a slew of controversies, the latest being the bar on undergraduate girl students from using the university’s Maulana Azad Library, because girls, according to Shah, would attract “four times more boys” to the already overcrowded building.

The seemingly sexist remark drew the ire not only of the Union human resources development ministry and women’s rights bodies, but also of the students. On Wednesday, the AMU Students’ Union and the Women’s College Students’ Union jointly said, “We condemn the irresponsible and careless remarks of the vice-chancellor.” At the same time, however, they expressed anger at the anti-women portrayal of AMU in the media and pointed out that 2,700 women were registered as members of the Maulana Azad Library.

As a straight-talking soldier, the former deputy chief of army staff has a tendency to say things without tact; it is a fact that the library cannot accommodate more readers. Shah, a sprightly 66, faced similar problems of interpretation when he made wearing a sherwani mandatory for students who wished to meet him in office and declared Urdu and Hindi as compulsory subjects. He was criticised for what many saw as a curb on student freedom. But as he pointed out to Business Standard, “Each student pays Rs 800 for a sherwani at the time of admission to AMU. I am only asking them to wear them on certain occasions.” As for the languages, he says they were always prescribed; what he did was to make the attendance and marks count in the overall division awarded to a student.

The army veteran, born in Sardhana near Meerut, and brother to actor Naseeruddin Shah, studied in St Joseph’s College in Nainital before joining the National Defence Academy. “I studied in a Christian institution, and while I was a Muslim I had to respect the sensibilities of the college,” he says. “Similarly, everyone who wants to join AMU has to respect its Muslim ethos without prejudice to his own faith.” But that doesn’t mean he is a Muslim parochialist. He says he could not have lived in a more “first-rate” secular environ than the armed forces and his 40 years in the army have taught him to be accepting of all creeds.

Often at the receiving end of criticism, perhaps wrongly, he asserts, “Islam does not prohibit modernity.” He says he is happy that the community now encourages women to be educated. In fact, girl students of AMU have benefited from another of his decrees: no motorbikes for hostels, meant to curb anti-socials and “motorcycle gangs” that have long been the bane of the campus. “No woman could walk in the campus in the evenings or nights due to hooliganism,” says Renu Bisht, an MTech student. “Now the situation is better.” Now if only the general did not use words loosely, things would definitely be much better.

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