Washington: Entrepreneur and philanthropist Frank Islam would like fellow Indian-Americans to make a strategic investment in education in India as it is the great equalizer and opportunity creator.
“Supporting educational institutions is one of our highest priorities because education is the key to opportunity and the bridge to the future,” he said during the Second American Bazaar Philanthropy Dialogue and Dinner, organised by an ethnic publication here.
Dozens of prominent philanthropists, nonprofits, stakeholders and leaders from the South Asian and Indian American philanthropic community attended the dialogue to brainstorm giving.
Lata Krishnan chair of the American India Foundation delivered the 2nd American Bazaar Philanthropy lecture.
“While education is important in America, the needs are even greater in India and that is why I am supporting initiatives in India,” Islam said.
“My intent is to use education as a tool to improve the socio-economic status of the underprivileged in India. My desire is those who benefit will in turn contribute towards social, political, and economic development in India,” he added.
Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, born Islam, has announced a $2 million donation to his alma mater, Aligarh Muslim University, which “shaped my history and my journey and determined my destiny,” for building the Frank and Debbie Islam School of Management.
The school, Islam said will place emphasis on entrepreneurship and preparing the students at AMU to become entrepreneurial leaders and engage in economic development activities that will create jobs and opportunities for thousands of people throughout India.
“We see our contribution not as a charity but as an investment that will yield exponential returns,” he said.
“We not only support AMU, but also give to other educational institutions as well here in US and in India,” said Islam who was presented the American Philanthropy award for his pioneering efforts in the fields of education arts and culture.
Receiving the award from Arun M Kumar, US Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Global Markets, Islam told fellow Indian-Americans that they had done well in the US and now it was their turn to do good in India.
“Let us together change the face of India. One family, one village and one life at a time,” he said. “Let us extend our hope, our help, and our hand so that we can together change the face of the world.”
Apart from AMU, Islam has made major gifts and supported scholarships at his alma mater in the US, the University of Colorado at Boulder and his wife Debbie Driesman’s alma mater in Canada, Western University among others.
Underlining the importance of strategic philanthropy, Islam said: “I invest in education and promotion of the arts because these are two of those critical areas. I refer them as pivot points-areas that can be leveraged to build a bigger and better future for all.”
“Education is a pivot point because it is the great equaliser and opportunity creator,” he said. “Art is also a pivot point because it educates and advances social causes. Art and culture transcend all boundaries.”
Islam has also given $1 million to the US Institute of Peace, an organization devoted to nonviolent prevention and mitigation of conflict around the globe, “because it’s very much engaged in curbing violent extremism.”
“In addition they are engaged to make the transition to peaceful and stable democracy,” he said.
There is consensus not only among the students, teachers and the administration of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) but also locals that, contrary to the perception created by media reports, the recent controversy and violence around the over the 143-year-old varsity has little to do with the portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. And there is more to it than what meets the eye.
One of the reasons behind this widespread scepticism is the fact that the man who stirred the controversy — BJP Lok Sabha MP from Aligarh Satish Gautam — had been a member of the AMU Court between 2014 and 2017. Why didn’t he raise the issue earlier, and how come his letter flagging the issue was leaked to the media even before it reached the Vice Chancellor office, ask those in the AMU community.
Of the “real purpose” behind the attack on the varsity by Hindutva activists, however, there are diverse views. While some insist on linking the entire episode with the ongoing Karnataka assembly elections, the others see it as a “diversionary tactic” by supporters of the BJP government at the Centre and state to hide its “failures”.
Still others feel that it had something to do with former Vice President Hamid Ansari’s visit to the university.
Those with an academic bent of mind portray the incident as an attack not just on AMU but on all institutions of higher learning in the country and their pluralist ethos. They point to a pattern in the attacks and urge one to look at “the larger picture”.
While the students have been openly questioning the local administration and the police’s impartiality, some of the teachers feel the university administration could have handled the portrait controversy “in a better way”.
The varsity administration, however, avers that it did everything “that needed to be done” on the first day itself and has been doing its best to “maintain peace on the campus so that that academics does not suffer and students’ future is not jeopardised in any way”.
