It was in former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s erstwhile dining hall, newly converted into the seminar room of Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, that I first met Mushir one day in the rainy month of Asarh 1972. I had just finished my MA in History and was in the hallowed precincts of Teen Murti House to listen to American historian John Bloomfield talk about the entrepreneurial spirit of the Sahas, a leading Bengali family. Only a year my senior, Mushir was already a lecturer in History at the Ramjas College and had scooted down on his ‘Lambretta’; with hopes of becoming a historian, I had taken the no 9 bus to ‘Daftar’ (Central Secretariat) to savour what an academic seminar had to offer.
After that first encounter, we met quite frequently on the ground floor of Teen Murti House where bound copies of UP newspapers, of yore, Pioneer and Leader, among others, were kept. Mushir knew what he was looking for; mine was just a fishing expedition.
In October of 1973, both of us found ourselves in England. Mushir already knew what he wanted to do in his PhD – to find the interrelations between nationalism and communalism in northern India from the 1880s to the 1930s. I had a vague idea of working on the economic history of eastern United Province (now Uttar Pradesh). We met regularly at the India Office Library near the Waterloo station in London. With his command over materials in Urdu and official and private papers of Indian leaders, Mushir was fully equipped to accomplished what he had desired: within there years he was back in Delhi with a PhD done under the supervision of Anil Seal and John Gallagher, the presiding deities on colonial history at Cambridge. He returned to his teaching assignment at Ramjas College but was soon plucked by the hawk-eyed A.J. Kidwai, the dynamic vice-chancellor who built the new infrastructure of Jamia Millia Islamia, which Mushir, as the future vice-chancellor (2004-09) was to modernise and embellish further.
Soon after his return from England, Mushir published his first major work, Nationalism and Communalism in India, 1885-1930. Kidwai saheb provided a fertile ground for Mushir to flourish. He was appointed a reader and very soon professor and head of the Department of History and Culture at Jamia Millia Islamia. Mushir published widely, and organised a memorable conference at Jamia on communitarian trends in 19th and early 20th century north India, or what Sudhir Chandra, one of the contributors, was to call living in the Oppressive Present of late-19th and early 20th century North India. Post-1857, this was a long moment which had created a peculiar dialectic between literary artifacts, in both Hindi and Urdu, and social consciousness of those times. From the late-1970s, the conferences organised by Mushir at Jamia came to be remembered for the veritable feast, both intellectual and gastronomic, that he brought to the table.
Ten years after our chance meeting at Teen Murti House, Mushir, now the head, offered me my first job in Jamia’s Department of History. I taught alongside him, in adjacent rooms, for three years and then moved to my alma mater, University of Delhi. After retirement, I am now back in Jamia, holding a Chair that was endowed due to Mushir’s efforts in honour of Abdul Majeed Khwaja, a leading nationalist, Gandhi’s comrade-in-arms, and Jamia’s second vice-chancellor.
Mushir’s academic output from the mid-1980s on was phenomenal: he wrote widely and with great insight and total command of sources and texts on a jaw-dropping range of themes and topics, events and personalities. These include an edited version of Maulana Mohammad Ali’s autobiography; intellectual trends in nineteenth-century Delhi; Partition literature; and the chequered – and some would say doomed – career of UP qasba towns, Amroha, Rudauli, Sandila, places which bring to mind the finer tastes (nafasat) of UP, dasehri mangoes of Malihabad and the melancholy verses of Majaz Rudaulvi.
Mushir’s From Pluralism to Separatism: Qasbas in Colonial Awadh (2004), is a veritable tour de force which analyses the loss of social solidarity in these thriving ‘smaller towns’ from the late 1940s onwards. By the 1960s-1970s these organic ‘rurban-centres’ had lost their distinctive character. A carefully swept imambara, a functional old kothi, periodic assemblage of aspiring local poets, even an occasional production of local lore, legends and histories are poor substitute for the lost world of the qasbas – a world that revolved around patriarchal landlords, subordinate artisans and the cultivation of the finer arts of polite conversation and poetic craftsmanship. What now distinguishes the qasbas from villages are the dish antennas, cheap long-distance cellular facilities to cash-earning towns in Maharashtra, even Mumbai and Kolkata and to relatives in the El Dorado of the Middle East and the Gulf.
Mushir’s VCship, as it is called in the trade, ushered in a mini-era of creativity, both academic and aesthetic, to Jamia, which in a sense was the fulfillment of the nationalist dream during the heady days of Gandhi-led Non-co-operation with colonial rule, c. 1920-22. Gandhi’s call to boycott colonial educational institutions was not to send young boys and girls scurrying to madrasas and pathshalas in the villages: the Gujarat Vidyapeeth in Ahmedabad, the Kashi Vidyapeeth in Banaras, and more so the foundation of Jamia Millia first in Aligarh and then in Delhi was to provide institutions of excellence in higher learning with a nationalist ethos.
One of the little-known facts about the history of higher education in the capital is that Mohammad Shafi, the minister in-charge, while introducing the Delhi University Bill (1922) in the Imperial Legislative Assembly (now the Delhi legislature), stressed the need to preempt the possibility of Jamia Millia Islamia becoming the first full-fledged non-official, nationalist university in Delhi. In its formative days, Jamia Millia started on a shoe-string budget, with teachers, professors and the vice-chancellor working selflessly, on meagre salaries.
In fact, Gandhi arranged for funds from his circle of friends and hamdards for Mohammad Mujeeb who served Jamia from 1926 onwards in various capacities for nearly half a century. Mujeeb saheb was a first-rate historian and administrator, and it was during his time that Jamia attained the status of a deemed university, becoming a central university in 1988. Mushirul Hasan was a worthy successor of Mujeeb saheb in being a scholar of wide-ranging interest and an institution builder. Indeed, Mushir opened many babs (literally, both a gate and a chapter) in the history of Jamia Millia. Jamia means a university, and Millia signifies ‘national’.
In India today – and dare one say for quite some time – there has been no dearth of aca-bureaucrats who don’t look beyond the colourful markers that flag the numerous files that they sit over, initial or sign. Academics like Mushir, who are internationally reputed as top-notch scholars in their field and are great institution-builders, are rare indeed. Verily, “badi mushkil se hota hai chaman mein didawar paida….”
Shahid Amin is the author of Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura (1995) and Conquest and Community: the Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan (2015). A professor of History at the University of Delhi, Amin now holds the Abdul Majeed Khwaja Chair at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.