Firstly, it's a clear case over-reach by the UGC panel. It was supposed to audit the finances of universities, not give its views on whether their names appeared secular or not.
Secondly, in the age of Twitter, when public memory is short and opinions are deeply polarised, it ignores the historical context in which the two great institutions came up and were named. AMU was started as Mohammadan Anglo Oriental College by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in 1875 to impart scientific education to the Muslims of India. Sir Syed believed that modern education that imbibed the spirit of questioning was a must for Muslims to find their rightful place in a modern society and also to contribute to it. The MAO college became a university in 1920 through an act of parliament and was named Aligarh Muslim University.
The Banaras Hindu University was founded in 1916 by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, an important figure of the Indian national movement. The primary objective stated on the university website: "To promote the study of the Hindu Shastras and of Sanskrit literature generally as a means of preserving and popularizing for the benefit of the Hindus in particular and of the world at large in general, the best thought and culture of the Hindus and all that was good and great in the ancient civilization of India."
Both the universities started out with compulsory theological education along with modern, scientific learning, but later, this was made optional.
So history tells us that both institutions were set up by men of thinking to cater to the specific educational needs of their communities as they visualised in their space and time.
Over the years, both BHU and AMU have evolved into large and reputed centres of learning, but have maintained their primary community-specific characters. As institutions, they remain today as secular as any other. A tweaking of the name is no way going to enhance their stature as centres of learning, but will definitely erode their historical character.
Another bit of history that is important is that this is not the first time that a name change has been attempted for these institutions. An attempt was made in 1965 to remove "Hindu" from BHU by the union government; the campus erupted in protest. The RSS was at the forefront opposing the move. Students burnt effigies of then Education Minister M C Chagla. The move had to be shelved.
AMU has also withstood a number assaults especially from right-wing forces. Debates over its minority character, admission policy and more rage from time to time. It is not hard to imagine the political noise over the UGC panel recommendation if it had singled out AMU for its "secularisation" project. The BJP and RSS would have lapped it up and made dropping "M" from AMU into a sort of test of patriotism. Any protest by Muslims or the AMU community would have been dubbed anti-national and sectarian.
But were the students and BHU community communal in opposing the government move to drop "H'" in 1965?
There is no doubt that the reactions today are muted as it also involves the "H" in BHU.
The first graduate from AMU was a Hindu, Ishwari Prasad. In 2012, all top 5 positions of twelfth standard results at AMU were bagged by non-Muslims. Anyone can go through the list of admissions every year to its competitive courses to see that AMU is not just a Muslim institution as the rightwing forces sought to paint it. Similarly, there are non-Muslim faculty members in almost departments. I graduated from the Department of Mass Communication in 2004, where 2 of the 5 faculty members were non-Muslims.
The UGC panel has actually spoiled the BJP/RSS party by tagging BHU in its recommendation.
Both the institutions no doubt have their own set of problems. And these problems are much bigger than just their names. They are nowhere near the academic excellence that was the vision of their founders. They need visionary policy-makers, not name-tweakers, to lift their standards. The babus at UGC will do well to suggest concrete ways to perk up educational standards. Provide more funds for research, for centres of excellence, more courses, more seats. A name-change exercise will just be a cosmetic one with no real change on the ground realities.
After all, did changing Elphinstone Station to Prabha Devi avert the tragedy there? The UGC needs to get real.
(Mohd Asim is Senior News Editor, NDTV 24x7)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.