The controversy started with a letter written by MP Gautam to the AMU Vice Chancellor on April 30 in which he questioned the presence of a portrait of Jinnah — Pakistan’s founder — in the AMU Students Union (AMUSU) office.
On May 2, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy is said to have tweeted: “Somebody needs to teach AMU a lesson. Who will do it?”, with a link to an article with the same heading.
On May 2, former Vice President M. Hamid Ansari was scheduled to visit the AMU at the invitation of the AMUSU that was to confer its lifetime membership — an honour also bestowed on Jinnah in 1938 and which explains the presence of his portrait there — on the former Vice President and a former Vice Chancellor of the university.
The next day, on May 3, Ansari was to deliver a lecture on pluralism in the Kennedy Hall at the varsity and in the evening attend a dinner hosted by the AMUSU. His schedule had been conveyed the Aligarh administration in advance by Ansari’s office as per protocol.
Ansari reached the university on May 2 at the scheduled time, that is, 1 p.m., and was lodged at the AMU guest house which is near the Baab-e-Syed gate of the university.
A little later, a group of men, owing allegiance to the Hindu Yuva Vahini, an outfit founded and patronised by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, started creating a ruckus near the administrative block of the university by raising objectionable slogans. The AMU security confronted them and handed them over to the Civil Lines police.
As per the statement given by the AMU Proctor’s office to the police, the men returned barely half an hour later with more people — around 25-30 men, ome of them wielding pistols, lathis and stones — and shouting expletives and objectionable slogans against the AMU, tried to barge into the university through Baab-e-Syed.
“First the persons handed over to the police were let off easily. Then the miscreants were allowed to come near Baab-e-Syed at a time when a former Vice President of India was in the university guest house which is less than 100 metres away from Baab-e-Syed. Then the students going to lodge the FIR against all this were brutally beaten up by the police and Rapid Action Force. How could there be so many lapses on the part of the administration within a few hours,” AMU Teachers’Association (AMUTA) President professor Hamid Ali asked while speaking to IANS.
Several students were badly injured in the police assault and had to be hospitalised.
Ansari cut short his two-day programme and returned to Delhi soon after the incident as the local administration expressed its inability to provide him security cover. Last year, there was an attempt to poison the drinking water tank of a madrasa in the town run by Ansari’s wife, Salma Ansari.
AMUSU Presdent Mashkoor Ahmed Usmani said that neither is the controversy about Jinnah’s portrait nor is the students’ protest.
“Jinnah’s djinn will disappear again after Karnataka elections. Our protest is not about him or his portrait because the portrait has been there long before us. We are protesting against the use of brutal force against the students who were moving peacefully. We are also demanding a judicial probe into the entire incident and quashing of FIR against the unknown students of AMU,” Usmani told IANS.
“But a section of the media is portraying our protest as if we are supporters of Jinnah. We are not. His portrait is there since 1938, along with many others who were conferred with the lifetime membership of the AMUSU,” he added.
The students are also nursing a resentment against the university administration which, they think, “failed to rise to the occasion”.
Nevertheless, Vice Chancellor Tariq Mansoor did visit on Tuesday the dharna site — where students were preparing for the final exams commencing from Saturday — to “express solidarity with the genuine demands of the students”.
“I share our students’ pain and have endorsed the demand for judicial inquiry and conveyed the sentiments of the AMU fraternity to all concerned,” Mansoor said in a statement on Tuesday.
University Public Relations Officer (PRO) Omar Peerzada said that the administration had no objection to the students’ protest as this was being done “in a peaceful, democratic way inside the campus”.
Of the students and teachers unions raising questions on the impartiality of the local administration, Peerzada said the AMUSU and AMUTA were independent bodies and were “entitled to their views”.
“On our part, we have very good relations with the local administration as well as the Union HRD Ministry and we have had their full support so far,” Peerzada told IANS.
Meanwhile, it is business as usual in the rest of the town even as armed police surrounds the campus of the historic and multi-faceted university that has a long list of distinguished alumni who have made their names in politics, armed forces, civil service, sciences and academia. Incidentally, the university was ranked No 1 in the country this year in official rankings.